Covid-19 (Brexit): Statements

We move now to statements on trade and on Brexit and questions and answers on the same topics. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee. The Minister of State has ten minutes.

I am pleased to update the House this afternoon.

It is no secret that progress in the future partnership negotiations has been disappointing. The fourth round, which finished last Friday, did not yield any significant progress. The EU's approach to the talks is based on our published mandate and that mandate is underpinned by the political declaration agreed by the EU and the UK last October. The political declaration sets out the shared ambitions of the UK and the EU for a comprehensive future partnership agreement. This would be a partnership across a range of issues including a free trade agreement, FTA, on goods with zero tariffs and quotas. It would be a partnership with robust level playing-field commitments which ensures open and fair competition and takes into account our economic connectedness and geographic proximity. It is disappointing to see that the UK distanced itself from the declaration in areas such as fisheries and on level playing-field commitments on state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change and relevant tax matters. Furthermore, the UK is unwilling even to discuss areas set out in the political declaration like foreign policy or development co-operation.

The political declaration is not an EU document nor is it some EU wish list. This is a document the UK negotiated with the EU. It is a document the British Government signed up to. The UK is saying that it is only seeking what the EU has given to other partners and therefore cannot accept the EU's approach on issues like level playing field, governance and fisheries. However, taken together, the UK's asks go considerably beyond precedent. In a number of areas, their asks amount to maintaining some of the rights of the Single Market but without the obligations membership brings. The EU has consistently recognised the UK's right to its own sovereignty. We accept that there will be healthy competition between the EU and the UK. However, it is in the interests of both sides that our future partnership is comprehensive with strong commitments to prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages. We are a nation of traders. Irish companies export to over 160 countries. We are not afraid of robust competition but trade should be open and should be fair. Openness and fairness are at the heart of our level playing-field provision. The EU is simply asking the UK to meet our shared commitment to uphold common high standards and to avoid dumping.

Fishing is another area of importance for this House and Members of this House. The former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, very clearly understands how vital the sector is for communities across the island. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, was one of a number of EU fisheries ministers who recently met Mr. Michel Barnier and reiterated their support for the mandate. While it is now unlikely that a fisheries agreement will be concluded by 1 July, the EU has continued to seek a sustainable and balanced agreement. I will continue engaging with UK ministers myself, as will the Tánaiste, in order to convey these concerns and stress the importance of moving ahead and operationalising the protocol on Northern Ireland.

We live in an uncertain world. Many would wish to see the transition period extended but in truth this is unlikely. Publicly and privately, the UK is saying there will be no extension. Without the extension, the transition period ends in less than seven months. I am confident that the two sides can reach an agreement. However, getting there will require follow-through on the commitments made under the political declaration and the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. Everyone also needs to be aware that, whatever the outcome of these talks, Ireland’s trading relationship with the UK will change. Given the limited progress in negotiations to date and, separately, uncertainty due to Covid-19, the Government will now intensify its Brexit-preparedness work.

We will base our approach on two scenarios: first a limited free trade agreement, FTA, in goods, with an accompanying fisheries agreement and second a hard Brexit, in which there is essentially no EU-UK trade deal. This is not about admitting defeat, this is about risk management. Ireland still supports the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, but we must be prepared. We continue to invest in the infrastructure necessary for the reintroduction of controls at our ports and airports. We are engaging with our partners to ensure that the UK land bridge remains an effective route to market and the Oireachtas will be asked to consider a new Brexit omnibus Bill, most likely in the autumn. We will work with the business sector in preparation for new trading environments after the transition period ends. Regardless of outcome there will be a substantial impact for supply chains and trade flows. We will provide support for businesses that must address new customs, rules of origin, regulatory and SPS processes. Businesses are of course finding the current competing demands from Covid-19 very difficult, but I would urge everybody to review and renew their Brexit plans and if they have not started to do so, to begin now.

The withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland ensures that we will avoid a hard border on the island and that the gains of the Good Friday Agreement are protected and also the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it are safeguarded. Full implementation of the agreement and the protocol is an EU priority and Ireland maintains close contact with the task force on this matter. The joint committee and the specialised committees under the withdrawal agreement have met on one occasion each. The joint committee will meet again tomorrow and Ireland will again be represented. On 20 May the UK published its own approach to implementing the protocol. The paper has some positive elements to it and I welcome the clear recognition of the need for checks on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland and for the new border control post infrastructure. However, the paper is vague on other issues such as customs, tariffs and VAT. What we need now is for the UK to provide the technical detail necessary to make the protocol fully operational by the end of the transition period at the end of the year. Progress on implementation will provide certainty not just to citizens but also to business. It will create the confidence that we need across the EU to try to build our future partnership.

It is now time to take stock of the overall negotiations. It is very clear from recent contacts with my EU counterparts that the EU remains united in our support for the Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier. I believe that the two sides can reach an agreement, however it is still important for us to prepare for the changes that January will inevitably bring.

Brexit is not just a business matter either. Individuals need to understand how Brexit impacts their lives and so we will continue our public outreach to inform and advise citizens. It is, however, worth reaffirming that the common travel area will be maintained in all circumstances. The closest possible relationship between the EU and UK is clearly in Ireland's strongest interests and so too is a strong UK-Ireland relationship. The high level of engagements around Covid-19 further highlighted to all of us the importance of working together. Our team and I remain committed to enhancing this relationship in all areas. The Oireachtas approach to Brexit has been consistent across all parties. We understood early on the challenges that Brexit would bring to this island. As we face into the next phase this support remains vital.

I thank the Minister of State. Deputy Haughey for Fianna Fáil is sharing with a number of colleagues.

That is correct. I am going to ask three questions in two and a half minutes and hopefully the Minister of State can reply in that time. A hard or no-deal Brexit is now looking increasingly likely. This will have serious consequences for businesses and SMEs already struggling due to Covid-19. There seem to be several disagreements between the EU and the UK in the negotiations. These include the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, fisheries, level playing field provisions and the overall governance structure of the future relationship. The assessment of Michel Barnier at the conclusion of round four of the negotiations on 5 June was not very optimistic. Every effort should be made, even at this late stage to try to persuade the UK to seek an extension of the transition period and I note what the Minister of State had to say in that regard.

If there is no extension to the transition period, as looks likely, it is clear that the Oireachtas will be required to enact additional Brexit legislation. Can the Minister of State confirm that a new Brexit omnibus Bill is being prepared? Given that a significant amount of work will be needed across Government Departments on this, will she confirm that this matter is being given the urgency that it requires, so we can look forward to a new Brexit omnibus Bill?

Second, what is the position concerning the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol? This protocol is essential for the protection of the peace process, among other things. Is the UK backsliding on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol? As Michel Barnier said, we need to "move from aspiration to operation". We all agree with that statement.

Third, what has been done to prepare vulnerable sectors of our economy, businesses, SMEs and individuals, for the disruption and change coming their way as a result of Brexit? Is this work being given added impetus now that a hard Brexit is very much on the horizon?

I thank the Deputy for his questions and his brevity. Regarding legislation, I confirm that drafting is being done on a new Brexit omnibus Bill. Departments have highlighted that there will be a need to introduce or renew some legislation come 1 January next year, particularly if there is no deal. That is why that has started. We also brought a memorandum to the Cabinet two weeks ago, which has advised and asked all Departments to start engaging with their own industries and sectors, not just regarding new legislation but also further work or support that might be needed, based on the two scenarios I have outlined. Some elements of the previous legislation can be enacted, but the vast majority of it was based on a no-deal scenario and that will need to be updated and amended. My understanding, once we have a new Government in place, is that we will bring this legislation before the House. We will then have an opportunity to debate it and, hopefully, pass it in time.

Regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, I am not saying there is any backsliding. However, what has been presented so far is not adequate and does not provide enough information. It is very welcome that the UK has presented a paper. It is also welcome that it has eventually been acknowledged that there will have to be some form of checks on goods going from Britain into Northern Ireland, particularly sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, and animal products. As I mentioned earlier, however, there is not much in the paper regarding issues concerning customs, tariffs and VAT.

Another issue we have highlighted, and that I have highlighted to many of my European colleagues, is the reference to the backstop being temporary. As we know, the backstop will be there unless and until another mechanism is put in place. That was agreed as part of the agreement in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol, so it is important that it is acknowledged that this is something that will be put in place, unless another mechanism is there to implement different measures.

Regarding what is being done to prepare businesses, we are in a difficult scenario at the moment with businesses very much focused on Covid-19. That was relayed to us two weeks ago when we held the first Brexit stakeholders forum since the pandemic took over. We are trying to get businesses to rethink and re-engage in respect of how prepared they are for Brexit. The focus of businesses now, of course, is on surviving and not thriving. In saying that, many businesses that will get back on track by the end of the year could be faced with new implications from a no-deal trade arrangement. It is important, therefore, that businesses are aware of that prospect and that they start thinking of how that might impact on them.

It is also important, however, that much work was done before Covid-19. Last year, more than 102,000 businesses were contacted by the Revenue and more than 65,000 now have an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number, which is important in trading. That represents approximately 95% of EU-UK trade. In addition, many supports were also put in place, and while many of them have been repurposed for Covid-19, we know that with a new Government and a new budget on the way, more financial supports will have to be put in place.

The EU-UK joint committee meeting tomorrow, at which there will be consideration of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the critically important protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland, will be extremely important for people throughout the island, but particularly for communities in my home region on both sides of the Border. Given the backdrop of negative comments and analysis, we cannot, unfortunately, be confident of progress. The findings in the recent report of the British think tank, The UK in a Changing Europe, refer to time being short, the gap between the two sides and the negative economic impact and ramifications of a no-deal outcome.

On the specific issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, it was stated that there has been some progress by Britain in meeting its commitments to have the agreed arrangements up and running by the end of the year but, worryingly, it was also stated that there is still much detail to be clarified.

Businesses, especially small businesses, will struggle to be ready. Local businesses in my constituency and across the Border region are already struggling to survive. We have seen them do outstanding work in recent days and weeks to get back to work and exit the lockdown while protecting as many jobs and livelihoods as possible. Local communities have rallied to support local retailers and businesses by shopping local and supporting local producers. This could all be washed away by a hard 31 December British crash-out that drags Northern Ireland out against its will, without necessary preparations by the Tory Government in Westminster. The only hint of a plan that Prime Minister Johnson and his Government have is to do nothing, and hope the EU's attitude to the UK might change when Germany takes the EU Presidency. It is not possible to overstate the scale of the damage that would follow a hard 31 December crash-out. If the worst-case-scenario emerges, our region and communities effectively would be held hostage and used as leverage by a Tory party driven by Brexit madness. This would not be the action of a good neighbour. The Government needs to urgently and immediately prepare for the worst, to help businesses prepare for an economic shock, as my colleague Deputy Haughey referred to, and work closely with our colleagues in Northern Ireland to ensure we stand with businesses and communities on both sides of the Border.

If media coverage is anything to go by, many people would be forgiven for thinking that Brexit has gone away since the outbreak of Covid-19. If anything, Covid-19 has proven that different governmental responses can have a profound impact on how these two islands connect, trade, operate, and indeed, survive.

Some 40% of retail stores in Dublin city belong to UK retail chains. Workers employed in these companies are at risk of cheaper operations and lower employment standards in the UK. Of course, both we and the EU must protect our Single Market and its standards. If the UK is allowed to pitch itself as a low-tax, low-wage economy with access to the Single Market, Irish workers will be in trouble. We saw the different governmental responses to Debenhams workers with regard to Covid-19. UK stores in some cases remained open but Irish stores closed. We know that, in many ways, Debenhams used Covid-19 as an excuse to lay off its workers. I urge the Government to continue its pressure on Debenhams and its shareholders to ensure workers are treated fairly.

As Deputy Haughey said, Fianna Fáil believes the UK should extend the transition period but it seems unwilling to do so. If there is no extension, are we ready? We cannot tolerate a hard border under any circumstances but equally, we cannot tolerate the dilution of the rights of workers and the industries they work in. The Government must, and I pay credit to it for doing it, continue to hold the UK accountable for the promises it made in the withdrawal agreement, not least because of the Irish citizens in counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Down, Antrim and Derry.

I call Deputy Browne.

Let the Minister answer Deputy McAuliffe's question.

She could hear you and answer all of the questions together.

The question is whether we are ready. I assure the Deputy we are doing everything to try to be ready to protect and work with businesses by putting supports in place to assist them through their own processes and by making sure we have the right infrastructure at our ports and airports and that the right officials are in place, as well as the legislation.

We also are working with our colleagues within the European Commission because while there is work we can do here, there is a European-wide preparedness that needs to happen, particularly around the land bridge. In that regard, we have presented a paper in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, as well as to our German colleagues.

A lot of work is ongoing. Until we know exactly what the scenario looks like from the end of the year and how those measures need to be implemented, we will not know fully how to proceed. Our focus is to try and get the best possible outcome and the best trade deal possible in order that we can negate any negative outcomes.

The British Government has begun its post-Brexit "Make Britain great again"-style campaigns. One of them is its "Sea for Yourself" campaign, which focuses on promoting fish and shellfish found in UK waters. It is even going so far as to urge people to change their Friday-night fish and chips habits so they are eating locally-sourced battered Dover sole instead of battered cod; a very expensive alternative as I understand it.

Brexit represents an existential threat to the fishing industry in Ireland and my county of Wexford. It has the potential to be a hammer blow to an industry already reeling from Covid-19. On average, 34% of Irish fishery landings are taken from UK waters and for some fishermen, the proportion is even higher. The future for fishermen and their families is uncertain and their livelihoods are at serious risk. Michel Barnier has said the UK is attempting to pick and choose the most attractive elements of the Single Market without the obligations. Two weeks ago, it was reported that the Irish fishing industry could potentially see a significant slump in some fish quotas if the UK prevails in its ambitions in the Brexit fisheries negotiations. Support needs to be sought from the EU to protect our fishermen's livelihoods. Can the Minister of State provide an update on this? Has she spoken to Michel Barnier and urged him not to give ground - or sea in this case - on the issue?

I thank the Deputy. I will outline the Irish and EU approach to negotiations. It is clear that if we are to make progress on an overall trade deal, progress must be made on fisheries. It is an extremely important issue for us, other member states and the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who was a fisheries minister and has made every effort to engage with our sectors, industries and representative groups and those across all member states that will be impacted.

Ireland's main goal and objective is to protect the interests of the Irish fleet, its access to British waters and the quota share it currently enjoys in those waters. The overall EU position seeks to uphold continued levels of reciprocal access and stable quotas. As the Deputy pointed out, the UK is taking a different approach. It continues to stress it is a coastal independent state and seeks an agreement under which a new deal would be negotiated every year. We hear that one of the reasons people voted for Brexit was to move away from red tape and these kinds of challenging issues, paperwork and having to negotiate so many deals. The idea that a fishing deal would be negotiated every year does not make sense to me or much of the negotiating team. We need the UK and EU to come together, use their best endeavours and try to conclude and ratify a new fisheries agreement by the end of this year. We will do everything in our power to ensure that Irish interests are represented in that regard.

Article 132 of the withdrawal agreement clearly states that an extension must be requested by 1 July and the UK has been very clear that it will not seek an extension. In fact, even if the EU seeks an extension, the UK will not agree to it. Business are already suffering because of Covid-19 and a no-deal Brexit will be even more detrimental on the back of Covid-19. Many of the supports and packages that were originally put in place have been repurposed to deal with struggling businesses under a Covid-19 arrangement. I am conscious that the time will not allow the Minister of State to give me an answer now but I ask her to revert to me on what exactly her Department, in conjunction with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, is going to do for businesses that will be most adversely affected by a no-deal Brexit scenario and what supports will be available for them. The supports required will need to be made available on much more favourable terms than those that have been provided for businesses struggling as a result of Covid-19.

I move on to Deputy Cullinane who is sharing time with Deputies Ó Murchú and Clarke.

That is right. We will take seven, four and four minutes, respectively.

The Minister of State said that we live in an uncertain world. That is certainly true but when it comes to Brexit, it feels more like Groundhog Day. We are again seeing the British Government trying to have its cake and eat it when it comes to a future trade agreement. It wants to be outside the club but enjoy all of the benefits. We are going around having circular arguments on all these issues and all the while, the clock is ticking.

The Minister of State mentioned the possibility of an extension of the transition period. A number of other Deputies have stated that is not something the British Government wants or that the European Union has called for. There is uncertainty at play and Covid-19 has interrupted negotiations to some degree. A majority of MLAs in the North have backed a motion for an extension to the transition period.

The business Brexit group in the North, which represents 90% of the North's businesses, has itself called for an extension of the transition period. They have cited a number of concerns, including a lack of technical detail, a lack of time to prepare and a lack of engagement with the British Government and others. Bearing all of this in mind, has the Irish Government taken a position on an extension of the transition period? Has it lobbied the EU and the British Government?

The British Government has proposed an intensive session of negotiations in July on the basis of the current status of the four negotiating rounds, which means no agreement on substantive issues, including the level playing field, governance, fisheries, and judicial and policing co-operation, which would include the European courts as well. It seems unlikely that the EU will agree to such an intensive session until the two sides are closer on all of those issues. The Minister of State might give us the Government's position on the matter. The clock is ticking and businesses are worried.

There is a more fundamental question, and I want to give the Minister of State time to respond. There is growing concern about the British Government position. Nobody knows if this is more of the sabre-rattling and gamesmanship that we have seen up to now. There is a feeling that they are not as serious about finding an agreement as we and our European partners are. We also know that the EU is stepping up its preparations for a no-deal outcome. The Minister of State mentioned the possibility of a second Brexit omnibus Bill. What was absent from that latest Bill and from all of the responses so far, for reasons I accept that the Government put on the table at the time, was what happens at the Border in such a scenario. We need to know that now. As the Minister of State said, it is seven months away. What are the plans for the Border and what will the Government's response be in the context of a no-deal outcome, which we know is back on the table now as a live possibility?

We have not made any secret of the fact that we would welcome an extension but this is something that needs to be agreed between the EU and the UK. As recently as today, I am informed that having looked at any other possible avenues, there is no way to extend it beyond 30 June. It has to be done as set out through the withdrawal agreement. Time is certainly ticking and we are not led to believe the UK will change its position on that. It is welcome that the Executive in Northern Ireland and the Administrations in Scotland and Wales have, all three, sought an extension. It is unfortunate that they potentially are not being listened to. Our position is very clear and I think most European member states, if not all I have spoken to, would very much welcome an extension given the challenges we are facing not just on this but Covid also, as the Deputy said.

On the British Government's proposing intensive discussions, there is a high-level meeting due to take place at the European Council next week. Because of Covid-19, the focus will very much be on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the next generation fund, which is being proposed. My understanding is that the Presidency, which is now under the chairmanship of our Croatian colleagues, will be very much focused on agreeing these issues, as the German Presidency will be. My understanding is that we will have a high-level meeting with the UK towards the end of this month but beyond that, the timeframe for July is yet to be decided. Obviously we would like to get as much discussion in as soon as possible but there are other items on the agenda as well. It is important that the UK acknowledges that as well.

As to whether the British are serious, the Northern Ireland protocol has been agreed. It is a legal document. It has been signed off on. What we want to see and what needs to happen between now and the end of the year, separate from any free trade agreement, is for the UK to come forward with further detail. It is welcome that they have brought forward some form of detail, however it is still lacking in many areas, as I have outlined previously, including VAT and other structures, particularly on SPS goods or animal products coming into Northern Ireland through mainland UK.

What would happen in the event of no deal? The EU is stepping up its preparations for a no-deal outcome. I referred to the second omnibus Bill. People will be concerned about what will happen at the Border. We have not had clarity on that from the Irish Government yet. In the minute she has left, the Minister of State might be able to provide some clarity.

The EU and the Commission are not making any preparations for the Border because we have a legally binding international treaty in place. We expect the UK to fulfil its obligations. We spent two and a half, if not three, years negotiating an agreement which ensures that we do not have to reintroduce any infrastructure at the Border. This means we can protect the Good Friday Agreement and the progress we have made in co-operation North and South and between Ireland and the UK in protecting the Single Market. It is clear that it is now about implementing the withdrawal agreement. The preparation that the EU is talking about is for a no trade deal outcome. That is what we are focused on. Now is the time for the UK to bring forward further detail. I understand that tomorrow's meeting is only an hour long and the discussion will not only cover the Northern Ireland protocol, but also citizens' rights. We will have to wait and see how much can be dealt with tomorrow but we still need them to do a great deal of work.

I hope the Minister of State is correct that there will be no need to plan for Border installations. However, I come from north Louth where, with south Armagh, there is not a great level of, shall we say, respect for the British Government or trust in what it will do. That leads to certain difficulties. Everyone is very worried about the trade impacts if the Irish protocol does not come into operation and if we do not have mitigation. Hard border infrastructure is also a worry. In recent years, there has been activity on Forkhill mountain, where there was once a major British army installation that was an absolute eyesore. When some of the bases were removed, what some would term surveillance equipment - telecommunications equipment, cameras and whatever - remained and it is still very secure. I visited the site today with a councillor from south Armagh to see it with my own eyes. I ask the Minister of State to bring this matter to the attention of the British Government so that we can find out exactly what this activity involves. For three days last week, there was a significant amount of activity by police and others in civilian-type vans. That also happened in October. At the time, a Sinn Féin representative who was dealing with the policing board was told that British army engineers had visited the site. We would like to know what exactly is going on. While I am not saying the British Government and British army will give that information, we wish to put the matter on the record. I want people to be concerned about what will happen in the Border region when we cannot rule out that Britain will crash out of the EU. I can provided additional information but I ask the Minister of State to bring this matter to whatever forum she can to try to get answers from the British Government. In addition, plans are needed for how Ireland would respond in the event of a hard border, which would be an absolute disaster. Sinn Féin's long-term solution for our interaction with the British Administration on this island will come as no surprise to anyone.

I assure the Deputy that in the four years since the Brexit vote, we have not countenanced, nor will we ever countenance, the reintroduction of a Border on this island. That is why we fought so hard to ensure the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed. It has been agreed and it is an international peace treaty. I would like to think the UK would not turn its back on an international peace treaty when it is looking to forge new relationships and sign similar documents with other countries around the world. The UK has committed to the agreement and is saying it wants to implement it. We are saying that the information it has given to date does not go far enough. It is very clear what needs to be done. We need the UK to provide that information so that it can be implemented at the end of the year. We will not countenance any kind of reintroduction of a border on this island.

I appreciate that. On the other matter I raised, can we get reassurance for my constituents, North and South, who have approached me?

The Deputy might correspond with the Minister of State and explain what he has in mind.

With Brexit talks in their current state, a number of business sectors across my constituency of Longford-Westmeath have been in contact with me. I wish to raise one particular sector, which is the tourism sector, and its vulnerability to a no-deal Brexit or a bad-deal Brexit and its fears of being plunged into what would be essentially an economic abyss. One individual described it to me as a perfect storm that they are not entirely convinced that they can face or survive. What plans has the Department put in place in conjunction with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to ensure that this sector and those sectors indirectly associated it will be insulated in the event of a bad Brexit or a no-deal Brexit?

Britain accounted for almost a third of holidaymakers on the island of Ireland in 2018 and of all our markets, they are the ones that are most likely to holiday in off-peak months. It is clear that they do not mind our climate. It is something they are very familiar with and something that draws them here. However, they are also active visitors and that is why Longford-Westmeath is in such a predicament. They are culturally curious. They explore our historical sites and they engage with multiple activities while they are here. In the midlands in 2017, some 2,018 tourists spent €85 million, 93,000 holidaymakers spent €27 million, and 15,000 trips from the North equated to €4 million in spending. This is a huge market in the midlands.

Tourism operators tell me that initially when they encouraged tourists to go to the midlands, they were more inclined to go to Galway, Cork or Dublin but when they bring tourists to Longford-Westmeath they are smitten. They fall under the charm of an area that is absolutely unique and offers a great variety of heritage, activities, history and culture. Whether it is the stunning beauty of the Shannon, equestrian events or water sports, they discover that the centre of this country is a precious gem. The majority of these British tourists come back time and time again and they bring their friends and families.

Despite the good efforts and the work that has been done in promoting tourism in my area it is in a very precarious position. It has enormous potential to continue expanding as a destination in its own right but a bad Brexit or a no-deal Brexit would profoundly impact tourism growth across Longford-Westmeath. In addition, there are the jobs that go with that and the add-on economics that come into our little towns and villages. We need policies that will mitigate the adverse consequences of our largest tourism market leaving the EU. Have the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport been in contact with our colleagues in Stormont to ensure that these priorities and others that have been put forward are discussed and that a united position is proposed that enables the entire tourism sector on this island to have the best chance to thrive and to remain profitable for the foreseeable future?

This vital sector has expressed to me its opinion that tourism is not being treated with the same urgency and importance as other sectors of the economy. It says the Government and State agencies responsible for the development of the agrifood sector and manufacturing have produced programmes and business supports that have made additional funding available to mitigate the challenges that they face, yet tourism appears to have been left behind in terms of strategic and practical support frameworks. Will the Minister of State indicate the overarching tourism support policy aimed at dealing with the consequences of Brexit, to equip those in the tourism sector to meet and be prepared for the challenges that they will most certainly face?

Perhaps the Minister of State will correspond with the Deputy because we are out of time.

I wish to share time with Deputies Richmond and Feighan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I commend the Minister of State, the Tánaiste and the Irish diplomatic team working abroad on the repatriation of Irish people following the onset of Covid-19 and throughout the intervening period. As a people we have always held a special attachment to home and many of our people have returned home during this crisis.

As a new Deputy, I am inspired by the incredible work of the Tánaiste and the Minister of State in response to Brexit and our approach to negotiations. Mayo, as with many other counties, has significant ties with the UK, be it through family, friends, enterprise and aviation links between our two islands. Thankfully, a joint commitment to the common travel area has been reaffirmed and we have good clarity going forward.

As the Minister may be aware, Ireland West Airport Knock has temporarily suspended operations due to Covid-19. I am looking forward to this crucial facility reopening as soon as possible but I should point out that many of the airport's high-volume routes are to the UK.

I mention our airport as, typically, at this time of year, many Teachtaí Dála would experience an influx of passport-related requests. I acknowledge the Passport Express service is widely available through post offices and the passport online application process is making strong use of modern technology. However, I feel there is added pressure on people in Connacht who may require emergency passport applications due to bereavement or emergencies overseas. For obvious reasons, the passport offices in Dublin and Cork are much quieter this summer compared to other years. Nonetheless, as the number of applicants will pick up in future, I wish to ask the Minister whether any thought has been given to opening a passport office in the western region. Ideally, a new passport office would serve travellers from Ireland West Airport Knock, as well as Shannon Airport.

In addition, as I mentioned, the wider western region has a high reliance on the agriculture and fisheries sector. I also would appreciate it were the Minister of State to provide an update on Brexit and the EU-Mercosur trade agreements. The latter is an issue constantly being brought up by many farmers I speak to and their local representative bodies.

I thank the Deputy. First, in response to the Deputy's question about the additional offices, maybe that is something I could come back to him on. As Members will be aware, our passport offices have been closed except for emergency passports that are bring processed at the moment. As of this week, our online passport facility has been opened. There is a backlog that the officials are working on. As of this week, we have 520 staff who are now back working to try to process those as quickly as possible. As the Deputy can imagine, for any Department or company, that is a huge amount of people. We are thankful for them and for the work that they are doing. I certainly will come back to the Deputy on the specific question.

In terms of the Mercosur deal, this is obviously something that has been ongoing for some time. We and all other member states are now examining the agreement that was reached. This will take some time to see the implications, not only for the agricultural sector but for all other industries as well. We will come back with our own response and reflections on that as quickly as possible.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I suppose we have been talking ad nauseam about Brexit for nearly five years. It came as a huge shock to people in the UK, as well as in this country and around Europe. When the people voted in the United Kingdom for Brexit, it was a sovereign decision of the United Kingdom. The then Government was anxious that we could influence Irish citizens who were voting there that it was in our best interests for the United Kingdom to stay. Unfortunately, due to various promises and miscalculations, as well as misinformation, the people voted but that was their decision. It has a knock-on effect that we must mitigate against. I wish that the United Kingdom would stay in the EU and perhaps that can happen. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and all the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the work they have done to try to mitigate those issues.

I remember the first time we in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly were asked what we thought of Brexit. I always said that we looked on Brexit as the British accidentally shooting themselves in our foot and that is exactly what is happening. It has a knock-on effect on this country.

I note the ardent Brexiteer Nigel Farage is leaving the talk show on LBC with immediate effect. He has been three years on LBC. He has been working there five days a week, talking about the Brexit position. It reminds me of the live prank of a man named Mark, who phoned in to the Nigel Farage show and said he was an ardent remainer, he believed in the European project and believed that staying in the European Union was best for the UK. Then something monumental happened. Nodding, Mr. Farage asked Mark what happened and Mark responded. He said, "I was kicked in the head by a horse."

That is, effectively, what has happened to our country. We are suffering from concussion, having been effectively kicked in the head by a horse. It is not so funny for Ireland, however, because we have to deal with the implications. The Good Friday Agreement was not even talked about in the referendum campaign and now the island of Ireland is coming back under discussion. The island and the Good Friday Agreement were not discussed, and now the issues of the island of Ireland and the Border are coming back to haunt us.

I am conscious of the Minister of State's time and the energy she has put in. What are her views on what is happening now or will happen in the coming weeks and months?

I have been optimistic throughout the Brexit negotiations and it is important that we remain optimistic. There is a huge volume of work to be done, and it is very disappointing that after four rounds of negotiations, we seem to have made little progress. We need to remain focused. As an EU 27, we need to remain strong with our mandate and that which has been given to Michel Barnier, and stick to the political declaration, as agreed by the UK. In case that does not translate into a future trading relationship, we need to ensure we are prepared as much as possible. We will ensure, therefore, that over the next few months, every effort is made not just to try to reach an agreement but also to ensure that if that is not the case, we will be as prepared as we can be.

We need to remain optimistic and to do everything we can to try to reach an agreement, but time is running out and we need to be realistic. The shorter the time we have, the more difficult it will become.

Whatever happens, the friendship and political relationship between the two islands, certainly in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, have been very strong. Whatever happens, I hope those friendships - cross-party, North-South and east-west - will be maintained. The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement happened in this House and I thank Deputy Crowe for his leadership during the negotiations.

I also acknowledge the work done by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We need to have more engagements and political interaction like that assembly, the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association and the Good Friday Agreement.

In respect of the €750 billion the EU announced for Covid-19 recovery and the portion that Ireland might receive, has Brexit been considered?

The short answer is "Yes, it has." At every stage where it was possible, I have highlighted the need, not just in a European recovery fund but also in the next MFF for flexibility and room to be able to respond to the challenge of Brexit. A few other member states have also raised the matter consistently. There should be enough room within not just the €1.1 trillion that has been put forward as the next MFF but also the €750 billion recovery fund.

We have touched on a few areas that will be badly affected by Brexit, such as business, tourism and so on, but I wish to raise some of the environmental concerns relating to Brexit. It is estimated that 80% or 90% of the UK's environmental laws and regulations emanate from EU directives, which were significantly stronger than many of the steps the UK had taken before that. The British Parliament is currently dealing with an environment Bill to replace many of the EU directives. As we have discussed and seen, there has been quite a bit of backsliding by the UK on many of its commitments, particularly the level playing field approach.

The reality is that this will affect environmental regulation quite significantly. The UK environment Bill does not have a no-recession clause, opening up the prospect of further backsliding and further unlevelling of the playing field regarding environmental law and how it will affect both countries.

The reality is that we on this island have a homogenous and inseparable ecosystem. Whatever happens with a border, be it hard or soft, the rivers, other waterways and nature do not really respect it and do what they want. Damage done on one side will leak over and affect the other. It will undermine the level playing field.

Last year at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, Ms Alison Hough, representing the environmental pillar, called for island-wide regulation and cross-Border environmental regulation. Obviously, if there are to be difficulties with the UK holding up its end of the deal it has already signed and if there is to be backsliding regarding the level playing field, they will be problematic. I would love to hear from the Minister of State our position and that of the EU on ensuring effective cross-Border regulation of the environment and on the protection of the homogenous and inseparable island-wide ecosystem.

The position of the EU, including Ireland, has always been clear. Environmental issues in the fight against climate change should play an important role in the negotiations. I refer in particular to how we are to address the need for the level playing field. It has to be central to any future partnership agreement. This is something all member states have said time and again. The political declaration already agreed by the EU and UK provides a very clear vision as to how the level playing field could address a future relationship. It is clear that the provisions are designed to try to prevent a distortion of trade and unfair competitive advantages and to ensure we have a sustainable and long-lasting relationship in this context. The political declaration explicitly refers to environmental standards and climate change as areas that need to be covered in this. What we want to see are strong protections for environmental standards. We believe the partnership we are trying to negotiate should reflect that the EU and UK share a common biosphere. With respect to cross-Border pollution, we have been very strong on this, and we have tried to make sure in every step of the process, be it in negotiating the Northern Ireland protocol or in determining what happens next, that representatives of the environmental pillar are around the table with us and fully aware of what we are doing. We are aware of the work that needs to be done.

In the fight against climate change, we have tried to ensure the partnership will firmly reaffirm both parties' commitments to various international agreements, particularly the Paris Agreement. We want to see effective relationships in place regarding carbon pricing and emissions trading. It appears, however, that the UK has much lower ambitions in this area. When it comes to a level playing field, the UK is saying consistently that it is not going to lower its standards. At the same time, it does not seem to want to come to the table to agree a minimum standard. Obviously this is where there are difficulties. Our position remains that there needs to be a strong and effective arrangement in place when it comes to environment and climate issues. This is very clearly reflected already in the EU's legal mandate. A lot of work has been done. The outline is very clear.

With regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, we expect it will be implemented as agreed. That will, in effect, address the North–South issues also.

I commend the work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and the team to date in a very difficult situation. I am anxious this afternoon to allow the Minister of State time to expand on her views on the exact position in the Brexit talks. I seek her personal assessment. There is a public face but it is now really crunch time for informing the House what she has discerned on the likely outcomes of the talks.

For years since the UK vote, we have been absorbed across this island in preparing our economy and people for whatever will result from the people's vote in the UK to exit the European Union.

Unfortunately, we know the current UK Government has the most extreme views on what the Brexit vote was to mean. It is much more extreme than the people who voted for Brexit intended. It also has the most hostile views to the institutions of the EU itself, which filters out in its utterances.

Covid-19 has meant our focus on the oncoming end-of-year and end-of-transition period has greatly diminished for obvious and understandable reasons. Meanwhile, the UK seems to have reverted to the original "have your cake and eat it" demand. Despite the last minute agreement at the end of last year, including the political declaration we thought was a solution, the UK has now reverted to what is, in essence, a demand for quota-free and tariff-free access to our Single Market without any adherence to the governing rules of that market, which of course is demonstrably impossible.

During the previous debate on Brexit, the Tánaiste did not accept my pessimism - I would love to be dissuaded of it - about the likelihood of a no-deal result at the end of this year. I have a number of questions for the Minister of State and I would like to come back in after she answers, so I ask her to be as succinct as possible. What is her current assessment of the negotiations and how does she see them unfolding? She gave a brief answer when she said she was optimistic but in truth what are her thoughts on what is happening and likely to happen?

She referenced the announced Covid-19 supports through the Next Generation EU fund. This is the €750 billion to "repair and prepare the next generation", according to the European Commission. Ireland and Belgium have asked for the Brexit considerations to be taken into account; this is instead of what I understand is simply a snapshot of our economic performance before Covid-19. Where are we in that regard and is it true that the allocation from the €750 billion earmarked for us is €3 billion? How much of that is to be a direct grant from the total grant of €310 billion and how much is to be a loan from the total of €250 billion that will be made available for loans?

My third question relates to fisheries. Will fisheries in all eventualities and circumstances remain part of the general trade discussions? Will the Minister of State give an assurance to the House that Ireland will not allow it to be detached and negotiated separately?

Fourth, in preparing for Brexit, will the Government ensure capital through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is available to prepare us to overcome the obvious barriers that will exist with land bridge UK? In particular we must ensure a better direct access point from ferry points like Rosslare Europort to continental ports in order to relieve the pressure on the European land bridge.

I might add a fifth question. The Minister of State spoke about a paper being prepared on the topic of the land bridge but I had not heard that previously. Will she provide us with access to that paper?

I presume I can do so. The paper has been presented to our colleagues in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany so I assume we can do that.

May I see it too?

I am sure there will be no problem. With respect to my view on where we are and saying I am optimistic, I am optimistic an agreement can be reached by the end of the year but I am not optimistic that it can be as close and comprehensive as we would like it to be. That is based on the fact that after four rounds of negotiations, little progress has been made. We must be realistic. The EU must be strong in the mandate we have set out, based on an agreement that has been reached and signed by the UK.

I am optimistic that we can reach an agreement but I am not as optimistic that it can be at the level and the quality that we would wish.

In terms of the €750 billion, we are still analysing the breakdown and what that means for us. Obviously, it is very welcome. We had sought an ambitious programme that would be a mixture of loans and grants, which would be targeted to get to not just the member states but the industries that specifically needed it. In that regard, we welcome it but we have questions. The Deputy mentioned the allocation. The allocation method is specifically based on a snapshot of a pre-Covid environment. If the Deputy looks at our economy in January and our economy now, he will see two very different pictures.

Is it €3 billion that we are getting?

That is what was initially proposed but I anticipate that the Taoiseach will raise this issue at the European Council next week.

Is that loans and grants?

I am not sure of the exact breakdown of it but I suppose that detail will be available before next week and before the Taoiseach goes to the European Council. In discussions with my European colleagues I have flagged our concern about the allocation method and the fact that it is clearly a screenshot of a much healthier looking economy or environment than where we are now. As I said, we have specifically raised the need for that flexibility to respond to any Brexit scenario or shock later this year and I believe that has been taken into account.

I can assure the Deputy in terms of fisheries. Two weeks ago, when Michel Barnier came before the committee, the Minister, and all other fisheries ministers agreed that we cannot, and should not, stray from the mandate that was given that fisheries remain firmly part of the overall discussions and the overall trade deal and that without progress on fisheries, there cannot be progress on an overall trade deal and vice versa. That is our position and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine made that very clear at the most recent meeting.

In terms of connectivity, first and foremost, our priority is to try to make sure that there is an agreement in place in respect of the land bridge. The fact that the UK has agreed to accept the common transit convention is extremely helpful. It means that goods coming from mainland Europe to Ireland will, hopefully, be able to pass through much quicker without having to go through the ins and outs of normal checks. At the same time, it is important that we have more direct routes. The MV W.B. Yeats - I always get the names mixed up - the largest roll-on-roll-off ferry, was added last year in addition to two more routes that were added. We are consistently trying to increase our capacity but if more is needed later on this year, depending on what happens, we are in constant contact with the various ferry companies to see where we could expand. Some of the direct routes will work for business and industries. Some of them will not, and that is the reason the land bridge is equally as important.

I have another brief question which the Minister of State probably will not have time to answer but she might answer in writing to me. It is a separate issue entirely but one that was raised earlier today and I want to put it to a Minister from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The whole country is focused on an issue that arose with the Kinahan organisation sponsoring an international boxing tournament. The Taoiseach has said that official representations had been made to the Government of the United Arab Emirates to stop that. If the Minister of State has the time, she might outline exactly what representations have been made and the response that has been got to date.

I will come back to the Deputy on that.

As I have 30 seconds remaining I will ask a final question on Brexit.

Waste not, want not.

It relates to the omnibus Bill. One of the concerns we had about the previous omnibus Bill, for a very understandable reason, was that such a large, comprehensive Bill was very late coming to us. If, as the Minister has said, this Bill is already in drafting, presumably, heads have been prepared. Could those heads be circulated to the Opposition parties so that we can be prepared for it?

My understanding is that we are not at that stage but the process has started. As soon as we can relay that information, we will do so.

The Minister of State's statement that a comprehensive agreement is not possible is one of which we should take note. That is serious. It is my view that the strategy of the UK in this process has always been to run down the clock to ensure that a comprehensive agreement cannot be reached. They do not want a comprehensive, quality agreement on a level playing field that would ensure protection of workers' rights and environmental standards. That was one of the points of Brexit from their point of view. The situation that they have effectively engineered is suiting their interests. They want a minimal agreement and as little time as possible in which to conclude that. That is the position we are in at the moment.

I will ask three separate questions. Two relate to the Northern Ireland protocol. On that issue, weak implementation of the protocol poses a risk. It could affect the integrity of our produce and goods and have an impact on us. The EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, recently said that the UK continues to backtrack on the commitments it has undertaken. Is the Minister of State of the view that this applies to the Northern Ireland protocol?

While I am not saying it is impossible, I am not as optimistic that we will secure the close and comprehensive deal we would like. I would not say that the UK is backtracking on what has been agreed but we have not seen enough information thus far to know that the protocol can be fully implemented. I certainly welcome the fact that the UK has published a paper and that it has said that there will need to be checks on certain goods moving into Northern Ireland from the UK. I welcome the progress that has been made in other areas and the focus on the infrastructure needed in the North. At the same time, I am concerned about wording which refers to the protocol as being temporary and about the paper potentially being more targeted at individual domestic audiences. We now need further detail to be sure that the protocol can be fully implemented by the end of the year. I do not think the UK is backtracking. It has given a very clear commitment to Northern Ireland, to the peace process and to the implementation of this protocol. We fully accept that but we now need to see further detail from the UK in order that we can be sure this can be implemented.

It has been said that the Achilles heel of the Northern Ireland protocol is that it is to be implemented by the UK. That is one of its key weaknesses. On this issue, in the paper the UK has published it has sought to revise the text already agreed in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol. It has changed the language used so that instead of referring to goods which are "at risk" of entering the EU market it refers to goods that are at "a genuine and substantial risk" of doing so. That is a very significant change. Goods which are at risk of entering the EU Single Market through Ireland can be very broadly defined and effectively include everything except finished consumer goods, which one can be sure will go to a supermarket in Northern Ireland. Goods which pose a genuine and substantial risk of doing so means something very different. The UK is therefore seeking to revise the text. Does the Minister of State agree that there can be no dilution of the protocol which has already been agreed? Is the new wording used by the UK, which seeks to revise the text already agreed in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol from "risk" to "genuine and substantial risk", acceptable to the Irish Government? Is this attempt to reword the protocol already agreed acceptable? How can we be 100% confident that the protocol will hold in the event of a no-deal Brexit given the UK's attempts to redefine it?

What was agreed in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol has been set out very clearly. It is not open to reinterpretation or change; it is there to be implemented. The protocol goes into great detail as to what needs to be done and as to how it can be implemented to ensure that not only the integrity of the Single Market is protected, but also relations on this island. The UK has presented this paper as an initial position. It is not set in stone and, as I have said, it will not necessarily be the final document. The final document is the protocol that was agreed last year. Neither we nor the Commission will accept any rewording, renegotiation or reinterpretation. The joint committee has been put in place to oversee implementation, not to change the protocol in any way, shape or form. We are very clear on that. The wording is agreed. How it is to be implemented is very clearly set out in a legal document. It is now a matter of implementing it.

What I am asking is whether these attempts to change the wording are an attempt by the UK to backtrack. I appreciate that, if we do end up in a no-deal situation, the protocol will remain in place.

However, if the UK Government is trying to revise it, are we in a situation where we are quite exposed with the Northern Ireland protocol and the consequences that can have for us with regard to the integrity of our produce and goods and the integrity of the Single Market? Does the Minister of State not accept that the UK's attempts to change the wording from "at risk" to goods where there is a "genuine and substantial risk", which in technical terms is a clear difference, is an attempt at backtracking?

I have a final question after the Minister of State replies.

All I can do is repeat that the Commission is very clear as to what needs to be implemented. As to any attempt, if that is what it is, I am not saying that is what it is. The UK has said it is committed to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol in full. We are very clear how that can be done and what needs to be done to do that. This is a document produced by the UK. It is not the document that was agreed. There is a clear legal document as to how this can be implemented and we now need the UK to do that. Any attempt to reword, renegotiate or reinterpret what has already been agreed will not be accepted by Ireland or the EU.

We can take from that answer that the UK's attempt to revise the text through the paper it has published in terms of goods and goods at risk will not be accepted by Ireland or the EU. That is an acceptable summation in that regard. My summation of that is the UK's attempt to backtrack on the Northern Ireland protocol will not be accepted by the Irish Government. They are my words, not the Minister of State's.

There are media reports that Brexit will not be discussed in detail at the European Council on 19 June. Given the critical importance and the fact that negotiations are not going well, can the Minister of State confirm that it will be discussed in detail and that the Government is pushing for that?

I understand it will not be on the agenda because there is such a focus on the MFF and reaching an agreement on the Next Generation EU fund. However, Michel Barnier will brief the General Affairs Council, which I and the Tánaiste will attend next week, and there is also to be a high level conference or meeting with the UK by the end of this month, separate from any European Council meeting. There certainly will be a meeting this month but it is unlikely to be discussed at the European Council. There will be an engagement but it will be later this month.

Does the Minister of State not think it would be in Ireland's interest to have it discussed in detail? Given the stages of the negotiations and the fact that they have not been going well, we need detailed discussion at European level now.

To reassure the Deputy, the high-level conference that is due to take place is at European level. It will be discussed and this will allow for it to be discussed in greater detail instead of, perhaps, trying to cram everything into the normal meeting. The MFF and the Next Generation EU fund will probably take up the vast majority of the overall agenda.

I will not raise Brexit but the issue of illegal trade. Last week, I raised with the Tánaiste the Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill, which seeks to ban the importation of illegal goods from settlements in the occupied West Bank. His answer was very glib. He said he would not do so. He obviously has form on this. For the record, I think all Israeli goods should be banned from this country. He stated that the Attorney General's advice is that it is not compatible with EU law. That is very refutable. He has never made the advice public even though the vast majority of Deputies passed the occupied territories legislation to go to the next Stage. It is in the interest of-----

I am loath to interrupt the Deputy but I do not know by what stretch of the imagination we could associate the occupied territories Bill with the issue of Brexit.

It relates to trade.

I do not see any link with the occupied territories.

You are being creative, but not creative enough.

I suggest that there is. In 1986, the Attorney General of this country gave a recommendation that the ban on the importation of South African apartheid fruit and goods was illegal.

A year later Ireland was the first country to ban all apartheid goods from South Africa. The Minister of State can put the legislation in question into the programme for Government. The Government can also publish the Attorney General's advice on this. That is in the interest not only of the people of Ireland but also of the people of Palestine.

As the Ceann Comhairle rightly just said, this is a matter for negotiations which are obviously ongoing.

That is a terrible response. The Minister of State is a member of the Government that has refused this legislation, which has been passed in the Seanad and the Dáil. She has an obligation to give me an answer to explain why this legislation is not going into the programme for Government. Fianna Fáil and the Green Party agreed the legislation.

We are not here to discuss the programme for Government. I am sure all those involved in the discussions for the programme for Government will be encouraged by the fact the Deputy is encouraging them to get on with completing it. Nonetheless, it is not relevant to the debate before us.

The world is watching this country. Can we imagine if this country passed the legislation in question? It would give inspiration to all the people of Palestine and to the world against oppression and brutality. This country can do it as it did in 1986. Why can we not do it now? What is the difference?

I reiterate last week's comments by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as the Attorney General's advice, that this legislation is not compatible with EU law. The Tánaiste has done more work in this area than many Ministers before him. The Government must take the advice of the Attorney General, however. We have been informed that it is not compatible with EU law. There are other ways and mechanisms through which we can find a solution. However, this is not one.

If the Deputy is asking in terms of the programme for Government, again, the negotiations are ongoing. I can certainly pass on the Deputy's comments to those who are part of the negotiating team.

Will the Government publish the Attorney General's advice? Why can-----

Deputy, we all know in this House that the Attorney General's advice is never published.

Okay. Can the Minister of State overrule it?

I wish I had that power.

Will it be in the programme for Government?

We would all love to know what is going to be in the programme for the Government. I do not think the Minister of State is in a position to tell us. Is she in a position to tell us?

Would Deputy Kenny like to ask about anything else?

I thank him very much for that interesting contribution. I call Deputy Berry.

I thank the Minister of State for updating the House on the Brexit negotiations.

I agree with the sentiment in her opening statement that it is quite disappointing to see how things have played out. I thank her for her honesty and candour in keeping us updated with the truth, regardless of how unpalatable it may actually be.

On the UK land bridge, obviously every Member will be aware that the most efficient way to move goods from Ireland to continental Europe is via the UK land mass. It is encouraging and welcome that the UK looks like it will agree to a kind of a fast-track system where sealed Irish freight containers could move through the UK quickly with a minimum of fuss on to France and beyond. My big concern, one that many people share, is the bottleneck that will happen in Dover. On 1 or 2 January next year, there will be total gridlock there. It has the potential to undermine this trade route for Irish business.

Following on from Deputy Howlin's comments, how much progress has been made in identifying shipping routes and shipping capacity from this island directly to the Continent? The Minister of State referred to the MV W.B. Yeats. How many routes will be available? How many ships will be involved? Does she have specific details? If she does, it would be great to get them.

Securing an effective UK land bridge is a priority for us and has been throughout these negotiations, given our current position and our geographical position. As the Deputy mentioned, the UK's accession to the Convention on common transit is welcome. That will allow EU goods and Irish goods to transit through the UK without undergoing many of the customs import and export formalities on entry to and exit from the UK. This issue is discussed regularly. We have presented a paper to our colleagues in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark to try to ensure that we have a functioning mechanism in place when the goods land on mainland Europe, such that they can pass through as quickly as possible. We cannot predict what will happen between Dover and Calais or at the Eurotunnel, but we will engage with our UK colleagues to try to ensure that there is as effective a route as possible.

With regard to the overall progress and work being done to try to secure other access routes, I mentioned the MV W.B Yeats, but we also have two Brexit-buster ships, which were launched last year between Dublin and Rotterdam, and Dublin and Zeebrugge. These ships were added as well as the MV W.B. Yeats. We will continue to engage with the shipping companies, industry stakeholders and hauliers to make sure that there is additional capacity where they need it. One has to take into account that some of these ships operate for 20 hours, 40 hours or 60 hours, and if there are perishable goods, whether food, flowers and so on, the longer trip will not work, so that is where the land bridge is most important. We continuously engage with EU colleagues and we will work with the UK to try to ensure that we have as quick a route as possible and that the land bridge works as effectively as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for that useful information. My second question relates to Brexit infrastructure in Ireland. Most people will accept that the UK has a lot to improve on with regard to facilities from 1 January next year. That is beyond our control because it is the UK's prerogative. What is within our control is the facilities, be it port or airport facilities, that we have in Ireland. Will the Minister of State outline how much investment and development has taken place over the past 12 months to get our ports and airports Brexit-ready? What are the plans for the next seven months to make sure that we are Brexit-ready on 1 January next year?

I might read this document because substantial work has been done and it is important to put it on the record. It is probably one of the most visual elements of the preparations that we have done over the past while. Significant work has gone in to preparing us for a no-deal Brexit and for the fact that Brexit will mean change, even with a comprehensive future relationship. Work is complete on a number of facilities in Dublin Port, including 24 inspection bays, an additional Revenue turnaround shed, eight seal, check and transit booths, parking for 128 HGVs, and a live animal border control post. Work is ongoing on a number of additional projects, including alterations to existing facilities, and at some additional sites. There is a plan for a new site that covers an area of approximately 5.4 ha. It includes inspection facilities for customs, SPS, and health checks, import and export offices, and some 250 additional HGV parking bays. A step was taken today where the OPW published a notice that it is lodging an environmental impact assessment with An Bord Pleanála regarding these additional sites in Dublin Port.

Work on a border control post at Rosslare Europort is complete, with 38 HGV parking spaces, two seal, check and transit lanes for inspection bays, a Revenue turnaround shed, an export office and other offices. Much is done but work is continuing to try to enhance the live animal border control post inspection facilities that have been put in place.

I am pleased that work is complete at Dublin Airport, including the border control post facility with seven inspection rooms. We have ambient chilled and freezer storage areas and office accommodation for 20 staff. Substantial work has been done, with significant investment and building, and staff who will be needed to manage these being hired. Work is still ongoing and the objective is to try to get this work finished as quickly as possible. Covid-19 has created a challenge for us in this regard but anything that cannot be put in place permanently will of course be put in place temporarily by the end of this year as work continues.

My final question relates to the manpower crisis in the Naval Service.

This is becoming even more relevant now. We know that the issue of fisheries will be a major bone of contention between the EU and UK negotiating teams. If we can agree a fisheries protocol, it will probably be cobbled together at the last minute. The Irish Naval Service will be the people who monitor, enforce and police that agreement. I am concerned by this because last week the Minister of State with responsibility for defence agreed that two of our naval ships, approximately a quarter of our fleet, are in Cork Harbour unable to put to sea for want of sailors. Still more worrying was the confirmation by the Minister of State that 45 sailors, the equivalent of a ship's company, had prematurely retired in the first five months of this year. This will place huge pressure on our ability to monitor and police this fisheries agreement. I totally appreciate that this is probably outside the Minister of State's area of speciality, but if she or the Tánaiste could provide a written answer to my question, I would greatly appreciate it. Does the outgoing Government - and will the incoming Government - recognise, the urgency of the situation in the Naval Service, and can remedial action be taken as soon as possible?

I may have to respond to the Deputy in the same way as I did to Deputy Kenny by saying this is an issue for the negotiation of the programme for Government. I will pass on the issues he has raised and try to get some form of response.

I thank the Minister of State for being here. It is strange to hear the word "Brexit" now when we are so used to hearing about Covid. We have had a dose of Brexit for God knows how long. We had Brexit for breakfast, dinner and supper but now we have Covid-19. I am glad to get the chance to ask the Minister of State what actions are being taken behind the scenes and what support we are getting from our so-called friends in Europe. The Taoiseach made great play of the backstop more than two years ago. What is really happening? Farmers, business people and shopkeepers have all been hugely affected by Covid-19. Brexit is simmering away beneath the surface all the time. It is as though the gas range under the kettle has been turned down but not turned off. It will be reignited, which will have a huge impact on the economy, especially agriculture and exports.

What engagement has the Minister of State had with the farming organisations in the South? Has she had any engagement with similar organisations in the North? Has she had any contact with the new organisation, the Independent Farmers of Ireland, which seems to be the one that really wants to represent farmers? To be frank, some of the other farming organisations are a bit too close to the Government. They have been that way for several years. The same is true for many of the trade unions. It is a big merry-go-round. The people who those organisations are meant to represent are not represented at all. Has the Minister of State had any engagement with farming and trade organisations in Northern Ireland? What engagement has she had with the Irish Road Haulage Association? This organisation represents a very important part of our infrastructure, responsible for moving our goods from Ireland to places all over the world.

The previous speaker mentioned ports. It is very important that they are ready. This is not the Minister of State's area, but my constituency is affected by the N24 project running from Limerick to Waterford. That project has been shelved. It is vital for several reasons, including connectivity from Shannon Foynes Port in Limerick to Rosslare Europort. It is a hugely important piece of infrastructure. It will be more important than ever when Brexit happens. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would answer those questions about engagement and preparation. What funding are we receiving from Europe to beef up our preparations?

Deputy Berry mentioned something about which we have known for a long time. The Minister of State might say that it is not her area but that of the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe. The Army has been totally abandoned and so has the Naval Service, as Deputy Berry has rightly pointed out. We have vessels but we have no one to operate them. It is a shocking situation when one considers our fisheries and the defence of our national sovereignty.

I thank the Deputy. As has been outlined by many people today, several sectors are most likely to be hardest hit by Brexit and are already feeling the implications of Brexit and the uncertainty that surrounds it. The farming community is probably the most likely to be hardest hit, particularly if there is no trade deal and there is an imposition of tariffs and additional costs and challenges in trading with the UK. Acknowledging that, throughout this process we have tried to ensure we have engaged with all the farming and fisheries representative groups to ensure that not only do they understand the work we are doing, but that we are taking information back from those groups regarding the measures we are putting in place, whether through the Departments or regarding our requests at a European level, and that we are getting that information right. There is a constant two-way flow of information and engagement and we will continue that throughout this process until the end of the year, and well into next year and beyond.

We have already put significant financial supports in place through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the past three budgets. That acknowledged that farmers, and beef farmers in particular, are already being hit hard. We will continue in that vein, but it is for a new Government, and a new budget this year, to provide further assistance.

One thing I have done consistently at a European level at every opportunity at the General Affairs Council, particularly when discussing the next European budget, is to raise the need for and significance of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, being maintained at current levels. What is positive and welcome is that in the new MFF, of €1.1 trillion and the next generation fund, an additional €15 billion has been allocated to Pillar 2 of the CAP. We are still examining what that means for us but there is constant engagement and we are very conscious our farmers will need additional support and we will definitely provide that for them.

For the past four and a half years, I had the privilege of chairing the committee at the forefront of dealing with the Minister of State, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was an excellent committee dealing with Brexit and the issues arising from the situation in which we find ourselves. As Deputy Mattie McGrath stated, Brexit went off the agenda for a time while the pandemic was the most urgent thing we had to deal with as politicians. Now, however, we are back to the reality of dealing with this Brexit situation before us.

I come to what the Minister of State spoke about last in her responses, namely, supports for farmers. I am fearful concerning soundings coming from the talks about Government formation. I refer to some of the aspirations of one of the parties, the Green Party, and the concerns, as we will call them, which that party has regarding exports. Many politicians from all political parties have done everything possible to build up trade for our farming communities over the years, within the EU and outside of it in Egypt and other countries. Now, though, we are hearing soundings that live exports to non-EU countries should cease or begin to cease.

We must remember each one of us represents farmers. Every politician elected to this House, no matter where his or her constituency is, represents farmers. I state that because we are a farming nation. We very much appreciate our local and international businesses, of course, as well as our tourism industry, but we are a farming nation. Any politician that forgets that should not be a politician at all.

It is our job to work hard for our farmers and to ensure we hold on to the markets we have and grow them. We should definitely not be talking about stopping live exports to any country, be it a non-EU country or not. I want to know what exactly is going to be put in place. I ask that because the Minister of State knows as well as anybody that we had very good schemes in the past, such as the rural environment protection scheme, REPS. The original REP scheme was a good scheme for farmers and a great scheme for the countryside. As we are talking about the green agenda, no scheme was better than REPS for our countryside because it helped farmers to undertake jobs on their farms that they might not have had the wherewithal to take on board otherwise.

When it comes to the provision of storage for effluent, the erection of slatted sheds, concreting yards and better cattle handling facilities, all the schemes that were in place at that time were very good. To be honest, every scheme that has replaced them in latter years has been inferior to those which went before. They are very much diluted. Younger farmers entering the industry now do not have half as much available to them as young farmers had five or even 20 years ago.

I ask that the Minister concentrate during the negotiations and never forget we are a farming nation. We must protect our market share of the tourism sector and all our other markets, whether it is the small shopkeeper or the bigger shop, the business people or the self-employed, but we must also remember the farmers who have always been the backbone of this country.

I support Deputy Healy-Rae's statement that the farming community has been the backbone of many of our rural communities for many years. We are an exporting country. We export approximately 90% of what we produce, including high-quality food. It is important that we continue in that vein. We all have ambitions when it comes to achieving and reaching climate change targets, none more so than our farmers who have always been the custodians of our land. We must ensure in any programme for Government and any negotiations that we work with and support our farming community in every way we can. That is something the Deputy can be assured of from my party.

Deputy Pringle will share time with Deputy Harkin.

We will take five minutes each. I have questions for the Minister of State on the negotiations in respect of two issues, fishing and the Northern Ireland protocol. It is clear how much fishing depends on UK waters and the agreement that is in place. For high-value stocks, such as mackerel and prawns, we depend on access to UK fishing waters, with 60% of some stocks coming from UK waters. The Minister of State is aware of this, so I am not saying anything that is new to her. We saw in the past month that the EU was willing to move its position on fishing to get an agreement with the UK. It was reported in the EUobserver that on fishing quotas where the EU indicated an agreement was a prerequisite to a broad trade deal, there has been little progress, although Brussels seemed to try to move away from that original position. It also reported that EU countries such as France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark, which largely benefit from the current system, might nevertheless insist on a tough line. It seems that we had to step in to stop the EU rowing back on that agreement and to ensure fishing will be linked in to the final trade agreement. What are we going to do? If France or one of the other countries in that group moves away from that position, we are finished, and the EU trade deal will go ahead.

It has been reported today by Reuters that the French Parliament has put a report to the French Government on fishing, which states that the Union must continue to guarantee that fishing will not be sacrificed to save other sectors. EU diplomats told Reuters last month the EU was willing to shift its stance on fisheries and move from the maximalist position of maintaining the current position in order to help forge a trade deal with Britain. It is clear, therefore, that movement has taken place. Is further movement taking place or is the Minister of State satisfied that this movement has stopped, fishing is now back in the fold and fishing stocks will be dependent on a final trade deal? Will she categorically clear up that issue? We are in a difficult position because we cannot rely on the Brits to look after us and I believe that, ultimately, we will not be able to rely on the European Union either. I would like to hear the Minister of State's views.

The Minister of State indicated that under no circumstances would the Government countenance a hard border on the island of Ireland. That is welcome, and no Government could do so.

The British response on the Northern Ireland protocol has not been adequate, as we have said. How can the Minister of State guarantee that the EU will not backslide on the hard border? We have a problem because we have to push both the EU and the Brits to ensure that everyone holds to what they are doing. We are in a difficult situation. How is the Minister of State going to ensure that there will be no backsliding on the behalf of our EU colleagues?

On the question of fisheries, there has never been any leaving of the fold and fisheries is very much a part of the overall negotiations and cannot, and will not, be separated from them. Michel Barnier made that very clear in a statement he made in advance of the most recent round of negotiations which started last week.

Are the reports that I mentioned wrong in that case?

The position is clear. Mr. Barnier reiterated in advance of the most recent negotiations that he has a clear mandate from the 27 member states that fisheries cannot be separated from the overall negotiations and an overall agreement cannot be reached without an agreement on fisheries. That position was made clear by Mr. Barnier and the 27 ministers who represent the industry.

On the Deputy's question about backsliding on behalf of the EU, I can absolutely assure him and other Deputies that the EU is four-square behind the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. I have spoken to 18 or 19 of my European colleagues individually in the past two weeks and they are fully aware that the Northern Ireland protocol must be implemented in full, that it cannot be amended or changed and any attempt to do so would not be accepted by them or us. It is important not to stray from the fact that the UK has said consistently that it wants to implement the protocol and its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and what it has agreed to is there. We obviously need the UK to bring forward the information and data that will allow it to fulfil that commitment.

In one of my first interventions in the Dáil, I congratulated the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, his Department and the Government for the good work they have done on Brexit. As an MEP, I was proud at how well we were represented in the ongoing negotiations and deliberations. The Minister of State also made a positive contribution and I thank her for it.

I have been listening to the debate in my office. While some of the issues I wanted to raise have already been raised, I will try to ask different questions about them. I have only three questions. The Mercosur agreement and its impact on the Irish beef industry has already been mentioned. There is a significant and ongoing rise in emissions as more of the Amazon is felled and burned. Apart from that, is the Council taking the impact of Brexit and the possibility of a limited free trade agreement, or perhaps even tariffs on Irish beef, into consideration when it is reviewing Mercosur? Deputy Michael Healy-Rae spoke earlier about live exports and I add my voice to what he said. I was pleased with the response from the Minister of State.

We export east-west and north-south to the UK. Let us take an example. An item is exported to Liverpool and the same item is exported to Belfast. Perhaps that latter item, or a component thereof, is then exported to mainland UK at some point. How are those two items treated and what is the difference in exporting requirements, if I am making myself clear?

My next question is about the regional impact of Brexit. Earlier today, I quoted to the Taoiseach a recent report from the three regional assemblies which showed that the north-west and Border regions have the greatest exposure to significant economic disruption because of Covid-19. We now have Brexit coming down the track and I strongly suggest to the Minister of State that, for businesses and sectors such as food production and agriculture, we need to keep in mind the following. There is an economic gap between the regions to begin with and it has been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19, as referenced by this report from the three regional assemblies. Brexit will have a unique impact on the Border regions and the north-west of the country.

Keeping those three things in mind, what I am asking is that the Government ensures it puts the necessary protections in place for the sectors that will be worst affected in the Border and north-west region.

I wish first to reaffirm our commitment to trying to support business across the island and making sure that we mitigate and minimise the impacts of Brexit and Covid. These events are all coming at a very inopportune time. We have always tried to engage with the representative groups of the sectors most impacted in Northern Ireland when it came to our preparedness, but obviously there is a limit to what we can do in Northern Ireland and that is why it is so important that the Executive is up and running. I refer also the New Decade, New Approach document which has been agreed. It is extremely important in setting out shared goals and objectives for the entire region, not just related to Brexit but in terms of developing infrastructure and relations on this island. We are absolutely committed to working with our colleagues in the North to try to mitigate any of the impacts not just on the Border communities but on the island of Ireland as a whole.

In the scenario the Deputy painted, there are a lot of different movements. Any movements between the UK and Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government. The outcome in respect of the overall agreement between the EU and the UK will have an implication for any movements between Ireland and the UK.

It is complicated.

It all very much depends on what happens and whether there are tariffs. We know the UK is leaving the customs union so there will obviously be changes there. That is why we have tried to emphasise to business that irrespective of what outcome there is, there are going to be changes and businesses need to be prepared. On Mercosur, we are going through a process. Each individual member state is looking at how it could impact not just the agricultural sector but many other sectors. We will, of course, take into account Covid and Brexit as part of that overall deliberation, which will go on for some time.

Sitting suspended at 6.20 p.m. and resumed at 6.40 p.m.