Other Questions

Brexit Issues

Darragh O'Brien


5. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the recent comments made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that he would find it impossible for Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market and the customs union if the rest of the UK is outside of these mechanisms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48311/17]

The last three questions with which the Minister has dealt are obviously similar. Mine refers to the comments of the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that it will be impossible for the North to remain within the customs union if the rest of the UK is outside it. As with Deputy Shortall and others, I am trying to get a sense of whether there is a plan if the worst happens. Can the Minister set out the Government's view of the comments of the Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, and state how significant they are?

The European Commission task force paper on guiding principles for the dialogue on Irish issues reflects our priorities, including the complex issue of the Border. The paper makes it clear that it is the UK's responsibility to propose workable solutions and to take the policy decisions needed to deliver on the shared objective of avoiding a hard border. It is welcome, therefore, that the UK has made a commitment to protect the Good Friday Agreement, maintain the common travel area and avoid any physical infrastructure at the Border. While the EU understands that this commitment is sincere, it must be backed up with workable solutions which take account of the complexities presented by the UK's decision to leave the European Union.

It is essential for the UK to commit to concrete ways that ensure a hard border is avoided. These must include addressing the risks presented by any regulatory divergence from the rules of the EU Internal Market and customs union. Detailed work is ongoing to map out the co-operation on a North-South basis on the island of Ireland on which we rely and which relies on EU laws and policies.

This work has underlined the need to avoid the risks presented by any regulatory divergence from the rules of the EU Single Market and customs union in order that North-South co-operation can continue in a meaningful way.

In Brussels, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recognised the fact that Northern Ireland needed bespoke solutions and that it had unique circumstances which needed answers. He also confirmed that Britain would be leaving the customs union and that Northern Ireland would not be separated from the rest of Britain in that context. That is all the more reason we need to explore some of the ideas that have come from the British side around customs union partnerships. It would be a lot easier if Britain and Northern Ireland applied the same solution to solve our Border issue but in the absence of that, we have a problem and this will require bespoke and unique solutions for Northern Ireland.

It does require bespoke solutions for Northern Ireland and for Britain's future relationship in general with Europe. The problem is that we are no clearer on what a bespoke solution will look like. The British talk about not wanting a Border, maintaining relations and so on but, as I told Michael Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt, I am not sure we can leave it solely to the UK to come up with proposed solutions. The UK has decided to leave and it is its responsibility but we can also have a role and need to be inventive.

The Border is crucially important in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the common travel area and the rights of our citizens, North and South. However, the Minister gave a very stark figure. The trade worth between €60 billion and €65 billion and the east-west and west-east relationships are not as well understood as the Border issues and I am concerned that Europe will feel that if we can resolve the Border issues, the Irish issue will be solved. It will not be. The Minister knows that tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. We are getting to the crucial part of the negotiations and I wonder if we are prepared as well as we can be for all eventualities.

As the Deputy would expect, we are looking at our own ideas, as well as asking the British to come forward with theirs. The onus is on the UK as it decided to leave, which has caused all these issues. Whether we like it or not, however, we are all in this together and we need to contribute to finding solutions, which we will do. It is also important that we are clear on the parameters within which those solutions are to be found. Those parameters are clearly outlined in a working paper from the task force, which is very consistent with our position that the solutions have to ensure there will not be regulatory divergence as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For example if EU state aid rules, which apply in Ireland, do not apply in Northern Ireland and were the British Government to decide to help business in Northern Ireland by grant-aiding a fish processing plant - while we cannot do the same south of the Border - there would be an unfair playing field on the island of Ireland. That would create the need for checks and will lead to border issues etc. Regulatory divergence is a very serious thing for business.

Within the parameters of no regulatory divergence, we will have an open mind in respect of solutions.

I agree with the Minister and we do not believe the Irish position should be diluted in any way. It heartens me that we are looking at our own ideas. The responsibility is within Britain but there are some within the British Cabinet whom I would not trust to look after my local football team, let alone to find a solution for the North of Ireland and the future relations of Britain, the European Union and Ireland, North and South. It is also our responsibility to be constructive and find solutions because east-west and west-east trade is, as the Minister said, crucially important. I and my party hope that common sense will prevail but there should be no dilution of the Irish position. We should stand firmly with the EU 27. There are some who believe this process can go on forever but it cannot. It is starting to have an effect and Brexit is biting already.

This is a time-limited negotiation and, at the end of March 2019, Britain leaves so we need to move on to phase 2. Even if we move onto phase 2 in December and start serious negotiations in January, we still only have about nine months to put a new template or framework agreement in place, which is a very short space of time in the context of a negotiation as complex as this one. We have no guarantees that we will move onto phase 2 in December unless we can make progress on the Irish Border and other issues.

We speak to the EU negotiating team every single day through our ambassador, who has done a brilliant job in Brussels. He is deeply involved in the negotiations and understands all the issues. We are putting ideas into the system all the time. We want to be tough but fair with our friends in the UK but we have absolute solidarity in our thinking so far. We will continue to work that way but we have a job to do and if we are not getting anything back from the British side in terms of solving these problems, then we have to start contributing ourselves and we are doing that.