1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the role his Department is playing in preparing for a hard Brexit. [15024/19]
Vol. 982 No. 2
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the role his Department is playing in preparing for a hard Brexit. [15024/19]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in preparing for a hard Brexit. [15016/19]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the role his Department is playing in preparing for a hard Brexit. [16347/19]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in preparing for a hard Brexit. [16401/19]
I propose to take Questions No. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. A comprehensive set of structures has been put in place to ensure that all Departments and their agencies are engaged in detailed preparedness and contingency activities. Within my Department, staff across several divisions contribute to the work on Brexit. Brexit is a core part of the work of the international, EU and Northern Ireland division, which is headed by a second Secretary General who acts as Irish sherpa for EU business, including Brexit issues. The division advises me in my role as a member of European Council and in respect of Government consideration of Brexit issues, including negotiations, as well as Northern Ireland affairs and British-Irish relations. The economic division of my Department advises me in the development and implementation of national and sectoral economic policies to ensure the economy is well placed to respond to opportunities and threats, including Brexit.
To augment this ongoing work, my Department also has a dedicated unit on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. This unit, working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, assists several groups that oversee Brexit preparations. The unit provides assistance to a Secretaries General group, chaired by the Secretary General to the Government. The unit also assists a senior officials group of assistant secretaries on no-deal Brexit planning. It has been meeting on a regular basis and planning based on the Government's contingency action plan, which was published last December and updated on 30 January. The plan provides detailed sectoral analyses and approaches to mitigate the impacts of a no-deal Brexit.
My Department, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, also jointly chairs a senior officials group on Brexit-related legislation, which oversaw the development of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019, signed into law by the President on St. Patrick's Day. Work is continuing in parallel on complementary secondary legislation.
The decision of the European Council to extend Article 50 prevented a no-deal Brexit on 12 April and has significantly reduced the overall risk of no deal. However, given the ongoing political uncertainty in London, that risk has not been fully averted, and prudent preparations by the Government for all possible scenarios will continue.
Over the weekend, it was reported that the British Government had stepped down its front-line Brexit preparations. On the basis of what was announced in the newspapers, it appears that those preparations were massive, cost billions of pounds and involved the deployment of thousands of civil servants. If I understand what the Taoiseach has just stated, I agree that we should not be, and cannot afford to be, complacent about the prospect still on the table of a no-deal Brexit.
Yesterday, the German foreign Minister indicated his country's impatience by saying German patience was wearing thin and that there could be no further extension beyond October.
As we know, a little over half of the 84,000 businesses that trade with the UK have thus far applied for Irish customs registration, which will be needed in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The president of the Road Haulage Association has accused State agencies of still being "unable to answer basic questions". While I appreciate what the Taoiseach has said thus far, fundamental groups such as the Road Hauliers Association deserve to have their concerns addressed and their questions answered.
Does the Taoiseach agree that it is a cause for worry that a little over half of the businesses doing trade with the United Kingdom have yet registered for their customs registration, which will be required, and what will he do about it?
Whereas the Taoiseach correctly stated the additional extension of time for the British Government and Parliament to get its house in order lessens the prospect of an imminent crash, the threat is not entirely removed. There is no such thing as a good Brexit for us. I have spoken to people throughout the country and those in farming say the Brexit damage is being done as we speak. Whereas the extension gave cause for a sigh of relief, we need to remember that the uncertainty and imminent threat of Brexit, hard or soft, is doing a whole lot of damage in any event.
We did not have the opportunity to respond to the contribution of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Ms Pelosi, earlier in the House, but I wish to record my warm welcome for her words, in which she clearly set out the position that any trade deal between the United States of America and Britain will not be a runner in the event that damage is done to the Good Friday Agreement. The United States has made considerable diplomatic, political and, for many people, personal investment in the development and delivery of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, and it will not give way easily on the Good Friday Agreement. If Brexiteers of the Tory or Democratic Unionist Party variety have an ear to the House, I hope they heard loudly and clearly that damage done to our peace process and economy will have a real cost for them and their trading ambitions.
In a way, Ireland has been a little lucky that a potentially hard, disastrous Brexit has been averted, at least for a period. As a country, we now have breathing space to confirm changes that are coming in any event and to get the island more ready for the fact that, one way or another, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union is changing. It is important for ports such as that of Cork, Rosslare and Dublin that the breathing space is used because in the future, we will need ships to travel directly from the Continent to those ports. As the House will be aware, it was a shock to Rosslare when the Irish Ferries ship was moved to Dublin. From a Dublin point of view, given the level of traffic that is typically on the M50, it is difficult to envisage that virtually all the imports and exports to and from Ireland could end up being processed at Dublin Port. Dublin does not have the road infrastructure to take that. I hope that the breathing space can be used to beef up the development of Rosslare and Cork ports. I acknowledge that quite a bit of work has been done at all three ports but there is an awful lot more to do, particularly to enable them to take large volumes intended for the south west, the south east and the midlands. We need to be able to use all three ports to their maximum capabilities. It would be good because it would avoid being overly focused on Dublin, which does not have the route capacity to deal with all the trucks if they end up coming.
On a number of recent occasions, I have asked the Taoiseach whether direct discussions have been held with the British Government concerning the possible imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, which was threatened as a possible no-deal scenario for the United Kingdom approached. At a time when two of the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement are suspended and the third is dysfunctional, the imposition of direct rule would be a further-----
The Deputy is speaking about the next group of questions.
No, I am addressing no-deal preparations. The imposition of direct rule was threatened in the context of a no-deal scenario.
Direct rule is specific to the next group of questions.
If the Deputy will allow me, I am entitled to ask questions.
Will the Taoiseach explain what discussions he has held with the British on these matters? What does he intend to do to get the institutions of the agreement re-established? Two years after they collapsed because of a heating scheme, their absence has caused damage to the people of Ireland. I welcome very much what the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Ms Pelosi, said earlier about there being no US-UK trade deal if any harm comes to the Good Friday Agreement, but the greatest harm currently being done to the Good Friday Agreement is the absence of institutions in Northern Ireland and the collapse of its Executive and Assembly. It is extraordinary and must be dealt with.
On no-deal planning, the failure to publish no-deal notices by 29 March needs to be explained, given how the risk of no deal was then significantly higher than it has been in the past two weeks. It is interesting that many of the no-deal notices were published after 29 March. We now know that by 29 March, 50% of businesses which trade with the United Kingdom had not completed the most basic step towards continuing that trade. June is the next point when a no-deal scenario could happen. What efforts are under way to ensure there is a far better response and that our economic exposure is addressed before then? It is clear that previous approaches did not work by 29 March. Will something new in respect of the sectors and businesses be tried? We are all focused on the no-deal scenario but what have been termed soft, or less severe, Brexits would also have an impact. I have spoken to IBEC. Some companies have millions of euro worth of inventory in storage in Britain, for up to four months in the agrifood sector. It is having an impact, therefore, on many companies, not to mention the compliance costs that would emerge in the event of any form of Brexit.
On no-deal preparedness, we have not taken the decision to step down our preparedness in the way the United Kingdom has, but those measures were complete, or close to complete, at the end of March in any event.
Deputy Howlin asked about the uptake of customs registration numbers by businesses. Revenue has identified 84,000 businesses that may need a customs registration number, that is, an economic operator registration and identification, EORI, number, although they might not all need one. Thus far, 45,000 businesses have such a number, while approximately 4,800 customer numbers were issued in the past three months alone. Having an EORI number is the minimum requirement for businesses to be able to move goods from or through the UK in a no-deal scenario. The application can be made quickly, easily and at no cost through Revenue's secure online service. Companies should also ensure that they, or an agent on their behalf, have a facility, that is, software, to make a customs declaration and that they know the commodity code of their products, as this is used to determine the import and customs duties payable. Last week, customs officers were present at Dublin and Rosslare ports and on board a number of ships, where they issued information leaflets to help importers, exporters and truck drivers with concerns or questions about what they need to do post Brexit. No importer or exporter, therefore, can claim not to be informed at this stage.
With regard to the uptake of business supports, 567 applications have been made for the Brexit loan scheme, of which 511 have been approved. More than 5,000 Brexit scorecards have been completed by Enterprise Ireland companies and almost 1,000 by LEO companies. A total of 182 be prepared grants have been approved, 140 projects have been approved under the market discovery fund, 3,000 prepare to export scorecards have been completed, 1,200 people have participated on the customs insights online course, 47 products have been approved under the agile innovation fund and 16 Brexit advisory clinics have taken place with more than 1,200 people present. The Brexit: act on programme funds consultants to help improve resilience and 210 plans have been completed. A total of 1,000 strategic consultancy grants to assist Enterprise Ireland clients have been approved. In February, under the online retail scheme, 11 retailers were awarded funding and there will be a second call. With regard to smaller businesses supported by local enterprise offices, 518 clients have been approved for grants for technical assistance, 247 for the lean for micro programme, 562 participants solely focused on Brexit have been provided mentors and 4,213 participants have attended Brexit seminars or events. A total of 2,419 small and medium enterprises have directly engaged InterTradeIreland for advice. There have been 1,400 applications for vouchers, of which 1,200 have been approved so far.
With regard to the public information campaign, people are familiar with the getting Ireland Brexit ready campaign. There have been 101 stakeholder events in 21 counties, with recent advisory clinics in Laois, Dublin, Monaghan and Cork and customs training in Laois. In terms of financial assistance available, €300 million has been set aside in the Brexit loan scheme for affordable loans of between €25,000 and €1.5 million to eligible businesses. A separate €300 million future growth loan scheme for SMEs, including farmers, is in place to support strategic long-term investment post-Brexit to reorient products people make away from the UK market. There are Enterprise Ireland be prepared grants, start to plan vouchers from InterTradeIreland, the market discovery fund and the agile innovation fund that I mentioned earlier.
In addition, the legislation passed by the Houses includes the introduction of postponed accounting to allow all traders for a certain period account for VAT in their bimonthly VAT return instead of at the point of import as well as a provision to enable Enterprise Ireland to provide a lending investment instrument for client companies to help Irish businesses stay competitive, innovate and grow. It is important for businesses and other organisations to be aware of the supports available and, if not already doing so, to take this additional time as an opportunity to take the necessary steps.
Road haulage to the UK is facilitated by the EU's community licence that will allow international hauliers from member states, including Ireland, to move freely within the EU. As part of contingency planning, the European Commission proposes to adopt a temporary unilateral measure for nine months after Brexit to allow access for UK hauliers to the EU provided it does the same. There is concern about delays at Dover and Calais, and it is still uncertain as to whether Irish trucks can or will be fast tracked through Dover and Calais, but this is what we seek.
5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, since the indicative votes took place on 27 March 2019. [15114/19]
6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if discussions on the implications of direct rule were discussed with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, in his recent meetings or conversations with her. [15418/19]
7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, since 29 March 2019; and if officials on his behalf have spoken with British officials in relation to plans post 31 October 2019. [16356/19]
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [16452/19]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, since the indicative votes took place; and if he has discussed with her the prospect of direct rule in Northern Ireland. [16480/19]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the Northern Ireland Executive with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, recently; and his views on whether there will be direct rule in Northern Ireland due to the lack of progress. [16668/19]
11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversations with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [16746/19]
12. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent conversations with the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [17624/19]
13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May. [17789/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 13, inclusive, together.
I last saw the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, on the margins of the special European Council meeting on 10 April. At that meeting, the Prime Minister presented her case for a further extension of the Article 50 deadline. The House is aware that the European Council agreed to an extension of the deadline to 31 October, provided that the UK participates in the European Parliament elections next month.
Prior to that meeting, I spoke to the Prime Minister by phone on the evening of 8 April 2019 when we discussed her letter to Donald Tusk seeking an extension and preparations for the summit. During our discussion, I repeated to the Prime Minister my openness to an extension of the Article 50 deadline.
I welcome the agreement reached last week between the EU 27 and the UK on the Brexit extension. I firmly believe that ratification of the withdrawal agreement by the House of Commons is in all our interests and I hope the time extension will be used to enable the deal to be agreed. Approval of the withdrawal agreement is the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border. I was pleased to have the continued support of my fellow European Council members on this objective.
Prior to this, I had a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister in Brussels at the time of the European Council on 21 March, as I previously reported to the House during Taoiseach's Questions on 27 March and in my statement to the House on the European Council meeting on the same date. Officials in my Department are in regular contact with their British counterparts on a range of issues, including Brexit, as are colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including the ambassador and his team in London.
I call Deputy McDonald.
I have a question.
It is in the name of Deputy Michael Moynihan.
I am taking it.
Deputy Martin also has a question in his own right.
The practice normally is to go to Fianna Fáil. I do not mind.
Okay, I call Deputy Martin but he will have only one bite of the cherry. He will not get in again because he has only one question in his name.
I accept that. Originally I thought Questions Nos. 1 to 14, inclusive, were grouped together.
The Taoiseach did not reply to the specifics of Question No. 6 on whether the implications of direct rule were discussed with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, in the Taoiseach's recent meetings or conversations with her. He might address it in response to these questions. Did he discuss the threat of direct rule or its implications? I have asked the Taoiseach on a number of occasions whether there have there been discussions between the Taoiseach and the British Government on the possible imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach might outline to us what discussions took place. His predecessors would have been quite open to explaining the discussions that would be ongoing with London on matters of this kind.
Notwithstanding all the threats to the Good Friday Agreement, I repeat what I said earlier. The biggest threat remains the collapse of the institutions. In itself, this has been damaging to Brexit in terms of the North-South relationship and the increased polarisation in the North between the two main political groupings, the lack of dialogue, the lack of formal engagement and, above all, the deprivation of a platform and parliamentary forum for an anti-Brexit majority in the North. Brexit represents a moment of great threat to the North and the island. It seems to be inexplicable that we do not have the Assembly or Executive up and running.
I have picked up for quite some time from the Taoiseach and others that they want to get Brexit sorted and then they will look again at the North. We do not have that luxury. Brexit will be an ongoing saga because whatever is decided in terms of the withdrawal agreement, or what I call the end of the beginning, and the first phase of the exit, there will be a lot of discussions to be held subsequently between the British Government, Ireland and the European Union on the relationship between the UK and European Union. This will carry on. We will have the same tensions as we have had in British politics about the nature of the agreement and its various elements. We will have continuing tensions within British politics with regard to legislation and the type of trading relationship. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement cannot wait for the resolution of Brexit before the co-guarantors of the agreement, namely, the British and Irish Governments, take action. They need to intervene. Last week, the Taoiseach said it was up to the two parties but it is not. The two Governments also have a responsibility. Historically, it has been the two Governments that have always been the engines and catalysts for getting talks around the table and getting things going. I would appreciate the Taoiseach's comments on this, specifically on the direct rule question.
Deputy Martin has it the wrong way around with regard to his assertion that the institutions have not been functioning. I deeply regret this and it is disgraceful we do not have institutions of government up and running more than two years on. We know the history of this. We had landed on an accommodation the DUP could not carry. I will not get into a blame game but that is what happened. I assure the Deputy that as and when there is a real window for re-establishing sustainable power-sharing and not just devolution we will grab it with both hands.
It is wrong to say that the institutions being down represents a threat to Brexit. I do not even know what that means.
It means it is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement.
The reality is that Brexit represents a real and present danger to the Good Friday Agreement and all of the apparatus, infrastructure, human rights' standards, equality provisions, parity of esteem and the citizenship protections that go with it. That is the actual truth. There is another truth. The DUP has gone into hiding, into the embrace of Theresa May at Westminster, and they are in no frame of mind to re-establish the institutions. The Deputy may not like that but those are the current dynamics as we speak.
I shall now address the issue of direct rule. I have discussed this with Mrs. May and it has been made absolutely clear to her that direct rule is not an option, be it a hard Brexit, soft Brexit or any other form or variety of Brexit. I believe that Mrs. May understands and accepts that. There is a need for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, which should happen very quickly. In part of the Taoiseach's contingency planning in the event of a hard Brexit, which none of us wishes to see, and in circumstances where there is a de facto repartitioning of Ireland and all of the politics that go with that, we need to understand that, in the interim, we would be looking at not so much direct rule as joint authority. What might that look like? Those provisions need to be made.
I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that in the absence of a dynamic from the two Governments, who are equal co-guarantors of this agreement, it has proven incredibly difficult - in fact impossible - to get the kind of buy-in that we need from partners in unionism to resolve the outstanding equality issues, to sign up to power-sharing in all of its dimensions, and to get the show back on the road. The Deputy is correct in saying that. This has been a matter of very great frustration.
Has Mrs. May given any indication to the Taoiseach as to the roadmap or the timeframe in her head with regard to landing on an agreed Brexit position?