8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister May outlined her views on a workable backstop when he last spoke with her. (Question 19989/18 asked on 08 May 2018)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.
I had a short meeting with Prime Minister May in the margins of the European Council on 23 March during which we discussed the latest developments in relation to Brexit, Northern Ireland and Russia.
On Brexit, I welcomed her Government’s commitment to ensuring the backstop forms part of the withdrawal agreement, and looked forward to progress on this and on the other options before the European Council in June. I expect to meet her next week at the informal meeting in Sofia, in Bulgaria. The Government’s position is clear. Our preference is to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, a view we share with the British Government. We are also committed to exploring specific solutions to be proposed by the UK. At the same time, there is now the necessary legal provision to implement the backstop of maintaining full alignment in Northern Ireland with the rules of the Single Market and customs union necessary to protect North-South co-operation and avoid a hard border. This is very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary. This is about delivering on our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process - no less and no more.
I also conveyed to her my outrage at the attack in Salisbury.
This was my fifth bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister in recent months. I had previously met her in Belfast on 12 February where we assessed the state of play in the negotiations to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and encouraged the parties to reach an agreement so that functioning institutions can commence work again in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Between these two bilateral meetings, I spoke by phone with Prime Minister May on Monday, 19 February to review the latest developments in Northern Ireland and again on Monday, 26 February when we discussed Brexit and the draft withdrawal agreement in particular, in addition to matters relating to Northern Ireland. There is also regular ongoing contact between my Department and the British Government at official level about Brexit and the situation in Northern Ireland.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the so-called customs partnership being considered by Mrs. Theresa May and its lack of fitness to resolve issues relating to the island of Ireland. Last week saw another week pass without any viable proposal being put on the table by the British Government. After successive defeats in the House of Lords, the departure of several Ministers, and several splits in the British Cabinet, the only certainty is that the British Government is at sixes and sevens and still has not carved a defined path forward.
Based on developments at the weekend, it seems as though the Tory party is more divided than ever and divisions are deepening. That is largely their own business, except that it affects us in Ireland in a very real way and it is of increasing concern. There is a proposal on the table, namely, the backstop, which Theresa May agreed to, which would ensure that the North remained within the customs union and significant elements, although not all, of the Single Market, avoiding the need for an EU border on the island of Ireland.
Is it not now incumbent on the Taoiseach to state categorically that an agreement on this matter needs to be concluded in June and that dragging things out to October is not an option? We need clarity now more than ever because the British Government is in disarray. Without agreement on the legal text relating to the backstop agreement this whole edifice could come crashing down without any agreement being reached. There is a prospect of that happening.
Despite this, may I say it is utterly regrettable that Arlene Foster and the DUP have not faced up to the real dangers that Brexit poses and that they continue to toe the line of the hard Brexiteer rump of the Tory Party, which has absolutely no interest in Ireland, North or South. The DUP leader’s comments at the weekend ignored the democratic wishes of the people of the North. In fact they misrepresented them because the people voted to remain within the European Union. For the record, I therefore regard this approach by the DUP to be absolutely reckless and unacceptable.
My question, which I have put to the Taoiseach before, is where does he stand on this matter and what needs to be achieved by the end of June in his view. I have set out our view. Now I want to hear specifically what the Taoiseach believes would represent an acceptable level of progress to arrive at by the end of June.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The entirely correct focus of national priorities in the Brexit negotiations has been on protecting the progress obtained by the Good Friday Agreement. It is the basis for most of the direct leverage we are using, so the ongoing crisis in the institutions of the agreement would now appear to be at an emergency level. There is also the fact that no proposal for regulatory alignment appears credible in the absence of an administration in Belfast which can deliver it. I made this point at the-----
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Dundalk?
Deputy Micheál Martin: -----dialogue and it seems to me to be a point which has been missed. How do we achieve regulatory alignment if we do not have institutions, an Executive and an Assembly in the North to facilitate regulatory alignment in the context of Brexit? In this respect it seems surprising that the process in the North appears to be stuck in limbo, with no attempts being made to change the dynamic or to push matters forward. There are many contacts at ministerial level, which appear to amounting to little, and few contacts at prime ministerial level, which also appear to amount to very little.
The Taoiseach will have noticed the widespread commentary during the recent commemoration of the agreement about how the intensity and substance of past Dublin-London engagement is absent today and about how the issues at hand now are a fraction of those which were previously overcome by previous governments and leaders. Has the Taoiseach discussed any new initiative with the Prime Minister, Ms May, which they might both undertake in order to break the deeply damaging logjam now in place in Belfast? It is extremely important that we get some momentum given the inter-relationship with the unfolding Brexit crisis.
The east-west relationship is equally key and, to a certain extent, is also being lost. A disorderly British exit may not happen because we have previously seen British governments in all sorts of situations coming close in negotiations and some fudge tends to happen or the can gets kicked down the road. However, Britain leaving the customs union and the Single Market will damage the Irish economy as well as Britain’s own economy. We have to make the point relentlessly and consistently to the British Prime Minister and British Ministers that what they are doing will have a significant negative impact on the entire island of Ireland, not just the North of Ireland, in terms of our exporters, manufacturers and those who provide services to the British economy.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I was uncharacteristically pessimistic in my own few comments during the dialogue in Dundalk because I am now becoming quite fearful that the British Government’s strategy is to fudge the issue in June and again in October and to hope somehow to fold it into the transition period and that even that will not work. It is now abundantly clear that the so-called bulletproof, unalterable safety net that is the backstop is undeliverable. I do not believe that the British Government as currently constructed can actually deliver it. We have seen it again this week when Boris Johnson basically derided the contents of the Mansion House speech, which was supported by the entirety of the British Cabinet. How does one negotiate with people who change position so fundamentally? This was a speech made by Theresa May as Prime Minister with the endorsement of her entire Cabinet which set out that she was looking for a customs partnership arrangement. That proposal is now being described as crazy by her Foreign Secretary. These are extremely worrying times for us and we need to be clear about where we are heading. There are enterprises across the State, including Dublin Port for example, that are currently preparing for the worst option. That is probably a sound strategy now.
I previously asked the Taoiseach about planning for the worst case. I understand that significant planning has happened across Departments. I asked that the Taoiseach brief Opposition parties in that regard. He might arrange for that briefing to take place, even in confidence. It is now crystal clear that we need to have these matters resolved by the meeting of the European Council in June in order that we will at least know where we are going to land by October and in order that we will have some sense of confidence that a bilateral deal between the European Union on one side and the United Kingdom on the other will be deliverable and that the understandings we had thrashed out with some difficulty last December will be upheld.
The Taoiseach: On the proposed customs union partnership, as the Deputies will know that proposal first appeared in documents produced by the British Government last June. The Prime Minister, Ms May, has continued to put forward that proposal in recent times. The view of the European Union is that it is not workable in its current form, but that it is perhaps something we could make workable. The suggestion she is putting forward that a customs union partnership could be developed between the EU and the UK after it leaves is welcome. I do not think it will be sufficient to avoid a hard border on its own, but it would certainly be much easier to avoid if the United Kingdom continued to have a very close relationship with the European Union when it comes to customs and the goods and merchandise element of the Single Market. It would certainly make the job a lot easier.
It is no secret that there are different views within the British Government and Cabinet. Those views have been well aired. There is also now a divergence between the position of the UK Parliament and the UK Government, given that it has now suffered quite a number of defeats in the House of Lords and that it is now impossible to predict whether there will also be defeats in the House of Commons. That makes negotiations very difficult but it is our responsibility to work through those difficulties and to ensure a good outcome for Irish people, workers and business.
In terms of the backstop or the protocol on Ireland, as I said before we want to see real and meaningful progress by the meeting of the European Council in June. If we do not have real and meaningful progress on the text of the backstop agreement by that time it is difficult to see how we will be able to come to an agreement by October at all. As Deputies will know and as has been said before, not only by me but by all of the EU 27, if there is no backstop there will be no agreement and there will be no transition period for the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the negative effects a hard Brexit without a transition period would have on the Irish economy, when I said that we would not leave the people of Northern Ireland behind again I meant it. That is why we are insisting that there cannot be a withdrawal agreement or transition period for the United Kingdom if the backstop does not form part of that agreement.
Indeed, everyone accepts that there must be a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister accepts that and Mr. Barnier’s task force holds that view, as do all of the EU 27, so we are in a very strong position in that regard. The negotiating guidelines say that by the June meeting of the European Council progress will be reviewed and obviously decisions will be made at that meeting on the extent to which the progress being made is satisfactory. The deadline for the withdrawal agreement is and has always been October, with the ratification in the European Parliament and British Parliament happening thereafter to allow it to come into effect before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in March 2019.
I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that the absence of devolved government and institutions in Northern Ireland is a real problem. It would make sense to devolve the power for the making of some regulations with regard to goods and services and perhaps regulations concerning agriculture and phytosanitary matters. Ireland is very much the one island when it comes to agriculture and related issues. Checks already happen at the ports because of this. Certainly, if the regulations could be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, it would help to resolve some of our problems. The absence of the institutions does make the situation that little bit harder.
When it comes to east–west relations, I want the House to know that, on individual and personal levels, relations are very good between me and the Prime Minister, between the Tánaiste and Mr. David Lidington and between the Minister for Finance and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and of course they are also good at official level. While relations may be good and while we may be in contact very regularly, the context is a bad one. That context is formed by the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, creating enormous problems for themselves, us and everyone else. There is also an impasse in Northern Ireland. While relations are close and while there is regular contact, the context in which we are operating is perhaps as bad is it has been for many decades.
With regard to further plans for Northern Ireland to try to get the Executive and Assembly back up and running, the Irish Government has proposed a joint initiative by the two Governments — our Government and the UK Government — to work together and perhaps produce a joint paper and use it as the basis to encourage the two main parties, namely the DUP and Sinn Féin, to come together to form an executive. As things stand, we do not have agreement from the British Government to do that. We are not giving up, however. We will continue to persist until we have the Assembly meeting and the institutions operating as they should be.
With regard to briefings on EU affairs and Brexit, there is an open invitation. If any party leader wants a briefing on Brexit preparations or the EU negotiations on a confidential basis, the offer exists. All he or she has to do is get his or her office to contact mine and we will arrange for him or her to be briefed at the highest level on Brexit plans and the negotiations. Obviously, the briefing would be in confidence. People understand that there are things we can say in confidential briefings that we cannot say in a public forum such as this. Certainly, however, the offer exists. Should any party leader want to contact my office, we could set up a meeting.