10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he met the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders when he visited Northern Ireland on 30 April 2018; and the issues they discussed. (Question 19987/18 asked on 09 May 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 11, inclusive, together.
On the afternoon of 30 April, I travelled to Northern Ireland following my attendance at the fourth plenary meeting of the all-island civic dialogue in Dundalk.
I had a number of different engagements during my visit, which was part of my efforts and those of the Government to stay engaged with all parts of society in Northern Ireland.
My first engagement was a visit to New-Bridge integrated college in Loughbrickland. This is one of the integrated education secondary schools in Northern Ireland. During my visit, I met staff and students, including those from both of the main communities in Northern Ireland but also from the new communities there. Often the new communities in Northern Ireland are forgotten or passed over. It was good to see so many people, including so many children, from non-traditional communities attending the school and even working there.
I also visited the Jethro Centre in Lurgan, which is run by the Shankill Parish Caring Association. The centre provides facilities and services on a cross-community basis in the Lurgan area and has received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I met a group - including children, teachers and community workers - involved in cross-community work and I was given an overview of the work being done by the wide range of projects run from the centre. I also paid a visit to Warrenpoint Harbour where I met business people who are customers of the port and listened to their concerns about the impact and challenges and uncertainties of Brexit for their business.
Overall, my visit proved to be very informative and worthwhile. All the people that I met, from all sides of the community, were very welcoming and I was pleased to have the opportunity to engage with them.
I did not have any meetings with representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland during my visit. The Northern Ireland Office was notified of my visit in advance, as is standard practice.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I call Deputy Micheál Martin on behalf of Deputy Michael Moynihan.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I welcome that yesterday, the Taoiseach accepted that the lack of working institutions in Northern Ireland is a direct threat to achieving as much as possible in the Brexit negotiations. However, what was surprising is the lack of any urgency in what he said, and there being a significant step away from the strength of calls for actions by the parties which the Taoiseach made earlier this year. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the Taoiseach’s new support base, it is important to look after one’s voters.
The absence of the anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland from any major discussions happening between the devolved administrations and London causes damage every day. That is something that was made clear by the leaked documents which Sinn Féin published in Brussels last week. Given the scale of the threat posed by the non-functioning institutions and the British Government’s refusal to establish the former consultation processes with Dublin used during previous suspensions, it was very surprising that yesterday the Taoiseach said that he has had no conversation with the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, in the past six weeks. Did he seek a conversation that was rejected by London or is it really the case that in the midst of the twin crises of Brexit and the suspended Belfast institutions, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister see nothing wrong with failing to speak for six weeks?
I am perfectly willing to believe that a combination of chaos and disinterest in London is the cause but I do not think the Taoiseach will find a period in the past 25 years when a Taoiseach and a Prime Minister went for so long without talking, especially during such a crisis as that of the suspension of Northern institutions or of Brexit.
I note the Taoiseach’s earlier comments but I think an intergovernmental conference should have been convened by now. The maximum utilisation of the agreement is imperative. Otherwise elements of the agreement can fall into abeyance. That ultimately brings the agreement itself into disrepute.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I did not know, until I heard the leader of Fianna Fáil make the point, that there had not been communication between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister for six weeks. That is remarkable. At the same time the Taoiseach was visiting communities in the North, and I welcome the details of the visit, the Oireachtas had its session in Dundalk with Michel Barnier. If one looks at what was said there and couples it with what we have seen and heard from London in the last week, it is clear that we are on course for a crash-out Brexit rather than a deal. That is my assessment of where it seems to be going, not what I would want it. That is of huge consequence for everyone and should be our political focus, including communications with the British Government. It also calls into question North-South communications and our need to maintain good relations with all parties, representatives and all people on this island during what will be a difficult and bumpy period.
I have one suggestion for the Taoiseach. I understand that on the same day he visited those schools and the people in Warrenpoint, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was meeting my colleague, the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland for the first time. It had proved difficult to set up that meeting. It took time. Worse still is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland refuses to meet parties such as our own. The Taoiseach once responded to me that there are two tiers of parties in the North, there are the big five to whom the Taoiseach speaks and then the smaller parties. We must get through this incredibly difficult time in Irish history and avoid a continuation of sectarian divisive politics. One of the paths back to talking to unionist and nationalist communities and moving away from the sectarian divide is to start talking to all parties and engaging them in the process. Relying on the big two, or nationalists and unionists and the sectarian divide as the inevitable outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, is not clever at this time. Engaging with people such as my colleague, Steven Agnew and others will allow us to start breaking down those sectarian barriers and start connecting with the nationalist and unionist community in the North during what could be a very rocky moment in Irish and British history.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I welcome the Taoiseach’s visit to the North. I thank him for his report on the visit. I take it that Warrenpoint was chosen specifically with the Brexit dynamic in mind. The significance of the port in Warrenpoint cannot be overstated. It has a growing reputation. Its location is halfway between Dublin and Belfast, and is at the centre of growing trade on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. It is a healthy thing and it would be welcome for the Taoiseach to visit the North as regularly as he can. Unlike others, I do not believe that the Taoiseach must meet party political people all the time, it is not necessary although it is necessary that all the parties are met, including Mr. Agnew and the Green Party, and I see no reason why that should not happen. However, I should say that the reason the institutions are down is not because of a sectarian divide, per se, although the North is a State which was created and defined on the basis of a sectarian headcount and the Good Friday Agreement is the vehicle for moving beyond that. The reason the institutions are down is because of a failure by the DUP to really buy into and sign up for power sharing.
We have a set of issues that need to be resolved. We had them resolved in February, to be fair. The accommodation was not perfect from a nationalist perspective but we were convinced that it was enough to move on; the DUP took a different view. That is why I raise the issue of the intergovernmental conference once again. I know there is no silver bullet and nobody has a magic wand in this scenario but I also know that we need a forum, a mechanism and a momentum within which we can sort these matters out and provide a roadmap and the resources necessary for so doing. I also believe that such a mechanism must be within the architecture and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which is why the intergovernmental conference is so important. I also believe that it should have been convened by this stage. It is very dangerous to allow this to drift. I understand there are tensions from Dublin to London, as well as an obvious and perhaps unavoidable tension, given the broader Brexit politics. I am fully au fait with the dynamics of between the DUP and the Tories, which are most unhelpful, but we need to sort these issues out and we can. However, if the Taoiseach is not prepared to force the pace on these matters, the Tories will very happily sit back. Some of their leading lights, their hard Brexiteers, would be more than happy to put the Good Friday Agreement through the shredder and I know this because they have stated that very publicly, and when they said it, they meant it. We should take them at their word. I urge the Taoiseach to press this matter very hard with Theresa May and the British Government, namely, that we convene this intergovernmental conference without further delay.
The Taoiseach: There has not been a formal telephone call or meeting between the two of us in about six weeks, nor has there been a request for one in either direction. A meeting is under consideration for next week, if we are both able to be in Sofia at the same time. I will also travel to Romania on the way to Bulgaria to meet the Romanian President as part of the contacts we are building up in the EU on Brexit and other matters. That also will be subject to confirmation. Prime Minister May and I have each other’s mobile phone numbers and it is possible for us to contact each other whenever we need to but currently the focus is on negotiations in Brussels and the various Cabinet meetings taking place in the UK to determine their position on the customs union or the customs union partnership and how that might evolve.
Currently the focus has been on the negotiations in Brussels and on the various Cabinet meetings that are happening in the UK to determine what its position will be on the customs union or a customs union partnership and how that position might evolve. The most useful conversation is the one which will be had once the British Government has decided its position on the new customs arrangement. Absent that, it is very hard to make any particular progress at the moment. There are, of course, many other contacts at official level through the ambassador. In recent weeks the Minister for Finance met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Tánaiste met with David Lidington. Of course we compare notes on what happens at those meetings and what messages are coming across from London to Dublin with regard to where things might go and what the British Cabinet might decide on the customs dilemma, which seems to be taking up a lot of its time.
On the Green Party in Northern Ireland, I certainly regret that it took so long to organise a meeting with the Tánaiste. I am very much of the view that we should engage with all parties in Northern Ireland and I welcome the fact that there are forces in Northern Ireland other than unionist and nationalist forces, including the Alliance Party, the Green Party and also some socialist groups. However, in scheduling meetings we obviously have to have regard to the respective mandate of each party and, whether we like it or not, the DUP and Sinn Féin are very much the largest parties in Northern Ireland and represent the majority of each community respectively. That is a reality of politics in the North.
I was very keen to visit Warrenpoint, particularly because of Brexit as it is, in many ways, a cross-Border port. Some 40% of its trade goes to or comes from south of the Border. It was very interesting to talk to the people who use the port about how they believe customs controls could impact on their businesses, not necessarily or even particularly in the case of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but in the case of customs controls between the UK and other parts of the European Union, which could also have a real impact on people’s businesses. I also have a personal interest in ports given my happy period as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have now visited every port in Ireland bar one. That is one off the list. There is a number of reasons as to why it has not been possible-----
Deputy Micheál Martin: Did the Taoiseach visit Galway port?
The Taoiseach: -----to re-establish the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Obviously there is the DUP-Sinn Féin dynamic. There is a real trust issue there. There is mistrust between those two parties which is making it extremely difficult to come to an agreement. I am not sure what the two Governments can do to engender trust between the DUP and Sinn Féin but we will certainly do anything we can. The lack of trust is one of the fundamental problems and one of the fundamental reasons why those two parties have not been able to come to agreement, or at least not to an agreement that could stick.
There is obviously also the atmosphere of Brexit, which creates enormous difficulties. It is going to be difficult to get the Assembly and Executive back up and running until we have a clearer idea of the shape of Brexit, of the new relationship between the UK and the European Union, and of how Northern Ireland and the Executive and Assembly fit into it. It is going to be difficult to get the institutions up and running in the next couple of months for that reason. The ongoing renewable heat incentive, RHI, investigation is also part of the backdrop to this. I am, however, confident that it will be possible to have the Executive and the Assembly functioning again. It is very much in the interests of Northern Ireland. All the time when I meet people from Northern Ireland they are so frustrated and so disappointed with the political parties. It is now even a case of a plague on all your houses when talking to many people because they are so disappointed that the institutions are not up and running. As co-guarantor of the agreement, the Government will continue to strive until things are working again.