Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach Comhalta a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil beirt ar a laghad sa Seomra. Tá Páirtí Shinn Féin ag obair ón mbaile ag cloí leis na rialacha a bhaineann leis an ngéarchéim sláinte. It is nice to see the Sinn Féin Party all working from home and I welcome their commitment to the level 5 restrictions, including in Dáil business. I thank Members, and I include Sinn Féin Deputies in this, for their many good contributions on this Bill. There is unity and common purpose demonstrated by all parties in dealing with Brexit and that has been a major asset in co-ordinating the national response.

The debate has raised a wide range of issues and while I will attempt to deal with as many as I can, many will be more fully dealt with by the relevant line Ministers on Committee Stage. I understand that we will have Committee Stage as a committee of the whole House. Each relevant Minister will, at that point, deal with the section or sections pertaining to his or her Department in much more detail than a Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs or the Minister for Foreign Affairs can deal with. In my role as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have been engaging extensively with citizens and businesses on Brexit readiness. It is essential that we drive home the need to prepare for the end of the transition period for the many businesses that are not yet ready.

In response to Deputies Berry and Tóibín, we would love for this transition to go on forever but that is not possible. Britain made the decision not to proceed with an extension so, unfortunately, that ship has already sailed. There are no options and the European Union, including Ireland, have no choice. The transition period is coming to an end on 31 December and it is time everybody got ready for that. There is no second go at this.

I warn people that there are many uncertainties around Brexit. Things will happen in the new year that we may not have expected. Some will possibly be serious and some will be not so serious. However, there are a number of certainties. There will be no hard border on the island of Ireland. Included in that and the common travel area arrangements is the freedom to move goods North and South. The common travel area arrangements allow people to live, work and vote anywhere on the island of Ireland or the island of Britain. Let there be no doubt about those two points. It is also certain that major changes are afoot on the trade goods between the islands of Britain and Ireland. These will not be impacted by whatever happens in the trade deal. There will be customs and checks. Britain is leaving the Single Market and the customs union. That is happening regardless of what happens with an agreement on tariffs or whatever agreement we can have on fish. That point needs to be repeated time and again.

This Bill is a central element of our efforts to prepare for the changes that are coming in less than 50 days. It has been a huge national effort which everybody has got behind. Some speakers, including my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, doubted our negotiators but I agree with Deputy Harkin's view on that issue. Any time I have met Michel Barnier or listened to him speak, publicly or privately, the interests of Ireland have always been top of his list. That is true regardless of whether he is speaking to us, speaking in public or updating all the ministers at the General Affairs Council. Ministers in other countries tend to ask the Minister and me what is happening on Brexit because we are seen as a lead country that is affected by it. As I said, the protocol we have for the island of Ireland has nothing to do with what is happening now.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill has rightly been mentioned. The Government took a strong line on it and I will not give a detailed commentary on the Bill. The European Parliament has said it will not ratify any trade agreement while that Bill is there and we have adopted a similar position.

The cross-border treatment directive was raised by a number of Deputies. The first point to make is that, unfortunately, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. While we are protecting a number of cross-border healthcare measures, such as providing equivalence for the European health insurance card and the treatment abroad scheme, the cross-border treatment directive is in a different category from those schemes. The Department of Health is working on this issue but the directive's operation after 1 January 2021 will, as a matter of first principles, cease because the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. Its continuance is subject to much greater difficulties than the other measures that are legislated for in the Bill. We will not be able to do anything about many aspects of the fall-out of Brexit. The Department of Health is working on that issue but it is proving difficult and people will have to get ready for that.

A number of genuine issues were raised about transport by, among others, Deputies Verona Murphy and Howlin and my colleague, Deputy O'Connor. The issue with direct routes is that over the last year or so, as Deputies in maritime constituencies will know, many additional direct services to the United Kingdom have been introduced. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with responsibility for trade promotion, Deputy Troy, informed me that more direct routes to the Continent will come on stream in the weeks ahead to allow the UK land bridge to be bypassed. Traders need to contact their shipping companies and ask whether, by January, the companies will be able to get their goods to the Continent in time. If there are options now, they should consider switching to them now as a trial. The Irish Maritime Development Office published a report last week, which indicated we have sufficient capacity. The Government hears what Deputies are saying on this issue and we are committed to working with Deputies, traders, hauliers and ferry companies to ensure no issues arise. Members raised the issue of applying a public service obligation, PSO, which is a reasonable point to make. However, the counter argument is that a PSO would be a disincentive for companies that have already put on extra services without the benefit of PSO money.

Having listened to everybody, including Deputies from all sides of the House, the best assessment the Government has is that there seems to be sufficient capacity on existing direct services to accommodate any displaced land bridge traffic without State intervention. The Government is keeping this matter under review and we ask everybody to keep engaging and sending in any information they have. The Minister for Transport will be in the House on Committee Stage and I am sure this matter can be raised with him at that time.

We need to align capacity with demand. We will control what we can control, which is the reason we will keep engaging on this issue. We cannot control what happens in Britain, including whether there are traffic jams in Kent or Holyhead. These are difficulties. The matter is being kept under review. I appreciate that Deputies feel strongly about this. Feeding in information and making strong points on the issue is part of the national effort. Having spoken to the Taoiseach on this a number of times, I know he is taking a direct interest in this as well. We have to be ready.

Deputies have also raised the impact of a disorderly end to the transition period for the agri-food and fisheries sectors. That goes without saying. The Government has been supporting our agri-food sector in diversifying but there is still a significant level of exposure to the UK market as we all know, particularly in dairy and beef. The issue of fisheries is also outstanding in the negotiations. If no agreement can be reached on preferential EU access to the UK market, our agri-food trade could be significantly impacted by tariffs. I assure the House that the Government will stand shoulder to shoulder with the sector.

In 2019, the EU and the Government together funded the €100 million beef exceptional aid measure to help with the losses incurred as a result of Brexit-related market volatility. This is one example of what can be done. I thank the officials in the Department, led by Mr. Gardner, and officials in all the Departments who are working on this legislation. We are working closely with the European Commission on the €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve, which was agreed by the leaders, as Deputies mentioned. I thank the Taoiseach for his leadership on this issue and note our work with the Belgian Government on this particular fund.

This targets the sectors and member states most disproportionately affected by Brexit. In our ongoing talks with the European Commission, we called on it to ensure that the fund is rapidly activated, because it will be no good to us in two years' time, predictable and flexible to meet the various needs which might arise. I understand that the Commission is going to come up with a proposal, and there was a question on this aspect, in the next few weeks. I am confident, however, that the work we are doing at European level will be successful in achieving as much as possible from that fund and in ensuring that it is as flexible and as quick as it can be.

Deputy Ó Cuív was in touch with me yesterday, and Deputies Howlin, Calleary, Nash and Carey raised the issue of the VAT retail export scheme. It is fair to say that Ministers have considered that fair points have been raised. There is a difficulty here. There were good reasons for what is contained in the legislation, but the Minister for Finance is now considering the matter carefully in light of the various comments made by the Deputies and the genuine points they have raised. It is, again, just one of these issues that has hit us as a result of Brexit. That is a fact, and I think that everybody wants to do the best possible job on this aspect. In that context, I repeat what my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, said yesterday. Deputies who have amendments which they think will improve this Bill should bring them forward and the Government will have an open approach to them. All Ministers are on board with that approach. Indeed, during consideration of the last legislation of this type I put forward an amendment and it was accepted. It was one of the few Opposition amendments accepted by the last Government. It is important that happens.

Deputy O'Reilly asked several technical questions on Parts 4 and 5. I think the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, has already written to members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment on those issues. Regarding the specific question from Deputy O'Reilly, which concerned oversight of the securities settlement migration, I confirm that the migration will be carefully monitored by the Irish and EU authorities. A list of companies whose securities will migrate through the process provided for in the Bill will be displayed on the website of the Irish Stock Exchange.

I wrote down several issues which arose, which I will go through. Deputy Berry raised an interesting question about the timeframe. The 31 December and 1 January are it. If we have not reached an agreement and ratified it by then, it is simply not going to happen and we will be into a no-deal Brexit. No extension and no rabbit can be pulled out of the hat, I assure Deputies of that, unfortunately. Turning to the ratification process, the Commission is negotiating on our behalf, through Michel Barnier and his team. If an agreement is reached, it must be brought before the European Council. When it has been discussing Brexit recently, those European Council discussions were not done online. Those discussions were done in the most confidential way possible and leaders even left their phones outside the room, as I understand it.

It is not generally possible, therefore, to do Brexit discussions during negotiations by video. It may be possible, however, if an agreement is reached that a written procedure could be done, without having a physical meeting of the European Council. The European Parliament, though, obviously also has to ratify the agreement and that will take some time. The European Parliament, composed of our democratically-elected representatives, certainly wants to have its say on this matter and its members are absolutely entitled to do that as our democratically-elected representatives. That will take some time as well, however. If an agreement is reached now, that could bring us close enough to Christmas.

Deputy Harkin raised several issues, including the issue of the Border region. The EU budget passed during the summer had the PEACE PLUS programme and I am looking forward to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, providing details of that programme. I hope that will happen shortly enough, but that depends on the budget being completely signed off on between the European Council and the European Parliament. The negotiations have concluded, but the Council then has to agree. This is another example that is contrary to what some Members have said, genuinely, regarding their worries about solidarity. This, however, is an example of the solidarity which exists. That programme is in place and will, uniquely, fund the North of Ireland, which technically will not be part of the European Union. We have worked for that, but our European colleagues have agreed to it as well, and that is important.

On healthcare, I mentioned that we are not in a perfect position regarding the cross-border treatment directive. The treatment abroad scheme, however, is safe in respect of treatment which cannot be done here and must be done abroad. I also refer to the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC.

Turning to several other comments, Deputy Doherty stated that the people of this island did not choose Brexit, and he is absolutely right. I said certain things will happen and I set them out. There will also be many uncertainties, however, and many things I suspect will happen in the new year that people may not have realised would happen. I put out a video recently on online shopping. People buying from Great Britain will face a problem in that it will not be as smooth a process in the new year.

We did not choose this situation, but we are dealing with the consequences of it, as are other European countries and Britain itself. I strongly encourage the British Government to ramp up its Brexit preparedness and for British companies to do the same. I say that because one thing we are hearing from traders is that they are generally quite satisfied with the work the Government is doing, with the support of all the Members in the House, but when those traders are dealing with their counterparts in Britain, and we see the newspaper articles almost every day of the week reporting problems, they are finding that they are not quite as into this and not quite as ready, and the British Government certainly does not seem to be. That is a problem. All I can do is implore our British friends to ensure that they are as ready as possible and that they ensure their companies are as ready as possible.

Deputy O'Connor raised the issue of fresh food and drink and I have addressed that aspect already. There are major issues in this area. Deputy O'Connor has a huge cheese industry in his constituency and those issues are absolutely central to the negotiations, as I outlined. We must ensure the jobs in this area are protected as well as possible and that we can continue trading. However, that depends on Britain and where it sees its place in the world. We know what the issues are in the negotiations and they do concern access to the Single Market, a level playing field, how we resolve disputes and the issue of fish.

Deputy Richmond raised an important point regarding building a new relationship with the UK. Other Deputies have asked about the possibility of other trade deals. I do not think they are on the agenda now, but it is absolutely essential for us to ensure we have the best possible relations with Britain in the new year, after Brexit. At the moment, however, relations between Britain and Ireland are in a bit of a holding pattern while this all plays out between the European Union and the United Kingdom. There is much work to be done and the Taoiseach has already started that and everybody has supported it. The shared island initiative is to ensure we can all live on this island together and work to improve it. That also involves Britain being on board and there has been a warm reaction from the British Government in that regard. We hope that warmth can continue into the new year when this is done and dusted, and hopefully in the most positive way in future. There will not be a fantastic outcome to these negotiations, but if we get the best possible outcome, then we can reset relations in the new year.

As I said, individual Ministers will come before the House next week and they will be able to deal with many of the individual issues. They have all been listening to all points raised and taking them very seriously, because, in fairness, they have been put forward in the most serious, constructive and thoughtful way possible by Deputies. That is very much appreciated and this is really a good way of doing legislation. Some of the amendments from Deputies will come into the legislation and improve it.

The Bill protects citizens, North and South, consumers and businesses. It reduces the possibility of serious economic disturbance. It will facilitate the sound functioning of several key sectors and it will support the common travel area and North-South co-operation. It will not eliminate the possibilities of serious disruptions, but those disruptions will have been caused by the decision of the people of Britain to leave the European Union. Unlike most of last year's Brexit Bill, most of which was never commenced, we will be relying on this Bill from the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December. Many of these legal provisions are, therefore, necessary no matter what happens.

The UK joined the EU at the same time as Ireland and it has now chosen a different path. I think it is a sad situation. I see it that way, and anyone who has been a Minister will know that the British office in the Council building is next to the Irish office. It is now sitting there empty, with furniture all stacked up. In previous times, and I am sure the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, will agree, there would have been collaboration, discussion and common interests there. That is now simply gone and it is so sad to see.

As I have said repeatedly, we cannot address every single risk that arises from Brexit and we may not know every single risk. We have done the best possible work to make sure we can identify the risks as best we can. We cannot entirely eliminate the disruption that the end of the transition period will bring. Some issues are simply outside of our control. We cannot deal with traffic issues in Kent that will directly affect our citizens and goods. We can deal with traffic issues in Dublin, as I have outlined, and we will certainly look at any issues that may need to be dealt with in Wexford and Rosslare. The issue there is not considers as serious as the issues in Dublin but clearly it is under constant review by the Government, in conjunction with the local authority. The Government and the Dáil are doing everything possible. I ask Members to please get the message out to their constituents and the businesses in their constituencies that they should ensure they are ready for Brexit. With regard to the supports that Deputies indicated are not being taken up to the extent the Government would like, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, has pointed out that they are available. It is not the case that the Government is not providing them but that sometimes they have not been taken up.

Bhí an Teachta Connolly ag caint maidir leis an nGaeilge. Aontaím léi go bhfuil deacrachtaí áirithe ag na comhlachtaí sa Ghaeltacht. Mar a luaigh sí, tá plean do gach earnáil sa tír seo maidir leis an mBreatimeacht agus tá plean Gaeltachta ann freisin. Sin an t-ullmhúchán atá déanta. Beidh deacrachtaí ag titim amach as seo ach tá muidne ag obair ionas gur féidir linn éascaíocht a chur ar na deacrachtaí sin más féidir linn. Tá an Bhreatain ag déanamh idirbheartaíochta leis an Aontas Eorpach. Tá súil againn go n-éireoidh leis an idirbheartaíocht sin ach ag an am céanna beidh deacrachtaí agus difríochtaí ag teacht agus beidh rudaí difriúil go deo. Tá súil againn nach rachaidh an Bhreatain amach as an Aontas Eorpach gan comhaontú agus go mbeidh comhaontú ann maidir le trádáil na n-earraí, ach ní féidir liomsa gach deacracht a sciobadh amach as an áireamh. Beidh deacrachtaí ansin do chomhlachtaí Gaeltachta agus comhlachtaí sa Ghalltacht freisin.

Labhair an Teachta maidir leis an nGaeilge agus tá an ceart aici a rá go bhfuil an-deacrachtaí ag baint leis an nGaeilge. Tá géarchéim an-láidir ann mar gheall ar an nGaeilge faoi láthair. Ní gá dom é seo a rá leis an Teachta Connolly, ach impím ar na polaiteoirí go léir an Ghaeilge ag úsáid agus muid ag labhairt sa Dáil. Úsáidim an Ghaeilge anois ag Comhairle na nAirí sa Bhruiséil. Tá na daoine a dhéanann na haistriúcháin lánsásta iad a dhéanamh agus bíonn na hAirí eile sásta go bhfuil mé ag labhairt Gaeilge freisin. Deir siad go bhfuil siad sásta an Ghaeilge a chloisteáil ann. Más féidir linne an eiseamláir sin a thaispeáint beimid in ann dul chun cinn a dhéanamh. Teastaíonn tacaíocht Rialtais ón Ghaeilge freisin agus mar a luaigh an Teachta Connolly, tá Bille ag dul tríd an Dáil maidir leis sin faoi láthair freisin. Beimid in ann níos mó tacaíochta a thabhairt don teanga agus do chomhlachtaí sa Ghaeltacht ansin.

Gabhaim buíochas do gach duine a d’obair go crua ar son an Bhille seo inniu.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 24 November 2020.