5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, since his speech on 18 April 2018 to the European Parliament on Brexit regarding the forthcoming assessment on the talks on transition in June 2018. (Question 17972/18 asked on 02 May 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.
I have not spoken to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, since his statement to the European Parliament on 18 April. As Deputies are aware, I last met formally with President Tusk in Dublin on 8 March, when we discussed a range of issues across the EU agenda, including Brexit. I thanked President Tusk for his ongoing strong support in relation to the Irish-specific issues arising from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. He reiterated his commitment to ensuring that these are addressed, and that the principles and commitments agreed between the EU and the UK in the December joint report are translated into legal text in the withdrawal agreement. We also met at the EU Council in Brussels in March. The EU Council will discuss developments in the negotiations on Brexit again at its meeting in June and we will consider progress on all the outstanding withdrawal issues, including the Irish Border.
As I have said previously in this House, the Government is of the strong view that we need sufficient and substantial progress by that time if the deadline of a final legal text of the withdrawal agreement before October’s EU Council is to be met. The Tánaiste and I reiterated that message when we met with the European Union negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Dundalk on Monday. As was evident from Mr. Barnier’s remarks, we remain resolutely united in our approach to the negotiations and we look forward to seeing the United Kingdom tabling concrete proposals on how its commitments can be delivered. This is now urgent if progress is to be made and we need to see progress made. I note an important UK Cabinet meeting is taking place today in London. I again took the opportunity to thank Mr. Barnier and his team for the great understanding, support and solidarity shown to Ireland in the negotiations and to thank him for participating in the all-island civic dialogue, visiting both parts of the island to hear at first hand the views and concerns of stakeholders.
Deputy Micheál Martin: President Tusk has been a consistent and strong friend of Ireland since his time as Prime Minister of Poland. He has been an excellent President of the EU Council and I believe he has handled Brexit extremely well. As the final deals will be settled at summits, he will be central to what is finally agreed. In this context we need some clarity about the timing and nature of any final deal on the withdrawal text concerning Ireland.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach said that a nameless someone was confused about whether the target was October or June. The one-and-only person who has caused confusion is the Taoiseach himself. At the 22 March summit the Taoiseach stated unprompted at a brief media stop that the issue could slide to October and that he would be easy about that. The Tánaiste has refused repeated requests to confirm what the Taoiseach said and he has not repeated it. Indeed, the Tánaiste has said the opposite on several occasions. It was news here at the time and throughout Europe and it has been cited by the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, repeatedly as a justification for not showing urgency about a June deal. The Taoiseach’s refusal to acknowledge his personal role and his attempt to use attack as his primary defence is noteworthy. In order to be clear, will the Taoiseach tell us exactly what he means by the need for “substantial progress” on the text by June? I asked the question again yesterday. Does this mean a mostly agreed text? Does it mean another letter from the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May? Does it mean a political declaration reaffirming what has already been affirmed? What is the minimum acceptable progress required in June to avoid the need for accelerated emergency planning for a no-deal scenario?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: We need clarity on this issue. I have tried on several occasions to nail this down in a crystal clear way, as have others. I made some comments at the Dundalk all-island dialogue, which was a really useful forum. The opportunity for open dialogue with Michel Barnier at lunch was a helpful initiative. It is a pity that unionists were not formally there. I met unionists there but they had to be there almost without declaring themselves and that is unfortunate. I realise the Taoiseach can do nothing about that.
I will explain the net point I want to make. There is genuine fear now. We have all indulged in giving space to constructive ambiguity. We have certainly learned this from the Northern peace talks. Sometimes it is important to find a form of words everyone can live with sufficient unto the day as long as everyone understands where the landing point is. My fear now is that there is a degree of duplicity. We will see what comes out of the UK Cabinet meeting in London today. I do not believe there is capacity within the May Government to actually bring her Cabinet to a position that squares the fudged circle of last December. I am referring to a position where we could have a situation of no border, or no mechanisms of a border or any sign of a border on the island of Ireland and yet Ireland and Northern Ireland would be in two different customs unions and Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be in a single customs union. There are no legal mechanisms that I can see to do that. Asking Britain to come up with them seems a fatuous expectation now because we have had more than a year and the first effort at it by those responsible has been slapped down by the European negotiators as completely unworkable.
It is important for the sake of clarity that the Taoiseach is open with the House about what he expects the point of arrival to be in July. What are the minimum terms that would be acceptable to the Taoiseach to allow discussions to go on to October? Certainly, there is no question of the Irish Border situation being folded into the post-October post-divorce discussions or into the long-term settlement discussions. This is something Michel Barnier underscored as well.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: This morning the hard Brexiteer wing of the Tory party told Theresa May that any proposed British customs partnership with the European Union was a non-runner. The arch-Brexiteer that is Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that any such proposal is deeply unsatisfactory and that it would not get Britain out of the EU, which is what people voted for. I agree with him on the first point. A so-called customs partnership will not resolve the issues relating to the island of Ireland. It is unworkable and unachievable and I think that is accepted by Brussels and by the Taoiseach. My view on his second point is that the people in the North of Ireland who had the opportunity to vote actually voted to remain and so they have not consented to Brexit.
That was the clear and reinforced message Michel Barnier received on his visit to the North. To protect the economic and social interests of our island all of us, North and South, need to remain inside the customs union and the Single Market. As the Taoiseach knows, that is the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and citizens’ rights in the North as well as to safeguard cross-Border trade. The British Government and the DUP simply have to come to terms with that reality. It is regrettable that Theresa May’s Government has still not come to terms with the reality of what it agreed to in December. We should remember that. The backstop agreement, which is the bare minimum required and is of itself imperfect, was signed up to by the UK Government. I have said before that we really need clarity by June and I know others have sounded similar concerns. I have deep concern that running down the clock to October will be the strategy of the British system and Government. I believe that will leave us in a very difficult and potentially vulnerable position. Therefore, I too wish to know, come the end of June, what the Taoiseach believes must be achieved. What sufficiency does the Taoiseach envisage at that point?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I asked the Taoiseach yesterday whether he and the European Union should condemn the shooting of what is now a total of 44 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza in recent weeks by the Israeli forces. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach condemned it, but really what I want to ask in the context of Europe, Donald Tusk and our role in Europe generally is whether we can move beyond the Taoiseach individually or this Parliament condemning what is going on to something actually being done about it by Europe. Europe is not some external observer to what is going on in Gaza. We give Israel favoured trade status. Israel is effectively an associate member of the European Union. A great deal of European money goes into the West Bank and Gaza and, in many cases, the products of that funding get blown to pieces or demolished by the Israelis and then we have Israel flagrantly breaking international law, killing unarmed civilians at present and they will continue to do so for the next two weeks and Europe will do nothing. Could the Taoiseach speak up about this? When he meets Donald Tusk and is engaging at the European Council could he appeal to Europe to do something about this, to put some pressure on Israel to stop killing innocent people, to stop breaking international law week in, week out and to demand that some sanctions be imposed? In any other circumstances sanctions would be imposed on people when a state kills innocent people, breaks international law or illegally occupies a territory. We would say something should be done about that but, for some reason with Israel, Europe does nothing. It just stands by and allows it to happen. Could we be a bit more forceful in demanding that Europe shows some ethical principle in terms of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians?
The Taoiseach: I will start with the withdrawal agreement. The deadline to conclude it is October. It always has been and that is not news. The intention is to have the text of the withdrawal agreement concluded and agreed in October after which there will be a ratification process. It will have to be ratified by the European Parliament and also by the parliament in the United Kingdom in order that it can come into legal effect before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in March 2019, with the transition period being used to negotiate the new relationship that will exist between the UK and the EU. That will probably constitute two treaties, one treaty around security and defence and a separate treaty around the future economic and trading partnership. In October we also intend to agree a political declaration as to what we envisage the form of those two treaties should be. Those are the two things that need to be done by the Council meeting in October.
The EU guidelines about June are very clear. They say that we will review the situation at the European Council meeting in June.
Deputy Micheál Martin: We will do what?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Review.
The Taoiseach: We as the EU 27 are united on this. Ireland’s position is the position of 27 members states. We negotiate as 27 from a position of strength. Our position, which is in the guidelines, is that we will review progress at the meeting in Brussels in June. We want to see real and meaningful progress by June if we are going to meet that December deadline, or rather the October deadline. There is a real risk that we will not meet the October deadline if we do not see real and meaningful progress in June. It is still early May. It is only the first week in May. There are many moving parts. There are shifting sands. An important UK cabinet meeting is under way today and parliamentary votes of significance are happening across the water now. We need to treat this as an evolving situation, and it is one. We are very far from making a decision point as to what the maximum amount of progress is that can be achieved in June. Obviously, we will make that decision at the time.
Let there be no doubt that we are insisting that there has to be a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. The UK now acknowledges that there has to be a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. People call it different things. It is officially called the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. I believe I started using the term “backstop”, which the EU has adopted as the term. Prime Minister May calls it the last resort. The Secretary of State, David Davis, calls it a reserve parachute. What we all agree, no matter what one calls it, is that the withdrawal agreement must have that. It must be in the withdrawal agreement and, if it is not, then there cannot be a withdrawal agreement.
It is worth acknowledging some of the progress that has been made in these negotiations, step by step, during the past year or two. There was the joint report in December in which the UK commits to ensuring that there is no hard Border, including physical infrastructure and associated checks. There was the commitment to retain the common travel area, which is very important for reasons that everyone in this House will know. There was the Kenny text, which allows Northern Ireland, should it decide to do so, to join the European Union through Irish unity, if that is something that the majority of people in Northern want to happen in the future. We also have the transition period, which is really important, giving business, public services and individuals until the end of 2020 to prepare for any permanent changes that may take place. I know there has been some suggestions from some parties in this House that we should have rejected those terms, that we should not have agreed to those terms of the transition agreement. I strongly refute that suggestion. Irish business, farmers and workers need that transition period to prepare for the future, to protect their businesses, farming and jobs.
Deputy Micheál Martin: We all agree with that.
The Taoiseach: I certainly disagree with anyone who believes that we should not have accepted those terms. Let us not forget that the UK-----
Deputy Micheál Martin: The only person doing the sabre rattling is the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach: Let us not forget that the UK accepted the EU’s terms, which are exactly what the EU said they would be, namely, the deadline, the fact that the UK would have to sign up fully to the customs union, the Single Market and the European Court of Justice during the transition period and pay into the budget as well.
Deputy Micheál Martin: That was always going to happen.
The Taoiseach: They totally accepted our position in that regard. I see a contradiction in, on the one hand, suggesting the Irish Government should be closer to the British Government and, on the other hand, saying that we should have rejected the terms of the transition agreement. That makes no sense-----
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Who suggested that?
The Taoiseach: -----and is an entirely contradictory position. We have also had the financial settlement and the agreement on INTERREG and PEACE
Deputy Micheál Martin: Who said that?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Who advocated rejecting it?
The Taoiseach: That is my reading of an interview that Deputy Martin did in The Irish Times some weeks ago but he may wish to use another opportunity to clarify what he meant by that.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I never used the word “reject”. The Taoiseach just makes things up to suit his straw men all over the place.
The Taoiseach: On Israel and Palestine, the Deputies will be aware of the issues around the EU common foreign policy. We only have a foreign policy when we agree and that is done by consent and so by unanimity. For example, on the issue of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the EU is able to take a fully united position, namely, that we did not agree with the decision of the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that EU states would not be doing so. On other matters it has not been possible to find that consensus and different member states have different attitudes to issues.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I have asked the Taoiseach on a number of occasions what he means by the term “meaningful progress”. Could he give us some sense of what “meaningful progress” means? It is the Tánaiste who said more strongly than anybody here that if there was no progress by June - “substantial” is the word he used - then it would be questionable whether we would have any deal at all in October. He said that during a BBC interview about two months ago. He raised the hare. It is the Taoiseach and his colleagues who came out and said they were not agreeing to anything in June until we get some progress, some deal. The Taoiseach created all of that language and momentum, so he cannot be blaming everybody else. I would like to know what “meaningful progress” means.
The Taoiseach: We have been around in circles on this a few times now.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Unless the Taoiseach wants to respond, we will move on to the next group.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: How many minutes remain?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Ten minutes remain for the next question.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: There is only one Taoiseach’s question remaining.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I wish to raise a brief point of order on this question.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There is no point of order to be raised.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: There is.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Tell me briefly what you think it is.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I submitted the exact same question, word for word, as Deputy Martin, which appeared on the Question Paper, and it was refused by the Taoiseach’s Department. I contacted the Ceann Comhairle’s office which told me it was the Taoiseach’s Department that would not allow exactly the same question with exactly the same wording on the paper, and there was back and forth communication on that. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, it is unacceptable that you would allow one question but not allow the same question from another group in the Parliament.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I support Deputy Boyd Barrett on that.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: That is absolutely unacceptable. The rules are the rules, and they apply to one and all.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Okay, Deputy. I would just say-----
The Taoiseach: I support the Deputy too.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Hold on, Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach: If the question was the same, then the decision should be the same.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I remind the House that during Question Time, Members may not seek to raise the transfer of questions by a Member. Let me clarify, other Deputies tabled similar questions after this appeared on the Question Paper last week. These new questions were transferred to the Minister for Health and the reason was provided to those Deputies who raised them. Deputy Boyd Barrett will appreciate that any time I am in the Chair, even though Deputies have not submitted a question, I always give them an opportunity to contribute.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I appreciate that.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Why would the identical question be appropriate for the Minister for Health and this one is not? I am just asking.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: It is bizarre.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Sometimes the Brexit questions get thrown-----
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: A written reply has been provided today, and rather than lose any more time, anyone who wants to ask a question, I will give them the opportunity to do so.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I was given the opportunity-----
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I believe the Member has to get a written reply. That is the short answer.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I am just saying it is bizarre.