Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 11 March 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Bernard Durkan TD )
Mr Pat Breen TD )
Mr Ronan Gargan ) Joint Committee on European Affairs
Ms Joanna Tuffy TD )
Mr Joe Costello TD )
Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD ) Joint Committee on European Scrutiny
Mr John Perry TD )
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
Good afternoon. I welcome representatives from the Oireachtas, who are here to provide evidence on European matters. As you know, our Committee is conducting an inquiry into how best the Northern Ireland Assembly can co-operate and link with Europe, particularly Brussels and Strasbourg.
On our recent trip to the Oireachtas, members sought an overview of operations. We wanted to invite you to share your experience and ideas for co-operation. We had the pleasure to host members of the Oireachtas for lunch, and, at the outset, we took the opportunity to reflect on and remember the weekend’s difficult events in Northern Ireland. We thank you for that expression of sympathy, and we know that your best wishes and assistance are with us during these difficult times. We hope that we can make significant progress through political leadership, which is being met in other places.
Mr Bernard Durkan TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs):
Thank you for your hospitality today. It is a pleasure to be here, and we hope to arrange many more bilateral events in the future, from which we will both benefit.
I am accompanied today by John Perry of Fine Gael, who is chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which scrutinises legislation, directives or instruments that emanate from Brussels and ascertains their positive or negative impact on our respective constituents. That is important, because many of those instruments and legislative proposals emanate initially from our own Government Ministers. Therefore, they appear at a higher level but eventually return to parliamentarians. John’s committee researches those areas thoroughly.
Ronan Gargan is the only permanent representative of the Government in attendance today. He is our policy adviser, and is excellent in that role. Members should look at him carefully, because he will reach great heights in the service nationally and internationally. [Laughter.] That is a fact.
Joe Costello is a veteran of many campaigns and, as members can see, is surviving well. He is a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, and is a member of the Labour Party.
Joanna Tuffy is also a member of the Labour Party. She is new to Parliament and is in only her second session. She is an effective and dedicated member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and has a great future.
Pat Breen’s length of service is medium. He is a member of Fine Gael, and has been around long enough to have made an impact but is young enough to be energetic about doing so in the future. He comes from County Clare along the western seaboard and brings the enthusiasm and freshness of the breeze from the Atlantic. [Laughter.]
Aengus Ó Snodaigh is the quintessential Dubliner. His accent gives that away somewhat. He is a member of Sinn Féin and is a medium-term campaigner. He has been in the House long enough to gain much experience. All members are dedicated and have worked extremely hard in the committee — they would not be here today otherwise.
We are both glad and sorry to be here today. We are glad because our attendance fulfils the ambition that arose on your previous visit to Dublin. We are also glad to be able to advance further the mutual benefits that will accrue from continued dialogue of this nature at the Committee, between the two parliaments and in Brussels. I will speak more about that later.
We are sorry about the sad circumstances in which we find ourselves. As you already said — and we already commented on this over lunch — it was particularly disappointing and sad when the news of the past number of days emerged. It was disappointing because we had all hoped that we had put that behind us, and it was sad because that obviously did not appear to be case.
It was also sad because many people had put an awful lot of effort into achieving a peaceful process and into creating the ability to work together for the betterment of the country — all parts of this island. Furthermore, it was sad and tragic for the bereaved. The attacks were mindless and heartless and lacked anything other than the desire to be destructive, which was the only possible outcome.
We compliment you for the mature way in which the political establishment — as we are all now called — handled this particularly tragic situation. It was hugely important that there was a calm response. It was also hugely important that all the parties here and in the South took the same line — to be supportive, condemnatory and to stand together. Out of all adversity and tragedy comes some good. That particular test has already come and gone. We hope that we and you in particular do not have talk on that subject ever again. That would be a huge achievement. It is important that we recognise that so far we have gone well, but that we have not yet gone all the way home. However, it is hugely beneficial for society when all sides sit down together and continue in that direction.
I return to the work the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the degree to which we can be of some assistance to you. We think that we can be of some assistance. We have been at this a long time. I have been a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs for almost 30 years. You will be glad to know that my hair was a different colour when I started off, as was the hair of many of my contemporaries whom I met over the years.
It is important to know — and I mentioned this point over lunch — that we parliamentarians need to enter into dialogue regularly with each other on a bilateral and community basis. If we do not make the effort but others do by travelling to Europe and by being absent from their constituencies at particular times, they will establish contacts in our absence. Those contacts can be very important, simply because they may hear something in passing at a meeting, or on the fringe of a meeting, that appears suddenly as policy at a later stage. Such information is often regurgitated and then emanates from the machinery as a solid piece of policy. If people do not participate and influence, they will not have a say.
Our secretariat and policy adviser mentioned that it might be a good idea if we were to exchange our reports in the future. Certainly, it will not be difficult for us do so. That kind of mutual exchange will keep you up to date with what we are doing, and it will also be beneficial to us. I am sure that John Perry will say something further about that.
My last point is that the evolution of the European project is hugely important to us all. It is important to all the people on this island and to the people of Europe. Each member state, small or large, in the European Union has a major role to play. However, the size of that role is dependent on the degree to which each member state is prepared to participate, because participation is what it is all about. If representatives are present and make their case, people will respect that. People may not always get that the response that they want, but at least they will have had the opportunity to make their case. They will also be armed with the information that is necessary to respond to other people’s cases if and when the time comes.
I will not delay the Committee any further, other than to say that we will be more than happy to help you out in any way with your work. I have no doubt that our relationship will be beneficial to the country at large, and to Europe as a whole. Thank you for listening me.
Mr John Perry TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny):
Thank you for inviting our delegation here, and thank you for the wonderful lunch and the tour of this magnificent Building. I concur with my Chairman, Mr Durkan; on behalf of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I condemn in the strongest possible terms the murders in Antrim and Craigavon. Our sincere condolences go to the families of those murdered, and our best wishes go to those who have been injured. We look forward to seeing those responsible brought swiftly to justice. Violence has been utterly rejected by the people of this island, and we stand united in ensuring that those evil people will not undermine the will of our people to live in peace. That will be the sentiment of everyone on the island of Ireland, and certainly those in the Oireachtas.
We thank you for that expression of sympathy.
The Oireachtas’s Joint Committee on European Scrutiny was set up in the aftermath of the last general election. Our officials provided the Committee with a document outlining our EU scrutiny system, so I will be brief, and there will be more time for discussion on questions that may arise.
I will explain the work of our Committee and give you a flavour of the EU issues that we are considering. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny implements the European Union (Scrutiny) Act, 2002, which places a statutory obligation on the Government to provide draft EU directives, regulations and decisions, together with an information note on the scrutiny to the Committee. We examine the draft EU legislation and information provided by the Government, and decide whether it needs further scrutiny. That decision is made on the basis of whether the proposal is politically or legally important and could have a significant impact on Ireland’s interests. If it is decided to further scrutinise a proposal, the Committee will either forward the draft legislation to the relevant sectoral committees to undertake that scrutiny, or decide to undertake the work itself.
If the Committee decides to scrutinise further a proposal, it usually invites the views of the relevant stakeholders, such as business groups and trade unions, as well as seeking further information from the Government. That can be done through public hearings, which have been very effective. On the basis of those hearings and other views gathered, the Committee will produce a report on the draft EU law, which will usually contain recommendations. The relevant Minister is obliged to take due regard of those recommendations when negotiating on behalf of Ireland in Brussels.
The principle of subsidiarity is one of the guiding principles of the work of the Committee. In that context, we welcome the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty aimed at enhancing the role of the national Parliaments and giving them a say on EU legislation at the commencement of any directive. There is some discussion on how the scrutiny system could be improved. That follows on from the recommendations of the Subcommittee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, which was set up after last year’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny is in discussions with the Government on the implementation of those recommendations.
As regards the day-to-day work, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny is considering a draft legislative proposal on the common system of VAT in respect of combating tax evasion. Only yesterday, we had discussions on that proposal with the Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and other business organisations on the relevance of fraud in the VAT system.
We will shortly begin our examination of the six-monthly report on EU issues prepared by each Government Department, and we can forward those to the Committee. It will include my colleagues’ recommendations on the due diligence carried out on a report on what we feel would impact adversely on the trading business in Ireland, and which could also have an impact on Northern Ireland. We will forward all those reports to the Committee.
The overall aim of that work is to scrutinise the position of the Government on EU issues, particularly draft EU legislation, to keep our Ministers accountable and to inform and engage the public on important EU issues, which is the real issue of the Lisbon Treaty. There was no exchange: directives were coming in, they were not being debated, and it was having a big impact on people who were very cynical about the urban issue.
That is a brief overview of our work, and I will be happy to take any questions. Basically, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny’s concept is that directives should be brought in, scrutinised and, once the report has been concluded, it should be debated in Parliament or the Seanad Éireann. If elected representatives have an interest in EU draft law and wish to engage further, they can mark it down for months ahead, it can be debated in the chamber, and it can then be brought into the public domain. When it comes to getting media interest, it can be difficult to get issues into the mainstream newspapers, but having an issue debated in the chamber can help with that.
That is very helpful; thank you both for your opening statements.
Thank you very much; it is nice to have you here to engage on issues that are of mutual interest to us in Northern Ireland and to you in the Republic. The inquiry is important for us, because it may give us some direction as to what action we as a Committee intend to take on European issues. We have done the tour, so to speak, of all the different legislatures, including the House of Lords, Westminster, down South and in Europe. That has given us a flavour of where we are going and, at the same time, given us some pointers as well.
The papers that we have been supplied with refer to a forum that has been established by the Irish Government that brings TDs, MEPs and special interest groups together. That is not something that we have looked at before or, I should say, has not been brought to our attention before. Do you see it as being beneficial, or does it simply add another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy?
My second question relates to the issue of local councils, which is very important to the Committee. We have had submissions from Belfast City Council, Londonderry city council and Craigavon Borough Council. Obviously, there is going to be a change to the number of local authorities here. Therefore, I am keen to know how you interact with your local councils. That is important to us, given the changes that will happen with implementation of the review of public administration (RPA) in 2011, when there will be 11 councils.
By the way, our papers refer to 15 councils — the DUP had originally hoped for 15 councils, but we are now going to have 11.
Francie wanted 15 as well.
I am not a member of the DUP though. [Laughter.]
We were aware of that. [Laughter.]
It is important to know about what interaction takes place, because there are different levels of interaction. Europe influences us all and, as we were discussing during lunch, a lot of people see Europe as being away over there while we are over here. How do we bring it closer? How can we in Northern Ireland interact with our councils on a more recognisable level so that they can feel that they are part of the process?
Mr B Durkan:
From what you said, it seems that you have very little to learn. Your assessment of the situation is indicative of a deep and well-founded knowledge of the whole political system.
Mr Joe Costello TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny):
I am a member of the National Forum on Europe, which was established after the Nice Treaty. It should not be forgotten that Ireland voted against the Nice Treaty on the first occasion. Therefore, we have a precedent for voting against treaties in Europe — the Lisbon Treaty is the second occasion.
After the Nice Treaty, we brought forward legislation that we hoped would bring Europe closer to its citizens. The first issue was scrutiny; we had to scrutinise everything coming from Europe. Given that more legislation emanates from Europe than from the Dáil, that legislation obviously has major consequences for the country. Parallel to that, we decided to set up the National Forum on Europe at the same time. The intention of the forum was to try to broaden interest in Europe, so that we could engage the citizenry in European affairs.
That forum consists of various stakeholders, including politicians from all parties, representatives of the trade union movement and non-governmental organisations. Every time that the forum meets, an advertisement is put in the national newspapers and the public are invited to come along and listen to the deliberations, most of which take place in Dublin Castle.
European issues of the day are discussed. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the forum has begun a reassessment of its work and its functions. It has broken down the broader forum, in which everyone had a chance to speak. It is now conducting its business through workshops and examining how it is going to go forward. The forum provides an opportunity to engage as many areas of society as possible in European matters. Therefore, it tries to bring Europe closer to the ordinary citizen to let them express their views.
Local authorities have a very important role in the Border Midland, and Western Regional Assembly. The involvement of all politics is local. One the issue of directives, the Council of the Regions has been invited to appear before the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, and it has its own points on the European legislation that affects local authorities. As Deputy Costello correctly stated, up until now, the difficulty that we have had with Europe was that the subsidiarity was not getting through and the local authorities felt that its input was not being taken on board.
That issue is now being addressed through the Border Midland, and Western Regional Assembly and the Council of the Regions, which has 15 county councillors attending on behalf of Ireland. We also link very effectively with the European liaison officer who is based in Brussels and who benchmarks work programmes that will have an immediate impact on local authorities. We are watching very cautiously, listening to all their views and working with them.
Ms Joanna Tuffy TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs):
In its early days — around the time of the Nice Treaty — I was on the National Forum on Europe. It was very helpful in teasing out the issues after the first Nice Treaty, and it brought together people of different views and found some common ground. There was a lot of publicity around the beginnings of the forum; therefore, information about its discussions was getting out to the media. However, the forum no longer gets the publicity that it once did. A flaw with the forum is that although it engages politicians with different viewpoints, it is not as successful as it should be in engaging the broader public.
Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny):
A question was asked about MEPs. MEPs are ex officio members of both Committees. All Irish MEPs can attend Dáil Committees and play a full role in Europe.
Mr B Durkan:
That applies North and South.
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
One of the problems is that our meetings are often held at the time when MEPs are in Brussels. However, over the past number of years, various MEPs have attended and they have, obviously, had a different role and a different outlook, which is useful for our Committee.
Mr B Durkan:
A reference was made to the local authorities. During lunch, I mentioned that great merit is deemed to accrue from the abolition of what we call the dual mandate — the membership of local authorities and of national Parliaments etc. People should not be fooled into believing that ending dual mandates is of benefit; it is not. The longer that people retain membership of both places, the better.
Tell that to those two Ulster Unionist Party Members. [Laughter.]
Dual mandates are a current issue here, Bernard. [Laughter.]
Mr B Durkan:
I voiced that for the sake of equilibrium. [Laughter.]
I think you walked on something, but anyway, we will move on. [Laughter.]
I apologise that I was not at the lunch. I am member of the Policing Board and, I am afraid, things just went pear-shaped. I have to leave for a meeting at 3.00 pm with senior police officers. Thank you for attending. Again, I am sorry that I was not able to have lunch with you, because I enjoyed your hospitality on the day that we visited you.
My question is about how you influence legislation, particularly the process that you use. Given that you are a member state and we are a region, what advice can you give us as to what to put in place to best influence the issues that are important to Northern Ireland?
When we were in Scotland, the issue of liaison between Ireland — as a member state — and the rest of the United Kingdom was raised, particularly with regard to the areas such as fisheries, agriculture and others of importance to all these islands. We were trying to tease out of our Scottish counterparts how best we could co-operate in dealing with European legislation, given how much of it comes through regularly. We want to deal with what is important to the people that we represent.
Mr B Durkan:
Our Committee meets the Minister, or a Minister of State, before he or she goes to a European Council meeting on general affairs. Therefore, the entire agenda for the meeting is trotted out to us on the Thursday, the meeting takes place on Monday or Tuesday and Committee members have an opportunity to tell the Minister what they think the attitude should be. It would be very unwise of a Minister not to give regard to the opinions of the Committee — if a Minister does disregard the opinion of Committee members, he or she is disregarding Parliament.
There are common interests in the island of Ireland, such as agriculture, manufacturing, job creation and the strategy on the Lisbon Treaty. If there is anything that you think that we can help with, we have no problem with raising it at our meetings. Do not say that I said this, but it might be beneficial for this Committee to have a Minister, or Minister of State, from Westminster to come over here and do the same thing. That would give you a direct input on the subject matter that unfolds before you.
We had a huge debate on the directive on the reform of the common fisheries policy (CFP). The Federation of Irish Fishermen and others with vested interests attended a Committee meeting. We made a major recommendation to the Government on a directive that will have a massive transformation on the fishing rights around the whole coast of Ireland for 200 miles out to sea.
We also discussed the proposed ban on eel fishing.
Yes; the proposed ban on eel fishing is very controversial. That directive was not debated, and it means that there is a proposal to ban eel fishing in Ireland for over 50 years —
Mr B Durkan:
It is 99 years.
It would be helpful to share ideas about directives that impact on agricultural issues and coastal communities. Our Committee can influence the Government. The European officer in Brussels gives us a clear indication what legislation is coming down the track in nine months’ time, so we can give that legislation consideration, whereas previously, the legislation was not being fully analysed.
The documentation leaves the European Commission and comes into the Dáil simultaneously, so we can clearly indicate the difficulties and the merits of that and consult those with vested interests. There is much benefit in bringing people in who have a vested interest in the directives and their impacts.
Therefore, we can influence policy. The powers of our Committee include summoning a Minister and receiving oral evidence and written submissions. Therefore, it would be very unwise for those from the House of Commons who negotiate on European issues that relate to Northern Ireland to not listen to the issues. There are a lot of directives that impact equally here and in the Republic. As Deputy Durkan stated, sharing documents would benefit both countries.
Mr Pat Breen TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs):
I am also delighted to be here. We will remember the visit for many reasons, both good and bad. The Joint Committee on European Affairs is very powerful. At most of our meetings, the public gallery is full of people, be they journalists or those who take a keen interest in the subject that is being addressed. Last week, we received the EU Trade Commissioner, so we have an influence.
Our role is to influence Government. A senior Minister regularly attends the Committee, as does the Minister for European Affairs, and that is very important. The Committee holds the Government to account on occasions, and, on another level, we hold Europe to account. As John rightly pointed out, we also look at EU policies and programmes.
Therefore, it is a very influential Committee, and the media takes a keen interest in our deliberations and our meetings. We meet regularly — twice a week on occasions —and we travel quite a bit.
Only last week, the Chairman and I travelled to Bosnia and looked at the whole area of European integration, particularly in Croatia, as it is waiting to get membership to the European Union. However, obviously, it has been put on hold because of the economic situation. Therefore, those countries look on Ireland as being a very successful island, and they want to learn from us. That is why it is important that we are here today and that we continue with these regular deliberations and dialogues.
Everything that my colleagues said is true. We can influence the existing arrangements through meeting the Minister and so on. However, if we were to accept the Lisbon Treaty, we would ratchet the issue up another notch because, for the first time, there would be a specific statutory role for Parliaments. That role would include involvement at every level in the processing of directives and legislation. Therefore, we would have an input into the work plan before it was fully put together by the Commission at draft level, and we could have an input right down the line.
If a certain number of member states come together or agree, they can have an influence to the extent that they can actually stop something in its tracks if it is deemed to be in breach of subsidiarity; in other words, if the matter can best be dealt with at local or national level. Therefore, in the future, it will require much more co-operation and communication between member states. From that point of view, there is real opportunity for contact with this Committee, because we share so many issues that we might want to influence, and that we will have the statutory authority to influence, whereas, at the moment, member states take on board our suggestions largely by grace and favour. However, in relation to the issue of subsidiarity, if the Lisbon Treaty is accepted, they will have to take those suggestions on board by law.
Thank you very much. Unfortunately, I must pause the evidence session. Mr Spratt is about to leave us, and we understand the reasons for that. We require a quorum of five members to enable us to take decisions, and I have some other items of business that I must get through. We can continue to take evidence with four members.
On resuming —
I welcome you to this afternoon’s Committee meeting. If you ever wish to rejoin the United Kingdom, let me know, and I will try and put in a good word for you. [Laughter.]
In John’s introduction, he mentioned scrutinising a directive. What is the purpose of scrutinising a directive when it exists already and there is not much that can be done about it? Joe said that if the Lisbon Treaty had been accepted, regional Governments would have input into those legislative procedures before they were implemented in Europe. I thought that that was the case at the moment — that Governments did have an input. However, maybe that is not the case. Perhaps Joe could explain those differences.
What is happening, or what is going to happen, on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty?
We will leave plenty of time for the witnesses to answer that last question. [Laughter.]
Your first point related to the aspect of scrutiny on a particular directive. That very much flows from the Commission to the member states, and is then open for debate, agreement and amendment. Deputy Costello alluded to the new yellow-card scheme that is contained in the Lisbon Treaty, which will mean that if that treaty is ratified and a number of countries make an objection within an eight-week period, a reservation can be placed on a particular piece of legislation. If that reservation receives a majority in excess of 50% in the Commission, renegotiation can take place.
On the issue of directives and the element of contribution and the changes that can be made — the Government of the day have a mandate to negotiate. Between the initial print of the directive and the final signing off by the Commission, it is quite a varied document. That is why it is critically important to enter negotiations and get an imprimatur on that document at the earliest possible stage. It is by no means a fait accompli at that stage.
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
Initially, directives are in draft form. One of the examples that we discussed this week was the working time directive which has been around for God knows how long. When directives are in draft form, it allows us to get expert evidence from various interest groups, such as the business community and the trade union movements. We can then refer the draft directive to, for example, the Committee on Enterprise and the Committee on Health, which allows them to do their work and to present their findings to the Minister who will negotiate on the directive and make the necessary changes to make it palatable in Ireland. After all, we are there get the best deal.
There are probably about 500 pieces of legislation that come before the Committee each year, about 400 of which deal with quite technical, minor changes that do not require any major investigation. In fairness, the civil servants who work with the Committee produce a brief and explain in detail what the impact is likely to be. At any stage, we can call a halt and ask for further scrutiny or expert witnesses. For example, I am not an expert in agriculture as I was born in a city, but I might have some inkling that there is something wrong, untoward or unpalatable to Ireland in a particular directive. We can even ask the officials to explain issues in greater detail so that it is on record.
In practical terms, is it quite difficult to do that on a fairly large scale, because of the large amount of documentation?
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
That is what I am saying — some 400 pieces of legislation are literally noted as correspondence, because they deal only with minor practical changes and with issues such as anti-dumping measures or extensions of trade agreements with other countries. There are quite a number that could virtually be ignored — although that may be the wrong word to use. Some 100 pieces of legislation require some level of scrutiny, and possibly 20 or so require the Committee to put a bit of time and effort in and seek expert advice.
Another example was a directive that dealt with the safety of children’s toys. The Committee received a presentation from toy manufacturers and sellers in Ireland on the impact of that directive on their businesses. We were then able to forward those concerns, not only to the Minister, but to the Commission. The directive was then changed slightly based on what our Parliament and other Parliaments did, which allowed for greater discussion about the issue.
In a nutshell, all the directives that we debate are in draft form — the material has not been finalised. The point that I was making was that in the Lisbon Treaty, for the very first time, Parliament achieves the statutory recognition of being almost an institution of the European Union. At present, there is the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Government through the Council of Ministers. However, Parliament does not have a forum in Europe, as such. It does not have an entrée directly and it does not have the statutory entitlement to make its voice heard.
Our Committee, which we set up by law, is saying that we are going to examine certain issues. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament will, for the first time, have a statutory entitlement to have its say about everything that is coming through from Europe. That includes issues about subsidiarity when it deals with matters that relate to a member state. That is probably the most important new initiative in that respect.
Mr B Durkan:
The Joint Committee on European Affairs also makes amendments or submissions to the White or Green Papers that go to the Commission. Effectively, on issues of policy, that is how it is done — we respond to the draft proposals. It is important to think about the way in which, when it regurgitates and comes back to us, it is going to affect the economy at large, various sectors in the economy and what the public reaction is going to be.
It is no good waiting until it becomes a directive and is swingeing down on top of us. On issues such as eel fisheries or coastal erosion, somebody may suddenly ask why such a silly directive was accepted. It is in such situations that the alertness of the Committee is hugely important.
The points that have been made by my colleagues are absolutely right. However, it should be remembered that the Lisbon Treaty has an exit clause. Something that was not widely known was that if any member state wants to get out after the Lisbon Treaty is passed, it can do so — it can leave the European Union. Such a clause serves as a stark reminder that decisions always have to be taken, which is good as it helps to concentrate minds. It will concentrate minds, and without any shadow of doubt, it behoves us all to look at the issues in a different way.
Whatever role the scrutiny committees and the European affairs committees play in each member state, there must be balance. If any member state decided to block all legislation, Europe could not evolve. Member states must have regard for others as to what it would be like if all legislation were to be blocked. Any blocking of legislation must be for the right reason. It cannot be done for negative or cynical reasons.
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
A question was asked about the Lisbon Treaty. I am not going to get into debate about the rights and wrongs of it, but the indications at this stage are that the guarantees that the Government have sought will be produced some time over the summer — if not before June — and that we will go to referendum again in October. The Lisbon Treaty was to be passed by December 2009 anyway, so a time frame exists.
In a deal that was done between the Council and the European Union, there was a condition that, if the Irish Government got the Lisbon Treaty passed by the end of October, the member states would be agreeable to certain assurances and certain guarantees. I suppose that the likelihood is that those would be agreed at the June Council meeting, and the campaign would take place from then until October, with the referendum taking place before the end of October.
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
The second Nice referendum was conducted prior to the October Council meeting. That allowed the Council to tidy it up and sign it in December.
Is it the case that the Government and those who support the adoption of the treaty will commend the changes and seek endorsement of the second referendum?
That is the case, but they are working behind the scenes at the moment. They will not divulge their progress, but they have to place legal structure on the guarantees that were given. Thereafter, they will refer the changes to the member states in order to ensure that they are happy with the formula, after which the people will vote.
What will happen if it is rejected again?
Even I would not go there. [Laughter.]
Mr Ó Snodaigh:
It continues as is. [Laughter.]
Thank you for attending. Although you have a referendum, we do not vote on European matters. Therefore, we cannot have an influence, no matter how much you sell the idea to us.
In relation to Tom’s point, you need to move quickly if you want back into the British structures, because, given that it is breaking up, there will be little left. However, given that the Conservative Party will come into Government, who knows what will happen. [Laughter.]
We are covering a lot of ground. [Laughter.]
The South seems to have benefited from European membership. I am unsure whether that is the case in reality. Can you offer any advice to the North about those benefits, given that the British Government make the applications?
The evidence that you sent to the Committee outlines how you scrutinise — the early-warning notes. We heard similar comments at Westminster last week about scrutiny and how that process develops. How could we co-operate better in order to take advantage of the early-warning notes? How can we offer an input to those?
Mr B Durkan:
There are many areas of mutual benefit. We must recognise and be aware of each other’s existence. In that context, the North/South bodies can be of mutual benefit to the region. For many years, the region suffered because of the situation that prevailed, and the region is entitled to receive the economic, political and other benefits of the peace process.
We can achieve those benefits through mutual recognition of regional disposition and through cross-referencing and swapping documentation in the way that you have suggested. We can do so effectively in the context of the North/South bodies and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, because people in those groups have direct and indirect influence. That is the critical factor. We need to utilise those people to a much greater extent than we have done in the past.
As I said earlier, we need Europe and we have benefited greatly from it. It is hugely important to the development, and the evolution of the development, of this island. Europe needs us, too. It needs the influence and words of smaller countries, and we need to relate to the other smaller countries, which have common interests. For example, we have a common interest with you in the agriculture, fisheries and industrial sectors. It is hugely important. For instance, we have the same employment issues in the Lisbon strategy. Those issues must be to the fore at all times, and we must use available routes to liaise with each other and keep up to speed with issues that we want to discuss. We need to be conscious of your needs, and vice versa.
At the same time, our colleagues across the water in the UK must also be conscious of our needs. Equally, our friends in Germany, France, Italy and all the other EU countries must keep in mind the fact that they cannot march on without us.
Europe comprises two types of country: the powerful ones and the smaller ones, and it would be much easier for the powerful countries if they were to march on without the rest of us. However, it would not be advisable for the smaller countries to allow that to happen. It is important for us to be aware that that danger is always there. It would be simple for that powerful block of larger countries to stride ahead, and they could use the smaller countries as trading partners in whatever way it suited them to do so. On this island, such a development would not be to anyone’s advantage, nor would it be to the advantage of the peaceful evolution of the European Union. We must keep that in mind at all times.
In order to deal effectively with the early-warning notices, to which Mr Molloy referred, the EU liaison officer is very important. The Committee’s secretariat examines the notices and identifies the ones that it believes will cause a difficulty.
We can work closely with your staff, and a due diligence exercise has been carried out by the Committee’s legal team. It will undertake an effective evaluation. We send directives that come in to the 15 or so sectoral committees. If, for example, an education or environment directive comes in, we give the relevant scrutiny committee a six-week time frame within which to come back with a written submission containing its recommendations and analysis of the envisaged impact of the directive on the area for which it is responsible. If we feel that that has not been done sufficiently, we compile a further added-value report to consider the finer points.
There are huge benefits to be gained from working on directives with the staff here. Directives are carefully analysed, and I am certain that the ones that we pick out are representative of the 15 main Departments in the state, and they will have an impact on any areas that are relevant. The early-warning notices and impact evaluations that are being carried out are making a big difference. The problem is that the debate about the deficit between Europe and Ireland did not taking place until 18 months ago.
I work closely with Michael Connarty, who is the Chairperson of the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee. In fact, we will visit him in the next couple of weeks. That Committee is superbly effective — one of the best among all the member states — and its members pride themselves on the work that they carry out. They go through every document with a fine-tooth comb. This Committee can be assured that we would be happy to work with it on this subject.
Rather than answering a question, can I ask the Committee a question? How much contact do you have with your colleagues in the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee and with the Minister of State for Europe?
The Committee has no contact with Westminster Ministers. If it appears that a regulation might affect Northern Ireland, the system seems to be to refer it to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who then consult the Executive and respond accordingly.
Last week, we observed both the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords’ European Union Select Committee taking evidence, and we were impressed. We believe that we can fine-tune that process. In addition, we meet quarterly with representatives from Westminster and the other regional Assemblies/Parliaments in the UK, and we hope to expand on that contact. There is a lot of work to be done, and our inquiries will form the basis of our recommendations to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the local Executive for improving on the present arrangements.
Is the present system working?
Our concern is that it is not, so we are keen to improve it.
I can see that.
Obviously, we cannot meet as regularly as we might wish, but it might not be a bad idea for the two Committees to meet quarterly. Of course, the two secretariats can meet all the time, ensuring that information goes in both directions, and we have our man in Brussels who keeps us well informed. Consequently, as we get information, it can be transmitted to you. We can then keep you informed on our progress on issues that we consider to be important or are examining or have sent out to different Departments.
Finally, we can send you a copy of our completed reports, and you can identify issues that we have in common. We should perhaps discuss them right up to the level of plenary session in Parliament.
You might pinch our ideas then.
We do not mind. We will share them with you.
That has been very helpful, indeed.
My point is not a criticism; I just want to raise an issue. You referred to fisheries, and the gentlemen on the Committee would be very disappointed if I did not ask a question about fisheries. You said that you want to work closer with us and help us. We are a small region, and the fishing industry does not add up to big numbers in the overall economic picture, but it employs a large number of people and the effect on small communities is great.
Quotas and so on were considered in the meetings in Brussels in December. Last year was the first time ever that we did not swap quotas with the Republic of Ireland for cod and other fish species. I am a wee bit concerned about that. I am not being critical; I am simply making a point. Today, you said that you will help our fisheries and agriculture sectors, yet last December, for the first time ever, there was no quota swap between the United Kingdom and yourselves. Such a swap would have directly helped the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.
I will leave that thought with you. I am a great believer that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you can prove to us that you will be able to improve on that, obviously this position of mutual interest will benefit us both.
You never said a word to us about it, Jim; it is a bit late now. [Laughter.]
Jim, you raised a very good point. Over the past couple of weeks, a major debate on that directive has taken place with all the fishing organisations, including the Federation of Irish Fishermen. A massive restriction is in place off the west coast of Ireland. The box is being closed down and re-evaluation is taking place, not to mention the future directive and the reform of the CFP.
Yes; that is another issue.
That will have a massive impact in 2011. There will a great deal of regulation. There will be administrative fines as opposed to criminal sanctions, and that is a big issue at the moment for fishermen who are in breach of regulations. We can send you the document that is being analysed at the moment, and we are preparing a major submission. That is one of the most interesting meetings that we have had for quite a while. At Killybegs, £400 million worth of vessels are parked up. They cannot even get any days at seas, and it is a really emotive issue. In the absence of getting agreement on that matter, there is great unease at the moment with Government and fishermen. There is massive unrest. The incoming directive will look at the issue of the 200 miles off the coast of Ireland and re-evaluation. It affects other fishermen in the Irish box and the controls of other jurisdictions. The document on which we are working would be of value to you, and we will get it to you next week.
Mr B Durkan:
I agree entirely with you, Jim. I have said all that many times. We were disappointed as well by the particular outcome you mentioned. However, the point that John Perry made is absolutely accurate — we just have to fight harder. We have to put our foot in the door, and do so more vigorously and more insistently.
I believe that what you need a conduit between the Assembly and Westminster, whereby the First Minister and deputy First Minister are made aware of proposals, and, in tandem with them, you are made aware of those proposals, so that you all know what is coming down the track. Then you can have the same meeting that you have now to fulfil the same role. That is hugely beneficial for both parts of this island.
By the way, the UK and the Republic of Ireland have common interest on most issues, not necessarily in relation to a cheap food policy, for example, because we are food producers on this island. However, the French would share common interests with us in the agricultural sector, and we must bear that in mind. The Spanish and the Portuguese have interests in fishing. They would not have common interests in relation to fishing rights, not by a long, long shot. We need to keep those matters in mind. That does not mean to say that we are going to dominate them or take over, but neither does it mean that they are going to dominate us. You are right about the sensitivities around fishing, and the situation has gone on for far too long without somebody putting the foot in the door and exerting influence from the national perspective.
Thank you very much for your excellent contributions. We look forward to receiving the transcript of the meeting, a copy of which we will provide for you. We also look forward to receiving the follow-up information from you. If you wish to provide any outstanding information to the Committee, the secretariat will arrange for you to do so.
It has been my privilege and a great honour to welcome you to Parliament Buildings for this helpful session, and I look forward to that continuing. Thank you for attending and for you expressions of condolences about what has happened over the past number of days. I wish you a safe and happy journey onwards.