A contentious vote on an EU-Canada free trade deal will be deferred until the New Year after two Green Party TDs indicated they would not vote with the Government on the issue.
The Green Party sought a postponment of a planned debate and vote on the EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement, known as CETA, which had been due to go ahead on Tuesday - despite Green cabinet ministers agreeing to support the deal last month.
A Government spokesman said on Monday night that the leaders of the coalition parties had discussed the issue and “reiterated their support for ratification”, but had decided to reschedule the vote to January to allow for a “longer and more considered debate”.
While the immediate political threat has been defused, the issue has drawn attention to tensions within the Green Party and the wider coalition.
The two Green TDs, Dublin Central's Neasa Hourigan and Dublin South-Central Patrick Costello, argued that the Greens rejected the inclusion of the deal in the Programme for Government.
“I can’t support the ratification of CETA - it was expressly rejected during negotiations. To bring it back now undermines the entire process and the entire Programme for Government,” Mr Costello told The Irish Times.
Ms Hourigan told the party over the weekend that she would not vote in favour of the scheduled Government motion to ratify the trade deal with Canada. She criticised Green members of cabinet for agreeing that the issue be put to a Dail vote when it was discussed by the Government at the end of November.
“I have no understanding of how Green members of Cabinet allowed this onto the Dáil schedule,” she said. Green Party MEP’s Ciaran Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan also wrote to party leader Eamon Ryan on Monday morning, asking him to defer the vote scheduled for Tuesday so the Greens could discuss it at their parliamentary meeting.
The issue was discussed at the Green Party parliamentary party meeting on Monday evening. Some party sources said the meeting was “cordial”, however other sources strongly disputed this characterisation. The Green Party has argued that CETA could have a significant negative impact on Irish agriculture and business and that it “puts the interests of multi-nationals ahead of sustainable indigenous business”. Senior party figures, including leader Eamon Ryan, spoke against aspects of the deal when in opposition.
Ms Hourigan said the inclusion of the EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement, known as CETA, in the Programme for Government had been resisted during negotiations.
Ms Hourigan told The Irish Times she could make a “very compelling case that CETA will damage the Irish economy and particularly the agriculture sector.” She said there are “significant concerns” about the issue elsewhere in the Green parliamentary party.
It is understood that Fine Gael’s view is that the Programme for Government allows for the ratification of the trade deal as it says the Government will “support new and existing EU trade deals”. Fine Gael sources also pointed to support for the Dail motion from Green party cabinet ministers.
While CETA is not referred to by name in the programme, it states that the Government will “firmly defend Ireland’s interests in international trade deals that may emerge”, and separately that it will “support new and existing EU trade deals to expand Ireland’s export options into new markets”.
The Dublin Central TD argued there was no time pressure on Ireland to ratify the trade deal, with other countries still to do so. "I want to listen to the debate from other countries before the Irish Government ratifies it".
What is CETA ?
The CETA - the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) - is a trade deal agreed between the EU and Canada, negotiated over eight years. It enters into force provisionally in September 2017 - meaning most of its terms now apply - but has still to be approved by EU national parliaments.
Like most trade agreements, one of the central parts of the agreement is the elimination of tariffs, or import duties, on trade going both direction, increasing opportunities for exporters.
It also provides for mutual recognition of certification in professions such as accountancy, architecture and engineering.
The EU says that the deal will boost trade and create jobs, make it easier for EU firms to invest in Canada and open up public procurement contracts.
The Government position is that Ireland stands to benefit as an exporting country, already selling around €1.35 billion in the Canadian market each year.
Opponents of the deal argue that it is too favourable to big multinational companies and does not take sufficient account of concerns in key areas such as the environment and employee rights.
A key point of contention is the so-called Investor Court System, which allows companies to sue national governments via a special arbitration system if they feel government regulation has unfairly hit their profits.
Some Opposition parties say that companies can use this to drive down employee rights and other social protections.
There are concerns in the Green Party that companies could also use it to try to circumvent environmental legislation.