3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. (Question 17679/18 asked on 25 Apr 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committee C supports the Government in its consideration of European Union matters, including the ongoing Brexit negotiations and their implications for Ireland. Given their significance, these matters are also regularly discussed at full meetings of the Cabinet. In addition, I regularly meet Ministers, on an individual basis or in groups, in order to focus on particular issues, including those relating to the EU. In particular, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy McEntee, and I meet senior officials on a regular basis to discuss European affairs and the Brexit negotiations.
Preparation for Brexit at official level, both in relation to the negotiations and in preparing for the potential consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, is intensive, with interdepartmental and senior official groups meeting regularly.
Preparing for and dealing with Brexit in a way that delivers the best possible outcome for the country remains a top priority for the Government.
Cabinet committee C last met on 13 February. The date for the next meeting has not yet been confirmed but it will occur before the June European Council summit.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The Brexit stakeholders forum meets periodically is of very great use and is an important innovation to continue. I want to ask the Taoiseach about what I discern to be a slight difference of opinion between himself and the Tánaiste on the timetabling of critical decisions. The Tánaiste has repeatedly made it clear that June really is critical, in terms of the European Council, for a clear decision to be made on the Irish Border situation. The Taoiseach seems to be giving a view that we actually have until October. Legally, that is correct. However, there is a very strong view across the House that if we do not have a clear decision by June then we will have an awful lot less leverage in October when the final settlement issues are being addressed. I would like clarity on this. What will the Irish Government do if no progress on the Irish Border issue is available and clear by the June Council meeting?
The customs union is now the real issue. Obviously, the British Government has lost votes on this matter in the House of Lords. It will face a critical vote after the local elections in Britain in early May. I have said it is important for us to keep as much pressure as we can for the customs union arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union to be kept in place because the issues of importance for us are not only North-South in nature, they also have an east-west dimension. I do not want a hard border in the ports of Rosslare or Dublin no more than I want a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, was before the Brexit committee of the House of Commons this morning. He answered again, in respect of the Border, that most of the technology exists today to solve all of these issues. Nobody believes that. This is the line, as if there is some technological magical solution for having separate customs arrangements in the North of Ireland and the Republic. I am interested in the Taoiseach’s views on this matter.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Nobody believes Mr. Davis’s assertion because it is not true. It is the stuff of “Alice in Wonderland” and I really wish the British would desist from positing these non-starters. It is clearly part of their strategy to play for time in the hope that either Europe or the Government in Dublin will blink and they will get away with pushing the Irish question indefinitely down the pipe. That cannot be allowed to happen.
Will the Taoiseach comment on a report in yesterday’s edition of The Times in which a document purporting to be an internal EU memo raises very serious questions about the efficacy of the backstop agreement reached last December? As we all know, this backstop represents the absolute minimum requirement in respect of Ireland and if it has flaws or potential flaws then we need to be conversant with them and we need to sort them out. I am concerned that something that was initially described as a cast-iron guarantee moved to a gentleman’s agreement and then to a political promise, and now, if this report is right, some are questioning its viability. The Tánaiste is right to say that June is the deadline. That is the red letter time. I would like to hear the Taoiseach reiterate and clarify this matter. I would like him to tell us what he proposes to do to ensure the June deadline does not slip and that we do not allow matters to roll into the summertime and then into the autumn, because that would put us in an impossible position. Not only would our leverage be lessened, we could find ourselves without any leverage at all.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Before I put my specific question, I want to point out that it is now the Taoiseach’s customary practice to completely ignore difficult questions by using up all of his time to answer less challenging ones. Yesterday, I asked very direct and relevant questions on exaggerated claims for the strategic communications unit and the admission of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that he does not understand homelessness figures. However, the Taoiseach did not even reference, let alone answer, those questions. This is a pattern that was repeated in previous sessions. We are used to a Taoiseach trying to avoid hard questions but it is a new approach simply to refuse to engage at all. I hope the Taoiseach will review this particular strategy.
With regard to Europe, significant confusion has been caused by the Taoiseach’s statement at the European Council that he was okay with the final text concerning a backstop waiting until October. The Tánaiste has been trying to row this back since then and is insisting that any failure to reach a deal in June would be an enormous threat. The informed the BBC that we would even have to question whether we could get a final settlement at all. Can the Taoiseach tell me which position is correct - his, as outlined in Brussels, or that of the Tánaiste? The situation in respect of negotiations is that there has been very little progress on the backstop text for the withdrawal treaty and no progress on a final status deal. In the event of the British Government reversing its position and agreeing to remain in the customs union, has the Government completed any study on the implications for this country of the UK being in the customs union but outside the Single Market? Every possible Irish solution requires regulatory alignment. Equally, no regulatory alignment is possible without working political institutions in Northern Ireland. Are there any backstop plans for how this regulatory alignment would be maintained if the assembly and the Executive remain suspended?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: What, if anything, is the EU saying about the deaths of 41 unarmed Palestinians in recent weeks? These unarmed protestors were shot by Israeli snipers in acts of cold and calculated murder. The latest victims include Tahrir Mahmoud Wahba, a deaf teenager aged 18 who was shot last Friday, and Abdullah Muhammad al-Shamali, another youth who has just died of his wounds. This brings the number of deaths to 41, which is shocking. These people are protesting to vindicate what is a right under international law. Is the Taoiseach saying anything to our European counterparts about what sanctions Europe should take and what pressure it should exert on Israel in respect of these shocking human rights violations against unarmed protesters? Israel has just announced that any member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, IPSC, who attempts to enter the Israel-Palestine area will not be allowed to do so. Four IPSC activists were deported by Israel recently. There has been no retaliation or action in response by the Government to this treatment of Irish citizens. The EU’s position is that illegal settlements are wrong and should happen. People who live in those Israeli settlements can come here very easily while Palestinians who live in Palestinian territory designated for them under international law have more difficulty getting in here. Is that not somewhat bizarre? Why are we not levelling some diplomatic sanction at people living in what are designated illegal settlements in terms of their capacity to enter Europe or this country when one looks at what Israel is doing to our citizens who are just peaceful civil society activists?
Deputy Joan Burton: I am sure that, like many people concerned with immigration in Europe, Ireland and the UK, the Taoiseach has been appalled by the story of what happened to members of the Windrush generation who were invited to live and work in the UK from countries like Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean after the Second World War and who have been effectively deprived of most their rights of residency in the UK in the past couple of years. The British Government has now promised to redress this for people from the Caribbean. However, Guy Verhofstadt, who is the European Parliament liaison person for Brexit, has expressed serious concerns on behalf of EU citizens who may be similarly affected by this type of development in UK immigration law, which is very complex and which I do not think anybody fully understands. In terms of the work being done by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Taoiseach, has the Windrush issue been examined and followed? Has a report on it been prepared? There will be people living in Northern Ireland who have lived in the Republic of Ireland but who originally came from other parts of the EU or the wider world. In the UK, people in their 60s and 70s have been refused cancer treatment by the NHS and other people have been threatened with deportation. Has the Taoiseach had this matter examined as part of the fallout from the changes the UK is making?
The Taoiseach: My practice is to answer the questions as best I can in the order in which they are asked but because of the way this session is structured, it is not possible to even write down all the questions, let alone answer them. I think there are, on average, 26 or 27 questions and I am given two and a half minutes to answer them. The way this session is structured makes it quite impossible to answer all the questions and, very often, those that are asked are not germane to the actual main question. Obviously, I will prioritise ones that relate to the question rather than miscellaneous issues that do not relate to it. I agree that it is a matter for the Business Committee but if it is a day for asking and avoiding hard questions, I would be curious to know if the leader of the Opposition, Deputy Micheál Martin, agrees with the view of one of his Deputies that the Mahon tribunal has been discredited. The Mahon tribunal made a number of serious findings against members of Fianna Fáil who I will not mention in this House because they are not here to defend themselves. I would be very interested to know whether the leader of Fianna Fáil agrees with the view that the Mahon tribunal has been discredited.
Deputy Micheál Martin: On a point of order, my views on the Mahon tribunal are very well known. I am not so sure whether that is the case regarding the Taoiseach’s views on it.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): That is not a point of order.
The Taoiseach: To take the questions in order starting with the one from Deputy Howlin, there is a fashion at the moment to parse and analyse what I and the Tánaiste say - often on different days and in different contexts - and to look for differences. However, I am happy to allay the Deputy’s fears. The Tánaiste and I are both of the view that there needs to be sufficient and substantial progress made by the time the European Council meeting is held in June. What I will not do is answer hypothetical questions in this House about what we will or will not do if there is insufficient or insubstantial progress by June. In the first instance, it is not in the interests of the Irish people or the State for us to outline our negotiating strategy in a public forum. I hope Members will understand that. Second, that is a decision which must be made there and then, in June, when we have all the facts. It is only the end of the April and a lot can happen between now and the Council meeting in June. It is our very strong view that we need to see sufficient and substantial progress on Irish issues by the time of the June Council meeting.
On the remarks by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, there are many comments from him on many different dates. I have not read the particular comments today but I did see reports that the UK will put forward an alternative text to the Irish protocol to option C. We would certainly welcome seeing that alternative. That is exactly the kind of engagement we would like to see from the UK but we have yet to see an alternative text put forward by it. We would like to see such a thing if it exists. Once again, I reiterate that I am not aware of the existence of the technology that David Davis seems to believe exists. We have always said that there cannot be a technical solution to Irish Border challenge. It requires a political and legal solution and that is what we have been working towards.
With regard to the article in yesterday’s Irish edition of The Times, I checked with my lead official, who is heading up the negotiations on our behalf - our sherpa. He told me that he did not recognise what was contained in the article. Many people will put across positions in newspapers, both Irish and British-owned, in the coming weeks so we need to take them as they come.
In the context of Israel and Palestine, I am not aware of an EU communiqué on the matters raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett but I assure him that we have a robust engagement with the Israeli authorities at political and diplomatic level and have outlined our rejection of the human rights abuses that occur in that particular state on many occasions.
My Department has not examined the Windrush issue but we would see it as being a very different matter. Obviously, it relates to immigrants from the Commonwealth who came to the UK prior to 1971. The situation we face is comprehended by the common travel area and is very different.
Deputy Micheál Martin: On a point of order, I asked the Taoiseach about whether the Government had completed a study as to what might happen if the UK decided to stay in the customs union and outside the Single Market. It is a very simple question. If he had concentrated on the questions I had asked, I might have got some specific answers.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): I will allow the Taoiseach to answer that briefly.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is very simple.
The Taoiseach: I did not quite understand the question.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): I ask the Deputy to repeat the question.
Deputy Micheál Martin: In the event that the British Government reversed its decision and agreed to remain in the customs union, has the Government completed any study as to what the implications are for us of it being in the customs union and outside the Single Market?
The Taoiseach: Yes, that is the-----
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Chairman, on a point of order, I asked a specific question about Irish-----
The Taoiseach: The Copenhagen study covers that.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: ----- citizens being thrown out of Israel.
Deputy Micheál Martin: No. It does not cover it.
The Taoiseach: It does.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): I have to stress, before any answer to the question, that it takes from the next group, which is a smaller group.
Deputy Micheál Martin: We need a different attitude from the Taoiseach.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): Does the Taoiseach wish to answer the question?
The Taoiseach: I could not hear it because two people were speaking.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): There is a question about citizenship.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: It is just about Irish citizens being expelled from Israel. Does the Taoiseach have any comment on that?
The Taoiseach: I would have to get a briefing on that. I do not have the details.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Alan Farrell): We will move on then.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy might submit a written question.