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 Header Item All-Island Civic Dialogue (Continued)
 Header Item Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 980 No. 4

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  4 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar]  With regard to European Parliament representation, it is not possible to have a constituency for the European Parliament that is outside the European Union and only EU citizens can vote in European elections. That is in the treaties. It would not be possible to have a constituency of Northern Ireland. Even if it was possible, only EU and Irish citizens would be allowed to vote. One would have to forbid UK citizens from voting and that would be a problem. However, in voting for Mr. Mark Durkan in the European elections people will have an opportunity to ensure there is somebody living in Derry who can represent all of the island in the European Parliament. We will look at other mechanisms that might work. Accession countries can elect observers to the European Parliament and perhaps we might do something similar for Northern Ireland, but I cannot promise that at this stage.

Regarding citizens' rights, people living in Northern Ireland who hold Irish citizenship and, therefore, EU citizenship will continue to have citizens' rights. They include the right to work, study and travel anywhere within the European Union without the need for a visa, permit or the like. If the withdrawal agreement is adopted, they will continue to have access to the European health insurance card and be able to participate in the Erasmus programme during the transition period. I committed in Belfast last weekend to making it a negotiating priority for me in the future relationship talks to ensure EU citizens living in Northern Ireland would be treated as though they were resident in the European Union when it came to practical rights and privileges such as the European health insurance card and participation in the Erasmus programme. I also want Northern Ireland's universities to be able to opt into EU research programmes.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher We will move on to the next questions.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I asked questions about business preparedness.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I have the answers if I can have more time to continue.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Does the Deputy wish to continue to the third group of questions?

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Yes, we can continue to the third group.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

 13. Deputy Brendan Howlin Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr. António Luís Santos da Costa. [9091/19]

 14. Deputy Micheál Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister; the issues that were discussed; and the officials who accompanied him on the visit. [9374/19]

 15. Deputy Eamon Ryan Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar if he will report on his recent meetings with the French Finance Minister. [10368/19]

 16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar if he will report on his recent meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister. [10516/19]

 17. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar if he will report on his recent engagement with the Prime Minister of Portugal, Mr. António Costa. [10782/19]

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I propose to takes Questions Nos. 13 to 17, inclusive, together.

I attach great importance to ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners. I meet and speak regularly to my counterparts, bilaterally, at formal and informal meetings of the European Council and on the margins of international meetings such as the World Economic Forum which I attended earlier this year. Such engagement is crucial to ensure partners are fully aware of our positions on Brexit and other important EU issues and, more generally, further strengthen our relationships for the period ahead.

I had an informal engagement in Lisbon with the Prime Minister, António Costa, at his invitation, on the evening of 15 February. Our ambassador to Portugal joined us for the meeting. We discussed bilateral relations between our two countries, which are excellent, as well as the forthcoming European elections. We also exchanged views on a number of EU issues, including the latest developments related to Brexit and the political situation in the United Kingdom, as well as preparations at domestic and EU level in case the United Kingdom exits the European Union without a deal.

I again met Prime Minister Costa on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on 24 and 25 February. I used the opportunity of the summit to also speak informally to Presidents Tusk and Juncker, as well the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic, the President of Cyprus and the Chancellor of Austria. As Deputies are aware, I had met more formally Presidents Tusk and Juncker and Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt when I visited Brussels earlier that month.

I met Prime Minister May most recently on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit.

The French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, paid a courtesy call to me on 26 February, following his meeting with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, who joined us. We spoke about current EU issues, particularly Brexit. The Minister, Mr. Le Maire, reiterated France’s unwavering solidarity on the backstop and its firm view that the withdrawal agreement could not be renegotiated.

Most recently, on 4 March, I met Prime Minister Skvernelis of Lithuania in Dublin. We discussed the positive bilateral relations between Ireland and Lithuania and a range of EU agenda issues. I thanked him for Lithuania’s support for Ireland in the negotiations.

Other EU and international engagements are envisaged in the period ahead. I will be happy to inform the House of these engagements in due course.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton During the informal engagement with the Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr. Costa, did the Taoiseach have an opportunity to ask him how the Portuguese had managed to build an 875-bed hospital for under €400 million? The Portuguese are well known for being very good contractors. Given the pickle the Government has been in because of the extraordinary cost of the national children's hospital, did it occur to the Taoiseach to obtain some friendly advice from another European country on how to manage costs? The issue was underlined again this morning in one of the newspapers which reported that HSE internal documents from the estates department showed that as far back as last May the head of estates in the HSE had made it clear that the budget figures for the children's hospital would have to be available for inputting into the budget last October. That would be the normal practice with which I am familiar. Big capital budgets must be considered in the context of the overall budget. This makes a nonsense of what the Minister for Health has asserted, that the children's hospital budget had no bearing on the overall budget announced last autumn. It is simply not credible to most people who are experienced in how government works in this country.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher The Deputy should stick to the allocated time.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton When meeting the various Prime Ministers such as Mr. Costa, has the Taoiseach looked at capital projects in other countries and seen how those countries are controlling costs to favour their services and taxpayers?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Members must stick to the allocated time or the Taoiseach will not have time to reply.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Will the Taoiseach clarify what he means by an informal meeting with the Portuguese Prime Minister? What were the circumstances? Was the meeting organised in advance or did the Taoiseach happen to be in Portugal and just call in to see him? The media were not informed in advance and not brought along. It was published via a tweet afterwards, which caused some surprise at the time. Why was the meeting informal and not formal, given that the Taoiseach met other European leaders in a formal context?

The British Attorney General has been in ongoing contact with Dublin in the past month and it is now clear that tripartite negotiations are under way. On Saturday it was reported that Brussels would basically accept anything Dublin was willing to accept, but it was also stated there was a belief that the major stumbling block to agreeing to whatever was being discussed was the Taoiseach's fear that he might not be able to manage the politics of the situation. Of course, the Taoiseach will deny that anything of the sort is an issue. Will he explain to the House exactly what he has been discussing? "Clarification" and "reassurance" are fine words, but what do they mean in practice? Is the Taoiseach saying he is not willing to agree to anything that would give greater legal certainty to the United Kingdom's ability to leave the backstop - in an earlier reply he described the temporary nature of the backstop - or is he saying the backstop is intended to be temporary and that he is okay with reinforcing the fact that it will be temporary?

It appears that a committee of Tory backbenchers is receiving detailed legal briefings and will have a chance to review the text and the UK Attorney General's advice before the debate on 12 March. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to provide the same courtesy for this House? If he will be making legal claims at some stage about what was agreed to, it is important that he be up-front with this House also. What is he prepared to do to ensure Dáil Éireann will at least have the same level of access to the deal and its legal interpretation as the British Parliament?

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett Did the Taoiseach discuss with the Portuguese Prime Minister Portugal's model for dealing with illicit drugs? There are major parallels, historically and socially, between Portugal and Ireland in the sense that Portugal developed a big problem with illicit drugs at a similar time to this country in the 1980s. It was an enormous problem, with high rates of HIV, drug related crime, addiction and so forth. Portugal made the brave decision in 2001 to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and it has been a spectacular success. HIV and drug related crime rates have plummeted. The levels of addiction have not disappeared completely, but they have reduced dramatically and stabilised. I heard the Taoiseach say recently that he wanted to have a health led approach to dealing with the drug problem.


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