No. It had been cancelled and was finished with. However, it is only a slight point; it does not matter. One of the things that concerned us was, first of all, the fact that this Agreement containing the imperfections that we pointed out was now to be irrevocable, a permanent expression of our trading relations with Britain. I remember saying at the time in that debate that it struck me as extraordinary that, after two or three Ministerial visits to London, even though the Ministers were backed up by high-powered civil servants and all the rest of it, any team of Ministers could be so convinced of their omniscience that they would be able to say: "For all time we have done a deal with the British."
I would have thought that such an agreement would have taken years of study and a careful assessment of what the expansion of our economy could mean to our people, to employment, to industry, and so on. But a few short visits and back they came and said: "Now we have done a deal. We sought it ourselves. It came from our initiative and, apart from refinements, and so on, it will be a permanent expression of our trading relations with Britain."
Certainly, it was not so accepted by the Fine Gael Party. The only basis upon which we could tolerate, and did tolerate, the introduction of such an agreement was that it represented a stepping-stone on the way to European union. It was in the sense that, before this agreement could ever have its full effect, this country and Britain would have been part of the European Community and this agreement, with its imperfections, would have disappeared under the Treaty of Rome. It was only in that sense that we regarded the agreement in any kind of reasonable light. I should add that we made it perfectly clear that if the Free Trade Agreement was to stand on its own, divorced from Europe and divorced from any possibility of this country entering the European Community, then we would oppose it vehemently and if we had the power we would cancel the agreement and repudiate it.
It was not a question, as was made clear at the time, of repudiating the Agreement in defiance of its terms, because this agreement in its preamble is based on the understanding that both countries would be in the European Community by 1970. If that assumption is no longer possible, if the idea of entering into Europe has receded into the distance, then the entire basis for this agreement has disappeared. It is not a question of breaking the agreement if one says now something else has to take its place. It means that there never has been a consensus ad idem in the proper sense to bring about an agreement if the terms upon which it is based no longer apply.
It is because three years later, at the end of 1968, that we now must regard the possibility of European membership as having receded into the distance that we are forced now to regard the terms of this agreement in a very cold, analytical and realistic manner. The agreement does not suit the trading relation between Great Britain and Ireland in the circumstances that both countries are outside Europe. I hope no one in this House will ever forget that prior to 1921 there was a free trade area between this island and the island of Great Britain and that free trade area had existed for many hundreds of years. We know the consequences. We know the desire of our people to end it. It would indeed be an extraordinary thing if it were ever thought in the national interest to restore that kind of free trade, completely isolated and removed from free trade in the larger community of European nations.
In accepting this agreement, in the sense that it was to be regarded as part and parcel of our advance into Europe, there were two or three features of it that we welcomed. One feature undoubtedly was the provisions in Article 18. Article 18 is the Article which deals with balance of payments difficulties. I think it is no harm to remind the House that, in the autumn of 1965, the people of this country, particularly those involved in industry, were shocked at the sudden imposition by the new Labour Government in England of import levies on our goods going into the British market. Our people were shocked because here was a sudden imposition which, in fact, was a tariffing of our exports to Britain. That was done in the autumn of 1965 without consultation by the British Government. Concerned, as they were, and as British Governments traditionally are, primarily with the interests of their own economy, and without thinking of the harm they might do to others, they proceeded to impose import levies. They offended every member of EFTA. They offended us. They were acting in defiance of the 1948 Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement: they were acting in defiance of the EFTA Treaty—but they did not mind. Comparatively speaking, they were the powerful economy and they were doing just what suited them.
I always thought it extraordinary that, stemming from that breach by the British of the 1948 Agreement, there should have come the Fianna Fáil initiative of 1965, the initiative of which the former Taoiseach was so proud, the initiative to seek permanent agreement with the British—but it came from that. One of the extraordinary things about this agreement when it was introduced here was that it adopted the import levies: they were never repealed. They were adopted—swallowed by us—but a lesson was learned and, in Article 18, provision was made that, for the future, never again would we have anything like tariffs or import levies even in the interests of balance of payments difficulties. That Article specifically provided that, while either parties to the agreement would be entitled to take unilateral action in relation to balance of payments difficulties, the action would be limited to the application of quota restrictions.
I want just to say this about that particular Article. As was stated at the time on our behalf, we welcomed that Article because it was a pity the illegal imposition of import levies by the British had been tolerated by our Government and at least they had come back with this safeguard that import levies or duties could never be imposed again and that the only action the British could take would be the imposition of quotas—because we knew that the British could never, in fact, impose quotas. I must say I thought—we thought—that Article 18 represented a brilliant victory for Irish negotiation. We thought our team of Ministers had codded the British into a situation in which they could not take any action against us in relation to balance of payment difficulties. One might think that if they were restricted to quota restrictions then, under the GATT set-up, they could not impose quotas upon us unless they imposed them upon every other country concerned in GATT. One might think that under the non-discriminatory clauses in the GATT organisation, they were prevented from imposing a quota on us unless they imposed it upon everybody—and, in Britain's trading position, that would be unthinkable. Therefore, Article 18 appeared to us to be the one redeeming feature in the Free Trade Area Agreement of three years ago. It meant, in fact, that, in relation to balance of payments difficulties Britain had deprived herself—probably because of the gain she was going to get—of the wide powers which she had exercised so callously in the past of imposing duties and tariffs on our goods coming into her markets.
It is because of that background that we asked the House to view—with the dismay and anxiety which, from these benches, we seek to express— the action actually taken by the British Government in the past few weeks in relation to their present balance of payments difficulty because what they did was to do, under another name, what precisely they did in the Autumn of 1965. They have now, by calling the requirement an "import deposit" provided for the imposition of duties upon Irish goods entering the British market. By no means can what they did be termed a quota restriction. Under no circumstances could it be regarded as a quantitative restriction nor, under any circumstances, could it be regarded, under the definition of Article 24, as any prohibition, quota, licence or other measure with equivalent effect.
So, it is not a quota. It is not a quantitative restriction nor is it something with equivalent effect. If an importer or exporter, as the case may be, wishes to send in £1 million worth of goods, he can send in as much as he likes but, in relation to each part of what he sends in there will have to be a deposit or a duty.
It is not, therefore, a quantitative restriction or a quota, or anything of that kind, or anything happening with an equivalent effect. It clearly is a duty and a levy on goods coming in. It really becomes a matter for concern when one finds, in fact, that Ireland's cause is raised in the British House of Commons by the Conservative or Tory Party. It is worth recalling that on a motion two weeks ago by the present Opposition Party in the British House of Commons that Party raised with the British Government what they said appeared to them to be a clear breach of the Free Trade Agreement with Ireland. They referred to the fact that what was done by their Government appeared to be the imposition of a levy or a duty and not a quantitative restriction which alone was provided for under the Agreement. I read the debate that took place and I must confess I found it very difficult to follow the case made in defence of the British action by the British Attorney General. I do not think he was able to make any case. He seemed to concede, in fact, that the imposition of a deposit was equivalent to the operation of a duty but he said that, under the definition of quantitative restrictions, pretty well anything was permitted. If that is the interpretation by the British in respect of their own language then we obviously speak a language of our own. It is perfectly clear that what was done was done in defiance of the terms used in both Article 18 and Article 24.
It is in the circumstances of the British doing something which appears to us, unless we are completely confused, to be a flagrant breach of the Agreement that we view with concern what seems to be the complacent attitude of our Government. Deputy Corish says the Government have been acting too much like gentlemen. Perhaps they have. Certainly for the Leader of the Government to describe what the British have done as being in breach of the spirit of this Agreement is making a tremendous concession. Surely the correct attitude is and should have been the attitude we are expressing on these benches, that this is in breach of the terms of the Agreement, and that is the attitude we should maintain at all times in relation to our discussions with the British.
Just think of the British Government ! Their own Opposition, the Tory Opposition, say they broke the terms of their Agreement with the Irish. But the Irish Government say no such thing. What, in heaven's name, did the British Prime Minister think of the cri de coeur from Government Buildings here: “Will you ever spare me half an hour or so. I want to see you”? It was, of course, a token visit. Nothing else. The Taoiseach, before he went to see the British Prime Minister, had prevented himself from having any grounds for argument or complaint. He started off by approving the proposition that this was a breach of the spirit of the Agreement and he then went across to London to say “Tut, tut” to the British Prime Minister. He said himself he was like the boy who went to the fair—he did not expect to get much and he came back not disappointed. Of course, he was not disappointed. Of course, he did not expect to get much. How could he when he had carefully ensured that no member of the British Government would take his visit as anything more than a token gesture to prevent misunderstanding and criticism at home.
It is an extraordinary thing—I think it is Gilbertian—that a trade agreement made by a Fianna Fáil Government on behalf of this country should be upheld not by them but by the Tory Opposition in the British House of Commons. That is the position in which our country now is. We appear to have in office a Government which is clueless, which does not appear to know the strength of its own position, which does not appear to prize or value the agreements which it negotiates on our behalf. It does not even appear to understand the import of and the necessity for having in international discussions and bargaining a position from which one can fight. It is an intolerable situation. It is for that reason, before the drift gets worse and a bad situation becomes really intolerable, that we want to get certain assurances from the Government.
We are told that civil servants are at the moment discussing matters with the British. What are they discussing? Why cannot we be told? Remember what is involved in this is the bread and butter of thousands of Irish families——