I now call on Deputy Fitzpatrick, who is sharing with Deputy Tóibín.
EU-UK Negotiations on Brexit: Statements (Resumed)
During the past six months, we have been faced with probably the greatest challenge this country has faced in our lifetime. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be the focus of our efforts.
It has taken a very heavy toll in lives but also on our day-to-day lives, the economy and society. This is a battle we are winning and one I hope we will look back on and learn from.
In the midst of this, we still have to deal with Brexit which, unfortunately, has not gone away. We did not vote for it, and nor did our neighbours in Northern Ireland, but it is a most serious issue for the island of Ireland and one we must deal with. I fear the UK Government's approach makes a no-deal Brexit a certainty. I have continually warned about this but was told time and again that we had an agreement in place, the Northern Ireland protocol, which would protect us here on the island of Ireland. Sadly, I fear the UK Government will not honour the commitments it made.
Coming from a Border county, I know the devastating effects that Brexit will have if we do not put in place the necessary measures to deal with it. There are still many unanswered questions on Brexit. I am deeply concerned that its impact on a Border town like Dundalk could be potentially disastrous. I am worried about the lack of clarity on a range of issues. The UK Government has shown arrogance in its approach, for example, in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. We might ask what this says about its general approach to these negotiations.
I am also worried about the lack of information available to businesses. I often hear from Border businesses that they still do not know what is happening. Among the questions they ask are whether there will be a hard border; if there will be a customs checks at the Border; what will happen with tariffs; how cross-Border workers will be treated; how standards will be implemented; and whether cross-Border agencies continue to exist? The list of questions is endless.
We still do not have a clue about what will happen once Brexit is implemented, particularly in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We are sleep-walking into this. We still do not have a roadmap for businesses in the event of no deal. We hear constantly there will be no hard border, no issue for cross-Border workers and no customs checks at the Border, but how can we insist this is the case when we have no roadmap in the event that there is no deal?
I have no doubt the UK Government's arrogance is a negotiation tactic but I deal with people and businesses which cannot afford to play these political games. The people of the Border counties of Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal need real answers now so that they can prepare properly for Brexit. The Government's advice for business is that when the transition period ends, Brexit is likely to affect how they do business. Businesses are advised to review their supply chain, understand the rules for importing from and exporting to Britain, and review all their regulations, licensing and certification requirements. This is a case of stating the obvious. Businesses know they have to do this but what they need are facts. They are still in the dark about how things will operate in the event of a no-deal Brexit. A real roadmap for a no-deal outcome must be put in place.
Notwithstanding that we did not vote for it, Brexit will happen and we must prepare for the worst-case scenario of a no-deal outcome. We must not be used as a pawn in the negotiations between the EU and the UK. We must be given a clear commitment that Ireland will be protected in all negotiations between the EU and the UK. We have seen how the backstop was dropped, despite assurances it would protect us on the island of Ireland. We cannot be weak on this. I urge the Minister to protect Ireland's interests at all times.
The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020. The withdrawal agreement has allowed a transition period up to 31 December 2020. The UK has said it will not extend this transition period. I have some specific questions. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland? What will the hard border be like? Will all goods be checked at the Border? What plans has the Government made for customs checks in the event of a hard border? These are the questions that businesses along the Border, in towns such as Dundalk, ask me. They need clarity not vague replies that do not give real answers. I ask the Minister to be specific. If he does not have the answers, I ask that he say so. It is better for businesses that they know where they stand and that they can then plan for it.
There is concern about how cross-Border workers will be treated. What plans are in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit? How will workers travelling from Dundalk to the North and vice versa be affected? I am asked these questions by people who are worried that they will be stopped at the Border, their commuting time will be extended and their daily lives interrupted. Will their driving licences and car insurance still be valid in both jurisdictions? We need clarity on these questions. What arrangements are been made for students in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Will students on both sides of the Border retain the rights they now enjoy? Will student supports remain the same? Will students from Northern Ireland still be treated in the same way if there is no deal? Dundalk's very successful institute of technology has a considerable number of students from Northern Ireland. How would a no-deal Brexit affect them?
Mobile phones and roaming are also a cause for concern among people living in the Border area. Will current roaming charges be maintained if there is no deal? What will happen with cross-Border healthcare in the event of a no-deal Brexit? We work very closely with our Northern counterparts in the provision of healthcare services. Will the cross-Border healthcare initiatives still be in place after Brexit? Will this continue if there is no deal?
Hauliers who travel daily to the UK are worried. They are completely in the dark and hear media reports that there will be massive queues at UK ports. We must provide complete clarity to businesses and citizens on what Brexit will bring to them.
It is incredible that an Opposition group is getting to speak after 20 Government Deputies have spoken. The latter have access to their Ministers at their parliamentary party meetings, yet we are pushed so far back in these discussions.
An trí rud is dainséaraí amuigh: éadan tairbh, deireadh staile, focail Shasanaigh. The three most dangerous things in life are the front of a bull, the back of a stallion and the words of an Englishman, according to the old Irish saying. I do not want to impugn the words of every Englishman. English people, like all peoples across the world, are largely decent. However, the word of the British Government has been, to Ireland's massive misfortune, meaningless and worthless. The reneging of the British Government in this case is not an outlier. In fact, it has been a deeply ingrained characteristic of British foreign policy towards Ireland for hundreds of years.
The instinct of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments in international relations has always been to be soft and gentle. That may be fine with many of our international colleagues but it is incorrect as a response to the British given all we know of Britain's inability to adhere to its agreements and commitments. The Government's response is feeble and weak. Plenty of words have been spoken but the cost to this country of the reneging by the British has not been communicated in strong enough terms to the British Government. Where is the pressure on the British Government with regard to Tory brinkmanship and lawlessness? The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement. Surely breaking or damaging that agreement should have significant international consequences and sanctions. I do not mean trade sanctions but some level of diplomatic and political sanctions against Britain for its approach on this. It is time for the Irish Government to flex its diplomatic and international muscles.
We hear a new British ambassador is coming to Ireland. Has he been summoned to Government Buildings to discuss the anger here over the British Government's actions? Previous speakers referred to the goodwill that exists in the United States. The US special envoy has warned against a hard border but has the Irish Government spoken directly to the US special envoy? The US Secretary of State previously lauded the vitality of the Good Friday Agreement but where is the pressure on the US Secretary of State? This is an election year, which gives this country an opportunity to leverage Irish America. Why has the Taoiseach not spoken to the US President about ensuring that any future US trade agreement with Britain is contingent on the Good Friday Agreement being protected? Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Congressmen Peter King, Brendan Boyle and Richard Neal have all sounded the alarm written to the Tory Government on that issue.
However, where is the pressure on the rest of the international community to ensure that it stands up for the rule of international law in this regard?
The actions of the Tory Government show in flashing neon lights the fact that it continues to exert influence on the future of this country. Is it not incredible that, 104 years after the 1916 Rising, our ability to travel, do business and trade in the Thirty-two Counties is directly influenced by the Tory Party, a party that knows nothing about this country and does not care about this country whatsoever? I believe strongly that the idea of Irish self-determination is as important now as it was in 1916, but the people of the North of Ireland self-determined in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. They self-determined in favour of remaining within the EU. The Tories took that decision and threw it in the waste paper basket. Are we going to stand idly by and let that happen?
I believe that the Minister has a natural instinct towards the logic of full Irish self-determination, independence and unity. I would say that the Minister also has an instinct of cautiousness. I understand that it is logical to take a cautious approach to this particular issue, but cautiousness towards Irish unity must have a limit. There must be some logical point at which the political chaos created by the Tories in our country actually triggers some response by our elected politicians to start to work towards Irish unity. I am still shocked that the Taoiseach has resiled from that great traditional objective of generations in Fianna Fáil of Irish unity, but the rest of the Government should not do likewise. In light of what the Tories are doing and as some type of sanction on that, I call on the Government to open talks on a new all-Ireland forum where civic and political sections of society throughout the Thirty-two Counties can sit down together and start to discuss how to ameliorate the worst aspects of Brexit and work towards unity. It is really important that we not let this situation continue. The Tories in London continue to affect negatively our ability to run this country. It was not good enough in 1916 and it certainly is not good enough now.
Next are Deputies O'Dowd and McAuliffe, who are sharing 13 minutes.
I will take six and a half minutes.
I welcome the Minister to the House. To be clear, he has been anything but silent, feeble or weak on this issue, and nor have the Government, Opposition parties in the House and our colleagues in the EU. Each and every one of those colleagues backs what we are saying, namely, that Britain must abide by the agreement it signed. The EU unambiguously and with total clarity fully supports this Government and the people on this island in their wish for peace and in their consent to the future relationship that we must have between North and South. This point must be made, notwithstanding what my colleague, Deputy Tóibín, said. The relationship between the EU and Britain is now sundered. As such, it is important that no matter what else happens, we ensure that Brexit, which will happen and we cannot change, is as soft as possible.
To measure the significance and influence of the Irish Government and our civil servants, one need have done no more than listen to the former British ambassador to the United States of America on radio this morning when he said that Ireland had a punch far above its weight and had major influence in America. One of the presidential candidates, Vice President Joe Biden, and Ms Nancy Pelosi, who is a senior political leader in America, are clear that the withdrawal agreement is a fundamental issue and the protocol on Northern Ireland must remain sacrosanct in every event.
I have been appointed by the Government as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We have not met as yet, but we will do so next week. Along with my colleague, Deputy McHugh, I today participated in a discussion on Zoom with Lord Kinnoull, Chairman of the EU committee of the House of Lords. We made clear our views, which represented the views of every Deputy, about what was happening. Nevertheless, we listened to what Lord Kinnoull had to say. We fully support the idea that he put to us, namely, that there should be much more communication between Members of the Dáil and Members of the British Houses of Parliament. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, has been of considerable importance in the past and will have increasing significance in future. Although it will be for our committee to decide, we might communicate regularly.
One thing the Covid crisis has done is give us the capacity to meet people from distant shores as well as not so far away more frequently on the Internet. That is exactly what we will do so as to put forth the views and strong opinions of Members of the Oireachtas, including the view that the new relationship - there will be one regardless as a result of Brexit - between Britain and Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the South will require us to put a great deal more thought into what will happen in future.
The British Government is in no doubt whatsoever of our strongly held and immovable views on the Northern Ireland protocol. There is no other way - there can be no diminution and there will be none as far as we are concerned. The British Government must think again. The British Parliament has every right to legislate for what happens therein, but it cannot break an international agreement willy-nilly. It cannot decide to throw up a red flag against something to which it has already signed. The UK's international reputation is at stake, not just with Europe or America, but with other countries that it hopes to have business relationships with in future. I speak in particular of China and other major blocs.
This debate will clearly point out to the UK and its Government exactly where we all stand on this matter. We will have no truck with the breaking of the protocol. No one on this island wants to go back to the way things were. We do not want to go back to the violence, the sadness and the awful 30 years of murder and mayhem on this island, North and South. We do not want customs or Border posts on our island between North and South. We do not want to see the appalling vista of commercial relationships between companies, large and small, on our two islands breaking down. We have important personal relationships with the UK outside of our business and political relationships. We do not want to see them sundered or changed in any way. The British Government must change its proposals on the protocol and uphold in full everything contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
Like my colleague, Deputy Fitzpatrick, I am a Border Deputy and I want to see the peace that was restored to County Louth and elsewhere along the Border continue. The benefits of the Good Friday Agreement, for example, co-operation in education and so on, must continue. There is only one way forward on this island and that is with all of us working together.
The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to a violent conflict by settling and putting in place the constitutional arrangements on these islands. The peace process involved compromises on all sides. It involved different building blocks from different parties to the dispute.
After centuries of action to the contrary, the British Government stated in the Downing Street Declaration that Britain had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland. This was an essential foundation for what was to follow. It enabled a confidence in the Irish people that led them to agree to the principle of consent and to remove our constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. For 20 years, people in the North have lived under this settlement and British-Irish relations have normalised. There are people alive on this island today as a consequence of the settlement who would otherwise not be. We have peace on our island and we have goods and services flowing freely across both parts of it. Brexit has changed this dynamic but the obligations of previous international treaties continue to bind all parties, including the British Government.
For the past year and especially in recent weeks, the British Government has indeed demonstrated a selfish strategic and economic interest in Northern Ireland. There is no doubting it. Now the British Government is playing games with the peace process itself. By seeking to pull out the foundation block that is the Downing Street Declaration, it is playing Brexit Jenga with the Good Friday Agreement. The Northern Ireland protocol ratified in January provides that the North will come under the EU's customs code and Single Market rules. It prevents a hard border. The Single Market ensures a level playing field for businesses in the EU to trade without tariffs. Would that level playing field still be as level if the UK, from outside the Union, were to give state subsidies to its businesses, allow products produced at a lower standard into the EU market or have workers employed on poorer conditions? Giving the UK access to the Single Market without some checks on state aid and standards would not just be a bad deal; it would leave all EU companies at an unfair disadvantage in their own Single Market.
I remind those in the UK who believe that the conditions required of the EU in respect of Northern Ireland undermine the integrity of the UK or infringe on its sovereignty that the North of Ireland is not North Yorkshire and Foyleside is not Tyneside. Until 1998, the North was a disputed territory. Sovereignty is one thing but when competing sovereign claims rub up against each other, they create friction. The EU and the Good Friday Agreement were tools designed to prevent such friction and to maintain peace. The unpredictable nature of British politics and the changing demographics on this island mean that a border poll may be on our agenda sooner than we imagined it might be when we ratified the Good Friday Agreement. The Republic, at civic and governmental levels, is ill prepared at this time to begin the vital debate around unity that is needed before we even contemplate a border poll and the related referendum in the South. A border poll will trigger a multiplicity of questions and debates about how we share this island.
We need to prepare for that debate and for how we see a new way of sharing this island. How do we envisage the Six Counties on our island that have been governed by a different regime for 100 years relating to the other 26? How will people on both parts of the island access health and education services? How will we decide the areas that will benefit from inward investment? How will we avoid another tribal conflict, the previous one having been the almost inevitable consequence of the original crude sectarian division? What are the necessary conditions we want to see for the unification of our country? How do we ensure that unionists and loyalists, who do not have an Irish identity and cherish their own identity, do not fear a shared island and can see themselves as part of the outcome of a unification and sharing process? How do we avoid a situation where a narrow victory for unity in a future border poll inevitably provokes instability in communities where a majority or large minority of people do not want it? There are many such questions that remain unanswered. The process of addressing them will shape the thinking in the Republic as much as it will enlighten people in the North as to the reality of what a shared island means.
Fianna Fáil is ready to lead that process. We want a united Ireland but we also want a unified people. We want everybody on this island to be unified around shared values that are not about a fourth green field but, rather, sharing our labour and sharing the fruits of all our fields. The challenge set out in Wolfe Tone's vision is to bring the people of this island together. Never has a generation needed to hear that message more. As we prepare for the coming changes, we must remind ourselves to follow Wolfe Tone and not to be tone deaf to the views of the other people who share this island. The challenge for this generation is to take the settlement offered by the peace process and to decide how our island, within Europe, will look post Brexit.
The Covid pandemic has shown up weaknesses in our society in respect of the housing crisis, workers' rights, ICU bed ratios and so on. In case anybody thought Irish history had stopped in 1998, Boris Johnson's handling of Brexit has shown why his country was sometimes called "perfidious Albion". We know that the provisions of the UK Internal Market Bill and the circumventing of the Irish protocol would serve to cut out part of the Good Friday Agreement. I do not accept that the agreement is the final answer to the question as regards sovereignty. Rather, it was a stop in the road which enabled us to create a scenario in the North where people could work with each other, we could have cross-Border co-operation and we could deal with the east-west relationship. As republicans, we never stood back from our belief that Irish unity is the long-term solution for a better Ireland. We have been proved correct in that.
At this point in time, we can only wonder why Boris Johnson is doing what he is doing. Is it a diversionary tactic? Is it about what he says it is about, namely, the difficulties in regard to the connection between Britain and the North? Is it a diversion from his less than perfect handling of the Covid pandemic? Is it a diversion from the serious discussions that must happen in regard to the level playing field on state aid and fisheries? We do not know. All we know is that he has taken a risk with Irish lives, Irish business and Irish society, North and South, and we cannot accept it. We need the EU and Michel Barnier's team to stand firm. The things Nancy Pelosi, Richard Neal and others have said are very welcome but the Government must maintain whatever pressure it can on all our international contacts to ensure we get the best mitigations.
We must be clear about the situation as it stands. We need to take Boris Johnson and some other members of the Conservative Party at their word and assume they will do exactly as they say they will do and that there are no internal checks within Westminster or anywhere else to stop them. I have yet to see a situation where any such checks have curtailed what I can only describe as British madness on certain issues over many years. The reality is that we are going to be left in a situation where there is only one mitigation that can make a significant difference to the lives of a huge number of people on this island, including those living in my part of the country, and that is Irish unity. This is not the way anyone expected the conversation to happen. It is not what we wanted to happen. Farmers and hauliers in places like Dromiskin, Knockbridge, Dundalk, Cullyhanna and Cullybackey are not being benefitted by these particular moves of Boris Johnson and his colleagues. The latter do not particularly care about that and we need to recognise this reality. We need to make preparations in regard to Irish unity, accepting that we may get a deal and there may be a free trade agreement between Britain and the EU. We may have the protections of the Irish protocol but we cannot be sure of it. In the long term, we cannot, for want of a better phrase, be under the cosh of what a British Government might decide to do.
We call for preparations for Irish unity and what it would look like. I have no difficulty with the previous speaker's comments. We need to have an holistic conversation, and it is not necessarily the united Ireland that I would have seen when I was 16 or 17. We have to make room for unionists and all the people who live on the island. Ireland has a far more diverse population than was the case back then. We need the Citizens' Assembly to be convened, we need governmental plans, we need discussions and we need to make sure. The reality is that people will be left in a situation where they decide to either stay in an absolutely dysfunctional, so-called United Kingdom or go with the option of the European Union and Irish unity. This could be the end of what has been a not necessarily beneficial history involving Britain and Ireland, especially for the people of Ireland.
Recent developments in the UK regarding the Internal Market Bill have exposed just how vulnerable Ireland remains in the evolving and unpredictable nature of the Brexit drama. We are aware that the EU has expressed a willingness to engage in legal action against the UK because of the position it has adopted. This approach, while understandable, will add to the delays and the sense of conflict that continues to dominate the end stage of current negotiations. This is why, unfortunately, a hard, no-deal Brexit looks like a very real possibility. We are simply running out of time. Such an eventuality will have a devastating impact on Ireland and especially on the rural economy. According to Teagasc, this version of Brexit will cause a loss of preferential market access to the UK, as well as leading to a decline in Irish-EU exports to the UK. To compensate for this and to compensate for the damage the resulting economic shock will bring about, we need to ensure - as Teagasc has noted - that Irish export options are diversified. This has to be a particular priority because it is expected that Irish agriculture output volume will decline due to lower farm prices. We must work to create alternative market options. The opening of new trade opportunities must be a top priority. Without this, rural Ireland and, by extension, the entire Irish economy will enter a period of profound difficulties that might take a generation to resolve.
I thank the Minister for staying on for the full debate. It is rare to see that happening in the Dáil.
I attended the annual general meeting of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, last Saturday in order to educate myself on the crisis that Brexit will be for our fishing industry. Brexit has created fallout for the industry and it is already visible with a huge increase in numbers of foreign boats and their increased efforts in Ireland's exclusive economic zone, EEZ. Irish vessels have traditionally fished primarily in waters of the north west around Rockall, off the Scottish Isles and in the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. Following Brexit, we will lose some 50% of our fishing grounds. Irish fishing trawlers have few or no rights in the North Sea, in the English Channel or in Portuguese or Spanish waters. Our fishermen are prevented from this due to not having a history of doing so when Ireland joined the EU. They had no historical landings to show because they caught as much as was needed in UK and Irish waters.
A no-deal Brexit will force all EU vessels from UK waters, which is estimated at 400 vessels. In contrast, Ireland's entire fleet of 18 m vessels is only 170. This possible invasion of displaced EU vessels means certain damage to the biologically sensitive area where fish come to spawn and where juveniles feed and grow before they swim away to other waters. For the past two years, the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation has requested an evaluation by seeking scientific advice to calculate the maximum displacement a biologically sensitive area could accept before the sustainability of stock is damaged.
We wish to also seek from our competent authority a comprehensive list of which other EU vessels have historical rights to fish in Ireland's EEZ. A 2018 report by the fisheries ecosystems advisory service of the Marine Institute, which was commissioned by the previous Minister, Deputy Creed, reported that the Irish free register showed that in 2006 there were more than 280 vessels of a length greater than 18 m. Today, there are fewer than 180. Our fear is that Brexit could trigger another decommissioning programme. This would be the death knell for many of our small coastal fishing villages and offshore islands, and the few remaining family-owned businesses. Some fishermen will be affected more than others, but no evaluation has been carried out to identify what vessels will be the most affected, especially those who are heavily dependent on access and quota share in UK waters.
The money promised by the previous Government in response to the fallout from Brexit was €14 million. Using the example of the effort made in response to the devastating effect of Covid-19 in the second quarter of this year following the collapse of markets, an amount of €190,050 was paid to more than 1,400 vessel owners. If shared out equally, this would be less than €150 each. The industry has learned that a substantial commitment has been made to the French fishing industry, including a substantial sum for each vessel affected. A figure of €800,000 each has been mentioned.
The fish stocks of Ireland are a national asset, managed by the Minister with responsibility for the marine. The Minister is legally obliged under EU law to treat each fisherman fairly and, under proportionality, to distribute resources fairly and with clear, transparent policies while not favouring one sector above another. This will never be as important as in the period following Brexit. This requirement of proportionality will be crucial following Brexit, so that no section will be forced out of the industry while another gets richer due to a geographical location.
Coastal communities and the tens of thousands of people employed in the processing and service sector must be protected. Fishermen and their organisation must be partners with the Government bodies if they are to survive. The demersal white fish fleet must be protected. Some vessels in this sector catch up to 70% of their fish, which makes up to 80% of their earnings, from the fish they catch in UK waters.
I shall give one example of how fleets' fishing activities will be affected by Brexit. One of the most important species to our demersal fleet is nephrops. This species includes Dublin Bay prawns. These fish do not migrate to other areas, they live in burrows on the seabed. The Smalls ground is one of the areas our vessels fish that is in UK waters. In the past decades hundreds of thousands of euro has been invested in Irish fishing vessels to adapt them into freezer vessels to gain a maximum return for this highly-valued species, and diverting them from the gadoid fisheries, thus allowing us in the industry to manage the quotas and give a fair opportunity to all to earn their living.
We all know that a no-deal Brexit is bad for Ireland on many fronts but none more so than those relating to fisheries, agriculture and the cross-border health scheme. We can point the finger at the UK full on if it pulls out with no deal in place. The Government can, however, put in certain measures on the cross-border directive whereby thousands of people have travelled from the South to the North of Ireland for hip, knee and cataract surgeries. Some 2,000 people from Cork and Kerry have travelled to Belfast. Tomorrow night, the 58th bus will travel to Belfast for people to have eyesight-saving surgery. This cannot stop. These people are genuinely losing their eyesight. Every day delayed leads to these people seeing less and less. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, councillors Ben Dalton O'Sullivan and Danny Collins and I have organised these buses in what is our only hope to save the eyesight of these people. I would be delighted if the proposed new clinic in Cork materialises, but it could take two years to complete. Until that happens, I call on the Minister to let the House know today how the legislation is progressing to ensure that the cross-border scheme continues, as the previous Minister indicated that it would last year when I raised the matter with him. We must remember, whether we like it or not, that Northern Ireland is still across the Border. Many health agreements, for example, those involving cancer patients in Donegal travelling north and babies in Belfast with heart issues coming to Dublin, must remain in place. We need to know from the Minister if the cross-border scheme for the South to the North will continue. What is being put in place for this to happen?
Last month we took a 36 year old woman, Maeve, from the Minister's and the Taoiseach's constituency, who had been advised by the Taoiseach's constituency office to go up on our buses as there was no way that the 20 minute surgery could take place in Cork or anywhere in the south of Ireland before she went blind.
Maeve is in the middle of a celebration in her life and I intend to take her for surgery on her other eye in the weeks ahead so that she can get her life back to normal. We cannot play games here. I have seen people who were blind have their sight restored in Belfast. If the cross-border directive ends on 31 December, it will have devastating consequences for people in Cork and Kerry. Again, has the necessary legislation been drawn up to protect the scheme for the next number of years or will people from Cork and Kerry go blind on this Government's watch?
In the time remaining, I wish to return to fishing which is going through a very difficult time. Fishing communities are very angry and the statutory instrument that the Taoiseach signed a few weeks ago is a hammer blow to the industry. I ask the Minister to imagine not being on the road on a particular evening and then receiving a letter saying that he has incurred penalty points. He then proves that he was not on the road and should not have received penalty points but those points stay on his licence. How in the name of God can any Taoiseach in his right mind sign something without at least making some amendments to try to safeguard the fishing industry? Brexit is kicking them and the statutory instrument signed by a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach is kicking them. We need to protect this industry. We also need to protect our agricultural industry although I do not have time to go into that now. I ask the Minister to give us some insight into the position regarding the cross-border directive.
We are less than 100 days away from the end of the Brexit transition period. If we look at the struggles, brinkmanship and ill-preparedness on the part of the United Kingdom in its negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, it is no surprise that we are once again in a situation where all we have as we approach the precipice is a lack of certainty and clarity about where we are going. Everyone in this House has spoken about the potentially enormous impact of Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, on a variety of areas. In this House and this country, we are all very alive to realities of how detrimental Brexit might be but unfortunately some of our neighbours seem to revel in the prospect of Brexit, despite the fact that it will be nothing but calamitous.
I want to focus on the areas of food and environmental standards. As I said, Brexit is far-reaching and leaches into so many different areas but I want to highlight my concerns regarding food and environmental standards. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill includes clauses that would give Westminster power to compel the Northern Ireland Assembly to accept certain environmental and food standards as well as animal welfare standards. This goes against Britain's own policy of devolution and against the Good Friday Agreement, which allows for self-determination and self-governance of Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland. At this late stage we still have no idea what sanitary and phytosanitary regime the UK will employ. This is a fundamental concern for us in the context of our ability to export and import food as well as in terms of fair trading standards and environmental standards. If there is a softening by the UK on these issues, it is going to be a problem for us because nature does not give a damn about any line on a map. We are one small island with one shared biosphere. Anything that happens up there is going to affect us down here and vice versa. We have a continuous and inseparable ecosystem on this island so whatever happens with a border, be it hard or soft, damage done on one side will leak over and affect the other side. This is going to cause all sorts of problems as we struggle with environmental protection and climate change and also in terms of the level playing field that was supposed to be part of this agreement.
It is estimated that between 80% and 90% of the UK's environmental law came from the EU and with 25% of all EU legislation estimated to relate to environmental protection, the British are going to be throwing out a hell of a lot of legislation. What is going to replace it? We do not know at this late stage. The UK Government has repeatedly stated that it will not lower environmental standards once the UK has left the EU but we need to see a commitment to no regression in its domestic legislation and in any agreement that we end up signing at the end of this 100 days.
Many Deputies have highlighted the fact that Brexit will have a profoundly negative impact on our agrifood sector. Despite growth in new markets, the UK remains our single largest trading partner and anything that impacts our ability to trade, whether that is changing rules, back sliding or as one Deputy said earlier, the actions of perfidious Albion, is going to undermine our agrifood sector, which needs to be protected.
The programme for Government contains commitments to a shared island and a new unit has been set up in the Department of the Taoiseach. It is time that we heard an update from the Taoiseach on the work that is happening there. Ireland, North and South, is very different from how it was in 1998 and 1969. Looking to the ghosts of the past is not going to help us to chart a way forward. We need to come together and talk about how we are going to live on this small shared island, this shared biosphere where the impact of Brexit will be enormous, north and south of the Border.
In fewer than 100 days, the UK will be outside the EU's Single Market and customs union. I wish to compliment the Minister on his steady hand in bringing the country through these negotiations. As someone from a border county and constituency I know that no one is more fearful than people living in border areas and we appreciate the Minister's tough but steady hand throughout these negotiations.
From 1 January 2021, the way we trade with the UK will be dramatically different. Even if a free trade agreement is concluded between the EU and UK, there will be significant and enduring changes. It is vital that all businesses, regardless of size, focus on their Brexit readiness as things will not be simple and will not stay the same. Being prepared for customs formalities is critical. Regardless of the outcome of the future relationship negotiations, the provisions of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will apply. This protects the peace process and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland - there is nobody more acutely aware of that than those living in the Border counties - while preserving the integrity of the EU customs union and Single Market and Ireland's place therein. Under the protocol, the EU's customs code and other EU provisions necessary to preserve the integrity of the Single Market will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. This ensures that Northern Ireland will have free and open access to the Single Market.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill which gives British Ministers the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland that was agreed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland last year is a complete breach of the aforementioned agreement and of international law. The Bill, in its current form, must be withdrawn. It is welcome that the EU will not allow the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and other legislation which could undermine the protocol to be used as negotiating currency by the UK.
The all-island economy is important to businesses across the island of Ireland, now more than ever. Protecting that economy has been and will continue to be a major priority for successive Governments. We have a good story to tell about doing business on the island, the benefits of an all-island economy and the current and future business opportunities on the island.
In the past two decades, the developing all-Ireland economy has benefited businesses in terms of improved scale and greater efficiency. This has happened because of the improvements brought about by peace, stability and, of course, invisible borders for goods, services, labour and finance. There is now a high degree of integration of the economies, North and South, including supply chains and trade in intermediate products. North-South co-operation and cross-border trade has grown significantly in the years since the Good Friday Agreement, strengthening and growing prosperity across the island of Ireland, and has supported the development of an all-Ireland economy which both supports and is supported by the peace process.
As somebody who grew up at the height of the Troubles, I am aware that the landscape and streetscape of towns in Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh are very different from what they were when we were growing up. That is certainly not something we want to return to. Fundamentally, this is about peace, reconciliation and prosperity.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement and must continue. From the beginning, Ireland's approach has been guided by the guiding principle of securing a deal that works for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole. We found an agreed way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including the aim of avoiding a hard border, recognising the common travel area and protecting the Single Market and Ireland's place within it. This is what the protocol does and it is vital the protocol is implemented in full and in good faith.
Lakeland Dairies is a major dairy processing co-operative. One of its major plants is in Bailieborough, where I live, and it is a huge employer in the area. It operates in 19 counties across the northern half of the island, including the North of Ireland, processing some 1.8 billion l of milk annually and exporting large volumes of dairy produce to the UK, Europe, North America, Asia, Africa and other international markets worldwide. The group is a leading provider of dairy produce to Ireland's Kerrygold brand.
The dairy industry is one of agri-food sectors with the greatest exposure to the consequences of Brexit, with about one third of North of Ireland milk crossing the Border for processing. The CEO of Lakeland Dairies, Michael Hanley, has stressed the impact of Brexit on business, including extra cost, reductions in profit and business inefficiency. He has also outlined a number of key concerns with regard to the dairy industry, particularly focused on cross-Border supply chains. This is particularly important to Lakeland Dairies as milk processing capacity in Northern Ireland falls short of demand, meaning milk produced in Northern Ireland must be brought south for processing. In this context, Lakeland Dairies stresses its support for the Northern Ireland protocol and its desire to see it implemented in full, including in regard to all-Ireland strategic policy committee, SPC, scheme frameworks. However, these cross-border supply chains mean that, under rules of origin, it becomes a mixed product, meaning it may not qualify for export under foreign trade agreements. Lakeland Dairies considers it imperative that they continue to qualify for these foreign trade agreements. In addition, Lakeland Dairies stresses the need for continued access to market price mitigation schemes and for tariff-free access to Great Britain for Northern Ireland milk processed in Ireland.
To conclude, there are very tough weeks ahead and they will have huge consequences for Ireland. I will be biased and say this is true for the Border counties in particular. I ask that the Minister's work would continue in order to ensure we see invisible and seamless borders, the common travel area and all of the hugely important parts of the Good Friday Agreement kept in their entirety, to ensure that peace and stability continue on this island.
I thank the Minister for his contribution, which I listened to from my office, and I thank him for waiting to listen to the debate. I am supportive of his and the Government's stance on the need to maintain the best possible relationship with the UK. Regardless of what happens at the end of this year, that relationship will be ongoing. It is not just about 1 January 2021, it is about 2 January and 3 January of 2021, 2022 and 2023. I believe we need cool heads and measured responses that are firm and unshakeable and rooted in the knowledge that we are supported by the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, which, as the Minister rightly emphasised, is upheld even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We are supported by the EU and the US, where many senior politicians, such as Nancy Pelosi, Richard Neal and Joe Biden, have given their support to upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
Our strength comes from the agreements we have negotiated between the EU and the UK, with significant input from Dublin and the European Parliament. Our strength is firmly rooted in the support of our EU and international colleagues. That is why I believe our responses have to be considered ones, because verbal onslaughts will serve little purpose except to widen gaps and undermine our future relationships with the EU. Governments come and go, but relationships are between people and businesses and they should not be damaged by either hasty or ill-chosen words. Yes, there is criticism within the UK from former Prime Ministers but they are family. We are neighbours. We are in a different position to the UK. We should play to our strengths and not play their games. That is what the Government is doing, and I support it.
None of that takes away from the critical juncture at which we find ourselves and, of course, that is exacerbated by the recent UK Internal Market Bill. As my speaking time is limited, I am going to make three points and pose a number of questions. If the Minister does not have time to answer them today, which he probably will not, I ask that written answers be provided.
First, the issue of the UK land bridge has been raised by many Deputies and I will not repeat their words. Nonetheless, I strongly agree with the concerns raised around the absolute need to increase direct sailings to the EU, not just to the French ports, but also to ports in northern Europe, like Antwerp or Hamburg. Has any thought been given to using direct sailings from Northern Ireland to northern European ports and, if so, what progress has been made? Dublin Port is very important but Rosslare and, to a lesser extent, Waterford and Cork, have a significant role to play. One point that needs to be considered is not just the number of sailings, but the turnaround time. For example, if ships have to sail by Rosslare on their way to Dublin, that is an extra one to two hours each way, which significantly adds to turnaround time. We need to take a regional view, from the perspective of expediency and efficiency but also from the perspective of serving exporters and importers throughout the country.
My second concern is around the sheep and beef sectors, which are of national importance but are especially critical in the Border regions and, of course, underpin much of the rural economy. As 250,000 tonnes of beef go from Ireland to the UK every year, any imposition of tariffs would totally undermine that trade and would collapse the market. I have several questions. First, the UK exports 100,000 tonnes of beef to the EU. In the event of a disorderly Brexit, the UK will not be able to export significant amounts of beef to the EU.
The Minister is probably very aware that the British beef industry is pushing its Government to cut down on imports from Ireland, Botswana and Poland under the guise of meeting climate targets. Either of these scenarios, or both, could unfold. In those circumstances, what plans or preparations have been made to fill that potential gap for beef in the EU market?
With regard to the awful event of the possible imposition of WTO tariffs, will the Minister confirm whether tariffs are significantly lower on live exports to the UK or Northern Ireland than on exports of slaughtered animals as cuts of meat? Will the Minister verify that? If it is the case, have we considered the opportunities that might present? I am aware that we lose significant value in those circumstances but have we considered it as a stopgap measure?
We have introduced supports such as the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, and beef finisher pandemic payments but the estimated losses in this sector as a result of Covid and Brexit come to €273 million. While this is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, Brexit has a significant impact on that sector and I make a strong plea for further supports in that regard.
With regard to the sheep sector, there is a significant export trade between North and South. I have been told that every ewe in Northern Ireland would have to have three lambs to account for all of the sheep that travel across the Border. If the British Government does not adhere to the rules on a level playing field, and it has not yet brought forward its proposals, with regard to food standards, animal health, sanitary and phytosanitary regulations and so on, is the Minister confident that we will be able to ensure Ireland does not become a back door to the EU - it is important to remember that includes us - for UK sheep meat or any other food products that do not adhere to these standards? Will the Minister clarify what is likely to happen to all of the sheep meat we import from New Zealand given that the tonnage of sheep meat agreed was based largely on imports to the UK? What has been put in place to deal with that?
My final issue relates to the day-to-day nitty-gritty business of exporting and importing goods and the many Irish companies, large and small, that will have to manage that process. It is unfortunate that Covid has overshadowed the Brexit message, although I understand why. Businesses are so shell-shocked by the impact of Covid that some, often the smaller ones, are hoping against hope that things will just work out. In the same way that our message on Covid should not frighten people but inform them, we need to strengthen our approach as regards Brexit and step up our communications and, in certain cases, supports for businesses. Brexit preparedness is paramount.
I have spoken to many business owners, some of whom are as ready for Brexit as possible and some of whom are less so. One business in particular alerted me to the situation in respect of the idea of the exporter and importer of record. Such an exporter has to take responsibility for the actual movement of the goods including the clearance of customs, paperwork, VAT payments, tariff payments and so on. That requires co-operation between sellers and buyers in Ireland and the UK. If somebody is importing from the UK, the same issues apply. Much more work needs to be done in this regard. I ask that whatever extra structures or systems are needed be put in place because the information I am receiving suggests there are gaps here and in the UK, especially with regard to a lack of knowledge on both sides of the supply chain.
State agencies have played a very positive role but the granular detail of Brexit is the issue. Greater preparedness is needed to help some of these businesses avoid a catastrophe.
The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, was meant to do the summing up but is unable to as he is waiting for a test result, having been abroad. He is complying with the protocol for officeholders and is waiting for a test result. I am sure it will be fine because I spoke to him this morning and he is in good health.
I will try to respond to the debate. I thank everybody for contributing seriously to these statements on Brexit. I understand the anger and the frustration, particularly with regard to the UK Internal Market Bill introduced at Westminster, but name-calling in anger will not help us with the challenges we need to overcome in the coming weeks. My focus, as well as that of Michel Barnier, Maros Sefcovic and the EU task force collectively, is on finding a way to resolve outstanding issues and to get a future relationship agreement in place, if possible, in the weeks we have left available to us in these negotiations. If we allow ourselves to get distracted by other things such as relationships, history or, for that matter, histrionics, we are taking our eye off the real prize. That prize is, as some speakers have referred to, at least a basic trade agreement with the UK that avoids tariffs and quotas and, in doing so, makes the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland less disruptive and a lot easier for everybody to live with. This is what is needed for the tens of thousands of businesses who rely on people like me, the Taoiseach and many others to work through Michel Barnier and his task force and with other EU colleagues and leaders to find a way of getting a deal with the UK.
It is a big mistake for those of us in this House to turn a debate on Brexit into one on constitutional change on the island of Ireland. That creates more tension and results in more hackles being raised. If we are to get an agreement that is going to work, we need to take on board the concerns of everybody living on this island, North and South, including unionists and nationalists in order that what has already been agreed can be implemented in a way that works as well as it can for everybody. We must also try to put a new agreement in place with regard to the future relationship, which will remove as many barriers as possible and manage the disruption caused by the inevitable changes Brexit will bring about as best we can. Some of the commentary in this debate would feel almost threatening to a moderate unionist in Northern Ireland. That does not contribute to what we are trying to do, which is to work through a very detailed, complex and technical brief.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with an aspiration for reunification on this island at some point in the future. That is as legitimate an aspiration as that of those who want to maintain the status quo as regards the constitutional status on this island. These are, however, debates for a different time. In the weeks ahead, which is all the time we have, we are trying to ensure that what was already been agreed and settled less than 12 months ago in the withdrawal agreement can be implemented in full. The withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland was about trying to deal with the complexity of Brexit in the context of the island of Ireland and trying to ensure the result of Brexit will not be the reimposition of economic division on this island through border checks between North and South.
We have achieved that. If we were to pursue solutions in the way some people have been suggesting in this debate, we would never have secured the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland in the way we did. It is though diplomacy and building relationships and trust, sometimes with people with whose views we disagree or who come to these negotiations from a different perspective, that we try to build pressure and get outcomes that are good for everyone. The outcome of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland was the best possible outcome available at that time - this time last year - to avert the crisis that would have been created from a no-deal Brexit at the time, should that have happened. It did not happen.
Now, we face another challenge in working with our friends and partners across the European Union who are in charge of this negotiation. Let us not pretend otherwise. I hear people saying it is time we put our foot down and we have to fight for Ireland and stand up to the British Prime Minister. This is an EU and UK negotiation. We have done a good job, through professional civil servants across the European Union in every Irish embassy, of creating a strength of solidarity on the Irish vulnerabilities linked to Brexit in a way that has resulted in Michel Barnier and his team ensuring that the solutions agreed thus far with the British Government have accommodated these Irish vulnerabilities in the best possible way for North and South. We are at the point again of trusting and working with the task force and Michel Barnier. We are also trying to work with the relationships we have with members of the British Government to ensure we find accommodation and a way forward to limit the damage. That is what this is about.
As some speakers have said, there is no real upside to Brexit. This is about damage limitation. The way to limit damage between now and the end of the year is to get a future relationship agreement in place and intact. That means a basic free trade agreement. For that to happen and for there to be a foundation stone, there will need to be an agreement and understanding around the level playing field issues to ensure free and fair competition between the two markets of the UK and the EU. Ireland is in the middle of all of that. There will need to be a governance model to ensure that if, in future, either side breaches the agreement or there is a dispute, there is a way of resolving such disputes in a way that is fair, independent and accepted by both sides. Surely that is not an unreasonable request of the EU.
Of course there needs to be what has been agreed in the political declaration, which was agreed in parallel with the withdrawal agreement. There needs to be an agreement on fishing. We have an extraordinarily complex relationship with the UK with regard to fishing. Deputy Michael Collins in particular referred to that today, as have others. The people who live in Greencastle or Killybegs understand the relationship between fishing fleets in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Donegal in terms of how they catch mackerel and where they spawn, breed and grow. They understand how they are then fished to the maximum advantage of everyone, including with regard to the sustainability of the stock. This is something we need to consider in these negotiations. My job is to ensure I protect the interests of the Irish fishing fleet in the context of the overall discussions and negotiations undertaken by Michel Barnier. That is what we are doing. I spoke to Mr. Barnier in some detail this week about our concerns on fishing. These include concerns relating to white fish as well as pelagic species. Those in ports like Castletownbere and Rossaveel as well as the ports along the south and east coasts are concerned. They are waiting for an outcome they hope they can live with in future. Whether it is mackerel, prawns, megrim or hake, whatever the species, we need to ensure we are working towards an outcome that allows our fishing industry to continue in future in the context of access and quota share when it comes to British fishing interests as well.
Many useful questions have been asked. If it is okay, I will try to respond in writing to as many of them as I can. Detailed questions were asked on tariffs and the impact on markets. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked a series of questions that have good and reassuring answers. We will come back to him on these.
Deputy Michael Collins asked questions about cross-border healthcare. We will be introducing omnibus legislation linked to Brexit probably in three weeks' time. Health is a major part of that. I am confident that we will be able to deal with the issues Deputy Collins has raised in that legislation, which he will see when it is published.
I will sum up by saying there are challenges. Two parallel negotiations are taking place as we speak and there are structures to deal with both. There are two significant outstanding issues in the way of getting a free trade agreement and a future relationship deal done before the end of the year. One relates to the level playing field issue and a governance model that can deal with that fairly for both sides. We have to make progress on that soon. Fishing is also an area where both sides will have to start talking about how we are to find a landing zone to get a deal done. Those are the two big outstanding issues. There are a range of further linked issues but those are the two key issues.
Deputies have heard me speak about the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland in particular, as well as the linkage to the UK Internal Market Bill. There are effectively three outstanding issues in that regard. I will finish on this because I know I am tight for time. One is the issue of export summary declarations. There is a focus on trying to find a way of resolving that issue in a way that both sides can accept. The other two issues around state aid are linked to the protocol. The issues on Northern Ireland are clear but the extension of that issue into Great Britain is something that needs a resolution. However, if there were agreement around level playing field issues and the state aid element of this in the future relationship, it would effectively solve the problem for the implementation of the protocol. This is because it is a far less complex problem once those state aid issues are addressed in the future relationship. The position is likewise with the goods at risk issue. This applies to the imposition of tariffs on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland potentially finding their way into the EU Single Market. If we can get a free trade agreement that avoids tariffs and quotas, the goods at risk issue, which is contentious at the moment between the two teams, becomes far less of a problem.
There is a way to get these things done. I encourage both negotiating teams to grasp the opportunity that will present from next week on. There will be a parliamentary break in respect of the passage of the UK Internal Market Bill that has caused so much strife and damaged trust. As it finishes in the House of Commons and before it gets to the House of Lords, there will be a break of several weeks offering a window for negotiation. I hope the two negotiation teams, in particular, the UK side, will use this window to give the signals that are necessary to move this process to a more intensive phase of trying to close out the issues. It is possible to get a deal. We cannot allow ourselves to become pessimistic and defeatist on that. I believe there will be a deal but we need to be firm, respectful and realistic in terms of what is needed to get one across the line. If we do so between now and the end of the year, it will be worthwhile in the context of what would otherwise be the case on 1 January for Irish business and the relationship between Ireland and the UK.