Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le baill an choiste as an gcuireadh chun teacht anseo inniu. Tá áthas orm aon eolas atá agam a scaipeadh.
This is my first appearance before the committee since the trade and co-operation agreement was reached between the EU and the UK. I will first speak briefly speak on that before I talk about the issue of the protocol, which is obviously of huge concern not only to the committee but to Government as well.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement is the framework for the relationship between the European Union and the UK into the future and complements the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Northern Ireland. Like any international agreement, it is the product of compromise and give and take. Neither the European Union nor the UK has got everything it would have wanted but there is much to recommend it.
The agreement provides for zero tariff, zero quota trade in goods of EU or UK origin. This is a major priority of the Government and is vital for sectors such as our agrifood industry in particular which would have been devastated by tariffs. It provides robust safeguards to ensure there is a level playing field between EU and UK businesses to protect Irish businesses and our future prosperity. It provides for close co-operation with the UK in the energy and transportation sectors, which are essential to making our economy work. It allows for close co-operation between the police and judicial authorities in Ireland, which is essential to effective policing on the island of Ireland. I pay tribute to Mr. Michel Barnier and his team in the European Commission for their tireless work in securing the agreement.
Separately, and as the committee will be well aware, the Northern Ireland protocol came into effect on 1 January 2021. It plays a vital role in protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including a key priority of the Government to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, as well as protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it. It ensures that Northern Ireland traders continue to have access not only to Great Britain but also to the EU Single Market of 450 million consumers, access that is unique and vital for all-island supply chains.
For Northern Ireland, and indeed for businesses across the island, adapting to the changes is undoubtedly a challenge. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the overall purpose of the protocol, what it is for and the role it plays in providing as much certainty as possible under the difficult circumstances caused by the UK leaving the European Union. After four years of painstaking negotiations, it is clear there are no easy alternatives to the protocol. It is clear that the European Union and the United Kingdom will have to continue to work closely together, particularly in the first weeks of the protocol’s operation, as traders adjust to the new rules in place. Every effort will need be made within the framework of the protocol to iron out any challenges that emerge.
It is very unfortunate that the protocol got caught up in the issue of the European Union vaccine procurement last week. It is entirely regrettable that the Commission did not consult us in advance of the ostensible decision it contemplated with regard to invoking the protocol's safeguard clause. The decision was, rightfully, rescinded shortly after the Taoiseach spoke to President von der Leyen on the Friday evening in question.
The European Union has a legitimate aim, on behalf of all of us, of protecting vaccine supplies. Ireland will continue to work closely with the Commission on this issue. However, that is entirely separate, and should be entirely separate, from the operation of the protocol. We will be working with the Commission to review this matter and to continue to ensure that the protocol and its political context are properly understood. All sides must now redouble their efforts to make the protocol work for Northern Ireland and all its people and businesses. It is important to take a calm and measured approach based on trust and pragmatism to any issues that arise in regard to its implementation.
I welcome that a call took place last Wednesday between the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr. Šefčovič's opposite number in the UK, and the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, of Northern Ireland. In a joint afterwards, the EU and the UK described the discussion as a constructive one and stated they had agreed to work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues. This approach is best managed through the established mechanisms and communication channels to address practical issues around the operation of the protocol, including the specialised committee on the protocol and the withdrawal agreement joint committee. Vice-President Šefčovič and Chancellor Gove agreed to meet again this week in London and to keep in close contact as this work progresses. EU-UK channels must remain the primary recourse for addressing any issues that arise in the interests of stability, clarity and sustainability. Unilateral approaches to working through issues are unhelpful, no matter what the source.
The committee will also be aware that certain staff working at border control posts at the ports of Larne and Belfast were advised not to present for work on 2 February owing to concerns arising from intimidation and threats. I condemn the intimidation of port staff and the menacing threats that have appeared as graffiti in Northern Ireland. I welcome that the PSNI is actively engaged and taking appropriate measures. I also welcome the confirmation that Larne council staff have returned to their duties. All staff should be able to carry out their work safely and political leaders should make every effort to reduce tensions.
The Government is closely engaged with its counterparts in the Northern Ireland Executive. We are also listening carefully to business representatives on this and other issues. We have been consistent in our position that we want the protocol to work as smoothly as possible for the people of Northern Ireland and people and businesses across the island of Ireland. Trade volumes between Ireland and Great Britain remain low but they are gradually increasing. We had 61 inbound movements on 1 and 2 January. The figure reached its peak so far this year with 1,344 movements on 3 and 4 February.
The Government understands that new controls have created challenges for many traders. We will continue to help traders and hauliers to make the adjustment. The changes are not temporary. It is important that we all work together to adapt to the new trading environment. A range of advisory, upskilling and support services remains available. Over €9.4 million has been allocated under our ready-for-customs grant that provides funding of up to €9,000 per eligible employee. It is also very important that, in line with its border operating model, the UK will introduce new checks and controls on imports from the EU in April and June. We are working with our exporters to help them prepare for these changes.
No new controls apply on direct continental routes, which are proving very popular. Freight volumes on these services are up 100% on last year. We now have daily direct services to France, which was a key ask of the haulage sector. In January there were 62 roll-on roll-off freight sailings in a typical week, which is up from about 26 such sailings last year. We have 36 sailings to northern France per week as well as sailings to Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Brexit means change in the short, medium and long term. Ireland will need to respond to the challenges and opportunities that this brings by playing a leadership role in shaping and developing our common European Union. The relationship between Ireland and Britain is always close and special but our home is at the heart of the European Union. I am very happy to take questions.