Absence of Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and North South Ministerial Council a major loss at this crucial time – Brendan Smith TD

Niall Collins Brendan.png

Along with colleagues Robert Troy and Niall Collins I raised again with An Tánaiste the urgent need to have the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland restored.  The lack of fully functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland and the North South Ministerial Council being unable to meet is a huge loss at this crucial time for all of our country.

Below report of Dáil Questions –

Northern Ireland

Dáil Éireann Debate

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Questions (9, 20, 34)

Robert Troy

Question:

  1. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress being made to restore power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland. [9742/19]

Brendan Smith

Question:

  1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his plans to resume talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the political parties in Stormont regarding the need to have the

Brendan Smith

Question:

  1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the progress of the recent talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the political parties in Stormont in respect of the need to have the Assembly and Executive restored; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9699/19]

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Deputy Niall Collins has permission to introduce the question submitted by Deputy Troy.

Deputy Niall Collins

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It is almost two and a half years since the Executive at Stormont collapsed. This is a critical time in the context of Brexit. The majority of the people in Northern Ireland are remainers and the Northern Ireland economy is potentially hugely exposed by Brexit. Against that background, has any progress been made on restoring the power-sharing institutions?

Deputy Simon Coveney

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 9, 20 and 34 together.

The continuing absence of vital institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is a source of deep concern for the Government, as it is for the British Government. The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions.

The British Secretary of State, Ms Karen Bradley, and I met with the leaders of the five main political parties at Stormont on 15 February, further to our respective consultations with each of the party leaders in January. This meeting sought the parties’ views on how a new talks process could most constructively be commenced in the period immediately ahead. Each of the party leaders confirmed their wish to participate in the institutions again and provided views on the necessary basis for an effective talks process. It was agreed that the two Governments would engage further with the parties to seek an urgent way forward with a new political process that can secure an agreement for a functioning Executive and assembly. Following these further consultations, the Government does not underestimate the way to go in achieving a resolution, but continues to believe that this can be achieved and that there is an increasingly urgent need for talks to recommence.

The two-year absence of the devolved institutions cannot be allowed to continue. There are pressing decisions and issues across a range of areas which require a functioning Executive and assembly. The devolved institutions of the agreement are also urgently needed so that the assembly and power-sharing Executive can represent the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland and address issues of concern, including the challenges for Northern Ireland resulting from the UK decision to leave the European Union. The North-South Ministerial Council is also essential to oversee and develop North-South co-operation on matters of mutual interest, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. The legislation that was brought forward by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which temporarily suspends the requirement to call an assembly election, underlines the urgent requirement for all with responsibilities to do everything in their power to get them operating again. I am continuing to work with the Secretary of State and remain in regular contact with the leaders of each of the political parties to get the necessary political process underway to secure an agreement for a functioning Executive and assembly and North-South Ministerial Council.

There is an elephant in the room now, which is Brexit. It has been there for some time and has had a corrosive impact on politics in Northern Ireland. It has had a polarising effect in that, in many cases, nationalists are looking to Dublin and unionist are looking to London for protection. That is the exact opposite of what should be happening in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the trust and spirit of co-operation and partnership that should be developing. That said, even with all of the pressures that persist, linked to Brexit and political choices that need to be made, primarily at Westminster, I still think it is possible for the two Governments to work together with all of the political parties to find a way forward and a basis for an agreement that can result in a functioning Executive again. As late as yesterday, I had a long telephone call with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the approaches that the Governments should or could take to try to facilitate re-engagement.

I know that there is scepticism, particularly on the part of Sinn Féin, about the efforts that are under way.

I can understand that, but we need to work together. I hope we will be able to meet the Sinn Féin leadership on this issue in the next few days to try to build understanding and trust around a new approach that can result in a deal being done. That has to involve all the parties. It needs to be a process that all the parties can buy into. We cannot have any party or group of parties vetoing anything. I look forward to working with all of the parties to try to find a way of making progress. The Governments need to take on the responsibility of making sure the next process that is put in place actually works. I do not think we can afford another failure.

Deputy Niall Collins

The Tánaiste might get an opportunity to ask his Department to provide a briefing for us on this matter. He mentioned in his reply that communities and political parties in the North need to have trust and confidence and need to be able to believe in one another. He said that words matter and that there will be proper follow-through. I am sure he is well aware that since the beginning of this session, the UK Supreme Court has delivered its decision on the Finucane family’s challenge against the decision not to hold a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane many years ago and all the collusion that was involved in carrying out that murder. This is something of great concern to Fianna Fáil. Our position has been that we want to see a full public inquiry into this case. As we know, David Cameron did a U-turn on the commitment he gave following the Fresh Start agreement. The Finucane family’s challenge against the decision not to hold a public inquiry has failed. However, the family has won a declaration that there has been no effective inquiry or investigation into the murder of Pat Finucane. Will the Tánaiste comment on that? Is he in a position to comment now? I know we are doing this on the hoof. The news has broken since this session started. Maybe we could have an opportunity to discuss it further later today because its implications are of very serious consequence.

Deputy Brendan Smith

While I welcome the Tánaiste’s reply, he has not given us any cause for optimism in regard to the resumption or restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. The Tánaiste gave us a detailed briefing at last Thursday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. As my colleague, Deputy Niall Collins, has said, it is most regrettable that we do not have a functioning assembly or Executive in Northern Ireland at this critical and crucial time in the history of our island. Similarly, it is most regrettable that the North-South Ministerial Council cannot meet. We are all aware of the value of its meetings at full council and sectoral levels. If those institutions were working on the basis of an all-Ireland approach to Brexit, they could work in the best interests of all the people of this island. Are the Tánaiste, his Government colleagues and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland giving any consideration to putting a timeline on talks? Deadlines are valuable at times because they can focus minds. It is clear to me from my interactions with my neighbours in Northern Ireland that they are absolutely frustrated that the institutions have not been working for more than two years. The assembly is not meeting to represent the people who voted its members into office in the first place. Has a date been set for further talks with the political parties in Stormont and the Secretary of State? A clear message needs to go out to the electorate in Northern Ireland and throughout this island that some urgency will be attached to such talks to try to ensure the political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement are fully functioning, are working in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and are working in conjunction with our Oireachtas colleagues.

Deputy Simon Coveney

Like everybody else, while I have been in the House this morning I have been reading on my phone about the UK Supreme Court decision in relation to the murder of Pat Finucane and the attempts by the family to secure a full public inquiry. The Government’s position remains clear and consistent. We believe an independent public inquiry into the Finucane case should be established in line with the commitments made by the British and Irish Governments at Weston Park in 2001. The Taoiseach and I confirmed and reaffirmed this when we met the Finucane family in recent months. That is still our position and it is not going to change, regardless of this legal decision. I have not seen the full legal decision. We probably need to study it before we can make an informed commentary on its implications. The Government’s position on the substantive issue remains consistent and firm. There was an agreement that a full public inquiry would be established. That agreement has not been followed through on. We believe it should be followed through on. That position is not going to change. There are dangers with putting strict timelines on talks. We have spoken to the party leaders about whether there is a window between now and the summer for an intensive period of talks during which an agreement could be reached as a basis for re-establishing a functioning assembly and Executive. I believe there is such an opportunity if parties want to take it. That is something about which the two Governments are talking directly to the two parties now.

Deputy Brendan Smith

I thank the Tánaiste again for his reply. I would like to stress the need for the public to know that urgency is being attached to the talks and the restoration of the institutions. We talk at times about the restoration of the assembly and the Executive, but we also need to emphasise the importance of meetings taking place at North-South Ministerial Council level and at sectoral level. I reiterate that there has never been a more opportune time than now, when this island and our neighbouring island of Britain are facing significant challenges as a result of Brexit, for the workings of the North-South Ministerial Council to be optimised. It would be great for the political heads of Departments to meet to thrash out a common position on the issues arising from Brexit that affect all the people on this island.

Deputy Simon Coveney

At a political level, a successful meeting of the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit took place in Dublin Castle last week. It was the fifth meeting of the dialogue to date. There has been engagement between civil servants in Dublin and Belfast on understanding the challenges of Brexit and the responses that may be necessary, particularly in a no-deal scenario. We have had some very good and frank discussions in that regard. It is important to let people know publicly that the Governments want to inject some urgency into this issue. For example, it may well be necessary for more legislation to be passed in Westminster to allow civil servants to be able to make practical decisions to protect vulnerable sectors in the context of a no-deal Brexit. We do not like that, but we recognise that it might be necessary. We certainly do not want to move towards a situation of direct rule for Northern Ireland. We cannot support that and will not support it. It is totally contrary to what the Good Friday Agreement should be about.

This is why we want to intensify efforts to work with all parties to find a way of getting not just an Executive but all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement functioning again and doing what they were set up to do, which is to create a sense of normality, partnership and co-operation on this island in order to reinforce the positive benefits of the peace process.