Deputy Quinlivan was in possession, but as he is not in the House, I call Deputy Burton.
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed)
This is a just in case Bill. In the best of circumstances, we would hope this legislation would never have to be enacted. The best Brexit for Ireland is no Brexit and the second best Brexit option is a delay for as long as possible while the various complicated issues are sorted out. What is certainly true, however, is that throughout the country, particularly in the North and the Border counties, there is a great deal of real concern, apprehension and fear among people about what Brexit is going to mean.
This is essentially country to country legislation between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Much of its structure is derived from the common travel area, which pre-dates, by a long time, Ireland and the UK's membership of the European Union in the 1970s. That makes these bilateral arrangements with the UK possible. The Labour Party will be broadly supportive of this legislation. We do have many queries, however, about the details of the legislation and the impact of some of its elements.
Britain is now slouching towards exiting the EU. Games are being played, by Tories in particular, which are very damaging to Ireland. All of us who have witnessed the debates and votes in the UK Parliament are dismayed because of the potential consequences for Ireland, North and South, and also for our friends, neighbours and relations in the UK. I am referring to those in Scotland, Wales and England. For the Republic of Ireland and the island of Ireland, this is the greatest challenge since the bank crash. In hindsight, we all know that in 2008 the bank crash seemed like a relatively simple thing. It would happen and it would be costly and eventful. No one at that time, or very few, however, appreciated just how catastrophic a financial meltdown would be for the country.
I recall being one of the people speaking about that when almost no one else actually said anything and almost everybody else supported the fatal bank guarantee. We have had that recent experience and the ten long years it has taken for many people in the country to recover and for the 350,000 to 400,000 people who lost their jobs to get back into employment. We have to use that experience to be alert for events that may be very damaging for all the country or parts of the country or for individuals, families, institutions and businesses throughout the country.
As I have said, this is a just in case Bill. We hope we will not need it but it is almost certain that we will need some elements of the legislation. Like many other Members of the Oireachtas, over the past two years I have had many opportunities to meet people from the parliaments of Scotland and Wales through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Particularly in the case of Scotland, they face very similar challenges to those faced by the island of Ireland. Wales has challenges concerning the flow of imports and exports, as do we. We use Wales and England as a landbridge to get imports and exports to and from Ireland via ports like Dover.
In this country we often fail to appreciate that for many of the ardent Brexiteers - and they are very ardent - Brexit is a freedom issue. They often do not want to know the details of what is involved in dropping out of the European Union. They do not want to have detailed arguments about the technical impacts on different sectors. It has been said to me several times that if they survived two world wars, they can face this as well, even if there is a lot of disruption. It is sometimes quite depressing to listen to this. This morning I heard Lord Puttnam talking on RTÉ One. As a Member of the British House of Lords living in the south west, he spoke of how this is a post-colonial moment for the United Kingdom.
If we fail sufficiently to understand the arch-Brexiteers and their point of view, they equally fail to understand the enormous positive difference that European Union membership has made to Ireland since we joined in the early 1970s. I will mention a few areas where being part of the EU transformed our national landscape. Much of that carried on in a very favourable way in Northern Ireland and was ultimately part of the reason we were able to find a solution like the Belfast Agreement. Those areas include women's rights, rights for people with a disability, general working rights for men and women, environmental standards and consciousness, farming, economics in a general sense, and funds that have supported education and training, allowing Ireland to upskill and improve its level of education. While countries like Portugal have spent a lot of their funds on transport infrastructure, Ireland has, historically and rightly, spent vast funds on upgrading the standards of education, training and qualification for people throughout the country. As a result, we probably have one of the highest numbers of graduates per capita in the EU, and possibly in the world. Some of that might have happened anyway, but it happened much more quickly as a consequence of our membership of the EU. It may well be that in the United Kingdom areas like women's rights were far more advanced and therefore leavers do not have the positive association with the European Union that people in Ireland tend to have. It is not an uncritical association, but it recognises the positives that have been enabled.
As a Minister in three different Governments through the years, I have attended various European Union meetings. For somebody like me, who was raised in a Labour socialist republican tradition, there is something very moving from a historical point of view in sitting at the table on an absolutely equal basis with the United Kingdom, given our long history with that country. This is not sufficiently understood by those in the United Kingdom who are arguing for exiting the EU.
Two weeks ago I was part of an all-party delegation to the new United States Congress on its opening day, which consisted of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Denis O'Donovan, and Senator Mark Daly. That was one of the first all-party delegations from the Oireachtas to go to the United States Congress and talk to our friends on Capitol Hill, particularly the Congressional Friends of Ireland, about the dangers and threats that Brexit poses to Ireland. The discussions we had were very interesting. We met Representative Richard Neal, the Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, the most powerful committee in Congress. Representative Neal is also co-chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland along with Representative Peter King from the Republican side. We also met people like Representative Brendan Boyle, who put forward a motion to acknowledge the interests of Ireland in the context of Brexit. A trade deal between the United Kingdom and the United States has been spoken about as something that could happen very quickly. Representative Boyle has called for Congressmen and Congresswomen on the Hill to be cognisant of the potential for the United Kingdom to put some stress on if not endanger the Belfast Agreement. It is very important that our friends from across the political divide in the United States, who along with the European Union have been so much a party to the Belfast Agreement, should be aware that a Brexit which puts the Belfast Agreement under strain or at risk is not in the interests of anybody on this island. It is also not in the interests of the United Kingdom itself. People like Congressman Boyle should be congratulated on the degree of interest that they have not just taken but expressed in Congress and in committee in the interests of all of Ireland.
One of the issues they raised with us is the political reality in the United States at the moment. As in much of the world, the atmosphere means that now is not the time for trade deals. For reasons we all understand, they are viewed with grave suspicion by a lot of people who feel they risk undermining their standard of living and their employment prospects. We were told that the prospect of a trade deal being entered into very rapidly, or within a couple of months of the United Kingdom exiting, as has been suggested by some leavers, is very unlikely in light of the priorities of the United States. The USA is a very close ally of the United Kingdom and everyone recognised and acknowledged that. Nonetheless, the realpolitik of the United States at the moment creates other pressing priorities. Trade deals are very complex instruments which typically take many years to conclude.
While there may be an agreement in principle to go into a trade deal process, it is likely that striking a trade deal, with all of the detailed negotiation and the quid pro quos involved, would take a significant time. The Canada deal is often cited as being one which happened relatively quickly but it was many a long year before it was finally agreed.
The other issue that is difficult in this context for the United Kingdom, which may have knock-on repercussions for Ireland, is that if it were to drop down to third country status. I am particularly concerned about what might happen our beef industry. I hope it does not, as we do not know what then would happen. The British have indicated that they wish to broadly favour Ireland, and there is the basis in this legislation, historically, relating to the common travel area. However, WTO rules are clear that if third countries extend facilities to other third countries they may have to give that to every other third country. There is no clarification on that. That would be something to be negotiated but we hope that may not happen.
In terms of what has been happening in the UK, in many ways, given the difficulties for Scotland and Wales, it is a moment of British nationalism. A Brexit fund is needed in the Republic of Ireland to provide for people who may be at risk of unemployment and to provide for upskilling, support for employment and return to education initiatives, if that is what becomes necessary. I hope this will not happen but I would like clarity on a Brexit jobs fund or something similar. When we entered government at the time of the crash, approximately €1.5 billion extra, even in very straitened times, was made available in the context of the dreadful unemployment situation.
A number of questions arise from the proposals that have been hinted at. For instance, last night, RTÉ reported on the new entry booths and stalls at Dublin Port for trucks. We have not heard any detailed explanation of how that will work. Not long ago I was in Dundalk where the former customs premises has been completely refurbished but we have no idea how many people will be employed and what exactly they will do. We know also, and people living along the Border in particular would know this, that up to 2000 there was a very active business in customs clearance agents or whatever they would be called nowadays. Those jobs basically disappeared in the context of open borders. It would appear now that at a minimum there will be many more intensive requirements relating to documentation, invoicing and other information that traders and hauliers will have to provide in the context of movements to and from the European mainland to Ireland and to the United Kingdom if they are coming to Ireland. We need some explanations of the expectations now in that regard. Any support that is made available for businesses would be welcome but businesses do not yet know what will happen.
We have seen references to farm support of between €15,000 and €25,000 but people are still in the dark as to how that will work. There are many small, family-run businesses in the agrifood sector and one way or another much more documentation will have to be completed by small business and self-employed people. They will need appropriate support.
I ask the Minister of State about the section on taxation, which we will get an opportunity to discuss in detail in committee. I refer to the chapter on VAT. The proposal is to have postponed accounting on VAT for all imports registered for VAT in Ireland and a modification of the proposed accounting scheme. That is fine up to a point but how will massive smuggling be avoided if, for instance, VAT at the point of entry is no longer collected but instead will be collected some time later when VAT returns are being made and, in turn, those returns may be delayed? I do not have any difficulty in principle with that but if material is coming in here and traders do not fully record it until some months later because it is coming in without any VAT-type record, how will significant losses be avoided? The Minister and the Government need to explain that because traders and businesses also need to know what the practical impact will be on VAT returns and how we will deal with that.
A number of arrangements are now being specified on a country-to-country basis in tax matters with the United Kingdom. We need some detailed explanations of the implications of those. We support the Bill but we need to address its implications.
Unfortunately, this legislation does not specifically mention workers' rights.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the time.
I am sorry. I thank Deputy Coppinger for reminding me. Deputy Burton has exceeded the time.
It has been 22 minutes now.
I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister to come forward and explain that.
The fact that the Dáil is spending an entire week discussing the issue of provisions to deal with Brexit with other business pushed off the agenda is something that should be commented upon. Naturally, there are genuine fears among workers about their jobs and the economic consequences of Brexit. There are also genuine fears about the Border and people's national rights but would this level of logistical preparation and the marshalling of legislation that we are discussing have been applied to the housing crisis we have suffered in this country for five years that directly impacts on the lives of tens of thousands of people? It seems that emergency legislation is not done in this Dáil in the interests of ordinary people.
The key feature of the Government's preparation is an unprecedented corporate bailout proposed in Part 3. It deals with the setting aside of large sums of public moneys to be put into companies but without any criteria for proven need and at the total discretion of Enterprise Ireland and, potentially, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Companies will be able to apply for grants up to €7.5 million for research "where those research needs cannot be met in Ireland". That is particularly aimed at the pharmaceutical and veterinary industries. What are we talking about here? We are not talking about small businesses down on their luck or the layoff of workers. We are talking about very large multinational corporations domiciled in Ireland in many cases for tax purposes. Enterprise Ireland will also have the power to lend €7.5 million without having to consult the Government and to lend even more with Government consultation. What type of companies are we talking about because no criteria have been put into the Bill for the provision of these grants?
There is nothing mentioned about workers' rights or jobs, and people outside may have the impression that there is.
The type of companies that we are talking about in the agrifood sector which might be able to apply for €7.5 million of funding under this legislation would be Kerry Group with a turnover of €6.4 billion, Larry Goodman's ABP Food Group with €2.8 billion in turnover, Greencore Group with €2.6 billion in turnover, Glanbia with €2.3 billion in turnover, and Moy Park with €1.6 billion in turnover. It is an unprecedented licence for companies to apply for a large chunk of corporate welfare without any criteria being put in about jobs being saved. Clauses are even included to allow the State take companies into public ownership, but not in the sense of really being nationalised, taken over and democratically run in the State's interest, something socialists have obviously advocated for in the past and fully support to save jobs. The stipulation is that it would not take a majority share. Bailed out private companies would be allowed to continue regardless of the interests of workers or of the public interest. It is very like the bank bailout of ten years ago when repossessions, branch closures and the ripping off of customers continued despite public ownership and massive propping up by the State. Any state aid that would be given to companies should have stringent conditions attached relating to protecting jobs, wages, work conditions, trade union rights and, of course, the environment. Such decisions on handouts should have democratic oversight by the Dáil, not by Enterprise Ireland.
Rather than handing out hundreds of millions of euros to big businesses, a left government would take affected companies into public ownership to safeguard jobs. It would use the Brexit crisis not as an excuse to line the pockets of the 1% but as an opportunity to enhance the welfare of the 99%. Public ownership would also enable a left government to begin the necessary conversion of the agrifood industry away from its dangerous overdependence on beef and dairy, which is damaging both environmentally, as the Taoiseach has admitted, in terms of climate change and economically, given the likely decline in beef and cheese exports in the event of a no-deal Brexit. A left government would also use this public ownership to move the agriculture sector towards a more green horticultural economy. Green conversion on this scale would only ever be possible with large-scale State intervention involving taking over the major agrifood companies that I have mentioned.
I want to talk about some of the rights that are put forward and protected in the Bill. Socialists obviously stand for no curtailment of people's rights or for making people's rights a bargaining chip in any negotiations on Brexit, or in negotiations on the future relationship of the common travel area. There should be a definite and unconditional commitment from the Irish Government put into this Bill that regardless of what is negotiated, the rights of UK citizens here in this country would be guaranteed. They should not lose any rights whatsoever. We welcome the provisions in the Bill which will allow people in Ireland and the UK to continue to avail of social protection payments, such as pensions, and to access healthcare services. We stand for a universal healthcare system open to all, and naturally we stand for the right of anybody who is resident here, working here or even visiting to access such services, as Irish people can do in the UK, whether there as residents or as visitors. The Bill does appear to maintain social protection arrangements between the UK and this State. That is very important because many workers in Ireland would have worked in the UK at some point. We have many nurses who have had to work in the UK who have highlighted their plight recently.
The issue of students is one I would like the Minister of State to clarify. Students seem not to have the same level of definitive protection for their payments and rights in the two jurisdictions. The Bill contains provisions to allow for the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant to continue to be paid to Irish students who are studying in the UK. The Bill allows the Minister to extend the SUSI grant to include those studying in countries outside the EU. That is a very important provision because there are 10,000 or more students from this State in colleges in Britain and in the North and getting the SUSI grant is vital for them to continue their studies. Many do not qualify for the grant. In fact only 14% do. The Minister for Education and Skills has stated that it is his intention to allow students from the North to continue to be eligible for the free fees scheme. At present, a student must be living in the European Economic Area, EEA, or Switzerland for three of the past five years, and also meet citizenship criteria. However, at the Committee on Education and Skills the Minister did seem to qualify this, saying that this will be the case for current students and the intake later this year into colleges. However, he did not give any commitment to go beyond that and neither does this Bill. That would be very worrying for many young people and students. We say that there should be no conditions or loss of anyone's rights in these negotiations with the EU and the UK Government and the Government should commit that residency and citizenship in the UK be considered as being the same as EEA residency and citizenship in respect of the free fees scheme.
On voting, it is worrying that the Government is removing the right of UK citizens living here to vote in European Parliament elections under the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019 which I understand is on Committee Stage tomorrow. I have previously questioned the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on this in written questions but did not get a definitive answer. The Government now appears to be definitive. Some 101 years on from the extension of the franchise, we should not be removing people's voting rights. There are a lot of British people living here who have lived here for a long time, who are married etc. and who have families here, and we should not remove their right to vote in the European elections.
The national rights of everyone on this island must be protected. What is happening this week is that the interests of business and the establishment are being very well protected. Historic levels of corporate welfare, with no guarantees about protecting workers, are being proposed, but who is representing the interests of workers in these negotiations? The answer is nobody. The trade union movement must defend the economic interests of working-class people in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain, and resolutely oppose any race to the bottom in workers' rights or standards, such as standards of food production, for example. It must prepare for industrial action if necessary to defend workers' jobs, wages, conditions and rights. The trade union movement, particularly in the North, is very important as it contains both Catholic and Protestant workers in a united organisation. It must also act to defend the unity of working-class people, and must not come down in favour of any agreement which widens divisions. It is also necessary to counter any increase in sectarian tension or conflict, and to prepare for protests, demonstrations, and industrial action by workers to challenge sectarian forces, as was done during the time of the Troubles in the North on occasion.
The Socialist Party, in the North and in the South, believes an emergency conference should be convened, with the widest participation of workers' representatives from workplaces across Ireland, North and South, and indeed Britain too where the Tories are planning a bargain basement Brexit. Such a conference could discuss how workers can organise together to protect their interests after Brexit happens. It could have a full and democratic discussion on how best to oppose both the EU and the attacks of the Irish establishment and of the Tory Government, which will use Brexit as a good crisis to drive down the pay and conditions of workers. If the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will not convene such a conference, those trade union bodies which are prepared to do so should take the initiative. The workers' movement must also reach out to trade unionists across Europe in the same way as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil regularly appeal for help from their allies in the ruling elite in the EU.
Despite the omnibus legislation being before the House this week, we are no more certain than we were before. Even if the Bill passes, the Government will still need to ensure Irish interests remain central to future negotiations in a post-Brexit fallout. The Bill has arrived far too late for proper and effective analysis if we are to maintain Irish interests post Brexit. Communities most affected by Brexit, such as Donegal, will not have had sufficient time to deal with the implications of the legislation or prepare for any mitigation required. It is astonishing we are getting the text only now, when many on this side of the House have been calling for a Government response since the referendum took place. For so long we have heard the mantra that Fine Gael was not preparing for a hard border simply because it could not imagine an Ireland with one but, in reality, that is not how crisis management works and it reflects a Government which has its head in the sand and will continue to have its head in the sand as Brexit dominates politics in the upcoming weeks.
It also brings to light the extent of the Government's dependence on Europe to do its bidding, which is short-sighted and does not have Irish interests at heart. Presenting an omnibus Bill in this form this late in the day means that other important legislation is being put on hold. If the same time and effort was afforded to the crises we have at home, we would be one step closer to fixing our housing and health crises.
Fianna Fáil’s cynical support for the Government is something to note. The party states it will not go to the polls because it is not in the interest of the people at this turbulent time yet it believes Fine Gael is so incompetent when it comes to homelessness and health that it hammers it at every turn. How can it think that Fine Gael is competent to dealing with an international political crisis when it cannot deal with health and homelessness? It amazes me every time I hear Fianna Fáil on about it.
As far as preparations for Brexit go, Ireland, which claims to be the country that will be most affected by the Brexit fallout, has lagged behind nearly every other country in the EU. Other countries are further ahead than we are, with some having legislation in place. In the Netherlands, for example, an omnibus Brexit Bill was published in November. It provides the Dutch Government with a legal basis to prepare laws and amendments, and to act without the need for an act of parliament in an emergency. I would not advocate Fine Gael retaining emergency powers but an appropriate and timely response would have been welcome. In France, a contingency plan was triggered on 17 January and agreed by its parliament. It includes the enactment of five ordinances and allows the French Government to make regulations that will then be ratified by parliament. In Spain, on 11 January, the government approved a comprehensive contingency plan, which includes legislative decrees that must be approved but cannot be amended by parliament. In Italy, on 21 December the government announced legislation and, in Sweden, for the past 12 months the government has been preparing emergency laws and ordinances. If we cannot legislate effectively in the same way as our European counterparts who will be less affected than us by Brexit, I seriously question the capacity of the Government to govern during a crisis. It automatically makes me question the overall quality of this omnibus legislation.
With regard to healthcare, I understand the Bill will protect current health projects but what about future projects and the development of services as time goes on? The Bill proposes to amend the Health Act 1970 and the Health Act 2004 to enable reciprocal healthcare arrangements to be maintained between Ireland and the UK, including reimbursement arrangements in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The common travel area facilitates access to health services in the UK and Ireland, including access to emergency, routine and planned care. Part 2 seeks to put in place an appropriate legal framework in Ireland to ensure the continuation of common travel area arrangements in respect of healthcare. I reiterate my concerns about future healthcare projects in Donegal and I question whether the Bill will secure the position of future projects that will be vital for citizens crossing the Border from Donegal. The Minister will need to clarify this.
Part 5 deals with student supports in higher education. The purpose of this part of the general scheme is to ensure continuity of the commitment to maintain the rights and privileges bestowed by the common travel area and eligibility for SUSI grants even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. While students from Donegal can apply for maintenance grants in respect of approved courses at higher national diploma level or higher, the student grant scheme is not available to thousands of students from Ireland attending post-leaving certificate equivalent courses outside the State, including Donegal students attending post-leaving certificate equivalent courses in North West Regional College in Derry. Will the Minister clarify what their situation will be? In the past, I have asked the Minister for Education and Skills to put this matter on the Department's agenda, with a view to allowing students taking level 5 courses in North West Regional College to access SUSI grant supports. He has committed to bringing it to the attention of the Department but I have not heard a word since. The Minister needs to clarify what will happen to these students who cannot access SUSI grants in the context of this section of the Bill.
Since partition, Donegal and other Border areas have suffered from chronic socioeconomic deprivation and a persistent lack of economic development. Coupled with Fine Gael's anti-rural policies, towns and villages throughout Donegal are losing jobs, businesses and people. This is why the proposed upgrade to the A5 was an enormous win for the region but all hopes were dashed yet again when Fine Gael failed to manage the costs of the national children's hospital and Donegal was the first to be bumped off the priority list. Brexit could result in the end of the project. What will happen to it?
Part 10 will be most relevant for bus and coach services that move in and out of Northern Ireland along Donegal's border. I understand the Bill provides for the backdrop to any future bilateral discussions to be held between the Irish and the UK Governments regarding arrangements to facilitate bus services. It is not very clear how transport services will be protected post Brexit, which makes the section redundant until we know what will happen in a few weeks. The Interbus Agreement is referenced as a reliable framework to protect existing transport routes that meander across the Border. However, representatives from the transport sector, North and South, have expressed concerns about the agreement as a solution for the full continuation of cross-Border bus services. I urge further clarification from the Minister. With all the drama around Brexit it is worth pointing out that at the height of the Troubles we were still able to cross the Border. I will continue to use the Border crossings when travelling up and down to Dublin; I certainly will not be going through Sligo to get here because that would be an absolute disaster.
Regarding social welfare, under the terms of the convention, all existing arrangements with regard to recognition of, and access to, social insurance entitlements will be maintained and protected in both jurisdictions. I hope the Bill will reflect the complexities involved in many people's lives when it comes to the need for income supports. My office deals with very complex situations regarding social welfare and pension entitlements. It is a bureaucratic system to navigate and I hope that post Brexit it will not become even more so.
Deputy Connolly will speak about Údarás na Gaeltachta but it is interesting that it issued a press release issued yesterday on the impact Brexit could have on it. This was on foot of inquiries from Deputy Connolly's office. How realistic is it? It pointed out that 25 out of 150 companies are at risk. These companies employ more than 20 people. It states the same entitlements as apply to Enterprise Ireland companies will apply to Údarás na Gaeltachta companies but Údarás na Gaeltachta is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. What is the situation? It needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency.
A a meeting of the agriculture committee yesterday, two EU proposals relating to fishing came up for scrutiny. We asked for officials from the Department to come before the committee to discuss how fishing would be impacted by Brexit but we were told there was no need because it has nothing to do with the Department. As far as the Department is concerned, there are no Irish waters, there are only European waters. What is the situation in this regard? There is no mention of fishing in respect of Brexit. It has been left totally open to the EU, which tells Irish fishermen exactly how the Government views fishing.
Let us remember that while EU countries have given their explicit support for Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations, many countries are also careful to mention that in the event of a no-deal outcome, while they support the Irish position that there should be no return to a hard border, it would also be necessary to protect the Single Market. It was interesting that a couple of weeks ago everybody jumped on the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs when he stated the Irish situation in a no-deal Brexit would have to be up for discussion but when the German foreign Minister said the exact same thing the week before that there was no mention of it here in Ireland. Is it okay to kick the Polish but kowtow to the Germans? The reality is they will look after their interests when it comes down to it and the only way we will be looked after is if our interests ally with theirs. We can be certain the EU will look after its own position at all times.
If it suits the EU, it will happen. The EU will shaft us if it has to. It indicated that adjustments might be made with regard to the backstop and the Taoiseach rolled over on that point by saying that a review clause might be included. One thing that is certain in Europe is that might is right. If a country is big and powerful like France or Germany, it can call the shots. As the fifth largest economy in the world, the UK will get its own way. One can bet that the EU will agree in line with the interests of the UK and the EU, with Ireland's interests well down the line.
In many ways, Brexit, as an external political process, has shone a light on our political processes and the quality of our democracy. It has revealed the extent of our dependency on external forces, a dependency solidified by Governments past and present. It reveals how this and previous Governments have failed to make Ireland self-reliant in terms of healthcare provision and transport infrastructure, particularly in Donegal. The Brexit fallout should serve as a reminder of our short-sightedness and the lack of investment by the State in its people and industries. Donegal is an unwilling witness to the persistent lack of economic development in the north west. Governments past and present have assumed political stability and taken the Anglo-Irish Agreement for granted. The strength of our political stability, that agreement and its successors will now be tested.
Go ginearálta, cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo, in ainneoin go bhfuil sé beagáinín déanach, i gcodarsnacht leis na tíortha eile ar fud na hEorpa a chuir reachtaíocht trí na parlaimintí éagsúla atá acu i bhfad roimhe seo. Is rudaí praiticiúla den chuid is mó atá sa Bhille de réir mar a fheicim ach ní raibh a dhóthain ama fós dul trí na sonraí. An rud is suntasaí ná go bhfuil easpa trácht d'Údarás na Gaeltachta, ceann de na heagraíochtaí is tábhachtaí sa tír ó thaobh na Gaeltachta de agus ó thaobh na Gaeilge de. B'fhéidir go dtiocfaidh mé ar ais go dtí sin.
I welcome the digest prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which I thank for its work and for updating Deputies. The digest points out that some areas included in the heads of Bill do not form part of the Bill as published. Perhaps a member of the Government will explain why various sections are no longer included. I pay tribute to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its work.
Any discussion on Brexit and this omnibus legislation must be premised on chomh fite fuaite is atá saol na ndaoine sa tír seo agus saol na ndaoine sa Bhreatain Mhór. The common travel area has been in existence for almost 100 years. I am glad it is being addressed and put on a statutory footing for the first time. It shows how interconnected are the countries. If I have any criticism of the Government - and I have many - it is that we should have shown solidarity with the United Kingdom, regardless of our opinions on Brexit, given how interconnected are the two countries. In 2001, there were 869,000 Irish-born people in England. That number has reduced significantly but there are still more than 600,000 Irish-born people living in England. One in ten people there has an Irish grandfather or grandmother. Of course, there are many others of Irish descent there. England took in our people, including members of my family, during the massive emigration from this country in the 1950s, 1960s and before. When people were ejected from mother and baby homes at 16 years of age with little other than the clothes on their backs, England picked up the pieces and dealt with our shame. From day one, regardless of our opinion on Brexit or the Brexiteers, for whom I have no respect, we should have prefaced all conversation and negotiation about Brexit on our interconnectedness.
We must not accept the return of a hard border under any agreement. Bhí óráid le déanamh agam le déanaí Dé hAoine seo caite i gContae Muineacháin maidir le Conradh na Gaeilge agus chuaigh mé suas i mo ghluaisteán, rud neamhghnách gur thiomáin mé suas, agus is dócha gur thrasnaigh mé an Teorainn ar a laghad trí nó ceithre huaire agus ní raibh i gceist ach trí huaire go leith mar thuras. There are 110 million crossings of the Border annually. It is difficult to get one's head around that. Some 300 daily crossing are made by bus. On Thursday of last week, I crossed the Border two or three times. Perhaps the third crossing was unnecessary - I may have gone a little astray - but it shows the interconnectedness between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the Republic and the United Kingdom.
I looked at the Bill as much as I could, although I am not familiar with all of its detail. I read it but not in as much detail as I would like. I look forward to Committee Stage. Various sections deal with practical matters relating to social welfare, students, healthcare and so on, which is welcome. The area that jumped out at me on reading the Bill and when the Chairs of Oireachtas committees received our first presentation on the matter from the Tánaiste - I was there mar Chathaoirleach ar an gCoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na n-Oileán - is Part 3, dealing with the amendment of the Industrial Development Acts, which is set out on page 17. While I acknowledge that help must be given to struggling businesses and companies, I am worried by the open nature of what is proposed in the Bill. For instance, research and development has come up repeatedly at the Committee of Public Accounts in regard to corporation tax. Deputy Coppinger mentioned the absence of criteria for and the open nature of the research and development tax credit. Perhaps the issue will be sorted out on Committee Stage, but research and development is one of the methods used by larger companies to escape paying their just taxes. That category is broadened in the Bill without criteria being set down. The sections amending the Industrial Development Acts must be looked at.
I refer to the glaring absence of Údarás na Gaeltachta in that regard. Tá fáilte roimh an Taoiseach isteach sa Dáil agus is iontach an rud é go bhfuil sé anseo because tá an t-ábhar thar a bheith tábhachtach. Údarás na Gaeltachta does not feature in the Bill. I have made inquiries in that regard. In fairness, Deputy Kyne, an tAire Stáit, tháinig sé ar ais chugam agus dúirt sé liom nach bhfuil aon cúis buartha i gceist, that there is no need to worry and that Údarás na Gaeltachta is covered under this section but I do not see any such provision. Yesterday, Údarás issued a detailed press statement referring to extra analysis it carried out. Two years ago, it made money available for people to get advice to deal with the complexity of what was facing them as a result of Brexit. It has now carried out further research and stated that of the more than 1,100 companies or entities on its books, it has identified 25 as being particularly vulnerable. The press release referred to a memorandum of agreement between Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta. Lately, we found out that there is no memorandum or other understanding between IDA Ireland and Údarás, which is a significant shock. At least, there is one with Enterprise Ireland, although I am not familiar with its contents. It did not arise in the context of Brexit. I do not know what is necessary in that regard. I am being given broad assurances which I would love to accept but I would much rather see on what legislative basis go mbeidh tuilleadh cumhachta agus tuilleadh acmhainní ag Údarás na Gaeltachta, that it will have extra resources to deal with what it is facing in regard to its client companies. In spite of the press ráiteas, the press release, and the update, I do not see anything in the Bill to reassure me in that regard. Perhaps that can issue be teased out on Committee Stage.
I welcome the decision of Revenue to delay the introduction of 23% VAT on food supplements, particularly in the context of Brexit, because it would have been amaideach chun leanúint ar aghaidh leis an méadú sin maidir le VAT. I acknowledge that the introduction has only been postponed until 1 November but I welcome the decision and the fact that the Government used what influence it has over Revenue. I acknowledge that the Revenue Commissioners are independent, but the fact that the Government intervened is welcome. It is a response to the outrage on the ground and gives the Government to consider its tax policy in the context of Brexit - because Revenue only implements policy - and the operational issues on the ground which led to the decision to impose the 23% VAT rate. The decision was down to operational issues. It was a blanket punitive decision and I welcome its postponement. I would welcome further discussion of this issue on Committee Stage.
The Government recognises that managing a no-deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. This Bill represents a whole-of-Government approach to protecting us from the worst effects. Fortunately, preparation and planning for a range of Brexit scenarios have been ongoing since well in advance of the UK referendum in 2016. A comprehensive set of Government structures was put in place to ensure that all Departments and their agencies would be engaged in detailed preparedness and contingency activities. Dedicated actions to get Ireland Brexit ready, including significant investment for business, were announced in the past three budgets.
In the event of no deal, we recognise that it would be impossible to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the European Union and United Kingdom or to put in place arrangements equivalent to those provided in the withdrawal agreement. Therefore, our focus is on the United Kingdom ratifying the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which was concluded following intensive negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union. The protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement and the peace by respecting fully the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, as guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement. It makes provision for the maintenance of the common travel area, ensuring that current bilateral arrangements can continue whereby Irish and British citizens can live, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in each other's jurisdiction as though they were citizens of both. Indeed, it puts the common travel area on a much more solid legal footing than it is now.
It also ensures there is no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and confirms that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their right as EU citizens, that is, freedom of movement across the Continent without any need for a visa or work permit.
Protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and advancing North-South co-operation and the all-island economy, in addition to protecting and maintaining the common travel area, underpin the Government's approach to the provisions of this Bill. The European Union has been unambiguous in that it is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a hard border and protect the peace process.
If the United Kingdom chooses to leave the European Union without a deal, Ireland and the European Union will have responsibilities in terms of ensuring the protection of our Single Market and customs union, and the United Kingdom will have its own responsibilities, including meeting World Trade Organisation requirements. All of us will have our respective obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
The backstop is a carefully negotiated compromise, in many ways drawn around the United Kingdom's red lines — the need to avoid a hard border on the island and to protect the integrity of the EU customs union and the Single Market, of which we are part. It is a result of a negotiation between the United Kingdom and European Union and is supported by the people it is designed to protect, that is, our citizens in this State and British and Irish citizens alike in Northern Ireland, in addition to business, farming and civil society groups in both jurisdictions. The backstop is about avoiding a hard border and, therefore, protecting the peace. It cannot be time limited and cannot have a unilateral exit clause. If it did, it would not be backstop.
The European Union is committed to exploring and trying to agree alternative arrangements with the United Kingdom to supersede the backstop in the future. However, there are currently no alternative arrangements that anyone has put forward, written down in legal form or demonstrated in practice, that achieve what both sides are determined to achieve, namely, the avoidance of a hard border. The backstop is intended as an insurance policy for avoiding a hard border in all scenarios, no matter what else happens as a consequence of Brexit and any divergence that occurs thereafter. The Government is convinced that the backstop is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and the current uncertainty and political stability in the United Kingdom reinforces our view that it is needed. The best way forward now is to ratify the withdrawal agreement and use the time provided by the transition period, which is almost two years, if not more, to negotiate a future relationship or alternative arrangements to avoid any need to ever invoke it.
I reiterate what I have stated previously, namely, that a no-deal Brexit is the worst possible outcome and would not be in our interest, the interest of the British or the interest of the European Union. Given the ongoing uncertainty in the United Kingdom and the proximity of the date of Brexit, the Government is continuing to take concrete steps in preparation for a no-deal scenario. These include the publication on 19 December of the Government's contingency action plan. The plan sets out our approach to dealing with a no-deal Brexit. It includes an analysis of the impact across all aspects of public life, including the economy and public finances, security, Northern Ireland and North-South relations, and it provides detailed sectoral analyses and approaches, at both EU and national levels, to mitigate the impacts of a no-deal Brexit.
On 30 January, an update to the contingency action plan was published setting out how preparations for a no-deal scenario have intensified since 19 December. This includes: prioritised drafting of Brexit-related legislation and detailed Government consideration of important policy areas, including transport connectivity and ongoing preparations of the ports and airports; the supply of medicines; agrifood and fisheries; the common travel area; and macroeconomic impacts. This work is informed by intensive planning across all relevant Departments and agencies to prepare as best we can for no deal.
To inform the public about our preparations, the Government launched the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign last September, including a website and dedicated social media presence. To date, 68 events in 21 counties have been held, with another 18 events scheduled for the coming weeks. These include six Getting Ireland Brexit Ready workshops, in Cork, Galway, Monaghan, Dublin, Limerick and Letterkenny. Over 2,500 people have attended and there has been strong participation from the business community in addition to the voluntary sector.
The Government is providing information to assist the business sector and other affected sectors to respond and prepare for Brexit. Included is financial assistance from Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise bodies. Practical assistance is available in the form of Brexit advisory clinics, Bord Bia's Brexit Barometer and Enterprise Ireland's Brexit Score Card. The Revenue Commissioners have engaged with over 80,000 businesses to date to raise awareness of customs obligations.
At EU level, there is strong understanding of the unique and disproportionate impact of Brexit on vulnerable economic sectors, particularly our farmers and fishermen in the rural economy. The Commission has said it stands ready to support Ireland in finding solutions to these specific challenges, and the Commission has adopted a package of contingency measures preparing for a possible no-deal Brexit. As recently as last week the Commission announced the adoption of the revised rules on state aid in the agricultural sector, signalling an increase in national support for farmers from €15,000 to €25,000. The budget for 2019 includes a €78 million package for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs to cover additional costs relating to Brexit. Work is under way to provide temporary infrastructure at Dublin and Rosslare ports, in addition to Dublin Airport, in order that the necessary checks and controls can be applied in a no-deal scenario. Recruitment of staff and the development of IT systems are also on track.
Engagement with stakeholders is an important aspect of the Government's domestic response to Brexit. Within the framework of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit, five plenary dialogues and 20 sectoral dialogues have taken place across the country. Alongside the Tánaiste, I hosted the fifth plenary session in Dublin Castle on 15 February. Over 400 political, business and civic leaders gathered to continue this important all-island conversation. Many Members were present. I updated participants on the Government's position on the latest Brexit developments and our intensive contingency planning work, and I welcomed the opportunity to hear the views of political parties, North and South, and also to hear the concerns of participants through interactive panel discussions on people, citizens and rights and on business preparations. There will be certain level of disruption but we are doing all we can to minimise it. I urge businesses to step up their contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit and utilise the supports available. Time is short.
Brexit of any kind means changes for the worse for Ireland, and no country can be fully prepared for no deal. It is uncharted territory and no country has ever left the European Union before. We are, however, as prepared as we can be for this unprecedented challenge. Indeed, it is prudent to be. The legislation the Tánaiste has introduced to this House is part of it. While politically our focus is on assisting the United Kingdom to ratify the withdrawal agreement, we have in the past two years been preparing for no deal as well. This legislation enables us to mitigate against some of the worst effects of no deal by protecting citizens' rights and security and facilitating extra supports for vulnerable businesses and employers.
This Brexit omnibus Bill is a result of more than a year's background work, starting with a root-and-branch review of the existing legislative landscape. The draft scheme of the Bill was published on 24 January, and all nine relevant Ministers have appeared before Oireachtas committees to discuss the content. The Bill prioritises issues that need to be dealt with urgently and immediately through primary legislation at national level, complementing European legislation.
Across the 15 parts, there are health provisions to protect citizens on a North-South basis. As a result, that children in Belfast will be able to continue to come to Dublin for specialist paediatric care and patients in Donegal will continue to access hospital care in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry.
The Bill also includes provisions to protect employees if their companies become insolvent, new powers for State agencies to intervene to aid business, provisions to ensure ferry crews can continue to operate in our ports and protection for the single electricity market on the island. We will also have laws to ensure that bus operators can enter and operate in Northern Ireland and there is legislation to protect British and Irish student grants so that we can continue to travel to each other's countries for education.
The Bill includes sections to ensure that social welfare and pension payments will continue as normal for the thousands of people in Ireland who rely on British pensions each week for all or part of their income. The legislation also protects Irish citizens living in the UK who rely on pensions coming from here. These are all crucial issues that need a new legal base in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
Work is progressing in parallel on a wide body of required and complementary secondary legislation - regulations and statutory instruments - covering a range of issues including the recognition of driving licences and qualifications, changes to facilitate the introduction of postponed accounting and measures to reduce the advance notification period for imports of animal and plants from third countries using roll-on, roll-off shipping.
In recognition of the importance, depth and scope of this Bill, I want to thank the Business Committee for waiving pre-legislative scrutiny. We will continue to work closely with all Members of the Oireachtas, listen to constructive proposals for amendments and take into account all views. We can all agree that it is essential that the Bill passes all Stages in the Dáil and Seanad in a timely fashion in order that it be ready for commencement on 29 March.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille agus os rud é go bhfuilimid i láthair anseo i gcomhair an díospóireacht tábhachtach agus práinneach seo.
Fianna Fáil supports this legislation and will be facilitating its swift passage through the Oireachtas. While an extension to the Article 50 process seems likely, this legislation still needs to be in place. However, Fianna Fáil does not in any way welcome the delay in its publication and the general evidence of the fact that Ireland is not ready for Brexit to occur in 30 days' time. There are many Brexit preparations under way but no one can seriously claim that businesses and communities will be fully prepared on 29 March.
At the most basic level the Government has not answered the simple question of what will happen at the Border on 29 March if there is no deal. We have been repeatedly told what is not being contemplated or not being planned but, equally, we have been told that a hard, no-deal Brexit is the hardest of all possible Brexits and will cause serious disruption. This argument is the core argument in favour of the continued North-South alignment which every party in this House supports. We have heard entirely contradictory statements made by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. According to the Taoiseach, the Army may be sent to the Border. According to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, there may be security checks. According to the Tánaiste, there are no such actions either likely or being considered.
The Financial Times reported yesterday that the British Cabinet has agreed a tariff schedule to be lodged with the World Trade Organization, WTO, on 29 March if there is no deal. Tariffs will only be imposed in two areas. The first of these relates to certain specialist metal parts and involves little exposure for Ireland. The second, however, relates to agricultural products and strikes at the very heart of our most exposed industry. We need clarity and we need it now. Officials in every Department have scoured through Irish and European law in order to draw up lists of actions which are needed because of Brexit under all scenarios and this legislation is one of the actions. It is not credible for the Government to claim it has not studied what might happen or not happen at the Border on 29 March.
Today is obviously one on which the ongoing drama in London will be the principal focus for everyone who understands the seriousness of the Brexit mess. There is no clarity likely for some time and no one has any real idea what deal is capable of being ratified. As Fianna Fáil has been saying since long before the Government accepted the need to plan for a no-deal scenario, we must be ready for whatever happens. While a no-deal Brexit may formally happen in 30 days’ time, it is actually already under way.
Businesses throughout Europe that export to or through the UK, as well as those whose supply lines require importing from or through the UK, are already dealing with contingencies. Orders which will not be completed before 29 March are frequently being delayed or subject to a legal qualification making completion subject to a deal being in place. In fact the customs authorities in countries such as Denmark are already notifying companies of new declaration requirements on shipments after 29 March.
As such, the legislation before the House is potentially some of the most important that we will consider during the lifetime of this Dáil. It could equally never have to come into force and be nothing but a footnote in the story of Brexit’s impact on Ireland. There is no option. This legislation is needed and we must pass it. While Sinn Féin and others have condemned Fianna Fáil for not collapsing the Dáil in order that we would today be in the middle of an election campaign, my party remains absolutely of the belief that it is the duty of this Dáil to deal with Brexit as best it can. However, no one should have to put up with the ridiculous and self-serving claims we have been hearing from Government Deputies to the effect that this Bill is a great achievement which shows that Ireland is ready. The only thing we know for certain is that this legislation is extremely late and that there is effectively no time for it to be properly reviewed by the Oireachtas. There are 30 days left before the legislation may have to come into force. There is no time to hold the detailed public hearings to which legislation of this type should be subject and the Opposition, which the Government seems not to remember does not have hundreds of sectoral experts available to it, can only review it in the most basic way. It is simply not true - the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have claimed otherwise - that there has been proper consultation and that the legislation is being produced as soon as possible. The discussions with parties have involved little beyond what was already public and has been about information rather than actual consultation.
Far more significantly, Ireland appears to be one of the last - if not the last - countries in the EU to publish its Brexit legislation. Certainly, it is the last country with a major exposure to Brexit to be at the stage of rushing to enact basic transitionary legislation. The Netherlands published its legislation on 16 November last year. France published its no-deal legislation on 18 October and passed the first measure on 7 November. The Czech Republic passed its legislation in January. The Irish legislation was published less than a week ago. Our Government finally published a contingency action plan a few days before Christmas and it has rightly been criticised for the gaping holes in that. In contrast, the French Government agreed its plan last April.
This legislation has also been published without the sort of supporting documentation that is available in other countries. The explanatory memorandum is short and there is no sector-by-sector documentation explaining the short, medium and long-term impacts of different measures. The economic impact of a no-deal scenario will be up to twice as damaging as was estimated for the deal agreed in December. The Department of Finance has made a more positive estimate than the Central Bank, which has stated the impact of a no-deal Brexit will be more severe and more quickly felt than under the Government’s scenario.
No one is questioning the need to take any of the steps contained in this legislation. However, we very much question the failure of the Government to provide a credible assessment of how significant these measures are in the context of previously announced estimates. Has the Government sought to quantify the specific economic impact of this legislation? Will it reduce the impact of a no-deal Brexit as previously projected or is it only an important but relatively minor measure? These are questions which we expect a clear answer on from the Government during the progress of this legislation. Equally, we need to know what further legislation may be required and the timescale for it.
The Opposition has no information available to it about the current status of negotiations other than what is already in the public domain. While there are clearly significant discussions under way, with the British Attorney General concerning a legally significant reassurance about the non-permanency of the backstop as currently drafted, no details about this are known. Attorney General Cox visited Dublin and Brussels and held lengthy meetings. Something significant is being negotiated, our Government is involved and the obvious intention is for this to come to a head in the next fortnight. The fact that there have been no leaks of the details being discussed could be either a good or a bad sign - no one outside the negotiation knows. Following the debacle of December 2017, when a leak by our Government nearly torpedoed the political declaration and did torpedo relations with Northern unionists, Brussels has successfully managed to impose greater restraint on Dublin.
It has been clear for some time that everyone understands that a no-deal outcome is the worst of all outcomes. This appears to have been the substance of the call made by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to the Taoiseach in January. It was at the core of all subsequent discussions with the Council and Commission and was behind the briefing in recent days about an extension.
Some form of an extension of the Article 50 process appears to be the most likely outcome in the coming weeks. However, there is a serious question regarding for how long this extension will be and whether there will be any conditions attached to it. It has been the position to date that any extension to the Article 50 process should be based on real progress achieved and in order to implement already formed outcomes. It may well be that there is no alternative to moving to a position where there will be an extension without any clarity about how the process will end. We should at least have a bit more openness about what is going on, however.
Yesterday, it was reported that our Government might seek a nine-month extension because it would allow it to call an immediate election. This was backed up in the Financial Times with a direct quote to this effect from an anonymous Fine Gael Minister. Last year, Fine Gael Ministers tried a number of ways of collapsing the Government during sensitive Brexit negotiations. Since then, it has become clear why the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, were so eager to have an election. I hope we are not seeing a return to this type of cynical game-playing.
In the coming weeks, we need to see far more detail about specific aid packages for different sectors and how quickly they are to be made available. There are no funds for this extra aid contained in the appropriations currently before the House. Fianna Fáil will facilitate any reasonable proposal from the Government for extra Brexit-related aid. However, the first step required is for the Government to outline what it wants. If the plans are ready, as the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade stated yesterday is the case, then the Government should publish them and seek support for them.
The Taoiseach took time out from his recent trip to the EU-Arab League summit to claim that the Opposition in general, and my party in particular, are "sniping at the sidelines". On one level, this is simply the Taoiseach confirming yet again that he does not believe anyone should ever challenge him. There is, however, a much more important issue at stake, namely, the fact that he does not appear to accept there are legitimate concerns about levels of Brexit preparedness. For a start, the Taoiseach should remember that Fine Gael is actually the only party in the House which has made no proposal about the future permanent status of Northern Ireland’s relations with the European Union. In July 2017, he stated that the Government had no intention of proposing anything other than a full reversal of Brexit and attacked those of us who had proposed different special status options. Perhaps if these special status options had been explored by our Government, particularly without the messianic self-regard which has occasionally broken out, we might not be stuck discussing a temporary safeguard. It should not be forgotten that everyone has repeatedly said that the proposed backstop is only temporary and will only operate while a final status relationship is being negotiated. The European Commission has confirmed that the EU treaties do not allow a permanent relationship to be put in place through an Article 50 withdrawal treaty.
I must point out to the Taoiseach, as well as to the Fine Gael Deputies and Senators who have been sent out to attack us, that Fianna Fáil has at length, and in many different forums, been extremely constructive in outlining a detailed analysis and proposals for action. This has involved an early and detailed discussion of the legal issues for Northern Ireland, the protection of North-South contacts and action on east-west matters. Most of these statements were made well before the issues involved reached a crisis point.
Fianna Fáil not only addressed Brexit during the last election, which was four months before the UK Brexit referendum, but has actually been calling for preparations for even longer. Exactly four years ago in February 2015, I stated on behalf of Fianna Fáil “the lack of a credible agenda for treaty revision means that it is almost impossible to imagine the Tories getting what they want”. I further stated, "It is Ireland’s duty to prepare for the possibility that Britain may leave the Union. We need to prepare for what our position would be on negotiating a new relationship in these islands."
Will the Taoiseach please put aside the snarkiness whenever the Government is legitimately challenged on the level and pace of preparedness, as well as stop trying to rewrite history? He has received a constructive engagement from the pro-EU majority in the Opposition which remains unprecedented.
In the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, the point is made that the Government is committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. That is an objective which we all support. Equally, however, it is an objective which is threatened by far more than Brexit. The Good Friday Agreement is in a deep crisis in nearly all of its parts which was there before Brexit and will remain afterwards irrespective of what happens. The Northern institutions have been suspended for over two years since they were collapsed supposedly because of a heating scheme. The House should note that the most recent reports on that scheme claim that the dramatic losses predicted two years ago have not materialised because of changes introduced before the institutions were collapsed. The North-South Ministerial Council has obviously also been suspended, having had a declining impact in previous years. At the same time, a failure over seven years to expand the North-South executive bodies has left them a shadow of what they were intended to be.
East-west relations are at their worst for at least 30 years. Last year, the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister repeatedly went long periods without any interaction. The megaphone diplomacy which replaced it has achieved nothing positive for anyone. We need a serious re-engagement with the agenda of the Good Friday Agreement which goes well beyond the undeniably grave issue of Brexit. We need to restore some form of momentum to the reconciliation and anti-sectarian work of previous years. We need it to, once again, be a practical and not just rhetorical priority for our Government.
The blame for the Brexit mess, as well as the appalling damage it is both inflicting and threatening, lies with the "Eurohaters" in London who have captured a party which once played a positive role, particularly in the early days of the peace process. This does not, however, remove the right of Deputies to challenge our Government on issues such as the delay in key Brexit actions and the obvious failure to complete preparation before 29 March.
This legislation is clearly essential and must be passed as quickly as possible. At the same time, however, we need our Government to be far more open and transparent about what it is discussing in negotiations, as well as what it is proposing in aid for businesses and communities which are already being hit by Brexit and are threatened with much more to come.
I call the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who is sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to present Parts 9 and 10 of this Bill for the consideration of the House. Following intensive work on the formal drafting by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and supported by my Department, the Bill was approved by Government for publication last Friday, 22 February.
As part of our preparations, we have been working with other Departments, EU member states, and the European Commission, and engaging with stakeholders. The European Commission has put forward a number of legislative proposals aimed at ensuring basic aviation and road connectivity in a no-deal scenario. However, it would be impossible in a no-deal scenario to maintain the almost seamless arrangements between the EU and UK which are currently facilitated by our common EU membership. If there is no deal, then a wide range of EU rules in the field of air, road, rail and maritime transport will no longer apply to the UK. If there is no EU-UK agreement, additional customs, agriculture, and health controls will be required at ports and airports that trade with the UK. The Office of Public Works, OPW, has been tasked with delivering the required facilities for these checks at Dublin and Rosslare ports and at Dublin Airport. This work is ongoing. There is also significant capital investment ongoing within our key ports and airports.
A number of Deputies yesterday raised concerns over driving licences. If the UK leaves the EU with no deal, the UK will no longer be part of EU directives governing this area. Visitors to Ireland with UK driving licences can still drive on their UK licence for up to 12 months in Ireland. However, people who are resident in Ireland and using a UK driving licence should seek to exchange their UK licence for an Irish licence before 29 March 2019. We are working to put in place alternative arrangements post Brexit.
On the provisions of the Bill, Part 9 refers to the issue of harbour pilotage exemption certificates, PECs. Pilotage involves a requirement for a certified pilot to board a vessel to guide it safely into, around or out of a port. Part 9, which amends the Harbours Act 1996, was developed to address concerns that PECs which have been issued to seafarers holding UK certificates of competency may no longer be valid or may very quickly become invalid following Brexit. The heads in Part 9 propose amendments to the part of the Harbours Act 1996 which relates to pilotage exemption certificates. Part 9 is divided into three sections, namely, sections 68 to 70, inclusive. Section 68 is a standard provision providing a definition for the Harbours Act 1996 for the purposes of this part. Section 69 amends section 72 of the Harbours Act 1996 to extend the period of validity of PECs from one year to a maximum of three years. Holders of existing PECs may apply for new certificates in the period leading up to 29 March 2019, notwithstanding the fact that their PECs may not have expired. Section 70 amends Part 2 of the Sixth Schedule to the Harbours Act 1996 to enable a harbour authority through its by-laws to require the holder of a PEC of more than one year’s duration to undergo a periodic review to ensure continued compliance with the requirements, that is, the skills, knowledge, and experience to pilot their ship safely in the harbour company’s pilotage district.
Part 10 sets out the changes proposed in primary legislation to cover the future continuation of bus services between Ireland and the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The new provisions will ensure continued connectivity for cross-Border bus services and, in doing so, help to support the needs of businesses and the surrounding communities. This is important in the context of maintaining linkages between people and communities on both sides of the Border. This is particularly significant for those living in rural Border county communities. This Part will give new powers to the National Transport Authority, NTA, relating to bus services travelling to and from a third country, such as the UK will become. Once the UK leaves the EU, Ireland will be permitted to enter into a bilateral agreement with the UK for bus and coach services so long as no existing bus agreement exists between the UK and the EU. Part 10 lays out the rules with which a competent authority can regulate services to and from a third country. These rules can be considered once Ireland begins formal negotiations on a bus bilateral with the UK. The NTA is Ireland's competent authority for regulating bus services with other member states. This Bill will make the NTA the competent authority similarly to regulate third country bus services. The intention of this Part is to maintain the existing regulatory regime for bus services between Ireland and the UK. To achieve this, Part 10 proposes amendments to the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, the Road Transport Act 1978, and the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008. Part 10 is in five sections, namely, sections 71 to 75, inclusive. I will talk through each of these sections in turn.
Section 71 is a standard provision providing a definition for the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 for the purposes of this Part. Section 72 gives a new regulation-making power under the Road Transport Act 1978 relating to bus operator licensing documentation issued in a third country. The section provides that a ministerial order may be made to exempt certain international licences from certain national licences or to declare a licence granted in a third country to be what we call in Irish law an “international road passenger transport operator's licence”. This will enable operators who are licensed in a third country to provide cross-Border bus services. Should such an order be made, these operators will still be subject to holding other documentation as discussed in section 75 of this Act. Section 73 amends the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 to expand the statutory functions of the NTA to regulate third country bus services. Section 74 is a standard provision to amend the definition of "international service" in the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 to update EU Regulation No. 684/92 of 18 March 1992 on common rules for the international carriage of passengers by coach and bus referenced within it. Section 75 provides for the insertion of a new Part 2A in the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009. The new provisions will allow for the licensing by NTA of third country bus services and provide for offences where an operator provides services which do not comply with those provisions. It will also allow for the NTA to act where it receives notice from a third country body of an application for the licensing of third country bus services. I would like to highlight that these provisions were developed as a precautionary measure and may not be needed in the event of an orderly withdrawal or if alternative measures are agreed at EU level or in another international context.
Rail services also form part of our contingency plans. We are aware of the strategic importance on both sides of the Border of maintaining the linkages between people, communities and businesses across the Border. I know that larnród Éireann and Northern Irish Railways are working together intensively such that I am confident that the Enterprise train service will continue to run post Brexit. My Department continues to engage actively with wider stakeholders, including the Commission for Railway Regulation and the NTA, as well as with the European Commission to ensure that contingency plans are agreed and advanced. These discussions have served to underline the importance of consistently complying with EU law while exploring and searching for pragmatic solutions. Some issues are being considered at an operational level and there may be practical answers emerging at different levels. The original proposal was to use the Bill to transpose elements of EU rail law which would allow for a future rail bilateral. In the interim, advice from the Office of the Attorney General indicated that primary legislation would not be necessary and to proceed using secondary legislation. Work is continuing to prepare for a rail bilateral and to develop the necessary draft secondary legislation. The priority is to ensure that the Enterprise train service continues to run.
It is the intention of these Parts to provide for robust primary legislation which will help ensure the future continuation of bus services between Ireland and the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and to ensure that ferries can continue to operate efficiently and with quick turnaround times at relevant ports without unnecessary delays. I take this opportunity to thank the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for its dedication and tireless work in drafting this critically important primary legislation. I would like to highlight for Deputies also that I will be proposing a small number of technical amendments on Committee Stage. I look forward to hearing the views of the Deputies and I commend this Bill to the House.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity of speaking to this important debate on the Brexit omnibus Bill.
My position is quite clear. The best way forward at this time is to ratify the withdrawal agreement. The best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the withdrawal agreement agreed between the EU and the British Government. As has been made clear by the President of the European Council, Mr. Tusk, and the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, on many occasions, including during the Taoiseach's recent visit to Brussels, the EU stands by the withdrawal agreement. It is not open for renegotiation and there can be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop. If the UK's intentions for the future partnership were to evolve, the EU is prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the content and the level of ambition of the political declaration. The EU is also committed to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK. The British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, agreed earlier this month that their teams will hold talks on whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the EU's position. These contacts are ongoing.
The backstop is an insurance policy for avoiding a hard border in all scenarios. The backstop is about protecting the peace process and it is essential that we focus on this issue. Even today, we have seen the Supreme Court judgment in London in the Pat Finucane case. I want to use this opportunity to commend Mrs. Geraldine Finucane and her family and friends and supporters on their dedicated work on this case. It is now up to the British Government to react. This morning, I met the families of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings who have issues that they want resolved and who have the total support of all Members of the Dáil. It is not inevitable that the backstop will be used. If the backstop were to be triggered, it would be temporary unless and until a better solution is found.
The EU has made clear that the withdrawal agreement must include the backstop. As Mr. Juncker and the Taoiseach stated in their recent joint statement, "the backstop is not a bilateral issue, but a European one". The backstop cannot be time limited and cannot have a unilateral exit clause. Otherwise, it would not be a backstop. The UK has consistently accepted the need for a backstop. The EU is committed to exploring and trying to agree alternative arrangements with the UK to replace the backstop in the future. However, there are currently no alternative arrangements which anyone has put forward that achieve what both sides are determined to achieve, that is, avoiding a hard border. The best way forward now is to ratify the withdrawal agreement and to use the time and space provided by the transition period to begin exploring alternative arrangements.
The Government is not preparing for a hard border. It is not acceptable. There is no secret plan. Ireland and the EU are at one on this. The EU has been clear that it is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect the peace process, and that has got to be our focus. It is essential that we protect our focus.
Looking at the details of the Bill, for example, Part 14 amends the Immigration Act 2004 to give an immigration officer the power to take fingerprints of a person for the purpose of a person's application for an Irish visa or transit visa where he or she thinks it necessary for ensuring the integrity of the common travel area. This Part dealing with the Immigration Act is important to the immigration issue because there has been much negativity. We have our own problems in this country as well and we should be strong on protecting the integrity of our attitude towards immigrants and being supportive of them. We ourselves are a nation of emigrants. We should be the ones showing leadership on this issue and we should not tolerate any racist comments in any situation in our own country. It is out there. It is under the radar. That is something that all political leaders should be conscious of.
If the UK chooses to leaves the EU without a deal, Ireland and the EU will have responsibilities in terms of ensuring protection of the Single Market and the customs union. The UK will have its own responsibilities, including meeting WTO requirements. We will also have our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure peace and stability in the North of Ireland. No matter what the outcome is to Brexit, Ireland will continue to be a full member of the EU with all the benefits of the Single Market and the customs union. When the UK committed to the backstop in December 2017, it also committed to respecting the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it, and the UK has to do that.
The Government is still focused on achieving a deal but is preparing for all scenarios, including a no-deal scenario. A Brexit of any kind means change and we must prepare for this unprecedented challenge. Ireland will be the most impacted country in the EU. It is not possible to mitigate fully a no-deal scenario. It will be about damage limitation. These are the concerns that many of the Members have. The Government's contingency action plan shows preparations under way. It covers over 30 issues, across Departments and agencies.
On 22 February, we published the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019. This includes the legislation required immediately in a no-deal scenario. We are working with the Oireachtas to ensure that the Bill is in place by 29 March. I again commend all Deputies in this House on their strong support and unity on this issue. The Bill provides for continued access to healthcare, social security protection, student support, protection of consumers, and justice and security measures in support of the common travel area; measures to facilitate co-operation across the island of Ireland, including transport and energy; and additional measures to support business.
Unlike what many Deputies have claimed, the Government's preparation work is not new. The last three budgets introduced supports to help businesses prepare for Brexit. Cabinet discusses Brexit preparations weekly. Departments and agencies hold regular stakeholder meetings. Ongoing engagement with stakeholders on Brexit continues to be a central part of the Government's preparations for Brexit. The fifth all-island civic dialogue on Brexit was held only last week. It is important that east-west trade flows operate as smoothly as possible. Work on this is under way in the form of additional infrastructure, the hiring of extra staff, such as customs, veterinary and food safety, and ICT.
Recently the Government agreed to ease some of the cashflow burden for businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit through the introduction of postponed VAT accounting. In the past two weeks, the Government held Brexit events in six counties, and more events are planned. Revenue has contacted more than 80,000 businesses to advise on steps that they may need to take. The Department of Health is working with industry to inform GPs, patients and hospitals and to avoid stockpiling medicine. Physical work has begun on temporary infrastructure in both Dublin and Rosslare ports. It is important that we understand that much groundwork has been and is being done, and it is wrong for some Opposition Deputies to state that this is not happening.
A no-deal Brexit is the worst possible outcome for this country. It is not in anyone's interest, whether in the UK, Ireland or the EU. Our EU membership is the greatest protection against the challenges that Brexit will bring. The EU is a home that we all have helped to build. The latest Eurobarometer survey found that 85% of Irish people think EU membership is still a good thing. That does not mean one cannot be critical.
We can push for a more equal Europe built on strong, comprehensive social policies as well. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, Ireland will remain in the European Union, with all the stability and certainty that membership builds. It is essential that we look very carefully at this legislation.
I thank all colleagues from the different parties, as well as Independent colleagues, for their support on this very important matter. It will be difficult over the next couple of weeks but the best way forward now is to ratify the withdrawal agreement.
I wish to share time with Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. I am happy to speak to this important Bill. I acknowledge that this is significant and complex legislation and I salute all those who have been committed to its drafting and preparation. As the explanatory memorandum makes clear, the Bill prioritises those issues that need to be addressed urgently and immediately through primary legislation at national level. Many other issues continue to be addressed at a national level through secondary legislation, policy and economic responses, on an administrative basis and through targeted Brexit-related resources, as well as at European Union level. In respect of certain legislative measures being dealt with at EU level, negotiations are ongoing. Unfortunately, they seem to be negotiating down a cul-de-sac every day and there is no way of getting back out. We will have to make a new exit if we are to hope they find a way through.
A key part of Ireland’s planning and preparation is protecting and maintaining the common travel area, CTA, and the associated rights and privileges. Both the Irish and British Governments are committed to maintaining the CTA in all circumstances and have committed to undertaking all the work necessary, including through legislative provision, to ensure that the CTA rights and privileges are protected. It is a major worry for any of us with business, friends or family in the UK, and it is also a worry for tourism, which must be protected. People are concerned because there is so much uncertainty, which is the biggest issue for everybody but especially farmers, business people and exporters. Ordinary working people are very concerned, as well as housewives and breadwinners. Every day we hear of big possible increases in the cost of commodities. There is much uncertainty.
I also acknowledge the existence of the Brexit loan scheme, which was in place prior to the introduction of this legislation. I am interested in the number of applications made under the scheme since it opened for applications on 28 March, 2018, so the Minister of State might get those figures if he can. As the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine acknowledged at the time, Brexit is clearly a significant challenge, given our unique exposure to the UK market. We have very close ties with the country and with Northern Ireland in particular. We know and accept the fact that food businesses will need to focus on competitiveness and innovation to maintain the growth in Irish agrifood exports, which reached a record €13.6 billion in 2017. It is phenomenal and we have done so much in our constituencies to support the people involved. I salute the farmers and the many producers in Tipperary, from Carrick-on-Suir right to the bridge at Portumna. There are many producers, small and large. I am particularly concerned about the small producers because they could not sustain any serious losses or prolonged delays. There is uncertainty about ports, etc.
The Brexit loan scheme is supposed to ensure that at least 40% of the €300 million will be available to food businesses, and that is to be welcomed. The Minister, Deputy Creed, must ensure that it is available. The omnibus legislation must ensure it is available and we should not have to wait to see what will be the impact. That would be a lethargic approach that would be scary for producers, whether they are small farmers or business people. It may become necessary to extend the loan scheme or revise its terms of application in light of the fact that it will only remain open until 31 March 2020. We must be kept abreast of what is happening.
On the broader political front, we want to avoid a so-called disorderly Brexit or a no-deal Brexit. My colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group, RIG, want to be constructive but I must nevertheless be critical. First, I must praise the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, for giving so many briefings and working long and arduous hours. I acknowledge his understanding of the matter, and he has been on top of his game. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach has put one foot in the hole one day, two feet the next day and nearly fell into the hole the third day. He says whatever came to his head that morning. He is totally inept and outrageous. I attended a briefing one evening in his office, along with other political leaders, when I represented the RIG. I asked him about the potential hard border at Tyrone, Monaghan, Aughnacloy and south Armagh. I know the area very well, having travelled across it thousands of times. He flippantly said the border could be in Calais or Rotterdam, which was a careless remark. This is real politics and not about just being nice on television, telling people we love them and high-fiving his other colleagues. Oliver Callan accurately portrays him along with other Ministers, Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Paschal Donohoe. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, is busting his backside, along with others, to try to do what he can.
The Taoiseach needs to be reawakened on this. I know he does not understand much outside the Pale but he needs to find out pretty fast what is going on. The Minister of State is from a rural area and I have good respect for him. He should be able to tell the Taoiseach and call him aside on this. Are the Minister of State and his colleagues so admiring of the Taoiseach that they cannot say anything to him? We have spoken about the effect of Brexit on Fianna Fáil's confidence and supply agreement; I have said it is all supply and no confidence. It is like a glass bowl that Fianna Fáil is minding that might be in the sitting room with daffodils in it this time of year. One might be afraid the children would knock it and break it. If this agreement breaks, I do not know where Fianna Fáil will hide or what it will hide behind. There will be nothing to hide behind, not even a daffodil picked for the bowl. The Taoiseach must understand this is about real politics, with real effects on people's daily lives. People are concerned so there is no need for showboating, high-fiving and producing sound bites. It is nonsense. If a child said such things, we could not slap him or her any more but we could reprimand the child, give out lines or putting him or her into the bold corner. The Taoiseach needs to be put into some corner and kept out of sight for the next couple of months because the situation is so delicate, volatile and serious.
The risks that such a scenario presents to us here on this island are incredibly serious. According to the excellent briefing provided by the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, there are several main areas of concern. I thank the office for those briefings. Most people are putting their shoulder to the wheel but the captain of the team is letting us all down. He is not used to being captain and perhaps he never thought he would be and this is some dream. He is the captain now and he must act like one and be serious. According to the PBO, the size of the economic impact in 2019 is unknown. Economic forecasters estimate that gross domestic product growth will be between 1.4 and 3 percentage points below what it would have been in an orderly Brexit. That will have a major impact on our budget and for us in balancing our books, etc. It is accepted that these estimates are highly uncertain and indicative, that it is going to hurt us economically and that the fiscal impact of a no-deal Brexit will be significant, possibly resulting in a budget deficit from decreased tax revenue and increased Government expenditure necessitated by a no-deal Brexit. There could be a major impact.
However, it is not just in the area of trade or finance that we should be concerned. I am speaking specifically about the challenges that arise with respect to the Border and an increase in cross-Border crime opportunities. We do not want to go back to the dark old days of smuggling, intimidation and threats. I went through the area when it was not safe to do so back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I asked Mr. Michel Barnier about this when he was in the Dáil. I go to Croatia once a year and on to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a massive border has been built in the past ten years. It is unreal. It is on the motorway and one can be delayed for an hour or perhaps two hours sometimes. When I asked Mr. Barnier how the border here would be different from the one in Bosnia and Hezegovina, he brushed it off. The border will be scary because the same rules apply to any perimeter, whether it is in Ireland or the border in Croatia.
Senator Mark Daly yesterday circulated disturbing research conducted by UNESCO chairs, Professor Pat Dolan and Professor Mark Brennan.
The research was based on a recommendation in the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement's report Brexit & the Future of Ireland - Uniting Ireland & Its People In Peace & Prosperity. The committee has done significant work and I salute all those involved in that and na daoine ar fud na tíre who gave the vote and supported it. The proportion at the time was very high. The research indicates that "There will be a return to violence in Northern Ireland in the event of the installation of infrastructure, custom checks and security on the Irish border as a result of a no deal Brexit.." The report also states, "The only issue is the scale of the violence." That is a harrowing and fearful thought. This is honest research. It is a terrifying scenario for the people who live there and possibly cross the Border umpteen times a day. I have been on farms that straddle the Border. We have seen just a barbed wire fence between the North and the South just like a field in Kerry, Tipperary or Kilkenny so, thankfully, there is no physical Border. It has all been removed. There was a time when someone had to travel 30 miles to get to from Scotsman in Monaghan to a town in south Tyrone in to see somebody in a nursing home. They could drive for four or five miles across the Border but the roads were all cratered as a result of explosions so they had to do that round trip when only the major roads were kept open.
Section 4 relates to health arrangements. Specific support is provided in respect of the maintenance of existing common travel area arrangements. This will give the Minister for Health the power to make an order to enable necessary healthcare arrangements to be maintained between Ireland and the UK. These include maintaining existing arrangements relating to health services that are currently in operation between the State and the UK such as, for example, access to health services in the UK for persons here as well as access to health services here for persons from the UK and reimbursement arrangements. Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Collins have sent approximately 25 bus loads of people up north under the cross-border healthcare initiative in order to have basic procedures that should be carried out here. It will be a disaster if this fails. The buses are going up on a weekly basis to enable people to get basic treatment they should get here. The sad part is that it is coming out of the health budget in any event so the Government does not know whether it is coming or going. It did not know whether it was coming or going even before the referendum on Brexit. It is neglecting the people and hoping they will not see what it is doing but, by God, they will get some help. Ballot papers feature Braille so the voters will find the ones they want to vote for and will miss many members of the Government when the time comes. We need to sort out those health issues.
Members of the Rural Independent Group and I have seen upfront the absolute necessity of maintaining the strength of things such as the cross-border healthcare directive. This is especially true given that we seem simply unable to get to grips with the health crisis here. People who are going blind have gone up on the buses to which I refer. I have not taken many of them myself but my colleagues from Kerry and west Cork have done so. Coming home, these people are so delighted that they see the cattle in the fields, the Mourne mountains and flags flying coming across the Border. Those to whom I refer are being neglected. We are talking about simple cataract operations. We are sending volunteers out to field hospitals in Third-World countries who are carrying out procedures by the dozen in tents yet the cannot be done here. The system is so bureaucratic. The Government is so uncaring when it comes to ordinary people.
I must be critical of how late the Government has left this and of the way it is at sixes and sevens. I fear that, as with most legislation, barristers are rubbing their hands because they are making money. There are opportunities for that in a Bill that has had no pre-legislative scrutiny. Like the Ceann Comhairle, I am a member of the committee that waived it along but so many items of legislation have been rolled into one. I can see barristers already having parties because there will be challenges in respect of flaws found in the Bill. They can exist for one Bill, never mind an omnibus Bill such as this which covers so many different areas. The courts will be busy and the fellows with the wigs will have great fun with this legislation if there is a need to implement it. I am hoping that it will not need to be implemented. It has been rushed. The Government should have prepared this legislation 12 months ago. It was just too gung-ho. It thought that Europe would stick with us. It seems to be sticking with us fairly well but we should remember the bank guarantee, for which I voted. I voted of my own free will but it was the worst thing I ever did. Remember the bailout. I called it a clean-out on the part of our friends in Europe because that is what it was. Time will tell where Europe is going, what it will do and how supportive it will be. It looks good so far. We have to do all the tough talking with our nearest neighbours.
On several occasions the Taoiseach was very critical of our nearest neighbours, not that I have any love for them. However, I stated that they are our nearest neighbours with whom we signed the Good Friday Agreement. I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport also spoke, which is nothing new because he says strange things in any event. I think he has been contaminated by the remarks regarding Jupiter, Mars and science fiction made by the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan. This is serious stuff. I support the legislation but preparations should have begun earlier. I am worried about the consequences, namely, the legal challenges and the legislation being picked apart with a fine-tooth comb by those seeking issues to bring before the courts.
This is a very important matter that has far-reaching consequences for every facet of life in Ireland and the debate on it is probably one of the most important that will take place during the lifetime of this Government. It will affect not just people today but their children and grandchildren. It is going to shape the future of this small nation.
Deputy Mattie McGrath was correct in singling out a number of people, particularly the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has been very "workpersonlike", as has the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee. The Minister of State attended a meeting of the committee of which Deputy Mattie McGrath and I are members as recently as last week. I thank and compliment every one of the people from all parties and none who are members of that committee because they certainly put their shoulders to the wheel in the past couple of years, particularly as an awful lot of the committee's work deals with Brexit-related issues. We have met people from every sector of society from all around Europe, including the UK and Ireland, and all the different stakeholders. Even yesterday morning, I met people from the European Movement and the deputy Dutch ambassador. Every one of us is playing our part in respect of this very important issue. It is not a time to engage in party politics. This is a time for all of us to realise that we are a small nation up against a very large problem and the only way we are going to do our best in this situation is to work together.
A number of issues still cause grave concern. Every ten days or two weeks, I send bus loads of people up to Belfast to have hip, knee and cataract operations. Children are having their tonsils removed up there. It is ridiculous to think that in this day and age, we must go across the Border to avail of what is an excellent service. We cannot do it here in our hospitals but we can send people to Belfast and pay a private hospital there to carry out this work. It is beyond belief but the people are so grateful for the service that I see it as part of the service I provide to people in Kerry. The people I take on my bus are predominantly from Kerry. I am very glad I am able to do that but the worry concerns what the situation will be at the end of March. I cannot confirm or give any comfort to people awaiting operations because I have been told by the hospital is that reimbursement will only guaranteed until the end of March. After that, there is no guarantee.
I have looked at some frequently asked questions on the Road Safety Authority's website. One of these relates to a person living in Ireland who holds a UK driving licence and would like to able to continue to drive here after Brexit on the UK licence. The person was told that:
In a no-deal Brexit scenario, as a resident in Ireland, your UK driving licence will not be valid to drive here in Ireland. Prior to 29 March 2019 you could decide to exchange your UK driving licence for an Irish driving licence- the usual processing timeline for this is quite short- up to ten days. However, that may change in the event of a high level of demand for driving licence exchanges.
We are glad that many people from the UK live here and that people from the UK have chosen to retire here to spend their hard-earned money and pensions. They are very welcome and we are very glad to have them.
However, even those people who are driving on a licence might be adversely affected and there is also the issue of student grants. There are so many other problems facing us in a crash-out situation that, even at this late stage, I pray to holy God there will be an extension to Article 50 and that they will look at having another vote. Even at this stage, it is not too late to want that. If anybody came down from Mars today, landed here and asked what is happening and what this is all about, they would say, for God's sake, if it is going to be that troublesome, why not just go away and vote again. I know that we would have the humility to do that in Ireland if we were in that type of situation. Unfortunately, other politicians, who seem to be very arrogant, full of themselves and full of their own self-importance and do not ever want to admit they got anything wrong, although they made a mistake, are not willing to go back to the people and say they should have another vote. My God, I so dearly hope they will have common sense, that they will wake up and realise the mess they have created, and that there are only a few ways and a short length of time to do this.
In this House, whether it is Sinn Féin, the Independents, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or others, we should all be supportive of the Government at this time. It is not that we are going to be "Yes" men for the Government, but we will argue our points in a very sensible and workpersonlike way. We have to think about the bigger picture and think of Ireland united. That is the way we should approach this.
I call Deputy Catherine Murphy, who is sharing time with Deputy Seamus Healy.
We know this emergency legislation is very much of a technical nature. As we debate it, the ground is shifting in the House of Commons and, hopefully, we will never have to use this legislation. I noted the Tánaiste's comments about the value of a united front across all of the political divide. While I agree with him on that, and agree most Irish people feel a sense of belonging to Europe, it is important to say that does not mean we like or, indeed, respect the European institutions. That is where opinions diverge.
During the height of the economic crisis, we saw intergovernmentalism, driven by Germany and France, at the core of decision making in the European Union. The Union ceased to be a union of member states and the small or more vulnerable countries learned a hard lesson that eroded trust, not least here in Ireland, and it has had a lasting effect. That said, the vast majority of people want to remain within the Union, although that does not mean people would not like to see significant and fundamental reforms of the EU. However, that debate is for another day.
Speaking some time after the Brexit vote, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas said:
Of course, the call to "take back control" that played a role in the British campaign is a symptom to be taken seriously. What really hit home with observers is the obvious irrationality not just of the result but of the entire campaign... Like all symptoms, this feeling of the loss of control has a real core – the hollowing out of national democracies that, until now, had given citizens the right to co-determine important conditions of their social existence. The UK referendum provides vivid evidence about the keyword "post-democracy". Obviously, the infrastructure without which there can be no sound public sphere and party competition has crumbled. After initial analyses the media and opposing political parties failed to inform the populace about relevant questions and elementary facts, let alone make differentiated arguments for or against opposing political views.
We can see that playing out now within the House of Commons in a very real way. The great irony is that the need to protect democracy following the referendum, which played out in slogans and misinformation, is being held up as the essence of democracy, while at the same time a much more informed populace may not get the opportunity to vote in an environment where they have a real understanding of the enormity of the decision and the consequences for them as a people. That, I would argue, is a huge undermining of democracy rather than a protection of democracy. It is a real-life demonstration of the “post-democracy” era.
While the decision is not for us to make, I hope there will be another vote. We have reversed referendums in the past. While it is popular to point to European referendums, I am glad we had two referendums on divorce, for example, with the second one being carried. The experience of both the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens' Assembly have been extraordinarily useful as a precursor to referendums. We know that asking the question in a referendum in the absence of information on possible outcomes is problematic.
We are perhaps in a more unique situation than we fully realise. This is our second divorce with the United Kingdom. In 1922, the new Dáil was tasked with setting up an entire state apparatus with the backdrop of the fallout from the Treaty and a civil war about to erupt. This perhaps gives us some understanding of how difficult the early years were. Unlike 100 years ago, there is a unity of purpose in that the North voted to remain and there is a united approach on the island of Ireland in regard to commonality and the value of being members of the EU. Reading the record of the Dáil in the early years of the State shows how it was not possible to think of all the things that needed to be done. Several different versions were needed and institutions had to be created and re-created. In some cases, it meant we inherited institutions, the nature of which reflected the culture they were devised within. Our legal, education and local government systems were all inherited and were developed within a culture that was not uniquely Irish. They were devised with the backdrop of people being subjects rather than citizens. Almost 100 years later, who could have envisaged that there would be some degree of regret about the division between Ireland and England, if we can leave the United Kingdom out of it? It is a strange feeling.
This emergency legislation, which I hope is never used, refers to Northern Ireland as a third state. I have asked myself why that description is so dispiriting. Like many, I want to see a united Ireland but I do not want to see a return to violence, and that is reflected in the approach of the Good Friday Agreement. While a commitment to no hard border is paramount, the border of minds is a very serious concern. What have been so important in building and maintaining peace are the mundane and not very prominent mechanisms for engagement within Northern Ireland, but just as importantly within the North-South institutions. There is a small number of such formal institutions but new strands have been added underneath them which have broadened the reach and co-operation. If anything, that shows the success and the bedding in of the peace process but the border of minds is a real concern in that context. While this legislation deals with very technical and practical issues, it is obvious Brexit in any form will change the nature of those institutions, which will undermine the situation to a greater or lesser extent.
The success of the peace process has its greatest impact on the island of Ireland but it is valued internationally. In a world where there is ongoing conflict, it shows other parts of the world where there is conflict that there can be a more hopeful and peaceful future.
It is essential that we can point to such examples. Any undermining of the process will have a much wider impact. Our joint membership of the European Union was central to that possibility. While ongoing, the conflict in Northern Ireland held both North and South back on many fronts, but certainly economically. It is to our mutual benefit that both parts of the island thrive. Early on, after the referendum on Brexit was carried in Britain, I heard it said that the big risk was that we should be moving into the second phase of normalisation in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Brexit will inhibit that for years.
New diplomatic arrangements are also unlikely to replace the soft diplomacy which the European institutions offered. It is not possible to account for that in this kind of legislation. Things are, however, going to crop up regardless of what type of Brexit happens, if any. Some structure will have to be designed and put in place but it will not offer the same informal opportunities. New institutions will need to be built should the unthinkable occur and a no-deal Brexit happens. Any form of Brexit will require that. People are very fearful about something that could happen, that is not of our making and that we have very little control over. We are all hearing that. We can make as many efforts as possible to deal with what might happen but it is very difficult to do that until we actually see the shape of Brexit.
We can try to anticipate how things will work out and how institutions will adapt in the context of a no-deal Brexit. What we are really doing here is making a series of educated guesses. That is something we all acknowledge and we all have to work through. It is not a criticism but it is reality. We are in a very fluid situation. We have no way of knowing how the votes in the House of Commons will go. We do know we have a great deal of trade with Britain. Nearly 200,000 people are directly employed in 5,000 or more small to medium-sized enterprises. If the multipliers associated with that sector are included, we are most likely talking about closer to between 300,000 and 350,000 people employed. Tariffs, in that context, are a real concern. Currency values are also a concern. This legislation is to deal with some very immediate things. It certainly gives us some understanding of what we face. Even thinking through it gives us some understanding that this is very much a tentative first step. This is going to have to be revisited, depending on how this situation plays out. We will, of course, be supporting this legislation and assisting in its speedy passage through the Dáil.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019. As other speakers have stated, this is a Bill everyone hopes will not be needed and will not be implemented. It is emergency legislation. There is certainly much worry and concern in the country regarding what might happen if Brexit occurs, whether that is no-deal or a softer type of Brexit. There will certainly be difficulties for Ireland in either case. I think it is late in the day to be bringing this legislation into the Chamber. It is now a very tight timescale. I wonder if there is actually enough time for proper consultation on this Bill. I note that other European countries that will be affected by Brexit, but not anything like as badly as Ireland, have already got their legislation in place for some months now.
Many of the provisions in the legislation are obviously necessary and many are not controversial. That includes areas such as pensions, student supports, healthcare and the common travel area, which will now be put on a statutory footing. That is an important element, particularly as more than 500,000 people born in Ireland now live in Britain. Various parts and provisions of the Bill are reasonably straightforward and non-controversial. Sometimes, however, what is not in a Bill can be as important, and perhaps even more important, than what is in a Bill.
Two elements in the legislation stand out for me. The first is what appears to be, or amounts to, a corporate bailout aspect to the Bill, with serious grants and support. On the other hand, there is no quid pro quo and no supports outlined in the Bill for workers who fear losing their jobs, for lower paid workers or for social welfare recipients. I say that because in the last major crisis in this country, the economic collapse in 2007-08, what effectively happened was that ordinary families were made to pay for the burden of that collapse. It was not of their making but they paid for it through austerity, reductions in the minimum wage and reductions in social welfare. Many of those reductions have not been reversed since. Those are two areas that need to strengthened and dealt with. Retail Ireland warned recently that in the event of a hard Brexit retail prices could rise by as much as 45%. Even a softer Brexit would lead to significant price increases.
There is nothing, however, in this legislation to protect living standards. Those living on State pensions and other social welfare payments, as well as low-paid workers, would be very badly hit in that situation. People in those categories spend almost their entire income on everyday purchases, including food. Price rises will have to be matched, at a minimum, with increases in pay and welfare payments. The minimum wage must be sharply increased. This legislation, omitting such provisions, demonstrates to me that this Government has a continuing bias towards the wealthy in our society.
Trade unionists and other activists must not allow this crisis to be dumped on workers and the poor in the same way as the last one. If that happens, I believe people will be on the streets and there will be pickets. Grants to businesses, as provided for in this legislation, must be made conditional on a number of things. It must, firstly, be made conditional on lay-offs of employees being ruled out. It must be also conditional on the freezing of prices and increases in the minimum wage and social welfare payments.
The very wealthy have come through the most recent crisis that we had and now have billions of euro more than they had even at the height of the boom. The Government continued to give hundreds of millions of euros to very wealthy people in the past three budgets and I believe that should be clawed back. Moreover, since the most recent crisis, the EU owes Ireland billions of euro due to its insistence that Irish citizens bail out private investors in private banks. The British Government and the European Union must be told that there will be no hardening of the existing Border. However they sort it out between themselves, no hardening of the Border will be tolerated by Irish people. The existence of any border is an affront to Irish sovereignty and to the sovereignty of the Irish people as expressed in the 1916 Proclamation and by the first Dáil. The imposition of a hard border by Britain, the EU or the Government will be met by mass mobilisation. Hardening of the Border will simply not be accepted. I also believe that Britain should be told that there will be no dumping of radioactive waste on the island of Ireland. It appears that the UK Government has earmarked a site in the Mourne Mountains for this purpose.
The problems now arising due to Brexit are consequences of the failure to create a united and sovereign 32-county Ireland. The danger to Irish people of allowing part of the island of Ireland to remain under British sovereignty now and in the future could not be clearer. The UK Supreme Court found that there is no compulsion on the British Government to even consult the Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive about removing the Six Counties from the EU. Of course, any question of consulting this Parliament did not even arise. The 1916 leaders were right. We should ensure that a 32-county sovereign Republic is built and we should set our sights on that from now on.
We hope never have to use the legislation prepared for a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal scenario is in nobody's interests, yet the uncertainty around the negotiations obliges us to prepare for the worst. At a time of uncertainty, we place great value in order and stability. The preparations extend right across the Government, including to my own Department. As this House will be aware, my Department recently published the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019, which, when enacted, will provide for the implementation of the recommendations in the 2018 report on European Parliament constituencies in full and without change. In summary, the Bill will provide for the election of 13 MEPs in Ireland across the three recommended constituencies of Dublin, Midlands-North-West and South for the parliamentary term 2019 to 2024. The Bill will also make provision for a number of technical amendments to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to implement certain requirements set out in the EU Council decision of 13 July 2018, which itself aims to modernise the European Union's framework electoral law, known as the Act of 1976.
The Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil on 6 February 2019. Committee Stage and Report Stage are now scheduled for completion in the Dáil tomorrow, after which the Bill will be progressed in the Seanad. Ireland is to gain two seats in the next term of the European Parliament following the EU Council decision of 28 June 2018. The taking up of these additional seats is premised upon the departure of the UK from the EU prior to the holding of elections to the Parliament in May of this year. Should the UK's withdrawal be deferred, only 11 of the elected 13 may take up their seats until its departure becomes legally effective. The Bill has been prepared on the basis that the UK will depart the EU on 29 March this year. However, given the uncertainty that continues to prevail regarding the timing of the its exit from the Union, I will bring forward a number of amendments on Committee Stage through the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, which will deal with the possibility of a delayed withdrawal and the start of the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term.
In this scenario, it is proposed that the two members who would not take up their seats until the UK's departure becomes legally effective would be the final person elected in each of the constituencies of Dublin and South. The reason for this approach is that these two constituencies are being allocated the two additional seats as recommend by the independent European Parliament constituency committee in its report of 24 September 2018. While the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019 is not solely related to the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, the contingency measures that are being proposed by way of Committee Stage amendments will be complementary to the provisions in this Bill and will ensure that the next elections to the European Parliament in Ireland can proceed with clarity and certainty for prospective candidates, political parties who may wish to contest those elections and the electorate.
As part of the Brexit planning efforts, preparations are being made for the necessary checks and controls at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort to deal with the flow of goods between Britain and Ireland. This includes the development of necessary infrastructure at ports and airports to facilitate the customs, health and phytosanitary checks that will be required. In the short term, should there be a no-deal Brexit, the emergency order provisions in the Planning and Development Act 2000 will be relied on to cover the small-scale works required at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort. These orders will be made by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, which is appropriate in this instance, as the Office of Public Works would be undertaking the needed works. The Minister made such an order on 11 February in respect of works required at Dublin Port.
Even in the case of an orderly Brexit, it is important to remember that larger-scale permanent development will be required at the ports. I propose to advance planning-related legislation to facilitate this development. The first such instrument would amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 in order that the emergency order provisions therein would take account of environmental assessment obligations in EU law. For example, this would enable the requirements of the birds, habitats and environmental impact assessment, EIA, directives to be observed in providing larger-scale infrastructure at the ports using such emergency order provisions, if deemed necessary. A second instrument would provide for additional classes of exempted development to facilitate the provision of necessary temporary or permanent port infrastructure, which could supplement the development set out in the emergency orders, if required. These exemptions would be subject to the limitations that normally apply, including the rule providing that such exemptions do not apply when an environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment under the relevant EU directives is required. Unlike the provisions in the omnibus Bill, this new planning-related legislation is not required in advance of a no-deal Brexit. It will be needed very soon after, however, and I intend to bring the proposals forward in April.
The construction products regulation is European Union legislation that underpins harmonised EU standards for construction products. Notified bodies in member states uphold the harmonised standards by providing assessment, conformity and certification services, including the awarding of the CE mark. From the withdrawal date, UK notified bodies will lose their status as EU notified bodies. As a result, manufacturers, importers, distributors and authorised representatives that rely on UK notified bodies need to take the necessary steps to ensure they are authorised by a notified body established in an EU member state. This means that manufacturers, importers, distributors and authorised representatives need either to arrange for a transfer of their files and the corresponding certificates from the UK notified body to an EU27 notified body, or to apply for a new certificate from an EU27 notified body. My Department is the notifying authority for construction products covered by the regulation. The Department is in the process of assessing a number of applications for the status of notified body in Ireland. Some of these are linked with organisations that are currently UK notified bodies. These organisations are establishing themselves in Ireland in the interest of becoming notified bodies here so they can continue to provide conformity assessment services to their clients in relation to construction products post Brexit.
The recognition of professional qualifications is another issue that arises in the context of Brexit, with potential impacts across various sectors, including the construction sector. In general, in the absence of an agreement and orderly Brexit after 29 March 2019, UK nationals will be considered third country nationals and UK qualifications will be considered third country qualifications with the consequential implications. The issue of recognition of professional qualifications will be dealt with by the appropriate regulatory authorities. For example, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, RIAI, will liaise directly with its counterpart in the UK, the Royal Institute of British Architects, to put in place a system of mutual recognition of qualifications. Crucially, these authorities have the capacity and the legislative powers to recognise third country qualifications and can continue to use this framework to recognise UK qualifications. A similar scenario arises in respect of other key construction-related professions such as professional regulation for surveyors and engineers. It is important to note that persons who have had their professional qualifications recognised under the current EU directives can continue to practice in either jurisdiction, subject to compliance with all regulations within that profession.
In regard to the movement of labour generally, under the common travel area, Irish and British citizens move freely, reside in either jurisdiction and enjoy associated rights and entitlements, including access to employment. The CTA predates Irish and UK membership of the EU and is not dependent on it.
Detailed work is at an advanced stage to ensure that all necessary provisions are made in both jurisdictions so that the CTA continues to function effectively. The Government and the UK Government have committed to maintaining the CTA in all scenarios.
The impact of Brexit on housing demand is by no means clear or certain. According to the ESRI, the macroeconomic effects of Brexit are significant and negative for the Irish economy. Both income levels and employment are expected to be lower in a no-deal scenario. In this respect, housing demand may be lower as a result of these factors. On the other hand, Brexit could lead to an increase in the number of people moving to Ireland from the United Kingdom. This could see an increase in the number of people coming to live and work here, particularly in Dublin, which would give rise to a consequent increase in housing demand. The recently published report of the joint committee, Examining the Potential Impacts of Brexit on Ireland’s Housing Market, has made an important contribution to the debate around the implications of Brexit across the housing system, looking at some of the issues I have touched upon earlier, as well as potential demographic impacts. While the recommendations of the joint committee are welcome, great care must be taken not to misinterpret a current scenario or recent trends, both immediately prior to and after a UK withdrawal from the EU, as the likely long-term picture. It is agreed that there is a need for short-term contingency, but this should not dictate the long run to the extent that it would lead to a premature change of course.
The national planning framework, NPF, is based on long-term, mid-range demographic and econometric projections over the period to 2040. It is necessarily a long-term framework that will be subject to shorter-term fluctuations over the course of such a long timescale. The key variables for housing demand are the scale and distribution of population growth and household composition, which in turn are a factor of economic performance. Population change in Ireland is most influenced by net migration, which is highly volatile, even over very short timescales. Average net inward migration was approximately 20,000 people per annum between 1996 and 2016, but this ranged from a record high of 105,000 people in 2007 to minus 27,500 people in 2010, a swing of over 132,000 in only three years. The NPF strategy is based on average net migration of approximately 20,000 people and approximately 3% economic growth per annum to 2040.
The NPF demographic forecast accords with the findings of the CSO's expert group on population and labour force projections in 2018 on the mid-range population growth scenario, which is regarded as "most likely" in the long term. It is possible that Brexit may impact net migration to Ireland in the short term, particularly if a slowdown in the UK economy diverts a proportion of UK-based enterprises and employees, as well as EU migrants who might otherwise have migrated to the UK, to Ireland. This type of scenario is addressed by the expert group's high-range population growth scenario, which is based on average net migration of 30,000 people per annum into Ireland, every year to 2040 and beyond. While this may be sustained and exceeded in the short to medium term, it would be unprecedented over a sustained period. If a significant trend becomes apparent that is likely to continue in the long term, national strategy will need to be reviewed accordingly. In the meantime, the Rebuilding Ireland housing construction target of 25,000 homes per annum will be met and exceeded by 2020 and the number of new housing units will continue to increase in the years beyond that. The NPF, published in 2018, identifies a need for this number to increase to 30,000 to 35,000 homes in the years to 2027. Any post-Brexit impact will be closely monitored and factored in accordingly.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is closely monitoring and will model and project the likely outcomes of Brexit in economic and demographic terms and on a geographic basis. This will enable a more detailed and updated assessment of likely housing demand that will inform any review of Rebuilding Ireland as the short to medium-term set of housing actions and targets to complement the longer-term strategic framework set out in the national planning framework.
As Minister of State with responsibility for innovation, research and development I want to concentrate on one element of Part 3, which will also be addressed by my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys. I refer in this regard to the delivery of a key objective of the Government by means of Enterprise Ireland supporting increased levels of research, development and innovation for Irish-based companies. It is a known fact that companies which invest in innovation are higher performers in terms of employment and export sales and are more resilient through recessionary and other economic shocks, such as Brexit, than those that do not. By enhancing their research, development and innovation capabilities and activity, Irish firms will have a greater competitive advantage and will be able to maintain that by developing cutting edge products and services that are better performing, more efficiently delivered and more effective for their customers. Through the proposed legislative amendments to section 29 of the Industrial Development Act of 1986, we are enabling Enterprise Ireland to help position Irish businesses to be more agile and to be able to respond to global challenges, including Brexit.
Innovation, whether it is the generation and introduction of a new idea, the invention of a new technology or the development of new or better products, processes and services, is about the constant drive for improvement. It is about finding solutions that are original, more effective and, most importantly, deliver positive change. Given my role as Minister of State with responsibility for training, skills, innovation, research and development, I have a particular interest in driving innovation, not only for my Department but in delivering the Government’s objective to create the favourable conditions in which innovation can flourish and in which quality employment opportunities can be grown and maintained.
My Department leads on the cross-Government research, development, science and technology that is the Innovation 2020 strategy. The latter sets out a roadmap to deliver on our vision to be a global innovation leader, focusing on the excellence of our research, the development of our talent and the impact of our investment. Ireland has a great reputation for excellence in science. That is evidenced by our ascent in the global ranking in recent years. In 2018, the European innovation scoreboard placed Ireland ninth in the EU. We are now first in innovation in terms of SMEs, first in employment impacts of innovation and first in sales impacts of innovation.
In both Innovation 2020 and Enterprise 2025 Renewed, we place an emphasis on investing in innovation, developing talent, and starting and growing innovative Irish enterprises to ensure that we build resilience in our economy and realise the full potential of our people and our regions. The pace of technological change is relentless and ensuring we have the right supports for business and for the development of Ireland’s talent base now and in the future involves a constant process of analysing, surveying and consulting. The Department’s job is to support the future being imagined by our researchers and innovators and to deliver the targeted funding and supports to keep us at the vanguard of innovation and technological development. An exceptional level of collaboration between industry, academia, State agencies and the regulatory authorities drives Ireland’s dynamic research and development sector. Innovation 2020 sets out the vision for Ireland to become a global innovation leader, which we are becoming. We are currently a strong innovator and, as already stated, are placed ninth on the European innovation scoreboard.
Ireland’s continued economic growth and prosperity depends on maintaining and indeed increasing investment across the broad science, technology and innovation spectrum and creating the right conditions to help business. To that end, the Government is providing additional investment of over €40 million this year for research and innovation related activities through the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. This brings the Department’s allocation in research and innovation activities to €370 million for 2019. Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and Enterprise Ireland account for the largest share of the Department’s innovation budget. Together, they account for 80% of that budget. As always, Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland continue to leverage EU and private sector funding for research programmes, building on successes to date.
Through budget 2019, we were able to give good effect to the Government’s new disruptive technologies innovation fund, DTIF. This €500 million fund was announced as part of Project Ireland 2040 and it provides a very welcome injection of new funding into our research and innovation system. Some €20 million has been allocated to the DTIF to allow the first projects to commence in 2019 as part of a €180 million allocation out to 2022.
In addition to the legislative amendments to enhance Enterprise Ireland research and the development supports to business, we are taking action on various fronts to ensure that in any Brexit scenario we will continue to pursue our strong, equally valued relationship with the UK across the research, development and innovation agendas. Enterprise Ireland has been working closely with Innovate UK to explore opportunities, now and in the future, for UK and Irish companies to work together.
We have a strong history of research and innovation collaboration, both bilateral collaborations and collaborations under the EU framework programmes, that have been extremely fruitful over the years. For example, SFI’s research community reported approximately 450 collaborations with academic researchers in the UK last year. We also have excellent examples of successfully funding partnerships including the Royal Society, Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, BBSRC, which I have met on a number of occasions. They are all involved in collaborative programmes with SFI, the Health Research Board and others.
The unfolding Brexit situation carries risks for Ireland’s research and innovation interests. However, there are also opportunities to build stronger relationships that are mutually beneficial for both countries.
I know our research and innovation agencies have ambitious plans to deepen alliances with UK institutions and agencies. As the House may be aware, the first UK-Ireland research funders’ forum was held in Dublin last November. The event provided an opportunity for UK and Irish research funders to engage on research and innovation strategies and to discuss ways to strengthen our collaborative arrangements. A further meeting and forum will take place in Great Britain over the next couple of months. We will also need to pay significant attention to the North-South collaborations and build on existing collaboration between our agencies, including the US-Ireland research and development partnership, a unique initiative involving agencies across the three jurisdictions, namely the US, Ireland and Northern Ireland. I look forward to strengthening that collaboration to ensure we protect what has been built and identify new areas of opportunity for Irish and UK researchers and innovators. SFI has focused on a number of strategic actions and areas resulting from the proposed withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. In the event that the UK continues to be a member of the EU research and innovation programmes, our bilateral ties will enable research teams in Ireland and the UK to compete more strongly. In the event that the UK is excluded from some of these programmes, then these bilateral ties will become vitally important.
Science Foundation Ireland already has joint funding collaborations with a number of UK research funders, including United Kingdom Research and Innovation. These are particularly the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, EPSRC, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, BBSRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society that I mentioned earlier. These collaborative joint funding programmes have been strengthened and broadened. Science Foundation Ireland partnered with the EPSRC in its recent call for centres in doctoral training. Science Foundation Ireland will invest €38.6 million to fund approximately 150 PhD students in Ireland to be trained in seven new joint centres of doctoral training, linking universities in the UK with seven Science Foundation Ireland research centres.
On a number of occasions I have been to a number of universities in England and I have met many of their researchers and scientists. From speaking to the innovative drivers on innovation in England, they see it as crucial and urgent that Ireland continues its innovation ties and its research and development ties with the UK and also ideally with Horizon 2020 and the National Competitiveness Council funding. From meeting some of the UK representatives there, I feel they are distressed that they may not be able to play the part in the competitive Horizon 2020 funding that they would like to play. I had a conference call with their new Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore MP, and I hosted him at a breakfast for Ministers in the Irish embassy in London last week. Along with all of them, he is anxious that the collaboration that we have between Ireland and the UK continues. They believe it is essential for collaboration between our institutes of technology, our universities and EI which drive innovation in Ireland. It is important that we continue to collaborate with the UK, irrespective of what happens.
Níl ach 30 lá fágtha go dtí lá an Bhreatimeachta agus is deacair é a chreidiúint ach níl aon socrú ann fós idir an Ríocht Aontaithe agus an tAontas Eorpach. Chualamar inné go mbeidh an Parlaimint i Londain ag vótáil ar cheist an Bhreatimeachta an mhí seo chugainn. B'fhéidir go mbeidh sí ag déanamh cinneadh deireanach ag an am céanna. Tá sé dochreidte. Tá cúrsaí ag éirí tromchúiseach don tír seo agus don chaidreamh Anglo-Éireannach. Níl aon dabht faoi, dá mbeadh teorainn chrua ar an oileán nó idir an tír seo agus an Ríocht Aontaithe, beidh a lán fadhbanna againn, go háirithe beidh fadhb le tionscal an bhia, le tionscal na déiríochta agus len a lán tionscail eile. Caithfidh an Rialtas níos mó tacaíocht a thabhairt do tionscal an bhia, tionscal na déiríochta agus a lán tionscail eile. It is astonishing that we are 30 days away from Brexit and we still do not know what will transpire on 29 March 2019.
It is important to state at the outset, however, that for this country and this island, Brexit is a negative, regressive and disastrous event. The history of this island has been dominated by our relationship with our larger neighbour. That has been a difficult relationship over the years that our history has been recorded. It is a relationship that has unfortunately been dominated by colonisation, plantation, persecution and violence, but since independence and in particular, since our membership of the European Union, the relationship has improved. Today, the relationship between this island and Britain is more characterised by friendship, understanding and by reconciliation. Part of the reason why we have been able to reach reconciliation, understanding and friendship is because of our common membership of what was originally the European Economic Community, EEC, which today is the European Union.
The heightened example of the increased co-operation between the two countries arose with the Belfast Agreement that was signed some 20 years ago. That was an ingenious piece of diplomacy and statecraft. It allowed people in the contested part of this island, in Northern Ireland, to be able to reconcile the competing identities that were present in that part of the United Kingdom. People who had alignment or allegiance towards a unified Ireland were able to have that identity recognised through their Irish identity and through the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement. Similarly, people who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom could do so on the understanding that this country and the nationalist community in Northern Ireland accepted their entitlement to remain part of the United Kingdom until such time as a majority of people in Northern Ireland decided otherwise. An integral part of that was the common membership of the European Union. No one thought in 1998 that Britain would leave the European Union, and had that even been considered at the time, we can be sure that there would have been much more explicit provisions stitched into the Good Friday Agreement.
Part of the reason Britain is leaving and why we are so content within the European Union is that on this island and in this country, we managed European integration much better than they did over in the United Kingdom. In this country, European integration was achieved through the co-operation and in most instances through the democratic wish of the Irish people. We voted on significant treaties. The reason we voted on significant treaties is because sovereignty in this country resides in the people. The difficulty that the British people have experienced is that sovereignty in Britain does not reside in the people, it resides in Parliament and because of that, Parliament allowed for European integration without really taking into account the fact that the British public was not being brought along with the politicians in Westminster. That manifested itself as a problem with the Maastricht Treaty back in 1992 and since then it has grown as a significant problem within the United Kingdom. It is not for us to provide advice to the United Kingdom but we can point out that a constitution which is written down is preferable. People are able to identify it and to understand it. As well as that, if there is a constitution, it is also preferable that sovereignty resides in the people, rather than in parliament. That is why people look back upon what the United Kingdom did in having a referendum as being an unusual step. There is no need for government's to have referendums in the United Kingdom because sovereignty resides in Parliament. If Parliament wants to make a law it can make the law and it does not have to worry about that law being in any way incompatible with the constitution of the United Kingdom. It would obviously have to be concerned now about compatibility with the EU charter and the convention but in general, Parliament can do what it wishes. What it has done in recent years is to try to adopt a two-pronged approach with Parliament having one say and then giving the people a say by way of referendum and it has predictably created problems for them.
The Bill before the House considerable. There are two parts of it in particular which deal with justice issues. We had a meeting of the Committee on Justice and Equality this morning which was very beneficial in that we had an opportunity to interact with the Minister and his officials in respect of extradition and immigration.
One issue in respect of immigration that I want to put on the record of the House is how it will apply to non-EEA family members of UK citizens. This is an important point. The reason these people can stay in this country is because of the European Union treaties that apply to UK citizens. Obviously, once the UK leaves on 29 March or whenever, non-EEA family members of UK citizens will be left in a position of limbo or uncertainty. I welcome the fact that this morning, the Minister Justice and Equality and his officials confirmed at a committee meeting that those individuals will be granted rights of residency here and will be able to continue with their status as it is today without there being any interference in their entitlements.
We also need to recognise that the removal of the European arrest warrant between this country and the United Kingdom will have a very detrimental effect. It has worked very effectively but from now on we will have to go back to the 1957 European Convention on Extradition. I was pleased to hear today that the United Kingdom has enacted reciprocal legislation that will mean citizens from the UK can be extradited here and we will be able to extradite people who are citizens here to the UK.
Several other areas that are not dealt with in the legislation need to be addressed. One of these is the Brussels convention on civil jurisdiction. At present, if somebody in Louth is crashed into by somebody from Antrim, the person in Louth is entitled to sue the person from Antrim in the courts of Ireland because the tortious act took place in this jurisdiction. The reason it is permissible is because of the Brussels regulation, which provides we can sue in the place where the event occurred. After 29 March, there will be considerable uncertainty as to how civil jurisdiction will operate. To continue with the example I have given, it may be the case, if the Brussels convention goes, that the citizen in Louth will have to sue in the orthodox way, which is in the jurisdiction where the defendant is domiciled, which would be Northern Ireland. We need some clarity in respect of this issue.
Another issue about which I have some concern relates to family law. This is not dealt with in the Bill either. Under Regulation No. 2201/2003 recognition is given to divorces from the United Kingdom and child abduction cases that involve Ireland and the United Kingdom. These are all very common when we think of fact we have a land border with United Kingdom on this island. We need clarity as to what will happen after Brexit in respect of recognition in this country of UK divorces and child abduction issues that happen in the UK.
These are the points I want to make in respect of Bill. I guarantee to the Minister, the Government and anyone else who is interested that we will find that some issue will arise after Brexit that nobody has thought about and which will cause considerable trouble. Brexit is a regressive step. The United Kingdom is removing itself from an association of co-operation with other friendly states and it is simply going back to the situation that existed prior to its membership of the EEC. This is not helpful to the United Kingdom or to this country.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and, as with everyone else in the House, I hope we will not have to rely on it. It is good that we are debating the issue today. If other parties in the House had got their way, we would all be out knocking on doors this week.
Health is covered in section 4. The Minister for Health will be given the power to make an order, or orders, and regulations under the Bill to enable necessary healthcare arrangements to be maintained between Ireland and the UK. The objective is to support the maintenance of existing common travel area arrangements. This includes continuing arrangements for health services that are in operation between the State and the UK, for example, access to health services in the UK for persons in the State, access to health services in the State by persons from the UK and reimbursement arrangements. Continuity is critical and this is especially true in healthcare.
We have a population of 4.6 million people and there are approximately 1.9 million people in the North, but there must be close co-operation to achieve economies of scale on the island. We may not have enough expertise on either part of the island but collectively we have a critical mass in the area of rare diseases, not only with respect to the number of people with rare diseases but, more importantly, with respect to clinicians and specialists who would be able to operate on an all-island basis.
We all know that North-South collaboration on health is real and that significant benefits can be realised for patients. There are many examples that illustrate the level of co-operation between the North and the South on health issues. Significant projects have been undertaken in recent years and they have made a difference to the lives of patients. For example, Altnagelvin Area Hospital's radiotherapy unit, which was completed in 2016, gives access to radiotherapy services for people in the north west of the island, including people in this jurisdiction. Other examples of cross-Border collaboration include primary percutaneous coronary intervention services, also known as stenting, in Altnagelvin. The arrangement allows Donegal patients to have access to these services on a 24-7 basis. In July 2016, we saw the opening of the hybrid cardiac catheterisation laboratory at Our Lady’s Children's Hospital, Crumlin. This laboratory delivers emergency surgery to babies born with congenital heart disease in Northern Ireland as well as in the South. These are excellent examples of how North-South collaboration can produce the critical mass of patients required to make services of a specialist nature viable at local level.
The 2019 HSE service plan states Brexit has potential risk implications for continuity of existing service arrangements and for official controls, in particular the controls for food imports and exports for which the environmental health service has legal responsibility to enforce. Is this dealt with in this Bill? The Minister might advise the House. What we do not know, of course, and, as I have said, it is hoped we never will, is the possible impact of a no-deal Brexit on health. The Lancet has said no deal would cause significant damage to Britain’s National Health Service. It states there is no good Brexit for the NHS but that a no-deal scenario, which is what we are dealing with in the Bill, would have negative effects on staff, financing, the availability of medicines and vaccines, the sharing of information and medical research. Is it possible that the impact of no deal on the NHS might have a consequential impact here? I ask this in the sense that the NHS could come under such pressure that, despite anything in the Bill or legislation in the UK, it could become more difficult for people in the Republic to access health services in Britain and the North.
I understand that in 2017, under the cross-border directive 2,011 applications were reimbursed, of which 1,741, or 86%, accessed treatment in the UK, and of this number 1,660 accessed treatment in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of these were outpatient procedures. In 2017, there were 632 approved applications under the treatment abroad scheme, of which 565 were in the UK, and of this number 20 were in Northern Ireland. There must be a possibility that no-deal mayhem or bedlam in the UK could impact on the availability of these services.
We are voting to put the arrangements in place. Is the Minister for Health able to state what engagement he has had with his counterpart in the UK as to when it will put in place reciprocal arrangements? Last month, at a meeting of the Committee on Health, the Secretary General of the Department of the Health stated, "It is recognised that managing a no-deal Brexit would be an exercise in damage limitation and it would be impossible in a no-deal scenario to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across a full range of sectors which are currently facilitated by our common EU membership." What difficulties does the Minister for Health envisage in the event of no deal? What damage will we be limiting? The Secretary General also said, "Ireland is unlikely to face serious general medicine supply issues in the period immediately after 29 March." How long does the period immediately after it last? Is it a week, a fortnight or a month? I acknowledge that it may be hard to quantify but people need to know.
I want to address mental health. The placement of Irish citizens with UK healthcare providers for the purpose of receiving mental health treatment has involved an application on behalf of the HSE to the Court of Protection in London for recognition and enforcement of orders of the Irish High Court. The legal mechanism that facilitates recognition and enforcement of Irish court orders by the UK Court of Protection is under the UK's Mental Capacity Act 2005. This Act, in turn, gives effect to the Convention on the International Protection of Adults, which is a convention of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, HCCH, which is the World Organisation for Cross-border Co-operation in Civil and Commercial Matters. The HCCH is not part of the EU and should not, therefore, be affected by the Brexit. However, as it is my understanding that the mechanism under which children are referred to the UK for mental health treatment is actually done by way of EU regulation and not the HCCH and, therefore, it may be affected, I seek clarification from the Minister of Health on this matter. As long as the Government fails to provide appropriate care for mental health patients in this country, it is critical that any steps needed to be taken are taken to ensure the HSE can continue to refer patients to the UK for specialised care, as deemed appropriate, once the UK leaves the EU.
I will put on my Wexford cap. Rosslare Europort is owned by the Fishguard and Rosslare Railways and Harbours Company established in 1898 under a UK statutory instrument. Its future is effectively controlled by the UK Government, which could dissolve the company tomorrow morning if it so wished. The British Government may like the idea of having a port in the European Union post Brexit. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has never raised the issue of the ownership of Rosslare Europort with his UK counterpart despite promising to so do. When I raised the matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, a couple of weeks ago, he bizarrely claimed to know nothing about it in spite of the multiple parliamentary questions I have tabled on the issue for his response. He could probably plaster his office with the questions I have submitted. A report on the issue was published on the front page of The Sunday Business Post a few weeks ago. The Tánaiste has not raised the matter with his UK counterpart either. Brexit provides a unique opportunity to resolve the issue of the ownership of Rosslare Europort, which is a strategic national port. A similar situation would not be tolerated in the case of Dublin Port or Dublin Airport, so why is it tolerated for Rosslare Europort? The Minister, Deputy Ross, admitted that the unusual legal status of the port has often been identified as a factor inhibiting its development. Why have the Minsters and the Government continually failed to grasp the opportunity to address the issue of the ownership of Rosslare Europort with their UK counterparts?
I call Deputy O'Reilly, who is sharing time with Deputies Mitchell and Funchion.
I will try to be as to the point and as constructive as possible in my remarks. The legislation will only be used in the extreme circumstance of Britain exiting the European Union without a deal. I hope that does not transpire, as do all Members. However, as the British Government does not appear to have much of a clue what it is doing, we must be honest and admit it is a distinct possibility, much as we all hope it does not come to pass.
Section 4 would confer extraordinary powers on the Minister for Health to continue any reciprocal health service arrangements as currently exist after a no-deal Brexit. This is a significant responsibility. I note that approval would have to be sought from the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to so do. Obviously, we can only carry out our part of the bargain. One would hope that Britain would uphold its end by ensuring reciprocal provision of health services but, as ever with the British state, it cannot be trusted in regard to the North of Ireland. Is a contingency plan in place in case of an irate and sour Britain leaving without a deal and refusing to guarantee reciprocal health services? What situation would then pertain in respect of health services in general and, in particular, along the Border? The Bill provides for those needs to be covered in a reciprocal manner in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I hope the British Government honours such agreements as currently exist and does not use healthcare as a pawn in any fallout. No one wants the health service and our cross-Border services to be collateral damage in a no-deal Brexit.
Unfortunately, according to a health policy review published yesterday in The Lancet, the National Health Service will be damaged no matter what Brexit deal the British get. The review states that a no-deal Brexit is the worst scenario for the health service and would impact on the workforce, financing, availability of medicines and vaccines, sharing of information and medical research. In the aftermath of Brexit we must keep a close eye on standards of care qualifications and ensure that reciprocation between Ireland and Britain is of the same standard. Furthermore, given that all reciprocal health care arrangements between the UK and other continental European countries would cease in 2019 under a no-deal scenario, we must ensure that our health services are prepared for a possible increase in volume.
As all Members are aware, since the Good Friday Agreement there have been significant advances in cross-Border co-operation on health services. That is evidenced by the 30 service level agreements pertaining to North-South care, many memorandums of understanding and even more partnerships. These agreements cover matters such as ambulance cover in the Border areas, social care partnerships and routine health services. For instance, a memorandum of understanding between the ambulance services North and South ensures that ambulance services operate in a borderless fashion and respond to events immediately closest to them rather than deliberating over where emergency vehicles should travel from. Co-operation and Working Together is a cross-Border health and social care partnership comprising, from Northern Ireland, the Health and Social Care Board, the Public Health Agency, the Southern Health and Social Care Trust and the Western Health and Social Care Trust and, from the South, the Health Service Executive in the Border counties.
Sharing primary care and acute hospital services, as in the case of the cardiac catheterisation service provided to patients from Donegal at Altnagelvin Area Hospital, is another area of co-operation. I have visited Altnagelvin. I do not know if the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, who is present, has done so. It is a fantastic service and there is great depth of feeling in Donegal about the need to retain it. It was built in partnership and without reference to a border. Essentially, it is a borderless service and it must be maintained.
On the European health insurance card, EHIC, is the Government working with the European Union to ensure that Irish citizens will continue to have access to the card and the benefits that come with it? This is a significant concern for many people to whom I have spoken who have children living in Britain as well as for our citizens in the North. The Government and the EU promised to protect the rights of Irish citizens in the North. This is an issue in respect of which those rights need to be protected.
I wish to raise a commitment given by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, regarding the provision of abortion care for women in the North. He made clear that the North is next. That was stated at Dublin Castle following the referendum. I know the Minister has met groups from the North regarding making that a reality. I was at the meeting. We must ensure that goal does not become collateral damage in a no-deal Brexit. Commitments were given by the Government to women in the North and should be delivered. Will the Minister, Deputy Harris, work with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, regarding the recognition of professional qualifications of medical professionals and healthcare workers from Britain with equivalent education and training standards?
It is infuriating that we are here today making preparations for the North of our country to be pulled out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority of its residents and the wishes of the whole of this island and this House. It is a shame that we are not discussing increasing and improving cross-Border health services and working our way to an all-island health service, which is what Sinn Féin would like to see.
I welcome this Bill which aims to protect our citizens as best we can from the consequences of a hard Brexit. Sinn Féin will table amendments to strengthen parts of it.
The reality of the British partition of our country is that we will be directly affected, North and South, by what happens. Thousands of citizens travel back and forth across the Border every day for work, school and so on. Any attempt to restrict the freedom of movement of citizens on their own island must be rejected.
I wish to raise some points highlighted by young people on Brexit. I particularly thank the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, for taking the time to listen to and consult young people on this issue. The report by the Ombudsman for Children, entitled It’s Our Brexit Too, is a very important document. I thank the young people who took part in it for their brilliant work in outlining how they believe the future of young people on this island can be protected. So what were some of the concerns of our young people? They told the ombudsman that freedom of movement on the island should be protected. This concern was aired by, for example, young people who have families on both sides of the Border, those who play sport and those involved in an all-island music such as the Fleadh who were worried how this issue would affect them. Will sports teams be stuck in their minibus at the Border? Other young persons who live near the Border were concerned about simple things such whether they will face significant roaming charges when they cross the Border. Such roaming charges were scrapped relatively recently, in the summer of 2017. Another point very clearly raised in the report is that young people want the Good Friday Agreement to be protected in all its parts.
Young people, particularly in the North, are very concerned about what Brexit will mean for their right to study and to work and travel abroad. They are also worried about what it will mean for young people accessing services on either side of the Border.
In the context of the children and youth affairs brief, I was pleased by the reassurances of Tusla and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs that they do not foresee any issues when it comes to cross-Border fostering arrangements and that they are confident that, regardless of what happens, access, cross-Border medical care and even foster insurance cover will be maintained. I understand that the issue of possible information-sharing can be included in individual contracts, if needs be.
On the transition period, it is vital that it be used to review the current cross-border and EU child protection systems. We need to ensure it is working well. If we see a need for improvements or more co-operation, that should be given priority.
There is also a need for a very real discussion between the Irish and British Governments to determine whether the latter will continue to match EU legislation in the area of child protection. If it does not, we could have a situation in which legislation in the two jurisdictions will differ. Again, it will be our island that will face all the complications which come with that. While I understand that matters such as trade, agriculture and the economy may be the Government's first priorities, I urge it to do whatever it can to address the concerns of our young people.
As education spokesperson for my party, I will limit my remarks mainly to issues and points concerning the possible impact on education. I appreciate that we are talking in a vacuum to a certain extent because we do not know exactly what the outcome will be. Many have made the point over the past few days that circumstances seem to be changing daily and that there is even the possibility of a second referendum.
My first point is on SUSI, which Members will know administers the grants system for students at third level. Recently, the education committee discussed an amendment that would safeguard students' entitlement to grants north and south of the Border should a no-deal Brexit take place. I welcome that. We obviously need to be very clear on that so none of the 1,500 students studying in the North of Ireland or Britain who are currently entitled to SUSI assistance will be negatively affected should the circumstances drastically change. We will be submitting an amendment concerning an issue related to SUSI that I believe has not been addressed. The body operates in a rather regimented manner, as I am sure those who deal with it regularly will agree. There is very little flexibility regarding rules, guidelines and applications. Applications that may be more complex in nature due to a student's circumstances can prove to be very difficult. We have been informed by the Department that those in the student support scheme should not be affected in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, I am very concerned that the already busy offices of SUSI could be overhauled by an influx of queries for which they are not prepared. Therefore, we will be suggesting the setting up within SUSI of a specific branch with additional resources and staff who are up to speed and properly briefed to deal with Brexit-related matters. This is so that applications of students applying for grants for higher-level institutions in either the North or Britain will be dealt with accurately and fairly with and also so the additional potential queries will not overload SUSI, causing a backlog affecting the more general, run-of-the-mill applications received daily. That is important because even dealing with a general SUSI case can be difficult at times. It is important, in respect of the additional queries, that there be very specific information and that applicants be directed to the right channel. I foresee many difficulties and issues. We may be told by the Government that there are protections but when individuals telephone SUSI they may get different information. There may be a breakdown in this regard and that is why it is crucial to have a specific branch within SUSI to deal with this.
My other point relates to fees. Many are talking about the effect of not knowing exactly where we are going with Brexit. Last September, there was a 20% decrease in applications for places at Trinity College from students in the North. I imagine this is because both students and parents are thinking there is uncertainty over fees. There is a commitment made for this September but thereafter a student will not realistically enrol in college if there a commitment for only one year. We need to see a commitment for the duration of a student's time in college, irrespective of whether it is a three-year degree or four-year degree. This needs to be clarified. Last September, there was a decrease in the number of applications from the North. This trend will continue unless there is clarity and a commitment.
I had the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 2016 and 2017. When Brexit was announced, I noted the number of number of groups we met that were really concerned. So many lives will be affected if there is a hard border. I refer to the daily goings-on of people, be they travelling to school or work. We all hope there will be some sort of deal or compromise reached so we will not have to implement the measures in this Bill.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute. I reiterate the demand recently made on the Government by my friend, Deputy Cullinane, that plans be made not simply for the Irish worst-case scenario if there is no Brexit deal but for all reasonably possible eventualities. This was a fair and reasonable demand already but now, with new developments making no deal less likely and other arrangements far more likely than previously thought, we should not be caught on the back foot by the British Government's ability to change course. The vote in Westminster last night, while not legally binding, is a sure sign that there is consensus in the House of Commons that the prospect of no deal should not be advanced any further. The reality is that Brexit presents massive challenges for any Irish Government on a whole range of issues, whether there is no deal or a soft deal or whether it happens at all.
Brexit has the potential in Ireland to upset and frustrate a great many things taken for granted over the years since the Good Friday Agreement. One is the use of healthcare services in the North of Ireland and Britain by people living in the South. Treatment for eating disorders is just one of the examples. The HSE has described the position of the people from the South who receive eating disorder treatments in the NHS as "unclear". This is deeply worrying considering the details. The number of cases of eating disorders in the State has risen sharply in recent years. What was previously considered by most to be a problem experienced only by teenage girls is in fact much more widespread. With every year, there is a greater incidence among the population. Eating disorders are now far too common among all groups, male and female. Also on the increase is the number of people who are seeking care and treatment in the South of Ireland who are referred to services that are accessible only through the NHS. It is quite an indictment of the seriousness with which the State and the HSE take eating disorders that this is the case but even more so that the problem has not been addressed in the context of an impending Brexit and the risk of a hard border. The HSE has refused to provide figures on the numbers accessing treatment with the NHS. Bizarrely, it states that this could identify those being treated. No matter how low the numbers, the issue remains for these individuals in vulnerable positions. It must also be remembered that they have most definitely been on the increase. That demand does not go away with Brexit or a hard border; in fact, it is only compounded. The Department of Health estimates that in the region of 200,000 people may be affected by an eating disorder, with an estimated 400 new cases among men and women each year. Surely we must begin the process of developing adequate services in this State for residents of this State to seek care for eating disorders as they need it. These issues are not going away.
We must also ensure that, through an arrangement to avoid a hard border, we will protect the treatment of people who currently have to go outside the jurisdiction. Many of these people may be dependent on the oversubscribed, underfunded and understaffed child and adult mental health services from which they were referred if Brexit brings the care they are currently receiving to an end.
The inevitable increased demand requires increased provision, and this is clearly not happening. We need accurate figures on the numbers of patients who may be affected by Brexit due to their specialised care needs. This must inform the development of adequate services within the State, with a transitional model for those already receiving care outside the State. The need for investment, strategic planning and a reorganisation of our affairs to deal with the problem of an internal border on our island, which we do not have the political ability or power to unilaterally remove, should have been clear for many years. Brexit has brought it into sharp focus and we must act now.
Brexit has also highlighted that the EU is not immune from legitimate criticism. While many of the arguments made most loudly and obnoxiously by the right over the course of the Brexit campaign were spurious and deliberately misleading, the EU remains a deeply undemocratic entity which has hardwired neoliberal economics into the workings of its member states. It has little accountability or interest in the opinions of the people of Europe. As we see a groundswell of far right, anti-EU voices across Europe, we must ask how we can fight for a more democratic and fair Union which is welcoming and tolerant. After this debacle ends, we cannot allow normal business to resume. A truly social Europe of free nations, in co-operation for the improvement of the lives of all workers is needed, not the Europe of austerity, privatisation, gravy trains and centralised control in the hands of the unelected elite.
We want an Ireland of prosperity that is shared fairly and an Ireland of public provision of essential services in which the market is subservient to the people and not the other way around. We should not accept a Europe that is anything less than that.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the health-related provisions of this Bill. I thank the officials in my Department, along with officials right across the Civil Service who have worked so hard to ensure that the Bill was prepared to cater for a situation which we never wished to face but one for which we must prepare.
Brexit has undoubtedly raised a number of issues for health services that need to be addressed. My priority is to ensure continuity in the provision of health services and to avoid any changes to the current situation that would have a negative impact for our patients. In that context, the Irish and UK Governments have committed to the shared objective of maintaining the common travel area arrangements, which have long facilitated Irish and UK residents in accessing health services in each other’s jurisdictions. It may be useful to take this opportunity to set out the healthcare arrangements currently in place which will help demonstrate the importance of preserving many of the beneficial healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK.
The treatment abroad scheme is an extremely important service that enables patients in this State to access specialised care in the United Kingdom which is not available here. This enables patients to access key services such as paediatric organ transplantation, cardiology services and oncology services to name but a few. These are vital services to which access must be protected post Brexit. In 2018, there were 663 approved applications under the treatment abroad scheme with the vast majority, 89%, being treated in the United Kingdom.
Similarly, the cross-border healthcare directive is another arrangement which, although more recent, has proven to be beneficial to patients in this State. The cross-border directive enables patients to access care in another EU or EEA member state which patients pay for upfront but then can then be reimbursed by the HSE. Since its inception, the number of Irish patients accessing care under this scheme has grown substantially from just over 150 approved applications in 2015 to over 6,700 in 2018. Crucially, the United Kingdom, particularly Northern Ireland, is the primary location where Irish patients choose to access care. In 2018, over 6,300 applications were for the United Kingdom with 97% of those treatments reimbursed being accessed in Northern Ireland.
These schemes, together with the ability of our residents to access emergency, necessary healthcare in each other’s jurisdictions when on a temporary visit demonstrate the extent to which our health systems are interconnected and our patients are dependent. It is therefore necessary that these healthcare arrangements be maintained to the greatest extent possible following the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU.
It is against this backdrop that my officials have been undertaking extensive contingency planning to prepare for the various scenarios of the post-Brexit landscape. This is the purpose of Part 2 of the Bill. This Bill gives the Minister for Health the power to make an order or orders and regulations which will ensure that healthcare can continue to be provided to the same broad categories of people for whom it is currently provided and reimbursed. This includes continuing existing arrangements for health services which are currently in operation between the State and the UK, for example, access to health services in the UK for persons in the State, access to health services in the State by persons from the UK and reimbursement arrangements.
The matters which will subsequently be provided for by way of regulations can be summarised as follows. Full eligibility for healthcare in Ireland will be granted to frontier workers working in the UK and residing in Ireland and Irish posted workers working in the UK. Full eligibility for healthcare in Ireland will be granted to UK State contributory pensioners resident in the State. Eligibility for certain healthcare in Ireland will be granted to UK temporary visitors and students. Where applicable, eligibility status will be granted to the dependants of such persons.
The regulations will also enable the HSE to authorise persons from Ireland to access, in the United Kingdom, planned public healthcare and to reimburse the United Kingdom providers of that healthcare. The regulations will also enable persons resident in the State to access routine healthcare from both public and private providers in the United Kingdom and to enable the HSE to reimburse persons the cost of that healthcare. The regulations will further enable the HSE to exchange and process data for the purpose of implementing and operating the healthcare arrangements between the State and the United Kingdom. The regulations will also give the Minister power to set out the operational and administrative procedures to allow for the reimbursement arrangements with the UK of the cost of healthcare and benefits-in-kind provided.
I will outline the various health provisions in the Bill. Part 2 provides for an amendment to the Health Act 1970 with the insertion of a new Part IVA dealing with arrangements relating to health services. Section 75A enables the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, to make an order or orders that may be necessary to continue into being reciprocal or other healthcare arrangements that were in place with the United Kingdom prior to its withdrawal from the EU. The order can specify the persons and categories of health services to which it should apply.
Section 75B enables the Minister to make regulations which will seek to set out arrangements for assessing the classes of persons who can access health services in the State and in the United Kingdom, any necessary administrative arrangements required by the HSE to enable access, the reimbursement and charging arrangements of the State and the HSE for the provision of healthcare both within the State and the United Kingdom, including determining the classes of persons, and categories of healthcare for which payments will be made and the methodology for determining charges and reimbursements. Section 75B also provides for penal clauses for persons who may contravene a provision of the regulations.
Section 75C relates to the powers under these regulations of authorised officers appointed by the HSE. This seeks to replicate the requirements provided for under the EU cross-border healthcare directive.
Section 75D is a general provision which relates to the laying of orders and regulations in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Those are the general provisions of the healthcare arrangements in the Bill. It should also be noted that this legislation has been prepared on the working assumption that the UK will negotiate and enter into reciprocal arrangements with this State.
It is important that I take this opportunity this evening to highlight that there are many areas of healthcare that do not require legislative changes but for which extensive planning has already been undertaken to ensure continuity in the provision of services. This includes the security of supply of medicines, recognition of professional qualifications, food safety and maintenance of other service level agreements for the provision of health services.
My Department is working closely with the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, and the HSE regarding the supply of medicines and medical devices. An expert group of officials from the Department, the HPRA and the HSE is conducting a criticality assessment exercise to seek assurance about medicines sourced from, or which transit through, the UK and to identify medicines vulnerable to disruption due to Brexit. This group is engaging with industry and clinicians on mitigation measures such as alternative sources, alternative transport routes and alternative medicines or treatment regimens to ensure that patients continue to receive the best possible care. It is important to say that, to date, no critical supply issues have been identified but we continue to be vigilant.
It is important to note in this context that Ireland has a different supply chain model than the UK and we hold more stock in the supply chain than is the case in the UK. This is why we do not need to stockpile medicine and it is important that individuals do not do so as this could disrupt normal supplies.
The Bill does not contain any provisions relating to the future recognition of health professional qualifications. However, given its critical importance to the health sector, a number of measures are being advanced to address this. In particular, the UK has recently published its draft European Qualifications (Health and Social Care Professions) (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which it is intended to bring into force in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
This legislation will enable Irish qualifications to be recognised in the UK. The Irish health professional regulators each have third country recognition routes which apply to qualifications which are obtained in countries other than within the EEA or Ireland. They have considered these third country recognition routes with the objective of ensuring efficient routes for recognition of UK qualifications, while ensuring it is done in an objective and non-discriminatory way. The Irish regulators are satisfied they can continue to recognise UK qualifications in approximately the same timeframes and the same level of application fee but now under this different legal base.
Both the Irish and UK Governments are fully committed to continuing existing cross-Border health service arrangements such as cardiology and cancer treatments in Altnagelvin Area Hospital, Derry, and paediatric cardiology and associated maternity services in Dublin. These are managed by service level agreements, which do not require any legislative changes in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The withdrawal of the UK from the EU and its new status as a third country will have implications for the official food control system in Ireland, as the importation of food is subject to EU legislation. Additional resources have been provided to conduct the appropriate checks where Ireland is the first point of entry to the EU. Preparations are also under way in the event that the UK should decide to require export certificates for certain food products. To facilitate these preparations, my Department is working closely with the relevant agencies and has approved additional resources for environmental health service staff, the Public Analyst's Laboratory and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
I hope I have addressed some of the health issues raised earlier in this debate, including those by Deputies Maureen O’Sullivan and Broughan. Deputy Howlin queried whether Part 2 could be unconstitutional as it provides for the making or repealing of primary legislation by statutory instrument. I assure him that the Attorney General, having examined available options, concluded it would be feasible to grant the Minister an order-making power to enable the current healthcare arrangements necessitated by EU law to continue to apply to the UK post-exit day.
While it is not possible to completely eliminate all risks or adverse impacts to public health on foot of Brexit, I assure the House that my Department and its agencies are fully engaged with Brexit planning. However, it is important we all recognise that a Brexit of any kind will mean change and will impact to some degree all sectors, including health. Accordingly, managing a no-deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. Part 2 of this important legislation, which we hope never needs to be enacted, is a further step in the contingency planning process to ensure that there is minimal disruption to the current healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK.
The Government remains firmly of the view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to fully protect the Good Friday Agreement is for the UK to ratify the withdrawal agreement. While we sincerely hope the agreement will be accepted by the UK, we must take steps to ensure that, should discussions fail, Ireland is positioned to deal with the fallout from a no-deal Brexit insofar as is possible. While we are doing everything we can to avoid a no-deal scenario, we need to be prepared in case it does happen.
A no-deal scenario creates a broad set of justice issues which must be addressed to facilitate future relationships between Ireland and the UK. Extradition and the future operation of the European arrest warrant is one of the most immediate concerns in this area. Other key instruments, where continued co-operation with the UK on criminal justice matters is essential, include mutual legal assistance, Europol, the Prüm decisions for checking fingerprints, DNA and car registration and the passenger name record directive. Brexit obviously presents challenges on a much larger scale. More than 700 EU instruments in the justice area have been assessed to establish which might be affected and what the implications would be. The key areas identified include the common travel area, police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, data protection, asylum policy and judicial co-operation in civil matters.
The common travel area is a key area which affects nearly everyone on this island. Both the UK and the EU have confirmed the CTA can remain, whether or not there is a withdrawal agreement. Co-operation in the area of law enforcement, particularly vis-à-vis Northern Ireland, is at an all-time high. The Government is determined this is maintained. Maintaining peace and security, particularly in Northern Ireland, must be a priority.
We have identified the European arrest warrant system as the most important EU instrument in the area of judicial co-operation in criminal matters. Its importance was a point we raised consistently with the Commission, the Article 50 task force and UK side. However, the spectre of a no-deal Brexit has cast a shadow on the progress made in this area over the past two years. We are now in the situation where we are preparing for the application of the 1957 Council of Europe Convention on Extradition. It will provide a viable extradition system but it is a step back. Some aspects of this are addressed in the legislation.
In the area of immigration, we have only been able to maintain the CTA because we have remained outside the Schengen area. In essence, the CTA can be seen as a mini-Schengen. Being separate to Schengen means maintaining open borders to the UK for the movement of people does not threaten the integrity of the Schengen area. As a result, we do not participate in most EU immigration related instruments. The exception is in the area of asylum policy.
A comprehensive range of EU instruments has built up over the past 45 years in matters such as judicial co-operation in civil matters, including family law, as well as civil and commercial transactions. A range of other international instruments address many of these issues and will apply post Brexit, while acknowledging that these are not always as effective, or user friendly, as the comparable EU instruments. Although the impact may not be immediately visible, in the absence of EU-wide solutions in family law matters, for example, cross-border divorces or child custody cases may become more complicated. It is likely to take some time for the EU to negotiate new arrangements with the UK. My Department continues to prioritise this.
In a no-deal scenario, my Department has identified two areas requiring primary legislation to be in place, which are set out in Parts 13 and 14. Part 13 deals with extradition while Part 14 deals with immigration matters. The Extradition Act 1965 does not permit extradition of own nationals "unless the relevant extradition provisions otherwise provide" and transmission of extradition requests is via the diplomatic channel and in hard copy. Amendment to section 14 of the 1965 Act deals with this. Amendment to section 23 of the 1965 Act deals with a request for extradition. It provides for direct transmission of extradition requests to the Minister for Justice and Equality rather than through the old cumbersome manner.
Part 14 contains several amendments to the Immigration Acts. The amendments in section 88 and 89 are for the purposes of correcting a lacuna in the provisions relating to non-refoulement in our law. I must point out that refoulement considerations are being undertaken at all times. This provision provides greater clarity and legal certainty in this area.
Section 90 amends the Immigration Act 2004 to provide a legal basis for fingerprinting Irish visa and transit visa applicants. The taking and sharing of biometrics is key to the operation of the British-Irish visa scheme which enables a short-stay visa issued by Ireland in respect of certain countries, currently China and India, to be used to also travel to the UK without the need for a separate visa. This requires biometric data to be captured and checked against both Irish and UK systems. The continuance of this scheme is considered important to both the tourism and business sectors. Accordingly, section 90 contains an amendment to the Immigration Act 2004 for this purpose.
In addition to these amendments, some secondary legislation will be required to be in place by 29 March 2019. These will cover issues such as extending eligibility to apply for admission to An Garda Síochána to nationals of the UK in the area of international protection and asylum, to designate the UK as a safe third country and to facilitate the recognition of UK solicitors’ qualifications in the State.
One of the most challenging areas will be extradition. The provisions of the 1957 Council of Europe Convention on Extradition are given effect to by Part II of the Extradition Act 1965. While the extradition procedure under the convention is not as effective as that of the European arrest warrant, in the event of a no-deal Brexit it would provide a workable solution.
I call Deputy Willie O'Dea who is sharing time with Deputy Marc MacSharry.
Not unlike the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I have been in this House for a good many years. I never thought I would have an experience such as this where I am participating in a debate on legislation which is supported from all sides of the House but which nobody hopes will be implemented. Of course, it is part of a bigger picture. I do not know how much it will cost. I have been given no definitive figure from the Government for how much it will cost to mitigate the Brexit infection from spreading across the Irish Sea. There is no doubt it will cost a considerable amount and it is money that would be much better spent on health and housing.
Despite recent events in Westminster having brought about a situation whereby the probability of a hard Brexit has receded somewhat, there is still no doubt it is a possibility. Everyone has spoken of the incalculable damage it is likely to do to the economies of both the UK and Ireland. Yet, despite everyone's realisation of this fact, particularly the United Kingdom, the destructive insanity and the political self-flagellation continues unabated in Westminster. A rump of the Conservative party, insulated by their wealth from the concerns of the rest of the world, continues with this crusade for nationalistic British purification.
Everyone on all sides of the House agrees this legislation is necessary - we have to pass it and we must be prepared - including those who, had they had their way, would have had us out on the streets canvassing for an election this week rather than being here debating this legislation.
The Government says it has been two years preparing for the eventuality of Brexit. There are several unanswered questions. The Government has been asked on a number of occasions what provisions it has in place to deal with the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That is a clear and unambiguous question to which we have not been given a clear and unambiguous answer. The Government's contingency plans, which I have read, are vague, to put it mildly. As we approach Brexit or B-Day we need clarity on these matters and we need it urgently, in view of the fact that we are supporting the Government because of the threat to the national economy.
If the Government has been preparing for the past two years, why are we one of the last, if not the last, State in the EU to introduce this type of legislation? Why is it only being introduced at the last possible moment?
That is not true.
It is true. If one reads some of the earlier speeches, including from some of the Minister's own colleagues which I followed closely, they outlined what is happening in the rest of Europe and in other countries that might be affected, but not as much as us, where legislation has been passed much sooner to give time to reflect and to debate it properly. There are only about 10 sitting days left until Brexit, or 29 March, as I understand it, and we are confronted with a Frankenstein piece of legislation, cobbled together by a large departmental team, covering everything from healthcare to child benefit, from education grants to insolvent companies, from electricity to cross-Border bus routes, and it is to be rushed through. There has been no time for public hearings or for detailed consultation with the various interests involved since the Bill has been published, and it is imperative we get it through by 29 March.
There are two parts to the Bill dealing with social welfare. The first deals with reciprocity of arrangements from the receipt of pensions and other social welfare benefits between the two States. That is important because there are currently 132,000 people in Ireland receiving a State pension from the United Kingdom, and the figure the other way is 28,000, most of whom live in Northern Ireland. The Government proposed to deal with this by amending the regulations in the various pieces of legislation to take into account the fact that the UK might be a third country after 29 March. I have various questions about these regulations but, as I understand it, I do not have to ask them because they will be subsumed by a convention that has been signed between the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and her UK counterpart, but which has not yet been ratified by the UK. I assume that, in the unlikely event that convention is not ratified by the UK by 29 March, this legislation will kick in as a temporary provision. I welcome the fact that the convention has been signed as it provides legal underpinning to the common travel area arrangements which have been around since 1924 and whose legal foundation has been questioned and is decidedly shaky. This provides legal underpinning to those arrangements. However, while the payment of State pensions and other social welfare benefits on each side of the Irish Sea will continue as before, what about private pensions? What about people in this State who are in receipt of private pensions from UK institutions, of whom there are quite a number. I understand there are some institutions which insist that in order to continue receipt of these pensions, individuals will be forced to open a sterling bank account. I am sure they would be very grateful for reassurance from the Government that they will not have to do that. It may require some sort of banking arrangement between Ireland and the UK. I would like to know the position on that.
It also appears the common travel area rights do not extend to the spouses or other family members of Irish people living in the UK. An official notice published by the UK's Brexit department last Friday stated:
The arrangements for existing close family members (who are not Irish citizens or British citizens) to remain in the UK with, or join EU citizens resident in the UK in future, are not provided for by the CTA arrangements but rather under the draft Withdrawal Agreement.
That means family members of Irish citizens who want to stay in the UK after Brexit or move there in future will be required to apply for status under the UK's controversial EU settlement scheme. I am puzzled as to why these people were not provided for when the Government was negotiating the convention. Not only are they not provided for, but as I read the convention on social security, particularly article 4(c), they seem to be specifically excluded. According to article 4(c) the convention "shall not apply to or affect rights and obligations arising under ... the UK-EU withdrawal agreement". Therefore, under the withdrawal agreement, these people will be still obliged to apply for the EU settlement scheme. I require clarification on that.
On the other part on social protection, namely, the protection of people in this country who are employees of a UK company that becomes insolvent, the legislation seems comprehensive, on the face of it. It recognises the definition of UK insolvency here. It provides for situations where insolvent employers do not make their PRSA or occupational pension contributions and provides for the sharing of information. We have not had time to examine this fully but I hope it is comprehensive.
If it is not, there will be the possibility of a grave injustice arising at some time in the future where an employee in this country of a UK-based company may be deprived of rights which he or she would have if he or she was working for an Irish company. There is no justification for that.
My party will not be opposing this legislation. Obviously, we recognise the necessity for it, but we hope that we will never see the day that it will have to be implemented.
I realise the line Ministers are not here because everyone is taking their turn to lay out their own Department's position. My party's position was well articulated by our senior spokesman, Deputy Lisa Chambers, and I do not want to go over that. Obviously, we will support the Bill. I think everyone in the House is donning the green jersey in that regard and we all hope none of this ever comes to pass.
However, it would be remiss of me not to be critical of the timing of it. I can appreciate that the Ministers may have thought, or the Government may have taken the position, that we should not have the UK thinking we are fully prepared and we do not need a backstop at all, and that therefore we should leave this legislation until the last minute. As Deputy O'Dea has said, with approximately ten days to go, time is short. I have a problem with that because this is not enabling legislation to allow for certain measures to be implemented or to allow for certain things to happen but rather is concerned with the tangibles that will affect various sectors in society and what will be needed in terms of support and compensation to keep people in jobs and in their livelihoods if disaster strikes and there is a no-deal Brexit. In that regard, the kind of consultation that has taken place with the various sectors has fallen short. While the Government might have wanted to be careful not to show its hand and its negotiating position within the EU to the British, it has been remiss in not fully engaging with the various sectors in society, social and commercial, in preparing the sort of measures that it will have to implement to keep Ireland's socio-economic fabric functioning. Being from one of the six Border counties, I and my constituents are probably set to be affected more significantly than anywhere else in the country.
I am sure we, like everybody, are suffering from Brexit fatigue. It is like War and Peace cubed to the power of infinity in terms of length. It is like a pantomime in terms of the ongoing calls of "You do not need the backstop", "You need the backstop", "We are not reopening the backstop", "Yes, they will reopen the backstop", and so on. The Sky News House of Commons coverage would give us supreme confidence in how we do our business here when one looks at times to see the car crash which is happening in Westminster.
As I said, we need more leadership from Government on this in terms of the tangibles. To take the dairying sector alone as an example, 20% of the milk pool in the six Border counties comes from the North of Ireland. In fact, the North of Ireland itself does not have the processing capacity to deal with that milk and it comes south to Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. As it stands, if there was a no-deal Brexit, it would be a nightmare with the number of loads that have to come across the Border for processing. There have been negotiations between some in the dairying sector and Revenue on inward processing relief, but I am told the administrative burden involved in that would be like a tonne of paperwork for each load of milk that is coming in. We need to be cognisant of measures being put in place to ensure that the administrative burden is not prohibitive to businesses. Considering that 20% of the raw material is coming south, the dairy sector is one that will cause major problems. The three co-operatives that are most affected would be Aurivo in the north west, Glanbia and Lakeland. There is a major issue with how those people will do their business and there is nothing in the legislation today to show or give guidance on how things will operate. That is why I say that, from a trade perspective, the Government needs to be liaising with the sectoral interests. In the context of dairying, this would be with the various co-operatives or their umbrella organisation, Ornua.
Equally, on dairying, we are the biggest supplier of cheddar cheese, for example, to Tesco, and substantial suppliers of butter into the UK. For example, 23% of all cheese sold in Britain comes from here. It is priced at €3,000 per tonne. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, that price becomes €4,671 per tonne. The tariff is €1,671 under the GATT rules. It would be a disaster. How will the Government square that circle? What level of compensation is in place? What funds are in place? Is it coming from the EU? Do we have to come up with our own resources?
Similarly, with beef, a significant amount of our beef, and up to 40% of fresh beef, goes into the UK market. The tariffs there, depending on what it is, are between 40% and 70%. How will the Government cover that? I am from the north west and many would say the four or five counties there are the engine room of the suckler herd nationally which produces much of our beef. What will the Government do for those farmers? Many of them are small farming families dependent on modest incomes. All of a sudden their product will be up to 70% less competitive than it was a day before, and that is in an era where there is already a beef crisis where the multiples, factories, etc. are leveraging their positions at the expense of small farming families. That is something that needs to be addressed.
Returning to the topic of dairying for the moment, as it stands according to Ornua and the various co-operatives, there is no space in a cold store or chill in Britain at present because they have stockpiled six to nine months' supply of butter and cheese. In cold stores and chills, it is literally stacked in the aisles. That involves a cash outlay from our dairying sector so far of €200 million to €400 million, and that is before there is no deal, a deal or whatever. There has been a tremendous cost on the sector and that needs to be taken on board.
The haulage sector is totally in the dark and feels that it has received no clarification on the situation regarding non-Irish drivers crossing what the Minister, Deputy Ross, likes to refer to as a land bridge. This will have a detrimental impact on time-sensitive products such as fresh food, meat and dairy products. Incredibly, when tackled about this at the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, where the members of all parties and none stated he needs to engage with the sector, the Minister's response was that he could not see how the Department publicly discussing using the UK as a handy land bridge and discussing its vital importance with haulage representatives would help our negotiating position, in that the UK would not appreciate being little more than a convenient gateway to Europe for Ireland. That frightens me. As I stated at the beginning, I accept we need to be cautious and strategic in our negotiating position, but not at the expense of the appropriate engagement with sectoral interests. I have mentioned dairying, beef finishing, etc. Here is a prime example, with haulage, of the Minister not engaging and feeling the good excuse for that is that, strategically, it could weaken our negotiating position. I do not buy that. It worries me.
The Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Agriculture, Food and the Marine have jointly leveraged Exchequer funding of €300 million for a loan scheme for businesses impacted by Brexit, but 40% of the fund has been ring-fenced for the food sector. From responses to parliamentary questions that I have seen, of 42 eligible applications from food companies, only eight have been sanctioned for finance under this loan scheme. This effectively means one in five eligible loan applications for the sector has been approved. It is like a box-ticking exercise. That funding is there. What sort of underwriting criteria is the Government applying? Are they prohibitive? Is the Government looking to give this money out to help people and give them the supports they need or is it talking the talk without walking the walk? If the Government is putting measures in place, let us make them available to people. Certainly, the lending rate so far does not engender confidence. With one in five or only eight out of 42 eligible applications sanctioned, if there is a no-deal Brexit, how will the Government get funding to where it is needed quickly? A prohibitive underwriting or application criteria will not assist us. The response would suggest to me that that particular scheme is not fit for purpose in that regard.
Apart from that, obviously my party will support the legislation. We will don the green jersey. I fear, however, that the Government adopting a strategic position of not showing its hand in its negotiating position means it is not adequately prepared in terms of tangible measures it will be expected to implement instantaneously in a no-deal Brexit scenario.
That is getting cash to people who need it and ensuring businesses can operate. The absence of the appropriate sectoral consultation is telling and very worrying, so we must up our game very much in that regard.
The six Border counties, including that of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, my county and the others I mentioned earlier are clearly going to be the most affected. Post Brexit, deal or no deal, a special package of measures must be made available for those counties with respect to farming, agriculture and food production, infrastructure, cross-Border connectivity and capital city and port and airport connectivity. That is for Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth, which is already pretty well serviced with motorways, etc. The rest of us are not. I would like to see the Government prioritising this and not using the post-Brexit scenario as an opportunity to resource parts of the country that may be better placed to meet challenges than the six counties on the Border. I hope the Government will be able to make that a priority.
I will speak to Parts 11 and 12 of the Bill, which fall within my remit. Both are subject to commencement orders as set out in section 2. Part 11 sets out amendments to the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 required in order to maintain the status quo in the common travel area. The purpose of these amendments is to maintain the current reciprocal arrangements for social insurance, which includes pensions, and social assistance or means-tested schemes linked to residency rights and child benefit between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland. There are approximately 132,000 people in receipt of a UK state pension living in this country and approximately 1,000 customers receiving child benefit payments from the UK for children residing in Ireland. There are 28,760 people residing in the UK who are in receipt of a contributory State pension from Ireland and 840 people residing in the UK are in receipt of full-rate child benefit payments from my Department. These payments are in respect of 1,830 children, 95% of whom reside in Northern Ireland. A further 920 people residing in the UK are in receipt of child benefit supplement payments from my Department in respect of 2,010 children, 97% of whom reside in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure the continuation of these payments and that is what we are doing with this legislation.
Ireland and the United Kingdom share a long history of co-operation in social security matters. The principle of reciprocity has been reinforced in bilateral agreements and arrangements on social security between the two countries since 1924. This is underpinned by the principle of equal treatment so that Irish citizens enjoy the same benefits as UK citizens and vice versa. These rules are designed to protect people moving and working between each State and to minimise any disadvantages they might otherwise experience.
From a social welfare perspective, maintenance of the status quo is of critical importance to me and the Government in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As a result of the unique nature of the common travel area and the associated rights and privileges it provides and will continue to provide for Irish and British citizens in each others' countries, it was agreed that Ireland and the UK would formalise the pre-existing common travel area social protection arrangements in a legally-binding agreement. Under the terms of that agreement, all existing arrangements regarding recognition of, and access to, social insurance entitlements will be maintained in both jurisdictions. This means that the rights of Irish citizens living in Ireland to benefit from social insurance contributions made when working in the UK and to access social insurance payments if resident in the United Kingdom are protected and vice versa.
The agreement is subject to ratification processes in both Ireland and the UK that are under way. I am confident that these processes will be completed in both jurisdictions before 29 March but I want to be absolutely certain that the current arrangements can continue even if all the necessary steps in the ratification process are not completed by that date. That is the overall purpose of the amendments in Part 11, which are required in the event of no-deal Brexit.
Section 76 provides that for the purposes of Part 11, the "Act of 2005" is the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005. Section 77 provides for an amendment to section 287 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 with regard to the continuation of a range of social welfare payments. The amendments provide for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make an order in respect of the way in which arrangements under this section interact. Such arrangements may cover a number of issues, such as the recognition of contributions paid in other countries such as the United Kingdom. It further provides that an arrangement under this section includes an agreement, in certain circumstances, which is intended to be binding but where it has not yet become binding. This allows the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make an order to provide for the implementation of the Convention on Social Security between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the event that the ratification process is not completed by 29 March.
Section 78 amends section 113A, entitlement to invalidity pension in certain circumstances; section 205, recoupment of supplementary welfare allowance in certain circumstances; and table 2 of Schedule 3, treatment of payments equivalent to child benefit in the means test. It also inserts a new Part 8A, entitlement to island allowance. These amendments insert specific references to the UK into the Act so that the same rules will be applied with regard to the treatment of the UK under these provisions when the United Kingdom is no longer covered by existing references to "member state" in those provisions. As I have already said, I am confident the ratification process will be complete in both jurisdictions by 29 March. However, it is prudent to proceed with Part 11 to ensure all eventualities are covered.
I am also responsible for Part 12, which sets out a number of amendments to the Protection of Employees (Employers’ Insolvency) Act 1984, which, in turn, provides for the insolvency payments scheme. The purpose of the scheme is to protect certain outstanding pay-related entitlements owed to employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer. The scheme covers employees who are in insurable employment in Ireland. This includes employees who are employed in Ireland by an employer who becomes insolvent under the laws, regulations and administrative procedures of another member state. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, employers in a state of insolvency under laws of the United Kingdom would not fall within the scope of the Act without the amendments set out in Part 12. Employees of those employers who are employed in Ireland would no longer be covered by the protections set out in the Act, notwithstanding that those employees are in insurable employment contributing to the Social Insurance Fund. It is therefore necessary to make amendments to a number of sections of the Act to ensure that employees who are employed in Ireland and whose employer has been made insolvent under the laws of the United Kingdom will continue to receive protection under the Act. These are the amendments in Part 12 which I will now describe.
Section 79 provides that for the purposes of Part 12, the "Act of 1984" is the Protection of Employees (Employers’ Insolvency) Act 1984. Section 80 provides for amendments to a number of the definitions in section 1 of the 1984 Act. When a claim is made under the insolvency payments scheme, it must be submitted by the "relevant officer" who has been appointed by a "competent authority". Both of those terms are defined in section 1(1) of the 1984 Act. Section 80 amends the definitions of "competent authority" and "relevant officer" to ensure that administrators of employers which have been made insolvent under the laws of the United Kingdom can continue to submit applications on behalf of employees who are employed in Ireland. In addition, a definition of "Directive" is being inserted to clarify that the directive referred to is Directive 2008/94/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2008 on the protection of employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer. A definition of United Kingdom is also being inserted to ensure that we are effectively treating the United Kingdom in the same way as when it was a member state and to ensure that employers made insolvent in the United Kingdom will continue to fall within the scope of the Act. Section 1(3) of the 1984 Act sets out the circumstances in which an employer is deemed to be insolvent for the purposes of the Act. The amendment to this section inserts a paragraph to include circumstances where the employer has been made insolvent under the laws of the UK. Section 4(1) of the 1984 Act specifies the date on which an employer will be regarded as having become insolvent for the purposes of the scheme. Section 81 amends this provision by inserting a new paragraph to include the date on which an employer is made insolvent under the laws of the UK.
Section 7 of the 1984 Act allows claims to be made where an employer has become insolvent and has failed to pay contributions in accordance with the occupational pension scheme or personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs.
Section 82 amends section 7(3) of the 1984 Act to ensure that amounts certified by an actuary or a person performing a similar task relating to employers made insolvent in the UK, and where the employees are habitually employed in the State, can be submitted for payment under the scheme.
Section 83 inserts a new section 8A into the 1984 Act with regard to the transfer of personal data where the employer is insolvent in the UK. To continue to make payments from the scheme to employees who are employed in Ireland but where the employer has been made insolvent under the laws of the UK, it is necessary to share personal data of those employees with UK administrators and insolvency practitioners. This new section 8A gives the Minister the power to make regulations to share personal data with UK administrators and further provides that in sharing personal data, the Minister will have regard to the important public interest to ensure robust compliance with the general data protection regulation, GDPR.
In the economic uncertainties that may prevail in a no-deal scenario, it is vital that we continue the protection of the insolvency payments scheme to workers in Ireland, and that is why I am introducing these amendments in Part 12. Like all my other colleagues who have spoke about this legislation today or yesterday, I sincerely hope that we will come to an agreement between now and 29 March, there will be an orderly Brexit and we will never need to commence this legislation.
The Government has been working hard to ensure that Ireland is ready for Brexit. In particular, we continue to seek to mitigate as far as possible the potential adverse impacts of a disorderly Brexit. With the impending approach of the 29 March deadline, we are accelerating our no-deal preparations. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill is a key part of that work. It covers the primary legislative issues that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit, ensuring that key measures and protections are in place.
Members will note that there is no Part of the Bill dealing with the remit of my Department. This is because my Department largely implements EU policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, and any legislative changes required will be made at EU level. This does not mean that my Department is not heavily involved in Brexit issues. Indeed I will be laying at least one statutory instrument before the Houses to reduce the time period for notification of imports subject to sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks to 24 hours for imports using roll-on roll-off ferries.
Legislation is just one element of our preparations. I also have been sensitising other member states and the European Commission to the potentially very severe impacts of Brexit on the Irish agrifood and fisheries sectors and the likelihood of specific supports being required to deal with these impacts. As part of Brexit planning, my Department has carried out a detailed analysis of the implications for Irish agrifood exports in a worst-case scenario whereby the UK applies the EU's existing tariff schedule on imports. This analysis found that the estimated cost of potential tariffs for the sector as a whole is €1.7 billion based on Irish agrifood exports to the United Kingdom of €4.8 billion in 2016. The decision as to how and when the UK might impose tariffs on imports from the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit is a matter for the UK Government. The institutions of the EU are very well aware of the likelihood of a significant impact of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland's economy because this has been part of the discussion from the beginning, and indeed this is explicitly recognised in the Commission's own communication on contingency planning.
Recently, I had bilateral meetings with Commissioners Hogan and Vella to discuss the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the Irish agrifood and fisheries sectors. We discussed the unique exposure of these sectors to the threat and the challenges that it could present. I stressed the need to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on farmers and processors, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the CAP's single Common Market organisation regulation, increased flexibility under state aid regulations and a common approach to managing fisheries and additional funding under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF.
I am aware that a number of Deputies have queried why reference to a support package for farmers and the agrifood industry has not been included in the Bill. Any support package is dependent on a number of variables and, in any event, would not require a change to primary legislation. It is not possible to introduce a support package until we know what type of Brexit we are dealing with, with or without a deal, and the implications of such a Brexit on the agrifood and fishing sectors. My officials are in ongoing contact with the Commission and other member states on these issues and we will not be found wanting when it comes to supporting the sector. We will continue to prepare for all eventualities.
To date, I have provided significant supports to the agrifood and fisheries sectors. In budget 2017, I introduced farm gate business costs reduction measures to enhance competitiveness, including a €150 million low-cost loan scheme. In budget 2018, I introduced a €50 million dedicated Brexit package that included supports to Bord Bia and Teagasc as well as a contribution to a €300 million joint Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation Brexit loan scheme, at least 40% of which is available to food businesses. In budget 2019, I introduced a €78 million Brexit package for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs and the following measures to cover additional costs related to Brexit.
I provided €44 million in direct aid to farmers through increased spending on areas of natural constraint, the introduction of a beef environmental efficiency pilot scheme, additional funding for the horticulture sector, and €27 million for capital funding for the food industry. This €27 million comprised €13 million in supports for food industry competitiveness and innovation, €3 million both for artisan and microfood and beverage programmes through the LEADER programme and for LEAN manufacturing initiatives designed to improve competitiveness, an additional €5 million for Bord Bia, which brought its total grant-in-aid to €46.6 million and represented a 60% increase in funding for marketing and promotion of our food offering since 2014, and €6 million in funding to progress an €8 million food innovation hub in Teagasc Moorepark, of which €2 million was provided in 2018.
In addition, I have provided €7 million for the recruitment of additional staff and the provision of ICT hardware and software to carry out the greatly increased volumes of import controls and export certification arising from Brexit. As well as this, the Minister for Finance announced the future growth loan scheme, which will be rolled out in 2019 and for which I provided €25 million in 2018. The scheme will provide long-term, unsecured investment finance for farmers and small-scale companies in the food and seafood sectors.
Our preparations also include intensive work, in conjunction with other Departments, to ensure that trade continues to flow through our ports and airports in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Work in this regard has been focused on three key areas, namely, infrastructure, staffing and information technology in three key locations, these being Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and Dublin Airport. On infrastructure, we have been engaging very closely with the Office of Public Works, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Health and the Revenue Commissioners regarding the physical facilities that will be required to carry out import controls at the three locations. Areas being addressed here include inspection facilities, staff accommodation, parking and logistics and traffic management. On staffing, we are in the process of recruiting and redeploying staff required to carry out the range of controls needed. These controls are carried out by a combination of portal inspectorate staff with appropriate veterinary and technical supervision. The Department is working very effectively with customs and others to provide the resources needed to apply the necessary controls, and I am confident that the State will be in a position to apply controls at the appropriate time. On information technology, my Department has established a project to co-ordinate the identification and delivery of ICT infrastructure and systems to support the additional requirements of staff engaged in control processes in Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and Dublin Airport. The delivery timelines in the event of a disorderly Brexit are very challenging but officials are working with the greatest urgency to ensure the necessary requirements are in place by 29 March.
We must bear in mind that, regardless of the kind of future relationship the EU has with the UK post Brexit, things are going to change. There will be new customs procedures and regulatory requirements along agrifood and fisheries supply chains, but the Government will be working to keep the impact of these to a minimum. There will also be additional export certification requirements in certain areas. Through all of this work, the focus has been on the need to discharge the Department's legal responsibilities while ensuring the minimum possible disruption to trade. My Department will continue to participate actively in the whole-of-Government approach to dealing with Brexit, and this Bill is an important element of the whole-of-Government response. I commend the Bill to the House.
I wish to share time with Deputy O'Keeffe.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
We are debating a Bill that will be crucial in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is crucial that we deal with the issues involved. We received the Bill just last Friday, although there had been some briefings by Ministers to committees before that. In the case of education, the Bill raises more questions than it provides answers. Part 5, which deals with education, simply deals with the issue of student support, which is very important for those in receipt of student support. This year's Estimates provide for a decrease of €2 million in SUSI grants because the thresholds have not been increased, and I am sure there will be further debate about that in the coming weeks. The Bill deals with SUSI grants, which are of great importance and for which it is necessary to make legislative provision. We support that and will ensure it gets through. However, the Bill needs to be subject to scrutiny and I look forward to engaging with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, on Committee Stage. I know he is due to speak later on Second Stage.
As stated, the Bill raises more questions than it provides answers. What about the student who intends to study here who is perhaps a citizen of Ireland coming from the North or from Great Britain, or who is a citizen of the United Kingdom coming from the North or Great Britain? They have no information, no legislation, no guarantees and no entitlements or rights to come here as a student on the same basis as EU students from September 2020 because the Minister has given a guarantee only for the year from September 2019. I cannot for the life of me fathom why this is not part of the legislation. It may be that the movement of students comes under the free movement of people and workers under the European treaties, and this is a European competence. If so, the Government can let us know. However, the Minister has not stated that, so perhaps there are other arrangements in regard to the common travel area.
When I put this to the Minister at the committee, he was extremely evasive. He stated that he would be happy to work with us to deal with the issue. I am certainly happy to work with him but I do not know if the answer to this problem lies with the Opposition, although we will certainly be here to help. We should give a unilateral declaration that UK and Irish students living in the North of Ireland and Britain would be entitled to attend university here on the same basis that they always have been, that is, as EU students, regardless of any reciprocity and regardless of whatever deal happens regarding Brexit. I urge the Minister to explain on Second Stage why he is not able to provide these assurances beyond this September and when he proposes to change that. Fifth year or sixth year students might be considering taking a gap year before attending university in this country, and the same goes for those who may be intending to travel to the North or Britain, although that is not something with which the Dáil can deal. What is the position and what information can we give them? For all the talk of a common travel area and for all the talk of a hard border, as matters stand, a hard border will be in place for any student planning to come here from September 2020 onward. That hard border is already here and it is up to the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister to tell us why they are not being treated as EU students from that point. These are our fellow citizens, our fellow inhabitants of this island and of Great Britain. Quite simply, they are being put in a terrible position because of Brexit and while that is not the Government's fault, it could do more to address their particular problems.
A range of other education issues are not addressed in the Bill. The only purpose of the Bill seems to be to deal with the issues with which the Government can deal. The British Irish Chamber of Commerce put forward a number of suggestions last year along the lines of what I have just proposed in respect of education, particularly third-level education and EU fees. While I go further and suggest that we should not wait for reciprocity, the British Irish Chamber of Commerce basically agrees with my position. It also stated that we should support the UK's continued participation in the European research agency, which I suppose is a matter for the exit negotiations. There is also the whole issue of professional qualifications between the EU and the UK, and the recognition of teacher qualifications is another thing that is not addressed in this legislation in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
The British Irish Chamber of Commerce called for special status for the education area of the island of Ireland. This is important. There are students who are cross the Border for their primary and second level education and while this affects a limited number of pupils, it is happening. I would like the Minister to outline whether a statutory basis is needed for that. Perhaps it is not and perhaps that is simply part of the common travel area. When the Minister gets an opportunity to speak, perhaps he will address that point.
As stated, I have raised more questions than I have received answers. The Government is not at the root of this but it needs to do more to address what exactly is happening so our education system can be prepared for the catastrophe a disorderly or no-deal Brexit would cause.
We all acknowledge we are in crisis mode at the moment. I commend the Government on brining forward the legislation, albeit at the last minute. We should have been working on this sooner. Already today, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has stated that he will have to bring in amendments to his part of the omnibus legislation.
In talking about this, we must acknowledge the goodwill of the British people. A democratic decision was taken across the water, although we did not want it. As a democratic country, we know it is not for us to get involved in the arguments that have arisen. Some of those who were against Brexit should have spoken louder before 2016 and driven home the emphasis on the crisis situation that could arise in the North if there was a no-deal Brexit and a hard border. All of that should have been highlighted by the experts involved in the negotiations in recent decades. While I commend them on bringing peace to the North, it must be stated that when the horse is bolting, people need to act. Another issue is whether, if there had been no election in 2017, which led to dependence on the Unionists, we would be any better off with regard to the backstop. Would Theresa May be telling us that she had to include the backstop given there might then be the threat of the Armalite from the opposing group in the Six Counties?
We have to move on and be positive. We are speaking at a time when the word "economic" is used as a weapon for making attacks instead of the sword or the gun. I hope the legislation is of a sound nature. I listened to some of my colleagues today and last night comment that the Bill is simply of a technical nature and constitutes a face-saving exercise. I hope the legislation does not come under scrutiny at a critical point if we have a no-deal Brexit, which no one wants. At the same time, we cannot be condescending about our friends across the road.
Transport is a crisis issue for this country, given our isolation from mainland Europe and from other world markets, and much of this will also affect the Department of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, who is present in the House. Due to the use of the landbridge, we get lorries across to Dover and on to mainland Europe with our exports. With regard to perishable exports, if the landbridge becomes congested or inoperable, has the Government gone to the market to source potential roll-on, roll-off ferries so that, instead of depending on the landbridge, we would have our own ferries organised to get to mainland Europe? It is an issue of major concern.
The Government has launched its 2040 development plan.
That was based on a scenario of this country working fine as a cohesive 32-county unit and that everything was going according to plan with exports to Britain. The question now, however, is whether the NDP will have to be reviewed because of a change in the direction of our exports and the need to do business with other countries. Agricultural exports have been mentioned. It may have been the fault of my party and previous Governments that before we joined the EU, we were completely dependent on the British market for our exports. I refer to goods such as cheddar cheese and beef, whether live or in carcase form. I commend the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and his predecessor, Deputy Coveney, on going abroad on trade delegations and opening up new markets. At the end of the day, however, when we sit down and analyse the markets we have opened up they still only account for minute percentages of our exports in comparison to the British market.
I recall the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, coming home a few years ago stating he has secured access to the market in America where we could sell a few T-bone steaks. My response at the time was that he might well have opened the market but perhaps the Americans might also send their cheap buffalo beef to us. We do not seem to be making proper inroads into attaining access to other markets for our dairy and beef produce. That has to be re-examined. One of the solutions I request the Minister to examine is increasing the level of credit export insurance. That was mentioned previously in the context of Iran and Iraq but there are also other markets. In the past, we have also dealt with Egypt and Libya. Those countries have always been in turmoil no matter what decade we have been exporting to them.
Even without the impact of Brexit, beef prices are at an all-time low, especially those for bull beef. There are, however, other markets we can get into. It is a concern for exporters because they cannot go to the farmers, hand over money, have the animals end up on a boat to some other jurisdiction and then wait a good while for payments. Will the Minister to revisit the issue of export credit insurance? That would be welcome and might help our live exports in particular.
Whatever happens with Brexit, it is fast approaching. We may be lucky and it may not impact on Cheltenham. Ireland has had major achievements in equine sports and the equine industry. That gives us a good name and shows what a good country this is for horse breeding. That is also the case with showjumping and other activities relating to horses, such as racing, etc. How are we fixed in those areas? If something goes wrong and a no-deal Brexit kicks in, what will happen to that major industry? God only knows the number of people employed directly or indirectly in the industry. Many a small farmer has a good mare, which can be a major source of income. It allows them to stay on the land and make a living from it. It is an industry we have to cherish and protect. The big operators also create jobs as well.
I fully abide by my party leader's decision to hold tough on any contentious issues. I support the Brexit legislation put forward by the Government. There should be unanimity and cohesion between all parties. I take offence, however, that some Members from other parties have been criticising Fianna Fáil over the past few days. I have the green card and the Taoiseach has played the green card to the best of his ability. He has gone to Europe and secured an agreement to safeguard our economy and the peace process in the North. Then I hear Sinn Féin Members attacking us and asking where our green card is. However, has Sinn Féin lost its green card? That party is more focused on world socialism and neoliberal policies. Perhaps it is trying to push those policies on the back of another country’s woes.
I am delighted the peace process has succeeded in the North. That was built on the unanimity of consent and, hopefully, that will eventually bring us into a 32-county republic. That is important. Even the spokespeople from the smaller parties were belittling us on where we stand. Fianna Fáil, however, has done its best. It is helping and standing behind the Government on the issues of concern at the moment. Regarding the one or two questions I asked, will the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, come back and give a positive response? I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute and I hope this legislation will be passed but not required. It is, however, important to ensure it is in place and workable.
We now move to the unaligned groups. I call Deputy Fitzmaurice.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this detailed document. It is easy to look back, but when David Cameron tried to renegotiate some elements of Britain's relationship with the EU, if agreement could have been reached at that stage, we would not have gone through what we have in recent years. The foresight, unfortunately, was not there at the time. I fear that in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament there will be a bit of a backlash in some member states.
That will cause problems down the road. There is no point in us trying to duck away from that. Regarding the legislation, I understand the Government has to try to get it passed as quickly as possible. I do not think many Members will object to it or block it; they will, instead, be constructive. There will be amendments but that will be tabled in a constructive way. We should, however, have a question and answer session on this legislation. Everybody here, including myself, will stand up and talk for 15 or 20 minutes, then will we leave after that. It is important that we have a detailed debate and questions and answers as we near the end of this process. That is a matter, however for Committee Stage.
Regarding agriculture, it was encouraging in the past couple of days that the UK environment secretary, Michael Gove, stated tariffs would not be put on Irish beef if there is a hard Brexit. That is good news. It gives us some hope, especially those in the beef sector which is in turmoil at the moment. We need to be careful in this country that what we are doing is not about being one up on somebody or that this is a case of winners or losers. This is about trying to ensure our country's interests are protected. It is also important, however, that we do not kick someone when he or she is down because sometimes in that situation, there can be retribution.
We had a debate on live exports in the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine recently. Some of the live exporters attended that meeting and they believe the Government could push more live exports. Delegations could travel abroad in the same way they do for cattle that have been slaughtered. That is one thing we need to do, given the way the beef sector is at the moment. Farmers rearing cattle for slaughter are losing their shirts. That cannot continue to happen. If there is a hard Brexit, we need to ensure there is intervention and storage and that must be at a proper price. It will be no good to bid people worse than what they are getting now. This is also a time where careful language is needed. Some media reports have been ferociously alarming to farmers. We can see the impact.
Anyone who lives in rural parts of Ireland sees the knock-on effect that is having. Talking to people in the machinery business, one detects a fear to invest. We have got to bring confidence back into that area. It is ferociously important that measured language is used rather than extreme claims that it is the end for beef.
On top of that, there are lot of things we need to watch in the area of transport. I refer to hauliers and the need for international haulage licences. I note that a section of the legislation deals with that. There is a lot of talk about licences at the moment. Before we were ever in the EU, Ireland recognised that someone with a licence from England could drive here without getting all the variously coloured cards in the world. That is talked about with reference to insurance, but I did not see mention of the licensing issue in the document. Maybe I missed it or maybe it will be in the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport's submission. We need to recognise the UK licences for driving cars, lorries and all types of vehicles.
In the event of a hard Brexit, which it is hoped will not arise, it is said that Rosslare Europort will be upgraded because more ships will be going in and out. Regrettably, in 2012 the west, the midlands and the north west, where the Leas-Cheann Comhairle comes from, was excluded from TEN-T funding. The Minister of State who is present at the moment, Deputy John Halligan, was at the table when we got a commitment from the Government that we would get TEN-T funding back in the first three months. I remember being beside Deputy Halligan at the time. This is not about my back door. This concerns Cork, Mallow, Donegal, the A5 area, Rosslare Europort, Killybegs Port, Galway Port and Knock Airport. Those are the areas that are really affected. The Government made sure that Waterford would get core network status. Shannon-Foynes Port Company was included. That is good for Foynes and no one begrudges that. However, the network went from Foynes to Dublin and from Cork to Dublin, and it was to hell with the rest of the country. People in the south east, the midlands, the west and the north west were left out. I know an amendment is being put forward in Europe to get Rosslare Europort and Waterford Port up to that status. The Government must concentrate on that. In a committee meeting in recent weeks we were told that a new application would be made. In my honest opinion the Department does not have the will. If a person is not living in Dublin, he or she does not seem to live anywhere in this country. We must focus on that.
A lot of companies would come to Dublin in a hard Brexit scenario. What about rural areas like Monaghan, Cavan, Donegal and places right along the western corridor? We are reliant on agriculture. That is the reality. We have to make sure that air and sea travel is not disrupted. This will become more important in the event of a hard Brexit. We have to make sure that is all covered. I want to be very clear that I am no expert on fish, but we have to make sure that Irish fishermen are allowed to fish enough to make a living. It is hard enough to make a living out of fishing. I refer also to agriculture. Whether we face a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit or any Brexit, Members should consider the price of an animal for the past two years. An animal can fetch €200 more in England due to the red tractor mark. For some reason we are not able to get the same price for our cattle. I cannot understand it.
I refer also to Irish companies. We talked about Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland helping them. That is good. In the purview of the Minister of State's Department, the construction industry, especially in the west, lost a ferocious number of youngsters. Unfortunately, when the country hit a bang in 2008 and 2009, we lost the guts of 250,000 youngsters. Many of them came from the western shoreline, from Donegal right down to Kerry. They also came from other areas, but that is where a large majority of them were from. Construction skills certification scheme, CSCS, cards are needed to operate construction diggers, dumpers etc. They are recognised in Northern Ireland, here and in the UK. I presume that has been addressed. Those cards and certificates like Safe Pass must be recognised in both jurisdictions for the benefit of those youngsters. This is necessary to make sure that if someone gets a job, having come home from the UK, he or she does not have to go through the same rigmarole. One can go to the North and get the CSCS ticket for diggers, dumpers or whatever. It is ferociously important that we legislate for that. I know there is no point in providing for it in the omnibus Bill. We could go through it and look at different regulations. If we did that, the Bill would be over and back. This is why I say that we need to have questions and answers. This is not about catching somebody out. This is about making sure we have not forgotten some concern of communities around the country, especially one affecting our youngsters. For example, I refer to driving licences. So many youngsters working in London or Manchester come home through Knock Airport for the weekend. We must make sure that we recognise a UK driving licence.
There are also health concerns, such as the cross-border directive. From my understanding that has been resolved. That is a good thing. People avail of it to get procedures done. We must ensure that the cross-Border initiatives can be operated as before to help people on long waiting lists. We must ensure that this interaction continues and that there is joined-up thinking between our hospitals and facilities like Altnagelvin Area Hospital. It is ferociously important that we keep that going. This is about preventing a blockage. Before Ireland or the UK joined the EU we had agreements in place for years. We must be able to kick them into action to ensure smooth traffic between the countries. Whether we like it or not, we might have been fighting with them for years but a lot intertwines Ireland and the UK, between imports, exports, people and business.
One thing that has been forgotten is the mushroom industry. The mushroom industry in Ireland went through a lot of fluctuations through the years. Some 85% of our mushroom output goes to the UK. I am sure the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, will be watching it. It is a very volatile business. It depends on demand, but it also depends on the exchange rate of sterling. It is ferociously important to make sure that the jobs in that sector are protected.
Regarding the Border and the Good Friday Agreement, some issues are out of our hands in determining our destiny. I worry about one aspect and clarity on it would be welcome. We are debating this legislation but, hopefully, we will not need it. I believe everyone here hopes that we will spend the next few weeks debating it but that, at the end of the day, it will not be needed and that a solution will be found. That is the wish of most people. However, we need to ensure that the people in Northern Ireland especially do not feel left out of this entire process.
Regarding pensions and social welfare payments, I understand departmental officials met their counterparts in Northern Ireland and the UK and that an agreement is in place that pension and social welfare payments received by UK citizens living here and Irish citizens living in the UK will continue to be made, which is welcome. There is some speculation that one will have to have a bank account in England and then transfer it across. Clarification on that for the people involved is required, especially among our elderly who will be getting pensions. There is a great deal of worry about what will happen in the event of a hard Brexit and whether the UK will fulfil what it said it would do. I believe that can be resolved and from what we have heard and read in the legislation, agreements will be put in place that will copper-fasten the current situation. That is welcome but we need to make that clear to the people and list out the different areas to make sure they are not in fear of what will happen.
What is going on now will not be over until solutions are found. There is talk that Article 50 may be extended. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and people will sit down together and arrive at a resolution to this issue. It is difficult for Ireland when two other parties are playing out on the field. We are almost like the hurler on the ditch watching events and we do not know what way it will go. Many people who have built up their businesses throughout the year are anxious and afraid they will lose their livelihood, none more so than those in the agricultural sector. In terms of aspects people might not even think of, there is a major worry that cheese and such products will end up being much dearer than other imports. In that regard I welcome the recent announcement that the UK will not place tariffs on agricultural products from Ireland. In recent years, English housewives have bought into the Red Tractor brand of premium priced English beef. I read media reports in the past week to the effect that the UK could be flooded with Brazilian beef. Bar a financial catastrophe, I do not believe the British housewife will move from buying Red Tractor, which is a premium beef product, to buying beef from Brazil and other such countries, the quality of which is fairly questionable on the basis of the evidence Ireland gathered over a number of years, as those countries do not adhere to the same regulations to which Ireland, other member states and, in fairness, the UK adhere. Providing the UK does not impose tariffs, and we have to take the government at its word, that announcement is welcome. It is important for the likes of the beef industry because we all know it is under ferocious pressure. It is on its knees and needs a great deal of help. When we consider the areas badly affected, be it from Donegal down to Monaghan and Cavan and across to the west, those are where the breeders of the good beef, as I would call it - the suckler cows - are located. We have to make sure they are protected.
I ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to address the issue of TEN-T funding on which that Department has ducked and dived for the past two years. We need to ensure that as well as Rosslare and Waterford, the west, north west and the midlands, especially the areas along the Border, are included in that core network. It is up to our Department to do that. The EU has said it is willing to ease off on state aid rules and different aspects. When the EU is in a happy humour like that, now is the time to dig in and get done the things that are required in this country.
The Deputy asked about a question and answers session. The answer may not be satisfactory but I would hope he would have that opportunity on Committee Stage. The order of the House does not allow for it.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As somebody who has lived all my life in a Border county, I am acutely aware of the challenges that Brexit presents to this country. I know the very real fear in communities all across the Border region about what the final Brexit outcome will look like and the impact it will have on their lives, businesses, farms and families.
We are living in uncertain times. The fact that we are debating legislation tonight that I believe, it is safe to say, everybody in this House hopes will never be needed perhaps sums up that uncertainty best. There will be no winners from a hard Brexit; only losers. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on us as a Government to prepare for all eventualities and, in that regard, the passage of this legislation is both prudent and necessary.
Brexit, in whatever shape it takes, will be difficult for businesses. It will involve change of some sort and businesses need to be prepared for that. In the event of a hard Brexit, the immediate impacts for business could include significant sterling volatility and the imposition of World Trade Organization, WTO, tariffs on Irish goods exported to the UK, and on UK goods which we import. As part of our whole-of-Government response, my Department is working with Brexit-exposed firms, in particular with clients of Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, InterTrade Ireland and the local enterprise offices, LEOs.
It is important that we offer supports to our indigenous enterprises to deal with the challenges of Brexit and that is why all our agencies have been provided with increased funding specifically for Brexit preparations. A wide range of supports are in place to support business, including a €300 million working capital loan scheme; a €300 million longer-term loan scheme, which will be available from the end of March; the Brexit SME Scorecard, which can be used by all Irish companies to self-assess their exposure under six pillars; the market discovery fund to support market diversification; a new online customs training tool through Enterprise Ireland; and start to plan vouchers from InterTrade Ireland worth €2,250. In budget 2019, I increased the funding for InterTrade Ireland by €1 million. That represents an almost 20% increase. The work InterTrade Ireland is doing to help businesses both North and South to prepare is to be commended. I regret the fact that there is no Executive in place in Northern Ireland to provide matching funding at this crucial time.
The package of Brexit supports I have introduced through our enterprise agencies to date has been invaluable to many businesses but I recognise there is still more to do. That is why, under Part 3, I propose amendments to the Industrial Development Acts, 1986 to 2014. That will allow Enterprise Ireland to further support businesses, help them remain competitive internationally, sustain and create employment, and facilitate future economic growth, which is important as we deal with challenges such as Brexit.
Specifically, the amendments in part 3 of the Bill will increase the ability of Enterprise Ireland to support greater research and development activity in its client companies in several critical sectors so that Irish firms can be as competitive as possible on EU and world markets and the effects of Brexit may be mitigated somewhat. Among other elements, the amendments will facilitate Enterprise Ireland in providing research grants to the horticultural sector for the first time and provide grants to support critical research activity overseas where those research facilities or services are not readily available within the State, such as clinical trials for the pharmaceutical and veterinary sectors. It will permit research grants up to permissible EU aid limits and in this regard the current 50% cap set out in national legislation will be removed.
Section 7 provides Enterprise Ireland with the powers to facilitate additional lending investment instruments in certain circumstances and increases the flexibility to support enterprise development and to manage its investments on a par with private sector investors. Such additional powers will help to preserve the value of the State's investment in these businesses and will assist companies through restructuring or redevelopment programmes.
I should make the House aware that there are no additional costs to the Exchequer as the costs for these elements will be accommodated within Enterprise Ireland's existing resources and, in certain cases, the use of new debt instruments will be provided instead of grants that would otherwise be given. It is worth noting that the introduction of this suite of amendments does not mean Enterprise Ireland would be obliged to always provide these supports to individual companies. Each project will have to withstand rigorous evaluations and due diligence, as is the norm, to be deemed eligible for agency support. It is now more important than ever that Enterprise Ireland can respond in an agile and flexible manner as the opportunities and challenges for its client companies change more pertinently in the context of a potential no-deal Brexit and as the investment market changes. It is also important that Enterprise Ireland can flexibly deploy the widest array of interventions that match supports available in other countries, particularly now in a Brexit context. These amendments will therefore build upon the already extensive suite of Brexit resilient measures which this Government has taken and is taking, by supporting businesses through a range of investment instruments, loans and grants as part of the response to limiting the negative effects of Brexit. It will help Irish businesses to remain competitive, to innovate in terms of new products and service development and to grow in existing and new markets.
I would like to comment quickly on queries raised by my colleagues in the Chamber yesterday evening. In response to Deputy Lisa Chambers, I formally launched the first of a series of local enterprise office customs training workshops in Cavan on Monday of this week with further workshops taking place throughout the country. These workshops are in addition to Enterprise Ireland's free customs insight course, which I launched in December 2018. This course has been developed for all Irish SMEs, and is an integral part of Enterprise Ireland's prepare for Brexit campaign to encourage SMEs to be fully prepared for all eventualities. Information on customs has been also available on Revenue's website for some time.
In response to Deputy Cullinane, I point out that legislation is not required in the Brexit omnibus Bill regarding state aid as this is formed at EU level. However, my Department has been proactively engaging with the European Commission for some time to find solutions to assist Irish enterprises. The technical group established has achieved results that benefit our Irish businesses. For example, just last week, the European Commission gave state aid approval for national investment in an Irish cheese producing company.
Of course, my officials and I will be happy to respond to any further queries Deputies may have as the Bill progresses through the Houses. My Department, along with our enterprise and regulatory agencies, is taking every possible step to ensure Irish businesses are as prepared for Brexit as they possibly can be. However, as I said at the outset, there are no winners from Brexit. It remains my strong hope that the withdrawal agreement will be accepted by the United Kingdom, but should the worst come to pass and if we end up with a no-deal scenario, the passage of these amendments, together with the wide range of supports already put in place by Government, will ensure we have in place the necessary suite of tools to assist business in what will without doubt be an extremely challenging period ahead.
I suggest that the Minister's office and the offices of other Ministers could make some copies of their statements available.
It is nice to have this opportunity. In just a few days' time, on 9 March, we will mark eight years since the Fine Gael and Labour Government was sworn into office. It was a time of unprecedented challenges and sacrifice for the Government, this country and indeed our people. Some 2,000 of our graduates and young people were emigrating every single week, the live register was bulging at the seams and there were 430,000 people unemployed. Our international reputation was in tatters, our credibility, in the eyes of many, was beyond repair and we were a nation that was deeply hurting. The date of 9 March is a day I personally will never forget as it was the day I was appointed Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Defence by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. I do not need to remind this House of the hugely difficult decisions taken by the Fine Gael and Labour Government, and indeed the sacrifices made by the Irish people, which helped bring this country back from the brink and to a place now where we are near full employment. As Fine Gael approaches its eighth anniversary in office, it deeply saddens me that we are now talking about the same kind of fears and anxieties as we were back in March 2011.
Every single Deputy in this House has, on a daily basis, listened closely to the concerns of families, businesses, the agricultural community as I well know in my constituency of Wexford, and various other stakeholders up and down the country, who have so much to lose in the event of a disorderly Brexit. From my perspective as a Minister of State and Deputy for Wexford, I know only too well the potential impact a hard Brexit will have on the south east region. I will touch on some of those challenges later. Let this House and the wider public be assured that this Government wants nothing more than for Brexit to be avoided. Leaving the European Union is not our policy, and it never will be.
As Minister of State at the Department of Defence, I know the importance of the relationship between Ireland and the UK from a military and wider defence perspective. The Irish Defence Forces have had a long-term relationship with the UK armed forces, particularly focussing on military training and capability development. Officers and personnel from the Defence Forces have attended staff courses and technical training courses in UK military colleges. Similarly, personnel from the UK armed forces have attended staff and training courses in the Curragh and peacekeeping courses in the United Nations Training School Ireland, UNTSI.
In January 2015, Ireland signed a memorandum of understanding, MOU, with the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence on co-operation on certain security and defence related matters. The MOU takes into account such matters as military forces education, training, exercises and staff exchanges; potential joint contributions to UN crisis management operations; joint contributions to security sector reform and capacity building in crisis locations; joint procurement initiatives; exchange of information and experience in relation to reform in the provision of defence services; and classified information exchange. A three year action plan on the implementation of the MOU was finalised between my Department and the UK Ministry of Defence in January 2015 and will be subject to review and renewal in 2019. I am glad to state that the MOU is unconnected to Brexit and was designed to formalise the already extensive linkages and co-operation across the defence organisation, both civil and military. The MOU will continue to provide the framework for our co-operation with the UK in the defence field post-Brexit.
This House can rest assured that this Government is preparing and pressing ahead with all of the necessary measures in the context of no-deal planning. Of course, I and my fellow Government Deputies welcome the tentative signs of hope we are seeing from Westminster as Prime Minister Theresa May does everything in her power to ensure the passing of the withdrawal agreement. Without doubt, the EU has been steadfast in its support for Ireland's clear position on the backstop and the need to uphold and protect the hard fought values underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. While this Government, and indeed the EU, is prepared to be flexible in the coming days, we will not and cannot stand over any situation where a hard border is restored with Northern Ireland.
I have had these discussions with my fellow defence Ministers across the European Union over recent months and years. Let me put on record in this House that at no point did I detect anything other than complete solidarity from our EU colleagues with our position. That support is the result of years upon years of relationship building that Ireland has engaged in as part of our proud membership of the EU. No more evident are these relationships, and indeed strategic alliances, than through our joint peacekeeping missions around the world, let it be the EU training mission in Mali, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.
These are examples of missions where European nations come together in significant numbers to protect communities in some of the most volatile regions in the world.
As a nation that prides itself on its peacekeeping record, it will come as no surprise that Ireland's main commitments overseas are to UNIFIL and to UNDOF on the Golan Heights. The UNIFIL mission is Ireland’s largest overseas mission, with 458 personnel deployed. Irish troops served as part of a joint Irish-Finnish battalion in UNIFIL until November 2018 when, due to other national commitments, Finland withdrew. As an interim measure, an additional contingent of approximately 106 Defence Forces personnel have been deployed to the UNIFIL mission to cover the backfilling of the Finnish contingent for a 12-month period. Since then, my officials in the Department of Defence, in conjunction with military management, have been actively seeking new partners in UNIFIL for when the backfilling period comes to an end in November. I am delighted to inform the House that these efforts have proven fruitful and we are now in advanced talks with Poland and Hungary to join our personnel in UNIFIL. This is yet another clear example of the benefits of our EU membership, which has seen Ireland develop an unbroken and, indeed, unrivalled record, as a peacekeeping nation.
Ever since the UK took the fateful decision to leave the EU, the Government has worked tirelessly to protect and safeguard our economy from the implications of Brexit. Just last month, I led a delegation to Brussels to meet the Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, and our Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan. Central to the meeting was the impact of Brexit on connectivity, particularly regarding Rosslare Europort. The delegation included Glenn Carr, general manager of Rosslare Europort, Tony Larkin, director of services at Wexford County Council, Keith Doyle, chairman of Wexford County Council, Chris Smyth of Perennial Freight and Barry Kenny of Irish Rail. I took this initiative to ensure Wexford and Rosslare Europort stakeholders work together to be fully prepared for whatever Brexit scenario comes our way. In particular, we raised concerns about maintaining the UK landbridge between Ireland and Europe post Brexit and the need for investment in Rosslare with a view to it becoming a tier 1 port. The landbridge issue is very important for many in the south east, including Slaney Foods and mushroom growers. I thank both Commissioners for being so receptive to our concerns.
Rosslare Europort must be at the centre of the Government’s Brexit planning, particularly in light of confirmation from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that Rosslare will be nominated as a border inspection post by the end of March. In order for Rosslare to be Brexit-proofed, it is important that the Government considers significant investment in the surrounding infrastructure, including the link road to the port. Wexford County Council is in discussions with Transport Infrastructure Ireland in this regard and it is something I have raised, and will continue to raise, with my Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. At our meetings in Brussels, it was made clear to the delegation that funding streams are available to Ireland from the EU that will, if availed of, significantly enhance the port. It seems a no-brainer that all stakeholders, including the Government, Wexford County Council, the management of Rosslare Europort, TII and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport should work together to seek this funding.
When we look closely at the concerns being raised on all sides of the House, it becomes crystal clear that we are facing one of the most critical periods in our country's history. I come from an agricultural constituency where I hear the concerns of beef, dairy and tillage farmers and the concerns of the tourism industry about the fallout from Brexit. I commend the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy McEntee, on their commitment and on the work they have put in over recent years to ensure that Ireland's message is clearly heard. We see this in the support from all of the members states of the EU for our position. In order to Brexit-proof the country, our sectors, our stakeholders, our workers, our employers and, especially, our families, it is vital that we pass the Bill in a timely manner. I compliment the Opposition on its support for the Bill and its understanding on the need to pass this very important legislation.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation from the perspective of what it will mean in the context of social protection in particular. More than 132,000 people living here are in receipt of state pensions from England. Approximately 1,000 people living here receive child benefit payments from Britain in respect of children residing in this State. There are 28,760 people residing in Britain and the North who are in receipt of Irish contributory State pensions. Some 840 people residing in Britain and the North are in receipt of full-rate child benefit payments from this State. These payments are in respect of 1,830 children, 95% of whom live in the North. Unlike much of the debate on Brexit, the issues regarding protecting our current social protection arrangements concern real people, including some very vulnerable people, older people, children and families.
The importance of protecting those who rely on assistance from either England or Ireland is paramount but taking the Bill on its own the sections associated with social protection matters appear limited. I do acknowledge that the bulk of the necessary information forms part of the convention on social security that was recently signed by both Governments. This is the real safety net for those individuals, older people and families whose first thought after the Brexit vote was for the future payment of their source of income and for those who live in England and receive social assistance payments from Ireland and for those who live in Ireland and receive social assistance payments from England. What was crucial was the safeguarding of the reciprocal arrangements in place for rights and entitlements that currently exist for Irish and English citizens moving within the common travel area. I am glad that this has been achieved in the convention. It is not simply a document to maintain the status quo, it is a legally-binding agreement. It will bring comfort to the many thousands of people living here who receive payments from England and to Irish citizens living in England.
An issue I have raised with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty - I raise it again now - is the end to the overlapping of payments. The convention indicates that the right to two or more benefits of the same type will cease. The only payments concerned are the fuel allowance and the winter fuel payment. Neither is based on contributions made. At present, those living in Ireland can and do receive both payments, the fuel allowance from here and a winter fuel payment from England. This will not continue to be the case post Brexit. This does signal a change in current arrangements. The number of people living here in receipt of the winter fuel payment is not insignificant. In fact, the number has been growing rapidly since 2002, when only 660 people received the payment, to 31,656 people receiving it last year. I have sought clarification from the Minister as to what this will mean for those living here who do not qualify for the fuel allowance and only receive the winter fuel payment to ensure they will continue to receive it.
The bottom line is this: it is the convention signed by both Governments that provides the greatest protections when it comes to social protection, ensuring that what currently exists for Irish and British citizens moving between Ireland and Britain under the common travel area is safeguarded and maintained.
However, I ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to clarify the situation in regard to the winter fuel payment. It is very important that she do so with urgency.
While discussing this important legislation that we hope will never need to be enacted, it is important to remember why we are dealing with this mess at the 11th hour with no deal in place. Brexit results from weak leadership within the Tory Party in Britain. It is very much the result of an internal squabble between two posh Tories. History shows that the Tories have no regard for Ireland, least of all the wishes of the people in the North who voted to remain in the EU. Indeed, the Tory mask slipped when one of its members suggested it could use potential food shortages in Ireland to pressurise the Government in the Brexit negotiations. This is important legislation for the people of Ireland whether they are in the North, the South, the east or the west and Sinn Féin will not oppose it. However, we will constructively try to strengthen it in the many areas where that is required.
Yesterday, my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, stated that the Bill is the minimum needed in terms of Brexit planning. It is certainly minimalist in the area of transport. I have concerns that it will not provide for some of the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Having raised matters relating to Brexit with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, I am not confident all of the issues relating to transport have been addressed. As a Deputy for County Louth, a Border county, I am only too aware of the potential effects of Brexit for people in Ireland. I welcome that provision is made in the Bill to ensure access to health and educational services will continue and that there are provisions regarding the all-Ireland economy and energy requirements. The Bill is proof of how many problems will be thrown up if Britain crashes out of the EU next month.
Having two jurisdictions on this island does not work and never has. It makes even less sense in the context of Brexit. Brexit has shown how ineffective partition has been. It has failed and it is time to plan for reunification. Brexit has reminded us how little regard Britain has for Ireland and how disastrous the DUP-Conservative coalition is for the people of the North. The infrastructure for unity exists under the Good Friday Agreement. The Government should stop resisting this eventuality and commence planning for it.
The Bill puts in place a legal framework in this State to maintain the cross-Border access currently facilitated by the common travel area. It will preserve the status quo. In a transport context, the Bill deals with such access via cross-Border bus services. It confers additional powers on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the National Transport Authority, which would be the regulator. That seems fine to me. Unfortunately, along with a short section on licences for marine pilots, that is the sum total of the provision in respect of transport in the Bill.
The Sinn Féin Brexit plan published a few weeks ago outlined the investment needs of the State ahead of Brexit. It details how Sinn Féin would invest in capital infrastructure such as our ports, roads and railways and in supporting business and ensuring commercial exporters are properly protected. We also outline how we would go about regional development in areas such as the Border counties which could suffer enormous consequences as a result of Brexit, as all Members know. The Government does not recognise the need to invest. I have not heard any reference to the need to invest in our ports. Such investment obviously will be required to facilitate trade in the event of a hard or no-deal Brexit. In December, it was reported that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport had not liaised with Dublin Port on Brexit and that it requested sight of its hard Brexit contingency plan only in November. That is quite shocking.
I have raised the issue of insurance green cards for motorists with the Minister, Deputy Ross, on several occasions. He told me he had communicated with the insurance industry and his British counterpart on the matter. However, in response to an oral question I tabled the following week, he confirmed that he had not done so. He has approached Brexit in the same way he approaches the rest of his brief - with a hands-off approach that assumes it is somebody else's responsibility. This is his responsibility. We need to prepare for Brexit. It is his job to plan for investment to secure our ports and harbours and work with all stakeholders, including the insurance industry, aviation, hauliers, public transport and the tourism industry. On licences and insurance green cards, I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage that will give the Minister the power to make arrangements to ensure motorists are not limited in any way in their cross-Border journeys post Brexit. I listened to the Minister's contribution on the Bill in which he referred to the need for people who live here and hold British or Northern Irish driving licences to change those licences to Irish ones by 29 March. Presumably, there will be a significant increase in people seeking to change their licences and, therefore, we need to ensure there are sufficient resources and staffing in order to avoid delays. I hope that will be provided for.
I wish to raise certain matters which have yet to be addressed by the Government. As the sections of the Bill dealing with transport are so scant, we need assurances that these matters are being dealt with. Does the Government intend to invest in ports across the State? That is vital to ensure the entire island retains connectivity with Europe in the case of a hard or no-deal Brexit. Given the uncertainty in Britain, we must ensure we can trade directly with EU countries without having to rely on Britain. That can only happen with support and investment by the State. Has the Government done anything to address capacity at our ports? What has been done in regard to a situation whereby the landbridge is not available or feasible and shipping traffic increases? Clarity is also required in regard to whether additional resources will be in place to deal with increasing customs checks.
The legislation, like the Government's plan, is scant and light in detail. However, as it is necessary and we are very close to the wire, Sinn Féin will support it. We will table amendments to the Bill. I hope the Government will address the additional matters I have raised.
It is extraordinary that we are debating legislation to prepare this jurisdiction for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. That we are in this situation is primarily due to the disconnect of British politicians from their people and, particularly, their disinterest in the implications for other countries such as Ireland in particular. All Members are aware of the implications of Brexit but one discovers new elements of that every day. Every sector will potentially be impacted on with, obviously, the food, drink and agrifood sectors being affected first and foremost. I recently had a conversation with a florist who told me that a no-deal Brexit would have a devastating impact on the flower industry because of the number of flowers that come across the landbridge. I am sure officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine considered that issue. A great number of sectors will be impacted on by Brexit, as will many thousands of jobs. A no-deal Brexit could lead to 50,000 job losses in the first year. That would be job loss on an enormous scale. I do not believe the Government would dispute that figure which is based on State data.
Although Sinn Féin supports the Bill, it is minimal. It addresses the things that must be done through primary legislation. It has been stated that some measures can be implemented using secondary legislation. This is very much about legislation and trying to do the bare minimum in as short a timeframe as possible. In that context, there is a need for far more, such as outlining the kind of investment that will be required. Sinn Féin believes in a dual strategy for dealing with a no-deal Brexit. Firstly, we should mitigate its effects through State measures and, secondly, overcome disruption through medium to long-term investment in capital and social infrastructure. My colleague, Deputy Cullinane, proposed a €2 billion Brexit contingency plan to provide the investment required to support exporters, manufacturers and producers who largely or wholly export to Britain, to support businesses and ensure commercial exporters are properly protected.
It is a matter of offering support in all the regions, including through public transport and infrastructure. The issue of Rosslare Europort got a substantial airing. Other ports, such as those in Ringaskiddy and Foynes, also require support. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make Ireland entirely Brexit-proof but the only way to protect it to the greatest extent from the worst effects of Brexit is investment.
We need to see more bespoke solutions for the State to be able to ease the rules on state aid. We have long been critical of some of the ways in which state aid rules have been applied, long before Brexit. There has been a restriction of public bodies and public enterprise. It is extraordinary that we have not sought more flexibility already. In this context, we need to seek flexibility on state aid, particularly in the agrifood industry but also in a wide variety of other sectors. I hope the European Union will accede to that.
Let me address some of the justice issues specifically. Co-operation in justice has emerged over 30, 40 or 50 years, not only through the European Union but also under international conventions and through the Council of Europe. There is far more integration and co-operation on justice and security matters than ever before. That is right and proper. While there are conventions and so on, some of the more formal mechanisms are based on EU infrastructure and unfortunately this may have been substantially eroded. It is very likely that it has been eroded by these changes. I am aware of an area that could have benefited. We discussed recently the mutual recognition of probation judgments and decisions regarding probation and community service. Unfortunately, the new EU proposal we are transposing into Irish law now will not benefit those who are convicted and given a sentence that involves probation in the North, for example. They cannot serve the sentence in the South if they are resident there. The same applies on an east–west basis. I am referring to an area of European law that would have been beneficial to the offender, jurisdictions and community as a whole but from which we will not benefit.
There are other areas not dealt with in this legislation. I will come to the issue of extradition. Bail is not dealt with in the legislation. The Minister stated this does not require primary legislation. I hope that is correct. Issues have already arisen in respect of cross-Border co-operation and communication regarding people observing bail and on breaches of bail. We will be watching out for this. The Minister is confident primary legislation is not required but we will have to see. The issue of civil jurisdiction also arises, including in respect of torts. It is not necessarily clear how this shall apply. A great deal of clarification is required, therefore. We may seek to table amendments on some of these issues.
The extradition legislation brings us back to the act of 1965, which is based on a 1957 Council of Europe convention. There is a substantial section on non-refoulement, which is sensible. Perhaps there is room to enhance the scope of the non-refoulement consideration because other jurisdictions have a more expansive understanding of that. In both of those instances and in several others, we need to take into account the fact that while the British Government is ruling it out, there are many influential people within the Conservative Party who would have Ireland renounce and exit the European Convention on Human Rights. We need to take that into consideration, provide for it and ensure our legislation is robust enough and can be revised if what I describe happens and if the standards of human rights that pertain in the United Kingdom recede because of a desire to reduce the human rights protections. We have already seen the appetite that exists in this regard.
We had lengthy hearings on the rights of citizens in the North after Brexit. Mr. Brian Gormally of the Committee on the Administration of Justice has stated:
The citizenship issue is an example of how basic assumptions of the Good Friday Agreement have been undermined. It recognises the birthright of the people of Northern Ireland to hold Irish or British citizenship on the basis of equality. The basic breach of this principle of equality by Brexit would be that Irish citizens would remain EU citizens whereas British citizens would not. It amounts to a new focus of division between the two main communities. It has also become clear that Brexit could make the status of Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland constitutionally and practically insecure. If Brexit goes ahead, Irish citizens will be EU citizens living in a non-member state.
Mr. Gormally outlines three possibilities for how this would be resolved and then stated:
None of these options is appealing as they all involve the implication that those who choose Irish identity are in some way second-class citizens. Their rights as full participants in Northern Ireland life would depend on either a denial of their Irish nationality, as yet unknown bilateral agreements between the UK and Ireland about the common travel area or asking the Home Office to graciously allow them to leave to live in the land of their birth. The reality is that Irish citizens born and living in Northern Ireland have no legal connection to the jurisdiction in which they were born.
Legislation is needed both in the UK and Ireland to recognise the particular status of Irish citizens born in Northern Ireland and their unequivocal right to participate fully in that region and as fully as feasible in Irish society, and full equality in the rights British and Irish citizens can access. A treaty enshrining these provisions in international law would repair some of the damage done to the principle of the agreement.
These issues have been well flagged and the Government should reflect on them and consider amendments. The clearly stated view, shared by many academics, is that changes are needed, not only in British legislation but also in Irish legislation to ensure clarity on the basis of Irish citizenship for those living in the North and clarity as to how they can assert that. I ask the Government to examine this because there is a clear shortfall and gap, and Irish citizens living in the North could be seriously disadvantaged by it.
I am sharing time with Deputy Farrell.
I welcome the Bill. It is important that we take every precaution and prepare as best we can in the context of Brexit. We still do not know what it will look like but we need to be as prepared as possible. Therefore, it is important that this Bill is before the House. It is also important to acknowledge those who have expressed support for it or who said they will not oppose it, in addition to those who facilitated this debate in the House. I thank everybody for the co-operation shown in the national interest and the attitude they adopted in respect of a matter of such significance and importance.
I acknowledge the many people across industry, Government and all facets of Irish society who have worked extremely hard since the Brexit vote in June 2016. We are aware that many have been presented with serious challenges and the working lives of many have been heavily affected by the decision. When we look around us we see great public servants, including in the Passport Office and many other areas where there has been a deluge of new applications and a huge increase in the volume of work. I acknowledge the very hard-working public servants involved in that work.
We talk about what may come after 29 March but, for many, Brexit has already happened and its effects are already evident. I am the Minister of State responsible for the tourism industry. Those in that industry, in addition to those in the motor trade and agriculture, have been experiencing serious difficulties since the vote on Brexit in June 2016. It has been a very difficult time. Some went out of business as a result of that decision. Not only are job losses being announced in the United Kingdom but people are also suffering here as a result of the decision. Collectively, we must do our very best to minimise the damage through our preparation and work.
I particularly want to acknowledge the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy McEntee, for their work on this difficult matter in recent years. I also commend the work done of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Flanagan, and the former Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Dara Murphy. The approach of the Government since June 2016 has been correct at every stage. An exemplary approach has been adopted and we would be in a far weaker position had the Government not made the correct decisions all along. I thank the officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport who have worked extremely hard over the past two and a half years. A significant amount of work has gone on behind the scenes in preparing for Brexit. That work is not always seen but it takes time and effort and has to be done while other challenges are also happening.
I also acknowledge the roles played by Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. Fáilte Ireland, as our national tourism development authority, has a critical role in this economy. I acknowledge the great work of Mr. Paul Kelly and his team in Fáilte Ireland. They were quick out of the blocks in preparing for Brexit and trying to address some of the difficulties and challenges that it may bring. It was a pleasure and honour for me to launch Fáilte Ireland's Get Brexit Ready programme in the summer of 2017. It must be acknowledged that Fáilte Ireland was preparing for this very quickly after the Brexit vote and, by the summer before last, had a detailed and helpful programme detailing how to mitigate the effects of Brexit for enterprises in the tourism industry. I know from dealing with people in industry and on the front line in tourism that the programme has been helpful. A large budgetary increase has been secured which is being pumped into parts of the country which are particularly exposed to the threat of Brexit, particularly Border counties. Fáilte Ireland has been proactive in trying to assist enterprises in those areas.
I also thank the people in Tourism Ireland, including Mr. Niall Gibbons and his team. I acknowledge their contribution. There was an immediate decline in visitors from Great Britain in June 2016 which continued through that year and in 2017. There was a slight increase and recovery in the figures in 2018. In the first month of this year, there was double digit growth in that market which is encouraging, although it is early days. That is the result of significant efforts on behalf of Tourism Ireland and working with partners and industry in Great Britain and it is encouraging to see. Overall tourist figures are up 11.8% in the first month of the year and our figures for visitors from Great Britain have recovered strongly. That has not happened by chance. One has to point to the efforts of Tourism Ireland through campaigns such as the Call of the Wild and the Wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way but also the co-ordination of the Brexit response group which has been meeting since 2016. I have been active in that group and it is representative of Government, the agencies and industry both here and in Great Britain. It has been positive, proactive and helpful in trying to recover UK tourists. It is good to see that 2019 is off to a good start. We need to continue to build on that because that market is too important for us to give up on. It has always been and always will be an important market.
We must acknowledge the success of our diversification efforts and global marketing. North American visitor numbers have grown from 1 million in 2013 to more than 2 million in 2018. Other markets, such as mainland Europe and emerging markets such as China and other parts of the world have been growing. That has helped to offset some of the effects of Brexit. It is critically important that the money from the budgetary increase secured before Christmas for agencies such as Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland will go to the places where it is best spent. We know, through the new Fill Your Heart With Ireland campaign, that Tourism Ireland has ambitious plans for growing the 11 million-plus visitors to Ireland in 2018. That will mean more jobs and revenue for the types of services we are all looking for in our constituencies and communities. That is important. There are now 265,000 people employed in the tourism industry. Those are 265,000 lives and households dependent on these jobs and we need to ensure we do everything to protect them.
Ireland's membership of the European Union has been incredibly helpful to this county, much as the UK's membership has been helpful for it. It is a great shame that the UK voted to leave the EU. Let us not forget that, in 1945, most of this continent lay in ruins and millions of mostly innocent lives had been lost. It was a shocking and horrific conflict that we should never forget or let future generations forget.
Ours was an island in turmoil until relatively recently. The European Union played an important, and sometimes overlooked, part in securing the Good Friday Agreement. We all need to fight to protect that agreement because we know how bad things were, both North and South, and we can never go back. It is a shame, after two decades of the two countries coming so close together and making so much progress, that we are now seeing something that could drive a wedge between us. It is critical that we continue to build strong relations with our nearest neighbour, regardless of what Brexit holds, and continue to ensure that future generations of Irish, Northern Irish and British people never experience the horrific things that previous generations experienced. Those things scarred this country and this island for a long time. We all need to take a responsible approach to ensure that does not happen again. We need to work on relationships between people before we consider any of the other things that are being proposed by some quarters because the peace is fragile and it is too important to do anything that jeopardises it.
Like all Members, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this very important Bill as we prepare for the eventualities of Brexit. We in Ireland have benefited greatly from our membership of the European Union, going back 46 years when we joined the then EEC at the same time as the United Kingdom. Nobody can doubt the change that has occurred in this country over those 46 years. We changed tack in this country from a primarily agrarian economy to a much broader, forward-looking, pro-business and pro-taxation country which benefited greatly from the investment provided for us as a result of our membership of the EU.
Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, Ireland has faced a number of challenges. As a result of Government actions, the cross-party unity displayed in this House and our engagement with our EU counterparts from the other 26 member states, we have held strong and steadfastly defended the best interests of Irish citizens here and in Northern Ireland. We have shown that Ireland has a strong voice at European level.
As a State, we have serious concerns regarding the economic impact a no-deal Brexit may have. This is why the legislation is vital. However, our most vital concern is, and must remain, ensuring the continuance of peace on our island. In opting for Brexit, the UK has decided to leave the greatest peace project in history. It is a project which has brought peace to the Continent of Europe. As the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, stated, it must not be forgotten that the Union was born out of the deaths of tens of millions of people.
The Good Friday Agreement, our own solution to the conflict on these islands, marked an incredibly important point in our shared relationship with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. We cannot allow anything within the Brexit discussion to undermine such an important international peace agreement. I am often astounded by the fact that some in the UK, advocating for the removal of the backstop from the withdrawal agreement, fail to recognise the importance of the Good Friday Agreement to the creation and continuance of peace on our island. I have a clear message for those in Westminster who go about their daily business misleading, and, in some cases, simply lying, to the British people with no regard for the citizens of Northern Ireland. We must not allow the hard-won peace on this island to be undone by their need to massage their own egos with no concern for the peace and security of the people of Northern Ireland. We must not allow any action to be taken which could cause the return to the horror of the Troubles. This island, North and South, has moved forward in the past 20 years. Under no circumstances should we allow that difficult period to re-emerge.
There have been reports of some individuals suggesting, in the context of Brexit, that Ireland should know its place. As has been said by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on several occasions, we in Ireland do know our place. It is right at the heart of Europe. The position we adopted during the negotiation process has been supported universally and the European Union agrees with that sentiment. Members have an obligation to ensure the concerns of all Irish citizens, both north and south of the Border, are heard in the context of Brexit. The fact that those Irish citizens are not represented by their MPs in Westminster is lamentable.
While 53% of people in Northern Ireland cast their ballots to remain, the DUP, which is holding the current British Government in place, is pursuing a Brexit policy which would be disastrous for Northern Ireland. Even the UK Government’s own report, published yesterday, outlined the implications of a no-deal Brexit. It showed the impact would be most severe and longest lasting for Northern Ireland. Many Members may have read an article in The Guardian yesterday by Patrick Kielty, who is well-known for his comedy shows. He summarised Brexit negotiations quite well when he stated, "Theresa May has red lines, the European Research Group has absolute red lines, the Democratic Unionist Party has blood-red lines, and Jeremy Corbyn has blurred lines featuring Pharrell." This is quite appropriate given the bizarre approach taken by the various disparate groups in Northern Ireland to these negotiations. On the need for the backstop, Patrick Kielty stated, “[Yet as] Brexiteers preach about their precious union, Irish nationalists in the same country are meant to park the union they want and just work out how the chicken crosses the border.” Again, this is a debate which has consumed the British media for the past several months. Our own media fixated on one issue when we were clearly holding the line that there would be no border on the island of Ireland.
While these quotes may be humorous, they highlight the significant and serious issues we and our European colleagues face in the Brexit negotiations. Brexit, particularly a no-deal version, will have real and significant implications for everyone on our island. I am pleased the Government has presented this omnibus legislation, particularly in view of the large number of sectors in which action is required to protect the best interests of people in Ireland. We cannot and will not fail the people of Ireland, either in our negotiating positions or in our preparations for every possible eventuality.
I commend the Government and all parties in the House that have worked together in the best interests of those we represent. I pay tribute to the former and current Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the former and current Ministers of State with responsibility for European affairs. I also pay tribute to Senator Neale Richmond, chairperson of the Seanad’s Brexit committee, who has done extraordinary work in the British media, along with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and the Tánaiste.
I hope that, as a result of Brexit, we have learned the implications of individuals or groups portraying the false narrative which portrays the European Union as an evil body which forces certain decisions on countries. This is simply not true. This evening I got a text message from my wife with an ad from Facebook from We Love Europe. It proposes that the EU should be broken up and that each individual country should make its own rules and not be dictated to by the Union. That type of trickery forced Brexit on British citizens in the first instance. I recall the LBC radio station ran a piece detailing 40 years of fake news about the EU in the British tabloids from straight bananas to a ban on driving on the left-hand side of the road. These were all nonsensical stories at best.
The European Union provides our citizens and indigenous businesses with many benefits by means of the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. To have the ability to move or just travel throughout all other European Union member states provides our citizens, particularly our younger citizens, with opportunities that previous generations may never have imagined possible. These rights and opportunities are ones which we must work to ensure are retained.
The Bill has taken into consideration cross-jurisdictional justice instruments, bodies and funding, as well as child protection guidelines, which are topical today. The European Union has promised to continue to fund PEACE programmes and cross-jurisdictional programmes, as has the Government. However, I have heard nothing yet from the British Government. Given that this will benefit its citizens, that is somewhat lamentable.
We have had a debate on the potential impacts of Brexit on the Irish economy. There are a whole range of agricultural sectors which could be detrimentally affected by Brexit, including the horticultural industry and fresh food producers. These sectors are important in my constituency and north Leinster. I welcome the work done by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, in putting in place supports for the agrifood sector. The Brexit ready programme from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, operated through the local enterprise offices, is excellent. Businesses should engage with that programme.
I call on Deputy Michael McGrath who is sharing time with Deputy Lahart.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this most important Bill, the contents of which we hope will never need to be commenced. It is work, however, that must be done because of the profound nature of the consequences which would pertain in the event of a no-deal Brexit in several weeks' time. The manner in which the House has conducted itself and the manner in which our political system has dealt with Brexit are in sharp contrast to the chaos playing out on our screens every day in Westminster. It is important that is acknowledged and that we continue to deal with this in a way which seeks to build consensus, putting the national interest first rather than any narrow party-political interests.
It was for that very reason that we as a party made the decision that we would see this process through and not thrust our country into a general election at a time when issues of such fundamental importance for our citizens are in a state of flux. That point that needs to be made.
Against that backdrop, I take this opportunity to take issue with remarks made by the Tánaiste on "Today with Seán O'Rourke" last Friday, when he saw fit to have a go at me. On Thursday last, I had commented publicly about the preparedness of the Revenue Commissioners, particularly in the context of the number of customs officials recruited. I outlined the facts as they are in the media. However, while he was being interviewed by Seán O'Rourke, the Tánaiste stated something to the effect that I was ill-informed, had not done my homework and had run to the microphones. Seán O'Rourke put it to him that the Revenue Commissioners had stated that they need 600 officials as early as possible in 2019 and the Tánaiste responded to the effect they had not said that at all and that it was me who was saying it. In such circumstances, I want to place the facts on the record and let people make up their own minds. On 24 January, officials from the Revenue Commissioners were before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Reform, and Taoiseach to discuss this very issue. Niall Cody, chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, informed the meeting that the Revenue required an extra complement of 600 staff under the central case scenario. He stated:
Our plan suggested that we would need in the region of 600 staff and the infrastructure to administer them from 1 January 2021. Effectively what we have to do in the event of no deal is to pull that forward to as soon as possible in 2019. The 600 staff required for 1 January 2021 now have to be put in place as soon as possible. We will not be able to have them all in place for 30 March.
Seán O'Rourke had quoted Revenue correctly. That was not what I said, but was the position of Revenue and the Tánaiste's remarks about me were ill-founded and completely unnecessary. Given the position that Fianna Fáil has adopted as a party, including our Brexit spokespersons, namely, Deputy Donnelly previously and now Deputy Lisa Chambers, who is doing an outstanding job, there is no need to be so precious or so self-righteous and take the view that the Government cannot be questioned or challenged, particularly when it is in the context of facts. I want to take the opportunity to state that.
I now turn to the substantive issue of the Bill. Several areas refer to my portfolio and the Department of Finance. The Minister for Finance set out those elements in his contribution. Many relate directly to areas of taxation. It is fair to say that the core objective in respect of the taxation elements is to ensure that the status quo continues and that it will be more of less a case of "As you are" in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It means that the provisions we have currently, essentially recognising the UK as a member state of the European Union, would remain in place in a scenario where the UK is no longer a member state. That deals with particular matters under the income tax code, corporation tax, capital gains and capital acquisitions tax, and stamp duty legislation to name but a few. This is an issue we highlighted some months ago. I raised it through parliamentary questions because we identified that there would be significant taxation implications in the event of the UK leaving the EU as several reliefs within the different codes apply to member states. Take the simple example of a farm that straddles the Border. The application of agricultural relief, where the farm is being passed from one generation to another, would be in jeopardy because that agricultural relief would not apply fully in respect of a country that was no longer a member state in the absence of these provisions. That is why, at a very simple level, provisions such as this are necessary and we fully support them.
I need to put a question on something that I am sure has been fully thought through and have been dealt with. I presume the EU is completely satisfied with the provisions in the Bill relating to taxation. I can see a scenario where other member states that do not have such reciprocal arrangements with the UK from a taxation perspective could raise state aid issues in the context of the application of corporation tax reliefs between Ireland and the UK, for example, which, under this Bill, would continue as normal in a no-deal scenario. There would not be similar arrangements between the UK and France, Spain or some other member state in the event of no deal. I presume this has been cleared with the EU. It is something that the Minister could deal with when he replies.
I particularly welcome the changes around VAT and the provision for postponed accounting in respect of VAT. This is an issue that had been raised by business representative bodies and traders because being obliged to pay VAT when trade took place and imports were coming into the country rather than doing so on a deferred basis would have imposed a huge burden on cashflows. That will have significant cashflow benefits. This is an important change that I welcome.
Many financial services firms have completed their Brexit preparations or else they are at a very advanced stage. However, the Minister acknowledged that there are certain insurance undertakings that have their prudential regulation in the UK or Gibraltar which have no undertaken contingency measures. It is important that we highlight that. This Bill provides that insurance contracts that are already written will continue to be respected for a period of three years after the date of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, but they will not be able to write any new business into Ireland as their prudential regulation will be in the UK or Gibraltar. Questions may arise in that scenario as to what would happen if they did continue to underwrite business because those policy holders would have an invalid insurance policy.
Major competition issues also arise. As we all know, there is a crisis of insurance in some sectors of our economy. Many large pubs, nightclubs, play centres and leisure centres only have one insurance provider, namely, Lloyd's of London. Has it changed its regulatory structure to fall into line with a scenario where the UK leaves the EU? If it has not and is no longer able to write new business, there may be a very large raft of businesses in Ireland which will have nowhere to go on the renewal of their insurance policy in the next 12 months. The officials might advise the Minister who might come back to us on that point, particularly in respect of that one provider on which major sectors that attract significant footfall are very dependent. I would like to know if it has changed its regulatory status to deal with a no-deal Brexit.
Finally, I refer to the amendment that has been flagged in the area of duty free. I understand that the Government's intention is to keep things "As you are" on duty free, and that it not apply between Ireland and UK if the UK leaves the EU, even though the default legal position is that it would become a third country and, therefore, that opportunities would open for Irish airports and ports. The Government wants to maintain the status quo in order to protect the Exchequer. This is because people travelling from Northern Ireland to the Republic would be entitled to refunds of VAT, etc., which could have major implications for the Exchequer. However, the question is whether it would be possible to exclude that aspect and provide for the introduction of duty free at ports and airports, particularly in view of the fact that it is a very distinct activity at an airport where people have boarding passes and must go through security and so on. What consideration, if any, has been given to the introduction of duty free in ports and airports only?
I will leave it at that for now. I look forward to contributing on Committee Stage next week in respect of the areas that fall under my own brief.
I will divide my contribution into two parts. First, I will refer to a paper that we were presented with at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight which was produced by the OECD in October last and which is still fairly prescient in terms of what kind of Brexit outcome we will face. The reason I raise it tonight is because there is a view partly out there among the public that if a hard Brexit can be avoided, that will be the end of this matter. The OECD paper clearly points out that what the OECD tried to predict is the occurrences and outfall of a worst-case scenario but that all that will happen if there is not a worst-case Brexit is that the negative impact will be lessened. The OECD is not diluting at all the fact that there will be a negative impact right across a range of areas in Ireland, many of which have been rehearsed over the past two days in the debate here and will be rehearsed again. One point that needs to come out of this preparation of emergency legislation is that there is a view that if the UK does not fall off the edge of the cliff, somehow we are all off the hook. We are far from it. In terms of businesses, it has been repeatedly stated on this side of the House that businesses are ill-prepared for what lies ahead of them, whether it is a hard or a soft Brexit.
The paper provides estimates of the potential effects on exports, imports, production, factory demand and GDP of Ireland in the event of an exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. It sets out that, owing to the high uncertainty regarding the final agreement between the negotiating parties, the choice has been made to assume a worst-case scenario where trade relations between the UK and the EU are governed by WTO rules and most favoured nation rules. In doing so, it provides something close to an upper bound estimate of the negative economic consequences and impact. It also takes into account some of the potential for some firms to relocate to Ireland and there would be some kind of up beat in that sense.
Any final trade agreement that would result in closer relationships between the UK and Ireland could reduce this negative impact. That is the line that we need to emphasise. All it could do is reduce the negative impact of a Brexit. It certainly will not obviate it. The paper goes into all the ways in which Ireland is exposed as an open economy to shocks, and curiously lists Brexit as merely one potential shock that could be waiting out there on the horizon for Ireland. In that sense, they say that a key task for Irish policymakers is to prepare for potential external disruptions that could transmit to the domestic economy, and at present clearly the most discernible one of those is Brexit.
Some of the most important points have been reinforced from time to time here in terms of the fact that the Irish and UK economies are closely and highly integrated and that the UK remains Ireland's closest trading partner. Other points include that the UK is a major source of intermediate goods for Irish firms. All of these points reinforce the first central point I want to make tonight that, as with any separation or divorce, much of what follows the act of separation or divorce is clearly contingent on how that split occurs but that is not the end of the process. It is only the beginning of the process. We need to try and convey to Irish people that, on 29 March, whatever decision is made there, whether it is to extend and to increase time for the UK's consideration of what it intends to do, or whether a decision is made then, it is only the beginning of another process.
That leads me on to the second point that I want to consider, a point that has been quite lost in the past number of months but that we will face in the next few months, whether it is at the end of March or into the summer. It relates to our two islands. It is worth trying to reflect on life beyond a soft or hard Brexit, or whatever kind of Brexit we will face, and on the manner in which our two peoples have been impacted by the decision on Brexit over the past two years.
In Ireland, we have had a united approach, as was mentioned earlier, at party political level, at public level and at parliamentary level. Our country has adopted a parliamentary approach that has facilitated a strong negotiating hand on the part of a minority Government. The Irish people understand that Brexit is not in our interests and broadly support the stance of the Government and have been faithful to it in this regard, as manifested by a recent opinion poll which suggested that, so important is the Brexit issue and its resolution to our future, 75% of the public believes that there ought not to be a general election at this time.
Parliament, too, has behaved in a generally consensual manner by and large, and my own political party has not taken advantage of Government unpopularity to precipitate an election, placing instead the stability of our politics at the centre of our approach at a time of national peril. Across the EU, we see that there are now 15 minority administrations in power. Stability is paramount, and the stability we have provided in my party at a time of national need has facilitated a Government that is 20 seats short of a majority in this House in doing its work. It is an approach that deserves substantially greater appreciation from a minority Government led by a party that, even in the midst of all of this maelstrom, continues to prepare for a general election on the same day as the European and local elections, if the media are to be believed.
Let me contrast this with our neighbours, including those on this island. They have: a Parliament in Westminster that is almost daily convulsion; two of the principal political parties in a state of constant political convulsion; Northern Ireland without an Administration for two years; Scotland which supported Remain; and Northern Ireland that supported Remain but a unionist party that supported Leave propping up a Tory Party in government.
Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process, and perhaps there is a little glimmer of light now in terms of the political momentum gathering to prevent a no-deal Brexit, this political instability will not end the morning after any clear outcome or indication of direction on Brexit from the British Parliament or Government. England is divided by a thread in terms of Remain and Leave, and there is no discernible reason that might change in the near future. English nationalism has raised its head and found a voice that will not simply be stilled. Northern Ireland politics is stuck in a stubborn impasse where an irresistible force has met an immovable object.
The focus of this part of my contribution tonight is not on the economics of Brexit, future trade deals or the details of the withdrawal agreement. Rather, it is on the rolling consequences for the people of this island and our future relations with our neighbours. Brexit has caused damage and will continue to do so, and actions will be required to begin mending this for our future relations.
We failed to appreciate enough, and I say this as a republican, despite 800 years of turmoil between the two islands, what a strong ally the UK has been to Ireland within the EU since 1973. The EU, as one of my colleagues, the former Minister, Mr. Barry Andrews, described recently, is made up of a number of loose and tight alliances - the original six founding members, the Benelux countries; the Scandanavian-Nordics; the Franco-German axis; the Mediterranean alliance of countries; and the Baltic states — and we had a strong alliance with the UK that is now over in EU terms. What and where is our next step? With whom do we strongly attempt to ally ourselves and who do we find with interests similar to our own, where we are on the edge of the Continent? I think of the future east-west relationships between Dublin and London and between the two islands. There is now an island between us and the Continent. Our landbridge to the Continent is changing inexorably and so, while we rightly consider the range, depth and scope of emergency measures and legislation that may be required, we must at all times keep close in our mind the fact that it does not end on 29 March, three months after or in a year's time after a possible extension is sought. It is only beginning.
It is a bit like escaping from being stranded on an island; the escape from the island is very welcome but there are turbulent waters ahead. I would like to hear much more detail in future as to what preparations are being made to ensure Ireland can take advantage of what will come before it.
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom mo aitheantas a ghabháil chuig mo chomhghleacaithe sa Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna fáchoinne an díograis agus an obair ar son an reachtaíocht seo, agus chuig Oifig an Ard-Aighne fosta agus an foireann uilig in Oifig na nDréachtóirí Parlaiminte don Rialtas. Táim tiománta chuig an chaidreamh idir an Bhreatain Mhór agus Éireann agus ar son an caidreamh Thuaidh-Theas fosta agus go háirithe an dualgas atá ormsa ar son Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta agus an dualgas chuig an tsárobair atá déanta agus chuig an obair amach romhainn fosta. I thank the Dáil for the opportunity to explain the principal objectives of the proposed amendments to the Student Support Act 2011. I am joined by the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who will go through the specifics of the proposed amendments in her contribution.
There has been a shared education ecosystem between Ireland and the United Kingdom since the foundation of the State and even before that. It has been built over time through personal and professional relationships between educators North and South. As Minister for Education and Skills, I commend their dedication and commitment, and their work has laid a very solid foundation. We all owe it to these educators to protect and preserve that collaboration into the future. We all accept Brexit will bring change but education is one of many policy areas that has served to build understanding between communities, and it has contributed in no small measure to peace and reconciliation on the island. To put it simply, taking the measures such as those I propose today is in the interests of our young people and the quality of our education and training systems North and South.
Today I had the privilege of spending an important hour with young people from two schools, St. Dominic's on the Falls Road, Belfast and the Friends' School, Lisburn, and I acknowledge their contribution today. I put on record their frustration at the answers they do not yet have and cannot get on the outcome of Brexit. They were doubly frustrated as they do not have a vote and they also felt they had no representation. They felt they are relying on outcomes yet to be seen between Brussels and London. We clearly have a duty to ensure that generation of young people - those I met today were born between 2000 and 2002, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - can have their voices heard as we continue this journey into the unknown.
There are strategic partnerships, with Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Donegal Education and Training Board working closely with the University of Ulster and the North West Regional College to ensure further and higher education provision are closely aligned with the skills and industrial needs for the region. In many senses, the Border does not figure as these education institutions seek to develop a shared education and skills strategy. A memorandum of understanding was signed after the referendum in 2016 and although there is uncertainty, we can control certain elements. One of these is continued collaboration and the shared understanding that co-operation is important across the education spectrum.
This brings me to Part 5 of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019, which seeks to amend the Student Support Act 2011. The most recent statistics from 2017 and 2018 on cross-Border students flows indicate there were 2,120 students from southern Ireland studying in Northern Ireland higher education institutions. Of these students, 1,220, or 58% of the total, were pursuing undergraduate programmes. Interestingly, the number of southern Irish students has declined by approximately 40% in the seven years leading to 2017 and 2018. In contrast, the number of Northern Irish students studying in southern Irish higher education institutions has increased by 37% over the same time. Numerically, they stood at 1,328, with 1,073, or 81% of the total, pursuing undergraduate programmes.
This is only part of the picture. In 2017 and 2018, there were 10,070 southern Irish students in UK higher education institutions, with more than half pursing undergraduate programmes for the first time and a further 44% undertaking postgraduate studies. In the same year, there were 2,426 students from the UK in southern Irish higher education institutions, with 63% of these doing undergraduate studies. Not only were these students benefitting from EU fees status but many also are eligible for SUSI supports. This works in two ways; taking in Irish students heading to approved higher education institutions in the UK and UK students pursuing their studies in Irish universities and institutes of technology. In 2017 and 2018, 1,475, or 14%, of the southern Irish students attending UK higher education institutions were in receipt of a SUSI grant, amounting to €5.2 million. In terms of the number of UK students in southern Irish higher education institutions, 205, or 9%, were eligible for the SUSI grant. This amounted to €720,000.
The purpose of this amendment is to maintain this scenario. However, it is only one part of the decision to be addressed in the context of higher education post Brexit. There is the allied question of continued eligibility for EU fees for UK students. Both the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and I made an early decision in January of this year to confirm the maintenance of the status quo in 2019 and 2020 for UK students in Irish higher education institutions. This will continue of course for the duration of their programme. Notwithstanding this, I am anxious to bring clarity for the UK and Northern Ireland students for subsequent years. This was a point well made during our engagement with members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills. This question will be addressed in the context of the common travel area and it is intended that the current arrangements will continue to apply. I am conscious that Deputy Funchion raised this matter today in the House.
The common travel area will address citizens rights across many policy areas but I am anxious resolve these, and specifically its importance for the education systems both North-South and east-west. My Department has worked intensively with UK counterparts and is in the process of finalising arrangements with the Department for Education in London. I am also working closely with my colleague, An Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to conclude this process. I hope that I will be able to address this within the next few weeks and clarify the matter for all concerned. Both the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education and I view this amendment as one of the key responses from my Department to the challenges of Brexit. It will facilitate student mobility between southern Ireland, the North of Ireland and the wider UK, and it will enable me to meet education obligations under the common travel area.
I reiterate once again the responsibility and sense of duty we must have as legislators in this House to the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. Having spent time with young people today who were born between 2000 and 2002, as I said, I know they are not familiar with what a hard border could look like and its consequences. We have an obligation and duty to ensure we protect that very fragile peace process, which is very much in its infancy despite the 21 years that have passed since it began. Arís, ba mhaith liom mo aitheantas a ghabháil chuig na Baill uilig den Teach seo fáchoinne an comhoibriú, for that co-operation, agus fáchoinne an gealltanas chun na rudaí atá déanta thar na blianta siar thart a chosaint agus chun a bheith ag amharc agus ag breathnú go dtí an todhchaí fosta, and to acknowledge all the work going on to protect what we have done in the past and to prepare the ground for the future.
I am reminded of the seanfhocal, ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, we live in each others' shadow.
We owe it to the people who have come before us in this House and in different roles in civic society, people who have made sacrifices, who have lost a lot, who have lost family and who have suffered, to continue with the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. Tá an dualgas orainn uilig. There are responsibilities on all of us, not just on this island. Co-operation on an east-west basis is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement agus táim iontach dearfach go mbainfear amach socrú amach anseo, go mbeimid ag dul ar aghaidh ar an mbealach ceart agus b'fhéidir go mbeidh an neamhchinnteacht socruithe amach anseo fosta.
The purpose of this Government Bill is to protect our citizens and our economy from the worst impacts of a no-deal Brexit. As Minister of State with responsibility for higher education I am primarily concerned with our students and with ensuring they are not affected. I thank Dáil Éireann for this opportunity to explain the nature of the amendments proposed. I also thank my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, who has spoken about the wider context of why we have to change the Student Support Act 2011.
I am particularly keen to protect the excellent co-operation and collaboration between the further and higher education systems of Ireland and the UK. Thousands of students, teachers, staff and researchers benefit from this co-operation. The mobility of students and their continued access to support payments are central to the education ecosystem about which the Minister spoke. We must make some legislative amendments to underpin these key aspects of student mobility. It is important for Deputies to note that notwithstanding the nature of the UK exit, be it on the basis of a negotiated or a no-deal exit, the proposed amendments to the Student Support Act must be made. As things stand, the SUSI grant can only be paid to students studying within the EU. Once the UK leaves the EU it will become a third country. The proposed changes will allow the Minister for Education and Skills to prescribe certain categories of students, institutions and courses as approved for the purposes of the SUSI grant system. This will provide the Minister with the power to extend the SUSI grant scheme to a third country like the UK, post Brexit.
Broadly speaking, the amendments proposed are technical in nature. They have been designed to legislatively permit student support payments to continue to be made to eligible Irish students studying in the UK and UK students studying in Ireland. There are six sections in Part 5 of the withdrawal Bill, with the first section defining the principal Act of 2011, that is, the Student Support Act 2011. The second section defines a new concept of "relevant specified jurisdiction" within the Student Support Act 2011. This term defines a jurisdiction that the Minister may prescribe in order to extend the SUSI grant scheme to that jurisdiction. The definition will encompass a third country like the UK post Brexit and, should circumstances require it, Northern Ireland. The third section provides the Minister with the power to recognise certain publicly-funded higher education institutions in a "relevant specified jurisdiction".
The next section amends the criteria used by the Minister to determine that a course should be approved for the purposes of the SUSI grant. The amendment requires that it is recognised, for example, in accordance with the framework of qualifications in the "relevant specified jurisdiction" or, if such systems are not in place, then in accordance with the relevant arrangements, procedures and systems in that jurisdiction. The fifth section is designed to allow the Minister to prescribe a "class of persons", which is intended to allow the Minister to prescribe third country nationals like UK citizens post Brexit. It also recognises the right of UK students to enter the State as part of an arrangement such as the common travel area. The sixth and final section sets down the policies and principles that the Minister will have regard to when prescribing a "class of persons". This includes reciprocal arrangements and demands for certain skills of the economy.
As I previously mentioned, two main actions are proposed by these amendments. The first is that eligible Irish students may carry their SUSI grant with them as they pursue an "approved programme" in an "approved institution" in a "relevant specified jurisdiction". Second, "classes of persons", as prescribed by the Minister for Education and Skills, will be eligible for SUSI financial support while studying in Ireland. In effect, the Minister can prescribe UK citizens for the purposes of the SUSI grant scheme.
As the Minister mentioned, in 2017-18, almost 1,500 Irish students attended UK higher education institutions and received a SUSI grant, which amounted to €5.2 million. On the other side of the equation, there are just over 200 UK students in Irish higher education institutions eligible for the SUSI grant. This amounted to €720,000. These amendments will enable Ireland to maintain one of its key commitments under the common travel area, namely, the maintenance of the right to study in either jurisdiction but for me, it represents more than that. Last October, I was in Newry when the Southern Regional College became a member of the North East Further and Higher Education Alliance. This is a North-South collaboration, which also involves Dundalk Institute of Technology and further education colleges North and South. They are all working together in a respectful and equal partnership at a time when many of the students attending those colleges have grown up in peaceful times. As the Minister noted, we should remember that education and training providers have been to the forefront of building collaborations, both North-South and east-west. Now, more than ever, there is a very clear responsibility on all of us to ensure that collaborations such as the North East Further and Higher Education Alliance are facilitated. Any barriers to student mobility must be avoided. We must ensure that the hallmark of education is respect and inclusion and that at all times, we keep our primary focus on the needs of students.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Brexit has frequently and rightly been described as the greatest challenge to the economy in this generation. Despite this, the Irish Government is one of the last of the EU 27 to publish this necessary legislation to deal with the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. Commencing a Bill that must go through all Stages of both Houses of the Oireachtas with only 11 sitting days left does little to inspire confidence. While nobody wanted to reach this position and nobody was advocating a hard Brexit, the facts remain that all eventualities must be prepared for. This was regularly reinforced by ever-changing situations in the House of Commons. The next date for the meaningful vote on the plan negotiated by the UK and the EU is 12 March. If the plan is not agreed, there will be a meaningful vote on 13 March on removing no deal as an option.
If that happens, there will be a further vote on 14 March in regard to a possible extension. Over three days, there are three very different scenarios, which reinforces the uncertainty. It is important this Bill passes and that we have stability in this Parliament. On this side of the House, we have offered the Government space and stability, and the negotiations have only benefited because of this. The Government would do well to acknowledge the maturity and the co-operation of many parties in the House, not just Fianna Fáil, in regard to the support it has received throughout the negotiations on Brexit.
Only yesterday, the UK Government published its most recent paper with the latest assessment on the implications for business and trade in the UK if it leaves without a deal. The assessment concluded that despite significant steps being taken to manage the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit, there are a number of areas where the impact on trade, business and individuals would be particularly significant and damaging. That is the UK Government's assessment of leaving without a deal. Given the fact the UK is one of our largest trading partners, this assessment is particularly bad for us. While the Bill is important and while we are supporting it, it will simply mitigate against havoc but it will not protect from the immediate and detrimental effects a no-deal Brexit will have on our economy.
There is no previous history of a country voluntarily leaving a trading bloc such as the EU. However, Brexit forecasts from the ESRI for the short term show a 1.4% decrease in our GDP and the Central Bank says that could be anything up to 3%, and, for the long term, the ESRI forecasts the decrease could be 3.8% and the Central Bank suggests 6%. One thing that is for sure is this is going to have a negative effect on our economy, and will result in the loss of jobs and revenue and a potential reduction in services.
While we are happy to facilitate the passage of the Bill and we think it is in the national interest, its delayed publication calls into question the general preparedness of the Government. Not only that, but the €25 million Brexit loan scheme announced in October 2017 has yet to be opened up. Only €17.3 million of the €300 million available overall under that scheme has been drawn down, and only 400 of the 600 customs staff will be in place by 29 March. A lot more needs to be done.
Part 9 of the Bill deals with the validity of pilot exemption certificates. Given we are an island nation and given how much of our exports move through our ports, that is welcome. However, the critical issue for hauliers and exporters of goods is not whether pilots and ships' captains have the exemption certificates as outlined in the Bill. The critical issue is the possibility of increased transit times due to traffic congestion at our ports and sanitary and customs checks. Some 38% of our unitised exports to the EU go through the UK landbridge. Irish operators must travel under the common transit convention to get access to continental Europe and to avoid import-export procedures. This is reliant on tracking where and when the load enters and exits the third country en route to member states. If the UK, as its Government suggests, will not have transit offices in place, how is France or any other EU country going to accept Irish loads using the landbridge? This has the potential for further long delays. It is inevitable that the landbridge will become slower and less viable.
The Government has failed to take the opportunity Brexit has provided in regard to improving Rosslare Europort. In September 2016, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, confirmed by way of a reply to a parliamentary question that the unusual legal status is inhibiting further port development and he reaffirmed this in May 2018. Now, however, when asked about the development of Rosslare Europort, he does not think the ownership structure is inhibiting it in any manner. The bottom line is that very few people want turkeys on St. Stephen's Day. If people are buying turkeys on St. Stephen's Day, they are doing so at a knockdown price. It is imperative that Irish exporters get Irish goods to the markets on time. There is no point getting goods to the markets the day after the markets finish trading. The quickest way to get Irish goods to the European markets is through the Rosslare to Cherbourg route. When asked in regard to ensuring we have adequate capacity on that route, the Minister responded that he is confident the shipping sector will respond to any potential demand. There will be demand and there needs to be a response now. The House will forgive me for saying I do not have confidence in the Minister's assurance, given it was he who was confident we would not have a drone situation at Dublin Airport - he said that in January of this year and we know Dublin Airport closed for 30 minutes last week due to the sighting of a drone. The reassurance of the Minister does very little to reassure hauliers and the businesses that rely on our hauliers that their goods will get to the specific market on time.
The hauliers also have a concern in regard to the back-up of time and are worried about inadvertently falling outside the required hours under the working time directive. I hope there will be a common sense approach to dealing with this. A common sense approach is also needed in regard to dealing with the issue of tachograph hours because, in certain instances, people may extend beyond what is required. It is an important issue.
As we know, green cards will be necessary to prove the holding of motor insurance. In the event of there being no deal, green cards will be needed for anyone driving from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland or Britain but there is not nearly enough publicity in this regard. Only today, we had a presentation in the audiovisual room and we discovered that staff working for the Oireachtas who are from Border counties, who we would have imagined would be aware of this, were unaware. There needs to be greater publicity in this regard, in particular given the penalty is the automatic impounding of the car. Of course, Article 8.2 of the motor insurance directive would allow a post-Brexit UK to remain in a green card-free circulation area.
To conclude, there are many issues that need to be addressed from the point of view of ensuring the haulage sector is supported, and it needs to be supported in order to get our goods to the market in an efficient and timely manner. If we do not do this, we will exacerbate the problems even further for those who rely on mainland European markets.
I join with my colleagues on these benches in stating my broad support for this legislation, although, like other speakers, I hope it will never have to be used. We want to do all we can to facilitate its swift passage through the Oireachtas so the Bill can be enacted before 29 March. While no one likes the circumstances that require us to pass this Bill, the political brinksmanship and game-playing by the Government and Parliament of our neighbouring island mean it is vital this legislation is in place.
While I wish we did not have to pass this Bill at all and that political sense and logic would have taken hold at Westminster before now, I am still concerned we are leaving this until the 59th minute of the eleventh hour.
The delays in both the publication of this Bill and in the full delivery of all the necessary preparations to deal with a no-deal Brexit are not welcome. Neither is the continuing and ongoing uncertainty about what happens at the Border in 30 days' time if the British Government and political establishment drive over the edge of the cliff and go for a no-deal hard crash out of Europe. As a Border Deputy, representing Cavan and Monaghan, I am still awaiting a proper answer from the Government regarding the question of what happens at the Border on 29 March if there is no deal.
We all hope that does not happen but with only one month to go we have to move beyond issuing positive statements about how we hope such a dreadful scenario can be avoided. We have to move into the area of proper contingency planning. The absence of a clear answer to, and clear preparations in this legislation on, the question of what happens at the Border after 29 March is, indeed, being cited, erroneously, by arch-Brexiteers as evidence that Brexit has no ramifications for the Border or the Good Friday Agreement.
Earlier today on the BBC "Politics Live" programme, the Labour Party Leave-supporting MP, Kate Hoey, stated that she noted that the Belfast agreement was so relevant that even last week, when the Irish Government produced its plans for a WTO arrangement and what it would do as an Irish Government, there was no mention of a Border. She continued by stating that if a hard border was not needed in the scenario of Britain leaving the EU on WTO rules, a hard border would certainly not be needed when a proper deal was achieved.
Many of us in this House from the Border area, and there are a few of us, including myself, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and Deputy Ó Caoláin, have been on various British-Irish parliamentary bodies with Kate Hoey over the years. We know how out of touch and ill-informed she is when it comes to the realities of life on this island and, indeed, to the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. She might remember that agreement was endorsed by the electorate in referendums North and South in May 1998. She propagates what I would most politely call a very jaundiced view of politics in this country and displays a dangerous arrogance about the real, tangible benefits of the Good Friday Agreement.
I am still concerned, however, that the reluctance of this Government to address directly what will happen at the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit is being used against us and our interests in Britain. I urge the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to address this issue as soon as possible. Any form of Border infrastructure is against the spirit and purpose of the Good Friday Agreement. This cannot be said often or loudly enough. We know our friends and colleagues in Europe get this message but we need to redouble our efforts in ensuring that our colleagues on the neighbouring island understand that as well.
The ease and arrogance with which some dismiss the centrality and importance of the Good Friday Agreement to the three strands of relationships, on this island and between our neighbouring islands, is breathtaking. For far too long before the Good Friday Agreement, the two communities along the Border lived with their backs to each other. Towns and villages were cut off from their natural hinterlands by an arbitrary line imposed a century ago. The Good Friday Agreement and the consequent dismantling of Border infrastructures and installations, along with the opening of roads and crossings, allowed communities to slowly and gradually reconnect with each other.
Those flows of people, traffic and commerce across the Border have been steadily increasing since the Good Friday Agreement. At first, it was slow but now it is as if the Border had never been there. The Good Friday Agreement literally liberated the Border region. We cannot risk a return to the bad old days. I have noticed in some contributions here a tendency to think about the dangers and costs of Brexit as something that lie ahead of us, something that is over the horizon. As a Deputy for two Border counties, I assure Members that the costs of Brexit are already being felt and felt hard along the Border.
The local agrifood sector, the mushroom, beef and pigmeat industries, are already feeling the impact of Brexit through the uncertainty it has created for future investment. Even the withdrawal agreement, if passed, and as already outlined, will have impacts for the local agrifood sector. A no-deal Brexit, however, would completely devastate it, not just on this side of the Border but also on the other side. That is because, thankfully, our agrifood sector North and South has become interdependent since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today, we have enterprises that are all-Ireland businesses that, prior to 1998, were solely sited either North or South. Many of those processing companies today have a major presence on both sides of the Border. That is to be welcomed.
Earlier in this debate, Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned the report in the yesterday's Financial Times which stated the British Cabinet had agreed a tariff schedule relating to agricultural products to be lodged with the World Trade Organization on 29 March if there is no deal. Such a move would decimate the agrifood sector on this island and wipe out huge swathes of the sector in Cavan, Monaghan and the north west. I noticed that the Minister, Deputy Creed, in his earlier contribution mentioned he cannot introduce particular measures to assist the agrifood sector until it is known what deal emerges or if there is no-deal. I appreciate that. A message, however, needs to go out, particularly if there is going to be severe market disturbance of the agrifood sector, that supports will be put in place right away. Let us remember that when there were severe market disturbances in the past for the agrifood sector because of outbreaks of disease, such as foot-and-mouth and BSE, as well as the pork dioxin issue, the Fianna Fáil Governments at that time immediately put in place major financial supports to underpin the sector and make sure it got through those turbulent times. Those supports worked and the sector survived.
If particular difficulties, therefore, emerge from severe market disturbances in future, we cannot introduce support measures on a piecemeal and incremental basis. They need to be put in place right away to ensure confidence in the sector is not lost. We all know farm production cannot be switched on and off. Government Departments and agencies are attempting to reassure us that they will be ready when and if the effects of a no-deal Brexit strike. Those reassurances, however, become less convincing as the clock ticks down. Our agrifood sector is particularly exposed to a no-deal Brexit. While we welcome effort to diversify into new markets, it will take years for that to be successful and to achieve quantity. We need assurances that supports and protections will be in place immediately to deal with any fallout. In the short term, what will be done to assist the agrifood sector? The Government needs to answer that question.
I would also like to know what is planned concerning the impact of Brexit on the beef sector. I know it is intended that the Commission would support us to ensure the beef sector survives and comes through the Brexit transition. We need more details on those supports, however. How would the European Commission support the beef, dairy and pigmeat sectors in a no-deal Brexit scenario? I also remind the Minister and his colleagues in government that we can, indeed, have the most technologically advanced and well-designed website and-or app ready to roll out in March. In large parts of the north west, however, those aspects are of little use because we have neither the reliable broadband nor dependable mobile signals to access them. I accept that much preparation is already in place and that officials have worked extremely hard to prepare legislation and to put in place other supports. Some additional staff are also being assigned to deal with queries from businesses and the public.
I also know, however, that local businesses are also telling me they feel the preparations are not sufficient with barely one month ago. I have appealed to both the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for the past two years regarding infrastructure. I have made the point several times during oral questions that everything concerning this situation is not within the competence of the Government to address. It cannot deal with all the fallout from Brexit.
However, there are some areas where it is totally within the Government's power to make decisions to provide additional much-needed investment in infrastructure in the Border region. We all know that poor infrastructure is an additional cost for business. To assist business and commerce in the Border region we urgently need an upgrade of infrastructure, particularly road infrastructure, broadband and telecommunications.
I want to say at the outset that I wish and still hope that sanity will yet prevail and we will never have to enact what is contained in this legislation. We did not ask for, nor do we support, the British Brexit decision. We are as vehemently opposed to it as we have always been historically to British interference in our island's affairs and to the imposition of a British Border across our land almost 100 years ago.
There has been much commentary of late regarding the so-called "Irish Border", so I will repeat a lesson I have delivered on many occasions. It is not an Irish Border. It is a British Border, placed on our island against our will. The will of the people in the North on the issue of Brexit is repeatedly ignored by the British Tory Government and its Irish surrogates in the DUP. The people of the North voted to Remain. It was a clear majority and that should and must be respected. Whatever will yet transpire, be it before or after 29 March, serious consideration must be given to the holding of a referendum on Irish unity between North and South. Provision for the holding of such a Border poll is contained in the Good Friday Agreement. It is of course the Good Friday Agreement and the peace that has flowed from it that is under the most serious threat from Brexit. It is incumbent on us all to protect it and the rights and hopes that are contained in it.
The proponents of Brexit had no understanding of, or care for, the implications that Brexit would have for the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living in both parts of this island. No part of Ireland, North or South, has ever featured in their considerations. It is our job, and I contend that it is our duty, to ensure that freedom of movement and access to State supports and services, along with freedom of opportunity, is enshrined in Irish legislation irrespective of what happens in Britain. I speak tonight as a public representative with more than three decades of elected service behind me, and as someone who has lived through the existence of a hard and hostile Border that impacted the lives of my family, my community and my constituents for decades. This changed in 1998 with the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement. What has changed and where are we today? Gone are the armed Border posts and the military infrastructure. Gone are the discredited Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC, and British Army personnel from the streets and Border crossings. Persons can now travel freely between North and South for social, cultural and economic reasons. There are no tariffs or duties. There is now ever-increasing co-operation across many sectors, including business, industry, agriculture, health, education, tourism and many others. This is what we desire to preserve and build upon.
I will now deal with the legislation specifically, with particular address to the health section, which accounts for the first critical mass of amendments to standing legislation. While acknowledging the apparently comprehensive construct of the measures in this Bill pertaining to health, I would like the Minister for Health to confirm that all current access to and provision of health-related services on a South-North and North-South basis is included and will be protected in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The health services measures are unfortunately not specific. While catch-all language appears to be employed, the arrangements are structured in such a way as to cast doubt. There is an absence of certainty.
I refer to the insertion of a new Part IVA in the Health Act 1970, which opens with the following:
The Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, make such order or orders as he or she considers necessary to continue in being or carry out any reciprocal or other arrangements in relation to health services which were in operation between the State and the United Kingdom immediately before the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from membership of the European Union.
I ask the House to think about what I have just read from the Bill. The Minister "may" make such orders, and may do so with the consent of his colleagues. Surely it should not read "The Minister may". It should read "The Minister shall", and never mind his colleagues. This provision is either to allow for the continuation of current access and provision or it is not.
When one reads further into this section, one discovers the following: "When making an order under subsection (1) the Minister shall have regard to the following". Among the considerations that follow one finds paragraph (c) which states: "the need to ensure the most beneficial, effective and efficient use of resources". There is no certainty in this. There is only discretion for the Minister. The word "shall" applies only to what the Minster must take into account when considering an order to continue a given service. There is no obligation. There is no commitment to provide for the range of arrangements and services that currently exist.
The general scheme of this Bill was more specific. It was published on 24 January. Its provisions are most definite. I will cite just one section from page 7, under the following heading: "Head 1 - Provision of full Eligibility for Healthcare to Certain Categories of Person Who Are Ordinarily Resident in the State". The head was to "amend section 45 of the Health Act 1970". Subsection (1) lists as one of these categories: "Frontier workers, resident in the State and working in the UK – for so long as they continue to be employed or self-employed in the UK".
Despite what the general scheme presented just a month ago, the Bill before us contains no reference whatsoever to section 45 of the Health Act 1970, let alone a list of amendments as outlined on pages 7 and 8 of the general scheme presented just a month ago. The truth of the matter is that the Minister for Health might not act as we are being led to believe.
He might just as well decide that this or that current arrangement could be jettisoned because of resources considerations. Why are we being presented with such uncertainties in the health area in particular? This is legislation. It should be about certainties and there is no more important area for that, as many people I and the Minister represent will know and be deeply concerned about, as well as others both in the Border constituencies and through the length and breadth of this land.
I could cite several instances of cross-Border co-operation in healthcare delivery arrived at over these number of years and that warrant that protection and certainty in this legislation and it gives me great concern that that is not the case.
We are all here because of the major impact Brexit will have. I listened to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, speak earlier about the issues facing the agricultural sector and the agrifood industry. While the Bill is quite technical as to the areas it has to amend, there is little or no mention of those issues because they are mainly covered under aspects of trade. There are issues around tariffs and the free movement of goods, particularly in the Border region, about which we are very concerned but I believe all of that will be dealt with by way of amendments to the Bill as we move through Committee Stage and on to Report Stage, which I will deal with shortly.
I want to talk first about the issue of the Good Friday Agreement, which in fairness the Minister acknowledged and spoke about in his contribution in terms of the importance of it. I have shared this story many times in different venues. More than 20 years ago I was in Belfast one evening. At that time the negotiations were taking place. Sinn Féin used to organise what we call community meetings in community halls. I think it was in Turf Lodge or somewhere like that but we went into a hall, which was probably about the size of this Chamber and it was full of ordinary people from the community. Some of the negotiators were at the top table talking about what was going on in the talks. I recall Gerry Kelly, Leo Green and others were there. At that time, the Tánaiste was Dick Spring and Dick Spring's mantra was that it was not about uniting territory but about uniting people and bringing them together. They were explaining how he was always saying that. A little old woman at the back of the room stood up and said, "Who is this Dick Spring guy and where is he from?". They said he was from County Kerry. She said, "I went out this morning to put out my ashes and there was a soldier with a gun sitting behind the wheelie bin. If he went out to his back garden in Kerry tomorrow morning and there was a soldier in it, territory would be important to him". Everyone laughed and joked about it but I got a lesson that evening that I had not got before because for people in those communities, that thing we used to call the British occupation was an occupation of their very lives. When people like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other republican leaders went into republican communities and convinced people to transform the situation of conflict into a different situation, it was a whole change in their lives because their very existence had been resistance up to that time.
I often think, certainly when I come into this place, that there is not enough acknowledgment of the huge amount of work that was done at that time by republican leaders to change that situation.
That needs to be said loudly and clearly because the next morning when I woke up in a little room in Belfast, I listened for a few minutes and all I could hear was a helicopter in the sky because for the British Government and the British military presence at that time, while some people thought the helicopter was about looking at people like insects under a microscope, it was actually about the noise. It was about telling the people who lived in communities like Ardoyne, Turf Lodge, parts of Tyrone, Armagh or wherever that they were there and they were in charge. I knew then that one of the big things we had to do in the peace process was to demilitarise the situation, and that was achieved. It was achieved because people took risks. They took risks for the things they wanted to do and the things they wanted to achieve, and the Good Friday Agreement is central to that.
The republican leaders then, and now, were just as committed to an Irish Republic as Eamon de Valera was in 1916 when he walked out, and Michael Collins along with him. Sometimes when we come in here we think it is all about the different sides we are on, but it is not. It is about our vision for a different Ireland. It is about the future Ireland and the future Ireland, for me and for the vast majority of the Irish people, is about a united Ireland of united people. It is about moving forward into a new place. It is about unity and inclusion. If we are to achieve that unity and inclusion we have to work together. We have to stop bickering about nonsense. I hear too much of that in this Chamber. To make that happen we have to acknowledge that the vast majority of people want a better future.
At different times over many years I have spoken to people who come from a traditionally unionist position and who see themselves as being British but they want the same thing as the rest of us want. If we can create a republic, a new Ireland, where their space in it is guaranteed, they will be a unique and absolutely crucial part of it.
When we say we want a Border poll, that Brexit has exposed the folly of a Border and that one of the things we should do is remove that Border in order to move ourselves forward, we are not saying we want to do that out of a sense of revenge for the past. We are doing that out of a sense of having a new future for all our people.
While this entire debate is about Brexit and all those technical issues, it is also about having a bit of common sense and working together. I hope we can continue to do that.
We know that Brexit presents the most serious social, economic and political challenges to our island in a generation. Sinn Féin campaigned against Brexit because it undermines the Good Friday Agreement, harms the rights of citizens and damages the economic interests of those who live on this island. Brexit brings fear, uncertainty and division and it is a lethal cocktail to throw into our imperfect peace. The people of the North rejected Brexit. A majority of voters voted against Brexit because they recognised the folly of one part of our island being inside the European Union and the other being left outside but also because of the very real impact it would have on their lives.
Interestingly, a report released by the British Government yesterday on the implications of Britain leaving the EU highlights clearly that the North would be the most negatively affected region in these islands. Of course, the North of Ireland or the peace process never really featured in the thought processes of those who championed Brexit. It is interesting also that it states that the North would more severely affected than Britain, and for much longer.
This omnibus Bill is the bare minimum needed in terms of Brexit planning. It deals with some of the practical matters that will impact immediately on people’s lives in the event of a no-deal Brexit, such as access to healthcare, cross-Border travel, access to education and pension entitlements, as we heard earlier. Dealing with these matters is absolutely necessary but hopefully they will never be needed.
There is a withdrawal agreement between the EU and Britain on the table. The backstop contained within it is not perfect. Again, it is the bare minimum required to protect the Good Friday Agreement in the short term and ensure some safeguarding of our collective economic interests. However, five weeks from Brexit, the British Prime Minister continues her Lanigan's ball approach to the deal she made with EU negotiators. One day she is in and then she is out on the sidelines, an observer oblivious to the reality that time is running out and she is facing a lonely journey home.
Brexit was a game changer. The consent of the people of the North has been ignored and the rights and aspirations of Irish citizens undermined. Brexit does not just affect businesses. It affects communities and the people of the North and the South, and we need to address that reality.
The cross-Border integration and all-Ireland approach on the wide range of issues at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is at stake. The consent principle at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement was ignored. The human rights mechanisms at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement are being ignored. The Irish Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and must not allow any diminution of Irish citizens' rights.
Sinn Féin has proposed the development of a €2 billion Brexit stabilisation fund. This should be put in place to complement, not to substitute for, any EU supports that are forthcoming in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We need supports for small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, in vulnerable sectors, as well as targeted capital investment in our ports, roads and airports and in housing, health and education.
Enterprise Ireland has said that up to 25,000 jobs could be lost in a no-deal scenario. That has to be deeply worrying for everyone on these islands.
There is also a significant gap in this legislation, which has been touched on by speakers. It fails to address the fundamental issue at the heart of the current crisis, namely, partition. In the event of a no-deal scenario, it is absolutely incumbent that the constitutional future of the North is put to the people in a referendum on Irish unity.
The people of the North should not be dragged out of the European Union by hardline Tory Brexiteers, the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, or those who know absolutely nothing about Ireland. The bottom line is that the majority in the North voted to remain and that decision must be respected and upheld. The people of the North are entitled to have their say on their future and, again, this is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. The Taoiseach has consistently stated there will be no hardening of the Border and that all agreements must be protected. Instead of a hard border, people, North and South, should be given the opportunity to end partition once and for all.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I start on the issue mentioned by Deputy Martin Kenny, namely, the importance of us putting this debate into context, despite the fact that the Bill we are dealing with is actually quite technical, crossing nine Government Ministers. It is important that we recognise that none of us wants to see Brexit happening and, in particular, that none of us wants to see a hard Brexit or a crash-out Brexit. It is no harm to remind ourselves of what the Good Friday Agreement achieved and all of the work done over the years to get to that point, both in Northern Ireland with Britain and in the Republic. I was a member of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in the 1990s when I was a Member of the Seanad when I could see how people were gradually coming to reach some agreement with each other. It is almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. We need to ensure we do everything we can to protect citizens and people living in Northern Ireland from what is the threat of a hard Brexit. In that context, it is welcome that the British Labour Party has shifted its position. It is welcome that it is now looking at the possibility of a people's vote. We do not know what will happen and obviously have to be ready for whatever comes down the tracks, but we certainly all need to use our influence insofar as we can to protect and prevent what would be an appalling scenario for everybody.
The Bill covers a large number of Departments. As the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is present, I will briefly refer to the issue of student grants in Part 5 of the Bill. We had an opportunity at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills to engage with the Minister on the protection for students of SUSI grants and reciprocal grants for students coming here from Britain. It is welcome that this section is included in the Bill. We also raised the question of the Erasmus programme. I know that it will not be included in the legislation, but there are also concerns about that programme and the facility for students to travel within the European Union in the context of Britain not being part of the European Union. Students should still be able to have that opportunity to participate in exchange programmes and travel.
I particularly want to address the issue of jobs, the protection of businesses and Part 3 of the Bill. While it is welcome that Enterprise Ireland will have greater flexibility in supporting companies and research and development and that there is specific approval for it to support businesses financially and it has flexibility in that regard, as my party leader, Deputy Howlin, said today, I would like to see it being a little more specific in terms of the amount of money that will be available to shore up vulnerable Irish jobs. I also support his call for a new Brexit jobs fund in order that we can directly support companies that are really vulnerable in the context of the deadline for Brexit being so close. I am not sure if the messages have got across to all businesses, small and large, on what is available and what they should be doing. I know that there are advertisements on radio, etc. but there may not be the level of understanding or information required. Therefore, I again ask the Government to ensure this information is available.
As a representative from the mid-west, I am particularly concerned about agriculture and the agrifood sector which is very strong in my part of the country. I refer to the question of connectivity for businesses. There many multinationals in the mid-west, for example, as well as indigenous industries that very much rely on the international airport connection provided through Shannon Airport. We are concerned that Heathrow Airport is the main hub that serves Shannon Airport and provides for onward connectivity to other parts of the world. We need to ensure there will be access to that onward connectivity for businesses in the mid-west, about which there is a real concern. On Shannon Airport, the figures published last summer showed that 96% of the growth in Irish air traffic in the past five years had been at Dublin Airport. We see the extra runway causing some controversy in north Dublin, but we could certainly do with the airport noise with which they have a problem in north Dublin because we do not have enough in my part of the country, certainly in terms of-----
We would accept a bit of it, too.
At Cork Airport also. In the context of the national planning framework and the aims to rebalance the country in terms of connectivity, I make a strong argument that there should be more support for Shannon Airport. I am sure the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade would say the same about Cork Airport. It is a real concern in the context of Brexit, particularly because of the importance of Heathrow Airport in terms of connectivity to the mid-west, the west and other parts of the country.
I raise a particular issue for businesses in the mid-west, particularly in the medtech sector but it probably also applies to other sectors. The discussions I have had were specifically with companies in the medtech sector. There are notified bodies that are used in the sector which are UK based. A notified body is an organisation designated by an EU country to assess the conformity of certain products before being placed on the market. These bodies carry out tasks related to conformity assessment procedures set out in the applicable legislation when a third party is required. The medtech sector estimates that between 30% and 40% of medical devices are approved by UK-designated approval notified bodies. I know that discussions are ongoing, mainly in Brussels, on a reciprocal arrangement between Britain and the European Union to recognise each other's certification procedures, but if that does not happen, there will be a real threat to local jobs and the availability of medical devices for patients, which wouldbe a real concern. The Tánaiste is probably aware of it, but I know that the Minister of State at the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach, Deputy McEntee, is aware of and that our permanent representatives are discussing this issue, but it is a real concern for the medtech sector in ensuring there is recognition of the UK notified bodies by the European Union and of EU notified bodies by the United Kingdom in order that the production of various medical devices by the companies in question in the mid-west and other parts of the country will not be disrupted. I ask the Tánaiste to be particularly aware of the importance of resolving this issue, on which there are discussions ongoing. I wanted to raise the issue because it has not been raised in the debate so far.
I want to refer briefly to a number of other sections in the Bill. The social protection provisions in Part 11 and the protection of employees provisions in Part 12 are really important because so many Irish people have worked in Britain at various times and their pension and social welfare arrangements will be affected.
There has been considerable interaction between the UK and Ireland over the years which has affected individuals. It is very important, therefore, that these sections are watertight in terms of protecting people's livelihoods, incomes and pensions. While relatively short, they are very important sections. Deputy Ó Caoláin noted that some health elements in the heads of the Bill do not feature in the Bill and the same applies with regard to social protection. I want to flag this to ensure there is full protection in this area.
I do not want to go into other parts of the Bill. It has many sections and all of us have concerns about particular sections. I am very concerned that businesses, jobs and workers are protected insofar as possible. We cannot fully predict what might come down the tracks but we must do so as best we can and put in place preventative measures insofar as we can, specifically the types of supports, connectivity and regulations that will be necessary to keep things flowing smoothly. If Brexit does not come about, we will all rejoice but if it does come about, either after a delay or on the expected date of 30 March, we need to have in place contingency plans and funding in order that we can preserve jobs and stabilise businesses. These are the main concerns I and others have and they have been expressed in the House.
We will support the Bill but there are actions outside the legislative provisions that can be taken to allow us do everything we can to protect Ireland's interests and citizens, as well as people in Northern Ireland, from what could be a fairly disastrous situation, particularly for the British people, but also for people here.
I am privileged to take part in this debate, which is of huge importance for the country and the European project, that bright shining idea that brought together the nations of Europe following catastrophic and appalling world wars in the 20th century and many other wars in the 19th century and earlier. This vision of a united Europe incorporated all of us, including old enemies such as Britain and Ireland, France and England and Germany and France. When we read history we see how important the vision of a united Europe is. Britain leaving the European Union, as it proposes to do, is a huge historic negative step that weakens the great idea of Europe and weakens all of us, which is very sad. It will affect the economy, our people and the way we look at the future. In decades to come, Britain's departure from the EU, which appears likely, will weaken that great vision.
This Parliament is taking steps. I laud the Ministers on this side of the House, in particular the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, who has fought a fantastic battle on behalf of our country. I listened carefully to the speech of Deputy Lisa Chambers of Fianna Fáil. The Deputy's party and other parties in the House support and stand behind the great European project and our policy of keeping this nation as part of the great EU bloc.
One of the seismic events in Ireland's history over the past couple of hundred years was the Act of Union. It caused trauma to the country and afterwards there was war between Britain and Ireland when Irish nationalists sought to break the connection with Britain. We cannot lose sight of the sacrifices people made then, nor can we lose sight of the sacrifices people made in the 20th century. I come from a family that has a republican side, as two of my father's brothers fought in the War of Independence, while my mother lost a brother who died in the Second World War, with the same vision for a Europe that was free of fascism. We must never forget those times and we must always remember all of those people.
The key issue for Ireland is what will happen in the North. While the majority of people in the North have stated they want to stay in Europe, a minority nonetheless want to leave and they have power in Westminster. They are forcing the pace of the British Government and I very much regret this. I regret that the DUP drum beats loudly in Westminster and, at times, I wish it was not doing so. I wish it would listen to what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want. At the same time, there is no nationalist voice in Westminster. There is no voice stating that nationalists in the North want to participate in the vote in Parliament. If I were there, I would say this would be the lesser of two evils, even from Sinn Féin's point of view, which I respect. I am not being disparaging in my comments. I respect Sinn Féin has a strong view on this but it is the lesser of two evils to have us all in Europe, North and South, than to have the North not being part of that great Union.
I challenge Sinn Féin to step up to the mark on this. The people will not forgive that party if it does not do so. Sinn Féin now carries the flag for nationalists, who were previously represented with a strong voice by the SDLP. If that voice echoed in the chambers of Westminster and if those votes counted, it could make the difference between Britain staying in Europe or not. This is the reality. This is the challenge Sinn Féin has to face and I profoundly disagree with what it is doing in this respect. It is very sad and it concerns me greatly with regard to all of the young people to come, North and South. Their hopes and futures - all of our tomorrows - rest on this hugely important vote.
The strength of our economy has left Ireland in a much stronger position than it was in the 1920s. Back then, we would never have had the strength to move away from Britain. I remember the vote in the 1970s on joining the European Economic Community. Farmers were very concerned because they knew if we had stayed the way we were, they would not have had the markets they subsequently secured. How greatly the country prospered because of that decision. Our country, economy and will are strong, as is how we are building consensus through our civil servants, Ministers and Parliament. The worst of all worlds would be if Britain goes over the cliff. This is still my concern, notwithstanding the changes that have taken place in English politics in recent days. It is still a very deep and abiding concern. This debate is very important. I challenge us all to think again, step up to the mark and ensure future generations will not ask why we ran such a risk and why so many jobs were lost.
The two major parties in Northern Ireland are not working together. They were elected more than two years ago to form an administration to represent the votes they had received. They also have Members of Parliament but nothing is happening at this most serious, difficult and challenging time for everybody on this island, particularly in the North. Neither party is talking to the other and there is no consensus. There is no step forward and I regret this very much. I am not saying Sinn Féin is to blame or that the DUP is to blame, separately or individually, but for God's sake they must work together. That is the only future we can have.
I think about those issues deeply. The Tánaiste referred to his three children. I also have three children, although mine are somewhat older than his. One of them is married and living in England. The first thing I said to her after the Brexit vote was that she should ensure her baby gets an Irish passport in order to be a European citizen. Ireland has significant connections with Britain. There is significant interaction between the countries. What divided us in the past no longer divides us in many respects. I want us to share our heritage with Britain, as has been the case in recent years as members of the European Union. We were able to look forward and outwards instead of looking in. There may be very difficult times ahead. We should share our experiences into the future.
I live in a Border constituency and the last thing I want is Border posts with police and uniformed Revenue officers stopping people because that would drag us back to that awful place in which we once were. I remember crossing the Border as a young man. As I am sure the Leas-Cathaoirleach will remember, one could not get Opal Fruits in the South. One could buy books in the North that were not available in the South. Going up there was a big experience. Obviously, we will not return to that era of censorship. My point is that Brexit is divisive and would infringe on equal rights North and South. It will divide and harm us greatly if it comes to pass. I congratulate all those who will vote for the Bill.
If the British Parliament does not reach agreement such that a transitional arrangement for Brexit is put in place by 29 March, Brexit has the potential to decimate the economy of our provincial towns and the remainder of rural Ireland. Regardless of whether a transitional arrangement is put in place, we will face into a new relationship with our neighbours in the United Kingdom from 1 January 2021, which is only 22 months away. We need to start building resilience into our economy and our provincial towns and the rural communities around them. There are three key areas on which we need to focus, namely, agriculture, local business and tourism.
As Members know, agriculture and the agrifood sector are to the fore in terms of any change in the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Beef and suckler farmers in particular face a significantly challenging situation even without Brexit. One in every two cattle reared in Ireland is eaten in the United Kingdom. We urgently need to build resilience into this sector. Immediate action must be taken with a clear focus by An Bord Bia. It needs to act to protect the market share of Irish beef in the British market in a no-deal Brexit scenario. In such a scenario, it is imperative that we differentiate our beef in a manner that ensures it is regarded as the preferential consumer choice compared with other imported beef products in Britain. Bord Bia must put plans in place to make British consumers aware of the positive attributes of Irish beef compared with beef produced in and imported from third countries such as the United States or various South American countries. It is important that we point out to British consumers that 70% of the deforestation of the Amazon - the lungs of our planet - is to provide land for cattle ranches. Some 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions involved in food production are directly linked to food transportation. Surely, it makes far more sense to bring beef from Dublin to London, a distance of 464 km, than 11,000 km from Buenos Aires to London, a journey 24 times longer. The distance from London to Newcastle is the same as the distance from London to Dublin. Those points must be brought home to British consumers in such a situation. We also need to explore the possibility for live cattle trade to the UK for our store and finished cattle. They would be subject to significantly lower tariffs than would be the case for carcasses going into the UK. For example, on the other side of the European Union, Russia has a 5% tariff on live imports of cattle. This is potentially one area on which South America could not compete with Irish beef production and that must be explored and considered by Bord Bia.
Finally on the agrifood sector, we should establish an Irish beef brand to target premium global markets, as was done in the dairy sector with Kerrygold. I am referring to certified grass-fed, extensively reared suckler beef. There is an opportunity to market that in a global market and get a premium price for it. That is what we should be doing and it should be the responsibility of Bord Bia to drive that forward with producers across the country.
Tourism is another area on which we need to focus. It is not the strongest aspect of the local economy in my part of the country but it is of significant importance nationally in provincial and rural Ireland. In my constituency of Roscommon-Galway, overseas tourists support approximately 1,000 jobs. The vast bulk of those overseas tourists come from the United Kingdom. A plan to build resilience into this sector locally has been put in place through the new brand, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. It allows us to grow and develop the sector such that it can provide high-value employment in rural communities across east Galway, Roscommon and adjoining counties. However, it is important that we support Fáilte Ireland in its ambition to develop and grow this brand. Key to that is marketing the Beara Breifne way, which is Ireland's answer to the Camino. It runs from the Beara peninsula in west Cork, up through the middle of Ireland to Blacklion in County Cavan and on to the glens of Antrim. That needs to be marketed globally, just as was done for the Wild Atlantic Way. In tandem with that, we must develop and exploit the blueway from Limerick along the Shannon corridor up to the Shannon pot. We also need to develop the greenway which runs from Dublin city centre through Athlone and Ballinasloe and on to Eyre Square in Galway. It is key that those three elements of infrastructure are put in place if we are to successfully develop the Ireland's Hidden Heartlands tourism brand and provide resilience in the tourism sector in our region.
The final point I wish to highlight is the need to build resilience into our business and enterprise sector. In fairness to the Government, it has been doing a significant amount of work in this regard and has been holding regional roadshows across the country. However, I am particularly focused on local businesses, especially those indirectly impacted by a future in which the United Kingdom is outside the European Union. Although local enterprise offices can support companies of up to ten employees, those that have more than ten employees, are not exporting or do not have the potential to export are effectively being cast adrift. These businesses are the bedrock of the economy of many of towns and villages across Ireland. They provide locally and nationally traded services and should come under the umbrella of the local enterprise offices.
We also need to examine the remit of Enterprise Ireland. The criteria should be altered so it can support companies involved in import substitution, which has not been examined to date. Enterprise Ireland has focused only on exporting businesses or those with the potential to export, not those associated with import substitution, especially that involving non-EU countries. I refer in particular to when the United Kingdom becomes a non-EU country after Brexit. Enterprise Ireland's remit really needs to be reviewed quickly in this area.
The objective must be to protect, support and grow the local companies. They represent the future of many of the smaller towns. They involve local people who came up with an idea, started up a business and grew it, perhaps over generations, employing perhaps 12 to 100 people in many provincial towns and many smaller rural communities. It is important that we support them now. It is also important that we work with them to identify their vulnerability in regard to Brexit because many of them, because they are not directly exporting, do not realise they are vulnerable and prone to the changing dynamic across the Irish Sea. They may not be directly affected but their customers or suppliers may be.
The Tánaiste flagged in an interview last week the EU cross-border healthcare scheme and the treatment abroad scheme, two very successful schemes providing the public in this country with access to healthcare so they can avoid being on a waiting list or obtain urgent care they need. I am glad we have got reassurance that these schemes will remain in place after March. I understand, however, that the commitment is only until 31 December 2020. We need to provide clarity beyond that date. If people require treatments that involve revisiting consultants, they need to know that in January and February 2021, they will be able to continue to gain access to the required healthcare, either in Northern Ireland or Britain.
I am sharing time with Deputy Anne Rabbitte. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the legislation. It is one of the most important Bills we have debated in this Chamber for quite some time. When we consider all the debates we have been having, what has been happening in the House of Commons, Brussels and Dublin since 2016 and how Brexit and the referendum came about, we realise that well-heeled people in the United Kingdom believed the European Union was the reason they had lost their way in the world. As we have seen, many small nations have been extremely successful over the past 100 years. The First World War was fought for the freedom of small nations but it took another half century before this concept was properly established. The European Union, formerly the European Economic Community, has played no small part in helping countries such as Ireland to get on the world stage and defend their corner as peers against anybody in the United Kingdom or anybody who has built up a massive fortune on the back of an empire dating back centuries. Those concerned pine for that.
Consider the fears people have had. Democracies made decisions right across the world immediately after the crash of 2008. Challenges arose over racism and immigration. These are among the main issues we will have to debate in the coming decades. We will have to determine how countries such as Ireland will deal with such issues and how they can prepare to engage internationally on them. Ireland has benefited enormously from its membership of the European Union. It also benefited enormously from what it did internally by offering free education and from the quality of the education it offered to its young people. We can stand shoulder to shoulder with any nation in terms of our education experience, our young people and the generations who have benefited from free education since it was introduced.
Where am I going with this? I am talking about Ireland being on par with or being able to negotiate its stance with any other member state in the European Union as an independent nation. Being an independent nation was such a dream for 800 years while Ireland was occupied. It is a matter of continuing to grow.
We are now at a crossroads in terms of Brexit and the continuing debate on the backstop. We have benefited enormously from internal politics over the past 20 or 25 years, or since the early 1990s when the peace process was put in place. The likes of Fr. Alec Reid went out of his way at Clonard monastery in Belfast to try to bring together warring factions from deeply divided communities. Of course, there is an awful lot of work to do. This is why we need the democratic process in the Six Counties to be as strong and vibrant as in the Twenty-six Counties. There are considerable challenges to ensure that we do everything we can to protect Ireland as a whole, that Brexit is not a defining moment or one that reignites old wounds, and that we do not hold any part of this island back because of dreams or ambitions of extremely well-heeled people within the United Kingdom's Tory Party. I could go on at length about that but we have to face what is in front of us. The legislation has many aspects knitting together the issues that will challenge us as a nation if there is no Brexit deal. Negotiations will be taking place until the last minute to prevent a no-deal Brexit or to find a solution.
Previous speakers have mentioned the agrifood industry. One of our major concerns is how Brexit will affect rural communities. Some say it could benefit urban communities in a major way. Rural communities, however, will be greatly challenged, particularly those along the west coast and those involved in beef and suckler farming. I have to put my hand up as I am a small suckler farmer. I realise the challenges that have been faced by the wider beef industry right across the country, particularly over the past 12 or 18 months. I am aware of the looming implications owing to Brexit. We must ensure we employ every tool we have to market our product, which is probably one of the most saleable agricultural products on the world market because of the regulations to which we have asked our farmers and other primary producers to adhere. They have embraced the regulations and are producing a world-class product. We have to ensure we have markets for it.
We must also consider communities that will be affected if there is a no-deal Brexit and if challenges arise over how we will negotiate with the United Kingdom immediately after an orderly Brexit, if that is possible to achieve.
The challenge will be for the Republic of Ireland to negotiate with the UK in getting our footprint in there. There has been talk and emphasis over the past number of years about how emerging markets will benefit the agriculture industry. Those are issues. Much work has been done by Ministers and officials have given time and commitment to try to get into those markets but the most important market we have is on our doorstep.
That is not only for the agriculture industry. Many companies export. Avonmore Electrical is a small, family-owned company just outside Kanturk. It is the type of company that a previous speaker referred to, one that has been built up over generations. Avonmore Electrical has built up and now exports wind in the Scottish highlands and right across the UK because it has a fantastic product.
Munster Joinery has a base in the United Kingdom and employs a huge volume of people on the Cork-Kerry border, taking in Duhallow and east Kerry and parts of west Limerick. But for Munster Joinery, we would have serious issues in our part of the country. It has a base in the UK and is working through Brexit and it is a huge concern.
All of those family companies that are small and indigenous, have sourced markets over the past number of decades and are going into the UK, will face challenges whether there is a no-deal Brexit on 29 March or a deal is subsequently hammered out between Ireland and the UK. That is where the real challenge will be. We must look to our European neighbours and ensure we get our products into Europe notwithstanding the land bridge issue and regulations that will have to take place.
Brexit is not good for Ireland and presents challenges for our island as a whole, not just the Twenty-six Counties of the Republic but also the North of Ireland. We need to be up for those challenges.
Brexit will only be a lose-lose situation for the UK. I do not know what legacy will be left by the politicians who have tried to get the UK out of Europe. We have to look at the most vulnerable people who are exposed because of Brexit and ensure we protect those industries and the employment within them. I wanted to make another point about social welfare that is in the Bill but I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill tonight.
I thank Deputy Michael Moynihan for sharing his time.
I also welcome the opportunity to speak tonight and acknowledge this is a technical Bill. I also acknowledge the hard work that the backroom team has done to prepare it to bring it to the floor this evening.
I will speak to the Bill in a different vein and light because I will speak from the point of view of children. I am spokesperson for children and youth affairs and acknowledge that the Ombudsman for Children and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People have held round table discussions for the past two years. Such events occurred once in Croke Park and once in Newry. At those discussions, we listened to the voices of young teenagers and young adults as to how Brexit was going to impact them. They were clear in what they thought would be the ramifications of a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit under any deal scenario. They said that Brexit will impact profoundly on the island of Ireland and the current generation of young people will be those who have to live with the decisions made during these negotiations. They also said a hard border, or any regression to the violence of the past, should and must be avoided at all costs. The Good Friday Agreement is to be protected. Brexit must not be utilised to drive deeper societal divisions and it must not limit opportunities for those on the island of Ireland. Work, travel and study opportunities for all must be maintained. North-South co-operation on healthcare, education, policing, safety and child protection must remain, along with cross-Border travel. Access to services must be guaranteed. That is what we, as a Parliament, are trying to deliver with all of the pieces of legislation that have come, and will come, before the House.
Those young people did not have a vote on Brexit, in Ireland or Northern Ireland, and are solely depending on us to bring forward legislation to protect them and their livelihoods into the future. They talked about how many of them travel north and south for education and the ramifications for their grant system and how it will impact on them. They talked about how they will cross up and down on the train. One of the children spoke about their parents being separated with one living in the Republic of Ireland and the other in Northern Ireland. That child travels across the Border on a daily basis.
Another concern was if a child chose to go to education in Queens or Coleraine, how would that impact and how would the grant system operate? The Government has addressed it in section 5 of the legislation. That is welcome because there needs to be a clear understanding that we will protect the young people.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, came before the Committee for Children and Youth Affairs. She said that, while she did not have a real, direct impact on how the legislation was drafted, she fed into many other parts of it. Justice is a significant part that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs fed into on things like care orders or children going into various forms of care in the UK. Ten children a year have to go to the UK. Children are protected under the Brussels II regulations. Our children were not a part of the makings of Brexit but are dependent on us and how we roll it out.
Deputy Naughten spoke about how rural Ireland will survive. I am from east Galway, the county with the largest suckler herd in the country. Agriculture is a huge issue and there is fear within my constituency and right across the west of Ireland. The fear factor is the fear of the unknown. I understand why we could not have this debate earlier because at all times we had to give as much latitude and space to the UK to come to a reasonable conclusion so we do not find ourselves in a no-deal scenario. The fact remains that Brexit is not a good deal for us.
Tourism and agriculture in the west and along the Border and midland regions are concerns. We need to capitalise and plan for the future of tourism because that is a market. The new trade into east Galway is people on their feet. The question is how we can get people in and market, brand and sell the area. The Ireland's Hidden Heartlands campaign will have a significant part to play in that.
There is a new organisation developing at the moment called Grow Remote. It provides an opportunity for people to choose to work from home. These people can work from home if they have proper access to the Internet and it offers a lifestyle balance. It also gives those people the opportunity to earn a good living working on the tech spectrum. Many of them are graphic designers and some are web designers and programmers. They can work for multinational companies, based anywhere in the world, from their homes. These people do not impact climate change while still having the opportunity to work. This is a way to keep alive parts of rural Ireland that might be impacted by Brexit.
I said at committee last week that we should look at areas in which Garda stations have closed or the OPW has buildings. Regarding investment, on the plus side of Brexit, we could see industry coming to us because we are an English speaking country and we should look at the opportunities on that side of it.
The Government could look at making available Office of Public Works buildings with sufficient broadband connectivity for those who wish to work from rural communities. We need to give a lifeline to the rest of Ireland and to show that we are open for business.
The message which needs to go out is that we are all working together. It was unfair earlier on, however, for certain Deputies to make sweeping statements when their own party had passed opportunities to take up positions in various parliaments which could have averted much of this Brexit scenario. They had an opportunity but they chose to walk away from it. This situation could have been avoided many months ago if certain people had worked together in Stormont and had taken up their positions in Westminster. At the beginning of the Brexit situation, only a small number of votes were needed to avoid this whole scenario. Members of this House had an impact on that.
Tá áthas orm labhairt sa díospóireacht seo. Tá súil agam nach gcuirfear an reachtaíocht atáimid ag plé anseo i bhfeidhm go brách na breithe mar ba thubaiste a bheadh ann d'Éirinn dá mbeadh Teorainn uair amháin eile taobh istigh den tír. Is fada a bhí muid ag fulaingt le críochdheighilt na tíre agus níl muid ag iarraidh dul ar ais aige sin. Tá dhá chineál deighilte ann: an críochdheighilt fhisiciúil agus an deighilt a raibh John Hume ag caint uirthi, is é sin an dheighilt idir pobail. Feictear domsa go bhfuil an dheighilt idir na pobail ó Thuaidh agus idir na haontachtóirí ó Thuaidh atá ar son Brexit - agus sin cuid mhaith de na haontachtóirí ó Thuaidh, 40% - níos doimhne ná mar a bhí cúig nó sé bliana ó shin. Agus gan ach mí anois fágtha, caithfear chuile iarracht a dhéanamh an Breatimeacht chrua a sheachaint agus cinnte a dhéanamh go dtiocfar ar réiteach. Mar atá ráite agam go minic, baineann cuid den pholaitíocht le meabhar agus le réasún agus baineann cuid eile de le mothú. Go minic níor mhaith le polaiteoirí a adhmháil cé chomh tábhachtach is atá mothú sa bpolaitíocht. Mura dtuigimid mothúcháin daonna, ní thuigimid ceann de na rudaí is tábhachtaí go gcaithfimid a thuiscint agus a thógáil san áireamh sa bpolaitíocht.
I hope we will never see this legislation put into action. A hard Brexit would inevitably mean a border would be imposed within our island, not only by Britain but by the European Union. As somebody who has seen a gradual disappearance – a blurring - of that line in practice over the years, the idea of hard border is totally unacceptable and poses challenges. I do not want to go down the road of predicting mayhem and violence. We do not know; it could happen. I certainly would not like any words of mine to be taken as saying it would be acceptable if it happened because violence does not solve any problems.
Over the past five years, several events have conspired to drive a new wedge between a large section of the unionist community and the nationalist community in the North and the rest of the island. As a republican, I am conscious of the famous lines from the 1916 Proclamation which are often misquoted. People refer to “cherishing the children of the nation equally” as if that meant children in the sense of young people. The line actually goes on to state “oblivious to the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which [have] separated [divided] a minority from the majority in the past.” In other words, it was promising that we, as Irish people, would be oblivious to the differences in the past and we would seek to foster co-operation, understanding and goodwill between all peoples living on this island.
From the small amount of work I have done in the North of Ireland, I believe a bigger distance exists between nationalists and pro-Brexit unionists, which make up the majority of unionists, than was the case five years ago. Whether people agree with Brexit or not, one has to respect other people's views. I certainly have never seen the continued long-term suspension of Stormont as being a favourable or positive matter. When people work together every day, no matter what their differences, they come to see each other as humans. By force of circumstances, they get to know each other by working together. In turn, it reduces difference. Unfortunately, when that day-to-day contact disappears, it creates barriers, indifference and moves people apart. That is never positive.
Over all the years I have been a Member, I have often remarked how people with strong views come into the House thinking they would not like people of various shades political colour. Instead, despite political differences which are real, they often find that as human beings they get on quite well. For that reason, I believe the lack of an Executive and an Assembly in the North has been retrograde.
Day-to-day power has been left to public servants and the British Government. No matter how willing a British Government might be, few British ministers, like the current Secretary of State admitted in a frank moment, really understand the politics of this island, North or South. Whereas many people derided the comment the Secretary of State made about not understanding how unionists would not vote for nationalists and vice versa, I thought it was an honest comment. If the truth is told, how many people in England really do understand what we take for granted, namely, the political make-up of the North of Ireland?
I still hope that everything we and the Government do will be to see if there is a way of avoiding a hard Brexit and facilitating the British in coming to a resolution. I listened to the debate earlier in the House tonight and much comment was made about chaos in the British House of Commons and so forth.
Consensus is fine. I am not against consensus if there really is one, while forced consensus is bad, of course. On the other hand, the political situation in Britain is the way it is. We must deal with the realities, not the way we might wish the world to be. I suppose most people in Ireland would have preferred that they had not voted for Brexit in the first place but that was their sovereign right as a people under their constitution, unwritten as it is, and we must respect that. Furthermore, we need to be realistic about the options they face in the House of Commons. There is the May option. To deliver that, she must get virtually all the Tories to vote for it and a few others, including the DUP. That seems a very tall order at the moment as it stands but who knows what comfort might be given without undermining the fundamentals. The second option is an extension. If we are to have an extension, one that leads to nowhere, has no plan behind it and does not lead us to the road, may mean we will hit the same dilemma again in five months or whatever period of time and does little beyond kicking the can down the road. Everything that should be done to facilitate progress in resolving this issue should be done. The third option is the one this Bill seeks to address but which would have absolutely horrendous consequences for this country, both in east-west relationships and North-South relationships. That is the worst option of all. The reality of the May deal is that the UK would be in the customs union and virtually in the Single Market although the customs union, in day-to-day business, is even more important. There would be time, a process and negotiation if and when they were to move to some other dispensation. That would provide a manageable situation rather than the over-the-cliff scenario.
On looking at the House of Commons and party politics, I must say that I have become convinced over some time that it is unlikely that May and Corbyn will come to some sort of consensus arrangement. One problem is that I do not believe Corbyn wishes to arrive at some sort of consensus arrangement but I also believe that if it is a choice between splitting the Conservative Party right down the middle and making an arrangement with Jeremy Corbyn, she will not split her own party down the middle. Even were she to do so, she would not last any time in politics. I do not know whether the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade can tell us if there has been any progress in squaring what seems to be an impossible circle in terms of giving some comfort in order that the May deal would go through or some other type of arrangement whereby there would be an extension with a firm purpose, plan and endgame. As we have seen in respect of the Executive in the North of Ireland, deadlines put back can sometimes lead nowhere. Once people got the idea that a deadline was not a deadline, all we had was crisis after crisis and at the end of those crises, there was no Assembly or Executive. I do not think that it is a good thing for politics on this island or on the neighbouring island or in Europe that we continue every five or six months coming to a crescendo only to then put it back again and so on.
Some people hope there will be a second referendum. Maybe there will or maybe there will not. I cannot tell the future but I do not think that it is a realistic proposition with the current political construct in Britain. While that might change in the future, we cannot be sure that in the event a second referendum, they would actually change their minds. No matter how much we disagree with their decision, they have a right to make it. Just as we made a decision in this country 100 years ago that we wanted out of the United Kingdom - to this day we are disappointed they did not respect it because they thought we would be a lot better off in their Union - it is incumbent on us to respect whatever processes they have and whatever decisions they make.
As I said at the outset, the emotional is very important here. Emotionally a border on the Border was always a no-no for any nationalists on the island, not only for pragmatic reasons but also for emotional reasons. Let us be honest, that is the reality. However we also must understand that for unionists of a strong unionist flavour, the idea of the negotiations being used by Europe to drive a wedge, as they would see it, between them and the rest of Britain was also a hugely emotionally charged issue. The harder the arguments were made here about the unacceptability of the Border, and I do not think that anyone doubts my view on that, and that therefore it had to be in the Irish Sea, the more inevitable that there would be a kickback. Something that I do regret is that over the past four or five years, there has not been more of a bilateral approach taken within this island to sit down to see how one squares what appears to be a very difficult circle to square. We should remember, however, that the Good Friday Agreement squared much more difficult circles than that. I always regret that we did not come at a common island position that could be explained to both to our neighbouring island and to Europe rather than what happened, which was that we negotiated through Europe and they negotiated through Britain and we did not have an all-Ireland view worked out as to how we would resolve what seemed to be an impossible dilemma. People might say that is not practical, that it is idealistic and that it is only the unionists but one either believes the people living in the north-east part of our country of the unionist persuasion are part of this great island family, even though they also see their identity as British and they do see themselves in that rather complex land, or we do not. If we do, we must see that through to the very end. I still hope that there might be resolution even at this late stage, without in any way compromising the issue of the Border. I think that many Northern pro-Brexit unionists get the issue about the Border because they know it, they live there, and it is more likely that some British Tories do not understand it. The very experience of living near the Border, as does the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, means she understands the real day-to-day dynamic. They do understand it but their pride and the situation in which they find themselves means that it was natural that they would resist a border down the Irish Sea.
The argument was made that the negotiations had to be between Britain and the European Union, but I have found in life that when one negotiates at one remove, the subtleties are lost. Perhaps we had to conduct the negotiations in that way, but we did not have to conduct the discussions in that way. I hope we will reach out, even at this late stage, to see how we can work out a way forward that would avoid a hard Brexit and a hard border on this island, one with which everybody on it could live.
The order of the House states that if there are no further speakers offering before 11.30 p.m., the debate is to be adjourned and concluded tomorrow.