I thank the Northern Ireland Minister for Finance, Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, for coming before the committee. He will speak to us about the fiscal impact to the North of the result of the British referendum to leave the European Union. We will follow the same format, with an opening statement from the Minister before taking questions.
Fiscal Implications for Northern Ireland of UK EU Referendum Result: Discussion
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
I will start by congratulating Deputy Breathnach, who has a very intelligent son who recently graduated from University College, Dublin, I am told. I do not know how I know that but I do, so I congratulate him on the achievement.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an gcoiste as fáilte a chur rogham. Pléisiúr atá ann a bheith i láthair os comhair an choiste inniu agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach agus le na baill eile as an gcuireadh seo a thabhairt dom. Tá Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta ina bhunshraith ar a tógadh na hinstitiúidí sa Tuaisceart. Is comhaontú é, mar atá luaite ina chéad líne féin, a chuir deis fíor-stairiúil ar fáil le tús úr a bheith ann. Dá gcuirfí orainn an tAontas Eorpach a fhágáil, b’ionann sin agus spiorad agus litir Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta a shárú, dar liom.
I thank the Chairman for the invitation.
As we all agree, the Good Friday Agreement is the foundation upon which the institutions in the North were built. It is an agreement which, as stated in its very first line, offered a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning. Forcing us in the North from the EU would breach the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. For today's conversation I wish to leave party politics at the door. However, as Minister for Finance in the North, my position on the referendum is today as it was before the vote. I thought we should remain in the European Union and I believe it is the only way forward for our people in the North. It is my firm view that it is not economically, financially or socially advantageous for the North to cut itself off from the rest of the European Union.
In terms of the fiscal implications of the referendum, my most immediate concern is that we fully protect the funding we are due to get from Europe. My Department is directly responsible for PEACE IV and INTERREG V programmes worth approximately €550 million or £500 million. Our task is to safeguard the €1.6 billion earmarked for programmes in the North and the Border region between now and 2020. I listened carefully to Senator Black refer earlier to some of the great projects she works with in north Belfast but it is true that PEACE and INTERREG money has been disproportionately channelled towards areas that are underserved. It has gone to the likes of Sandy Row and Tiger's Bay, the Bogside, Creggan and so on in the Border regions. In the round of programmes between 2007 and 2013, projects such as the Skainos Centre in east Belfast - an inspirational cross-community project - the Peace bridge in Derry and the People’s Park in Portadown manifested what the PEACE programme is about and how it can boost and invigorate communities.
The statement from the British Chancellor, Mr. Hammond, in August falls far short of what we wanted to see, particularly with respect to PEACE and INTERREG cross-Border programmes. He gave a commitment that project approvals contracted in advance of the autumn statement, now confirmed as 23 November, will be underwritten by the Treasury. This is insufficient and leaves €1.1 billion, due to be issued post-November, at risk. However, my concern is equally for the €550 million or £500 million earmarked for release before the autumn statement. In that regard, and this is where the rubber hits the road, we have €120 million of letters of offer for cross-Border, transformative job, environmental and health projects log-jammed in the system. There are 17 separate INTERREG letters of offer that have been cleared and are ready to issue. This affects the constituencies we have heard about in Donegal, Louth, Fermanagh, south Armagh and others, as well as health boards on both sides of the Border, for example. InterTradeIreland has extensive programmes for small and medium enterprises that could be affected. The letters of offer are stuck in the system.
The Executive, the Finance Department, the special EU peace body and the INTERREG panels have all stepped up to expedite these funding applications. They have done Trojan work to speed up the process to ensure money is released to the bridge builders, peacemakers and job creators on the ground. However, I would respectfully suggest that their efforts need to be matched by the Irish Government, the British Government and the EU Commission. Notwithstanding the limbo in which we live and the grave difficulties surrounding the EU referendum, all three of those institutions should commit to releasing this €120 million as soon as possible.
From what I have heard, people realise this is not a problem confined to one part of the island and it affects us all. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has stated, the Irish Government has a key role to play in the interest of all on this island in the day-to-day dealings with the British Government and the EU side of the negotiating table. The case needs to be made to the rest of the states in the European Union and the British Government that future arrangements must recognise and respond to the unique challenges we face here in Ireland.
Bagairt ar an oileán ar fad a bheadh i dTuaisceart Éireann a tharraingt amach ón Eoraip. Is Eorpaigh muid go léir. Is mian mo chroí é fanacht i gcroílár na hEorpa. Tá súil agam go mbeidh muid ábalta an tubaiste seo a sheachaint agus ina ionad sin a chinntiú go mbeidh meas ann feasta ar thoil dhaonlathach mhuintir Thuaisceart Éireann.
Dragging the North of Ireland from Europe would pose a threat to the entire island. We are all Europeans. It is our fervent wish to remain at the heart of Europe. That is how the people in the North voted in the referendum. It is my hope that, together with our colleagues here today and the Irish Government, we can avert this economic catastrophe and, instead, ensure the democratic will of the people of the North to remain is respected.
I thank Mr. Ó Muilleoir for his presentation and for dealing with the fiscal issue, which was the main issue I addressed when our own Minister was here earlier. The most pertinent words in Mr. Ó Muilleoir's document referred to the letters of offer, which will guarantee €120 million as opposed to the overall difficulty with the €1.1 million or €1.2 million to which nobody is giving any commitment. In his response to Question No. 880 of 16 September 2016, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, clearly gave a commitment that the Irish Government would not be found wanting. I am happy to accept this in good faith. How confident is Mr. Ó Muilleoir that he can convince those in Northern Ireland and in the British Government who are dealing with Exchequer funding to make a clear and firm commitment, regardless of Brexit, to the operation of an all-Ireland economy, particularly in the Border area, not alone in the current year but right up to 2021 and beyond?
If there is a will there is a way, and if people are realistic and honest regarding their view of an all-Ireland situation with a 32-county Ireland or whether they agree with a 26-county Ireland or otherwise, we would get the commitment of the money. I would like Mr. Ó Muilleoir to comment on how we can get greater involvement and participation from those who will be equally affected, North and South, to ensure we have a full all-Ireland dialogue from people of all parties and none on how we can deal with it collectively.
I welcome Mr. Ó Muilleoir and it is good to have a member of the Northern Ireland Executive attend our committee. Like my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, I want to raise the funding issue. Mr. Ó Muilleoir's comments alarm me. The people he referred to have done Trojan work in their communities and some local statutory agencies were very good at assisting local communities in drawing down funding that has been put to very good use. We have a vacuum now. We have uncertainty, and it will do great damage to the community ethos and spirit of trying to draw down very valuable and much-needed funding for so many areas that are very severely disadvantaged and need the injection of capital for social enterprise or the provision of local community facilities, be it of a social nature or of small business interest.
After reading remarks that were attributed to Mr. Ó Muilleoir in the Irish News, I tabled a parliamentary question and, like my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, I received an assurance, as I saw it, from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, that the funding would be in place. Mr. Ó Muilleoir said, "However, I would respectfully suggest that their efforts need to be matched by the Irish Government, the British Government and the EU Commission." I sincerely hope the Government is committed to meeting the expenditure that has been provided for in the programme. I have no reason to believe it is not. Perhaps Mr. Ó Muilleoir could elaborate. I sincerely hope there would not be a shortfall here or any uncertainty setting in.
The Minister mentioned some of the iconic projects. Some of us from the Oireachtas were at the official opening of Skainos Centre in east Belfast. I have walked the Peace bridge in Derry on many occasions. They are all very good projects and we want to see more of them on both sides of the Border. It is scandalous if the British Government is already ensuring this unnecessary uncertainty is setting in to damage projects we need to bring to fruition after so much good work undertaken by so many people in a voluntary capacity, and local statutory agencies which have never got enough funding to carry out their work at local level. I welcome the Minister's presentation.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
I will bat the issue of the €120 million back to Deputy Breathnach respectfully and softly. We have done all our work. The letters of offer are ready to go. We in the North can do no more. The Minister for Public Expenditure and reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and I have met on these issues and I have met the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan on some of the issues. They know where I stand on it. As representatives for Cavan and Louth, the Deputies here will make their views known. While I am not here to ascribe blame to anyone, they are logjams. One example is the Shared Waters Enhancement and Loughs Legacy, SWELL, project in Carlingford Lough and Lough Foyle, which has been there since July. We want them to be released. It is a hiatus that none of us want to see.
I cannot elaborate any more. We have done our work. There is €120 million there. The groups we have spoken about are exemplary in the work they do. I met members of the Higher Attainment through Cross-Border Hubs, HATCH, group which works in Cavan getting ethnic minorities into entrepreneurship, during the past period of our PEACE programme. These are all INTERREG projects which are ready to go. I know the Deputies will follow it up tomorrow and we are doing what we can.
Regarding North-South co-operation and the Dublin-Belfast corridor, it dismays me that the idea conceived by Sir George Quigley has been moribund for a while. The most proactive project I saw around the Border region was the Louth-Newry and Mourne memorandum of understanding. I would like more action behind it. As the representatives of the Border regions know, and as our friends in InterTradeIreland always tell us, while the Border region is on the periphery of two economies, in an all-island economy it is at the centre of the economy. As I say to my Unionist colleagues, this is not a political point. One can support an all-island economy for the job and wealth creation benefits, not for the politics.
Regardless of what happens, we need to step up, especially regarding Cavan and Donegal. I am a big fan of the north-west gateway initiative. We really need to step up the economic work along the corridor. Dundalk had a jobs blow recently. There is no reason that there should not be intense activity along the corridor between two of the youngest cities in Europe, Dublin and Belfast.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell
I thank Mr. Ó Muilleoir for his presentation. While I welcome his comments on the Border project, I might focus on things closer to home. Is Mr. Ó Muilleoir suggesting there is a hold up on the Southern side on some of the projects?
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
There is a hold up and it is not on our side. There are three other parties to this, but it is definitely not on our side.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell
Has the Northern Ireland Executive evolved any strategy to deal with the overall Brexit situation, or do we have to wait and see? I am not trying to trap Mr. Ó Muilleoir. With the DUP situation, is it possible to get some sort of coherent strategy which we can all row in behind? I want to talk about minimising or reducing the damage Brexit will do to everyone regardless of politics, class, creed or anything else. It is important not just along the Border. While the Border accord is important to all of us, several projects in and around Belfast are suffering as a result of a hold-up.
I am baffled by this because in my opinion the break point for Britain leaving Europe is either June 2019, at the time of the next European elections, or June 2020, when the budget ends. Britain is committed to contributing to a budget until June 2020 and, therefore, extracting the benefits for Northern Ireland and elsewhere. If there is a problem, we need to know about it and we need to be lobbying and shouting. I was gutted last week when I went to visit Mencap, a voluntary organisation that has managed to set up a massive programme subcontracting support services for two, three and four year olds with learning disabilities. It looks after approximately 100 of them yet it has lost or stands to lose £1 million of its funding. It requires £4 million to exist and it is losing 25% of its funding. Is it the British Government doing this? What is the reason for the stall because, on paper, we are tied to Europe for at least another two or three years? Is this just people being fussy, difficult or guarded? Where is the obstacle? Is it a political decision that is taken in London to screw everything up?
I thank the Minister for attending. It is a pleasure to have listened to him although I have become increasingly depressed this afternoon by the lack of certainty around Brexit and what it means, not only for the community in Northern Ireland but also for Ireland as a 32-county island. I am deeply depressed when I think about where we are going. I note Mr. Ó Muilleoir's comment that it is his fervent wish to remain at the heart of Europe but I am afraid that decision has been taken from him. Westminster has decided it is not interested in him or the 56% of his electorate that voted to stay in Europe. Mr. Ó Muilleoir's immediate concern is to safeguard €1.6 billion of funding that was due for the North. If I was a bureaucrat in Brussels looking at the speedy applications coming in from the North of Ireland in respect of funding, would I be as inclined to be speedy in my replies or would I say "These guys are out of the equation and one of their Commissioners has gone home, so why should I expedite anything?"?
To return to what Dr. McDonnell just said, what plans are there if this funding does not materialise? Does Mr. Ó Muilleoir expect that Westminster will make up for the funding from Brussels that will be lost? I do not expect that and I do not see funding coming from the Dublin Government to make up for lost funding. I am beginning to see many problems. I spoke about a hard border on the day after the referendum and today there is absolutely no assurance that we will not have such a border. I am now leaning towards the possibility of a border and all the damage it will bring to our country and its economy and to the Northern Ireland economy. We are deeply interlinked. Senator Francis Black referred earlier to some of the programmes being run in north Belfast. I look at the number of youngsters coming down to universities in Dublin. They will have to pay their way. Where will the Northern Ireland Executive find the funding for that? Does it expect Westminster to step in and pick up the tab? As Minister of Finance, Mr. Ó Muilleoir is in a horrible position in the firing line. I do not see the funding coming to run the country at the level at which it is currently being run. To return to Dr. McDonnell's point, have all members of the Executive sat down together? It is time now for the DUP, Sinn Féin and everyone else to sit around the table and decide where they will go when the funding does not materialise. I cannot see Westminster replacing the money coming from Europe to the North of Ireland.
I am particularly concerned about education and agriculture.
Some of my colleagues are concerned about the traditional corner shop, I agree with them because, just like business interests in every other part of the economy, such shops will suffer.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
I urge Senator Craughwell to have hope. I do not want him going home depressed. If we accepted everything that the holy trinity of Brexit Ministers in London wishes to accept, we would give up. Prime Minister May has had to chastise David Davis, whom I met, Liam Fox, the business Minister, and the wonderful Boris Johnson. If one picks up a newspaper each day, one will have a different idea of what the British intend to do about Brexit. We do not know. It is very difficult and I use the analogy that it is like grappling with cotton wool. It is difficult to have a really coherent plan. This is what we are doing. I agree with the Senator absolutely.
I return to Dr. McDonnell's point on agricultural payments. The British Chancellor said that he will guarantee the PEACE IV and INTERREG moneys if they are signed off by 23 November. He further stated that, in the context of Structural Funds, the social fund and PEACE IV moneys, after that Northern Ireland will be on its own. That was bad enough because it put about €1.1 billion in peril. We cannot move the £500 million or €550 million we had hoped to get out the door before that statement was made. I am asking for the help of everyone here to try to get the money that has been agreed.
In terms of agriculture, the British Chancellor said he would underwrite the CAP payment of approximately €2.2 billion up until the exit, whenever that happens, or 2020. Farmers in the North get 9% of farm payments to the UK. We have no idea what will happen after 2020. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has more faith in Mr. James Brokenshire than I have. I would be amazed if, after 2020 when we are forced out of the EU, the British Government gives us 9% of all farm payments. I suspect it will be more like 3%. There is a danger that farm payments will fall off a cliff in 2020.
What Dr. McDonnell said is absolutely right. It is amazing how often, when one visits groups in Belfast's inner city, one sees a plaque on the wall that says it is funded by the European Union, under the PEACE programmes or by means of the social fund. With regard to peace and reconciliation, the group WAVE, which works with victims and survivors, Relatives for Justice, which works with victims and survivors, and so many ex-prisoner groups rely on Europe for support. It will go to the very heart of the work in which Dr. McDonnell, Mark Durkan and our colleagues from mid-Ulster and west Tyrone are involved in trying to build our communities. It will be a grievous blow to efforts to build peace and foster reconciliation. We should not accept it. We have turned the ship of state of the British Government before. It would be unwise to accept, when it does not know what it is doing, that it has to be a particular type of exit. Those of us who voted to remain will defend the democratic right to remain and also the right of the people of Wales and England to leave. We will make common cause with our friends in Scotland on this. We want the Irish Government to say that the right of the people of the North trumps what they call the UK-wide vote. In that, the Taoiseach has an onerous responsibility. He has a tough job ahead of him. He has to go to the British and say that we need to have a bespoke arrangement. There should be a bespoke arrangement to ensure that we would still have protections and a right to enjoy the privileges of the Single Market, the freedom of movement of labour and membership of the European Union. Someone mentioned earlier how complex that would be. It is complex but it can be done. It is very simple - we voted to remain so we should be allowed to remain.
I am delighted to see the Minister, Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, here again. It was always a pleasure to meet him on the committee's trips to Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Deputy Brendan Smith outlined that in 2012 we went to the Skainos centre in east Belfast as part of the PEACE programme.
It was the most wonderful day when the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, and the First Minister in Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, shared the same stage. It was the first time Martin McGuinness was on official business in that part of east Belfast. We left feeling this was the most wonderful day one could ever have and the Troubles were over. Less than two weeks later, the flags protest broke out.
I am normally an optimistic person but I am concerned. The United Kingdom, as I said before, is in denial. Then there is a devolved Northern Ireland Legislature in which one party, the DUP, campaigned for Brexit while Sinn Féin campaigned to remain. Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s statement to the committee today is anaemic. While I appreciate he can only discuss the fiscal implications for Northern Ireland, we in the Republic are taking the Brexit decision very seriously and we had no vote whatsoever. It is the perfect storm but everyone seems to have gone missing. I am concerned that we have to be inside Europe for negotiations but also negotiating on behalf of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and, effectively, the United Kingdom.
This does not look good. I hate saying it but the British establishment and those who campaigned to remain in Europe have thrown their hands up in the air while those who campaigned to leave are running the establishment. One does not have to be a genius to say we are in a serious situation with the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. I do not know what we can do. Again, we have to think, like Deputy Brendan Smith and Taoiseach have said, about an all-Ireland forum or even a forum in a wider context. Everyone is in their own little silos now but there are problems coming down the road very fast.
Mr. Mark Durkan
I thank the Minister for his statement. There must be serious work going on with officials, the EU programmes bodies, the Department and the INTERREG panels to deal with this last orders situation which has been created by the UK Chancellor’s commitment. I also acknowledge that while some other people went for headline assurances on the back of the Chancellor’s statement, the Minister, Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, made a clear mind-the-gap statement about what was not covered and that people should be aware of that risk. I recognise he is in the difficult position of trying to optimise what is supposedly there with the Treasury’s offer in circumstances where he may not get the optimum spend and use out of the money and that he is dealing with constraints he did not create himself. I picked up his warning that he needs the assistance and efforts of others to ensure it is optimised in so far as that window is concerned.
For the longer term, does the Minister think it is feasible to get to a situation where the North can still continue to have access to benefits and programmes of the EU, even in the context of Brexit, given the North’s unique position under the Good Friday Agreement as an international agreement? Could we have a lean-to arrangement with the South in that context? In terms of access to EU funding, if some of the principle was around the question of matched funding, could we look at the possibility of specifically earmarking those moneys, due to be paid by the Irish Government to the UK Government in respect of what is called the “Osborne loan”, to support North-South spending? Could they be used to supplement, complement or provide continuity of funding in respect of EU programmes? If it is not possible to use it as the matching funding, could it be used at least to ensure there was some continuity funding in respect of the sort of programmes and measures which are already supported by the EU?
It would be entirely consistent with the spirit of the Agreement if the funding was used in that way. That is what people envisaged was going to happen over time not just here, but among those who agreed these measures in the EU and their projected time cycle. It would also provide a basis for underpinning future North-South work, even beyond that directly funded by the EU programmes.
The reality is that much of the functionality that has come from the implementation bodies and from the North-South sectors has related to EU programmes and measures and has relied in large part on EU funding or on agreeing how to transpose EU standards. The reality is that the fillings of the North-South sandwich after this are going to be small. Many people are seeing aspects of the Good Friday Agreement being hollowed out. We need to think creatively in that funding area by not just replacing the headline funds to which the Minister referred, but in supporting the fact there is real and meaningful North-South traffic.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
I have been accused of many things but not usually of being anaemic. Within diplomatic international standards, this is as hard as I get. I do not believe one can get any more hardline than saying, "I insist we remain at the heart of Europe". Even before St. Columbanus and St. Gall left Bangor monastery in 590 AD to bring Christianity to Bobbio and St. Gallen in Europe, we were Europeans. We are Europeans today and are committed to the project. There are aspects we would all like to improve. One cannot let one's head go down and say we will accept on this island that they take the North and we get into this Little England splendid isolation cul-de-sac. It would be a cul-de-sac of culture, education and international relations.
When speaking as a Minister on these matters, I do not like using the word "fight" but we are going to stand very firm behind the democratic wishes of the people of the North. If consent is a pillar of the Good Friday Agreement, it should also be a pillar of the leaving or staying in the EU. I want to bolster Senator Feighan's confidence in that regard.
The work of this committee is really appreciated. The work of former Senators Sean Barrett and Mary White was appreciated at An Chultúrlann on the Falls Road, in Derry and east Belfast. It means much to people at the Skainos Centre who did great work in resolving the flag protests by creating an oasis of discussion, calm, dialogue and reconciliation. We sometimes underestimate the positive impact of this committee. It is great that it provided a forum for this discussion.
Mark Durkan used the term "special case". I believe there is sympathy in Europe for a special case. After the Apple tax finding, there might be some bruised egos and relationships. However, the idea of the special case has always been very dear to all European Union member states. They agreed to the PEACE funding and voted repeatedly to endorse the Good Friday Agreement and other steps forward in the peace process. If anyone can make a special case to Europe about finding a process or a bespoke arrangement for the North to remain, it is us. In fact, in many ways, we have more sympathy in Europe than Scotland has, although it's people voted in more resounding numbers to stay. We have our foot in the door and we need to make that argument.
I would be happy to ask the Taoiseach to do his bit. However, I have no doubt that representatives from the North, and I speak for Pat Doherty, Francie Molloy, Mark Durkan and Alasdair McDonnell, will fight hard - it is proper to use the "F" word in this particular circumstance - to ensure that we remain, not only because that is how people voted but also because the alternative is a road to nowhere.
Mark Durkan touched on the following point. The equilibrium of the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the peace we have reached in the North is underpinned by the fact that both jurisdictions on the island are part of the European Union. That is one of the reasons we managed to make this historic compromise. For anyone to tear that asunder willy-nilly and view it as a victory is a mistake. There is common ground. The crucial part of this is unity within the Executive and there is no sense in pretending that the latter is going to be easy to achieve. However, we have forged some common ground in that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, penned a joint letter to Theresa May setting out the five areas, including agrifood, on which they want her to focus. That is a start. I am confident that if we can ensure that we have a central place at the negotiating table, with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness on one side and the Taoiseach on the other with the European member states, there will be a chance to put a really strong case forward. I am certainly not despairing. I do not really mind from where the British Government gets the money. It is spending £100 billion on Trident so I am sure it can find the money somewhere. No one should be allowed to destroy the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and peace funding and the difference it has made.
Mr. Francie Molloy
When Mark Durkan was Finance Minister and I was chairing the finance committee, we had the issue of gap funding. It does not appear that we will have the gap this time. It appears there will be a clear break, which will make matters more difficult. One of the things I have noticed with European funding is that there is always a long, drawn-out process of applications and administration. I note the reference to £120 million, but on rural, peace and other funding, is there any mechanism whereby the Assembly can draw down the funds from Europe in advance of the moneys actually being distributed? If we wait until the end of the various processes, the schedule for actually delivering the money on the ground will be tight. There have been difficulties in getting the money distributed to different projects in the past. The question on European funding relates to the fact that 11 of the 18 constituencies voted to remain. In what circumstances can that remain vote be respected by Europe and others? Is there an all-Ireland solution as regards the framework and also given the change in circumstances whereby 11 of the 18 constituencies voted to remain, whatever that means in terms of the 50% required to change the Good Friday Agreement? To some extent, we have been dealing with a false economy because of the European funding that has supported everything over the past while. That change in circumstances will change the whole financial structure. Where does that leave corporation tax in the future?
I thank the Minister for attending. I love his positivity. It is great to see that - to use the "F" word - he is going to fight. He mentioned that he already felt he had his foot in the door and had more chance in Scotland. Can he say a little bit more around that and is he feeling positive around the fact that there is a possibility that the North can remain in the EU? How does he see that playing out? How will that role happen? It would be great to know a little more around it. I do not know if the Minister can say, but it would be great to know.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
To come to that first, the most positive thing I did this year was to visit Rathlin Island. I was amazed by its beauty. I passed Senator Black's old homestead where she does some of her great work. She is a great believer in rising above some of the problems that beset us, trying to find a way through them and identifying solutions. There are difficulties for us in identifying the solutions to a proposed Brexit because the British have not said what it means. In fact, they have very clearly disagreed. David Davis has pointed to a hard Brexit while Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Boris Johnson says negotiations will start early in the new year while Theresa May says it is not possible to say that. Liam Fox says that British businessmen are fat and lazy. The confusion among the British is very difficult. While they get themselves organised, we need to draw some little lines in the sand. One issue is that we need to remain, so what could that mean? Is it possible? I think Europe is sympathetic. If we call it a special case, how can we remain and what would that mean? Under that, we then work out the special dispensations we need on all the different aspects of work, in particular to ensure that the funding continues. This requires a civic society response and a political response. It requires a business response. CBI and IBEC have been some of the firmest in saying that we are entering an economic cul-de-sac. I would like to see a thousand flowers bloom in this case, which is to say I would like a thousand voices to be raised, starting in the Oireachtas.
An issue in respect of which Senator Black has been supportive is that of ethnic minorities. I do not go to church very often, but on Sunday I went to the Roma church in Dr. McDonnell's constituency in south Belfast. There were 350 Roma present. The Roma have made great lives for themselves here and refer to the great progress they have made in this country compared to the way they were treated in Romania. Their children are now in school here, but they are fearful that they will be put out. When I met David Davis, I asked him to give me a guarantee that every European Union citizen who is here would be allowed to say and he said they could not do it. As such, one can understand the fear among communities. That is one example of a particularly vulnerable community. One can understand the fear among ethnic minorities, which is even before one talks about the researchers in universities and so on. These are people who have made a great contribution to Belfast. I refer to Lithuanians, Poles and so on. Where do they stand? The voices that are raised need a forum. Sometimes, people think a forum is for republicans and nationalists to come to talk at, but I would like the ethnic minorities to come and make their points. I would like those members of the unionist community who have now applied for Irish passports to come and say why they believe their future lies with Europe. I have signed a large number of their applications as, I am sure, have many of my colleagues. I would like the entrepreneurs and those who live along the Border to come. Let the politicians be last in the queue at the forum but let us have one where people can voice their fears and opinions and try to agree the best way forward for all of our people. By the way, I congratulate Senator Black on her election.
I was asked if we are the meat in the sandwich. Sometimes, I think that is the case. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I were mandated by the North-South Ministerial Council to write to EU Commissioner Creu to say that we needed her to guarantee the funding or to tell us where we stand. The Commissioner said that it would not be possible to tell until the negotiations started. I understand entirely. They are waiting for the London Government to say what it wants to do. As such, we are the meat in the sandwich between these two great forces that are meeting and preparing for negotiations. It is very important that our voice is raised in Europe and that we say that it is not good enough and a betrayal of the peace process to allow us to be no more than the meat in the sandwich. The people of this island who voted for and built the peace deserve a great deal more than to be cast aside and forced out of Europe as part of this proposed catastrophe of Brexit.
We have a great deal to do in terms of Mr. Francie Molloy's point. No one should raise his or her voice louder than farmers and the agricultural and rural community. They know how vital Europe has been to their livelihoods as well as to reconciliation and peace in the rural areas which suffered so much during the 30 years of turmoil and warfare.
Therefore everyone's voice should be raised. This will not be finished tomorrow or next week. It was suggested that it could take two or three years, and I have heard six years mentioned. In my view it will be a determined, concerted battle to remain. We have started to rally our forces and arguments to remain, but it will continue in the years ahead.
I have one brief comment. Senator Craughwell referred to the rush of applications, and I do not want that to go on the record uncorrected. It does a disservice to people who have been working on applications to draw down funding under the INTERREG and Peace programmes. Many of us on this committee have assisted various groups in this regard. It takes a considerable length of time to put together a programme that merits consideration. There is a huge amount of research and background work before one can submit an application. It is not as if a deadline was given to every group to put together an application, send it off and hope to succeed.
We should tell the British Government and European Commission officials that agreement was reached between sovereign governments and the Commission to provide a level of funding for the Peace programme and the INTERREG programme. Those programmes should continue to work as planned, prior to any decision by the British people to leave the EU. It is not a matter of people sending an application off in the post and trying to get it in before a deadline. A huge amount of good work has been done by many voluntary groups and statutory agencies in preparing applications seeking to draw down funding.
Are there any additional questions? If not, I have one question which concerns key issues highlighted in a letter which was issued to the British Prime Minister from Northern Ireland's First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Has there been any response to that letter? What is the Minister's take on it, given his own meeting with the Secretary of State? Perhaps he can comment on that.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Prime Minster May should live up to the flowery biblical rhetoric she made on her appointment and what she pledged when she came to the North. She said she would ensure that the Executive was involved in negotiations and in the preparations for negotiations. They then immediately issued their decision on EU funding, that they would only underwrite funding up to 23 November, leaving €1.1 billion in peril. I do not use the word "alarm", but I am always concerned that the British Government would say one thing and then another. At this stage, we have not received any of the type of guarantees we need concerning the agrifood industry to ensure there is not a hard Border and to ensure that ethnic minorities can continue to live, work and travel in the North. We have not received any of the commitments and pledges we need. It is a fraught time for anyone in the agrifood sector, with a business on the Border, or who has been pummelled by the drop in the value of sterling. The sooner we have a fair and true engagement with the British Government the better, but to do so they need to get themselves sorted first. We have our arguments well marshalled already.
On behalf of the committee I thank the Minister for being with us today, as well as for his presentation and honesty in dealing with all the matters that have been raised. This highlights the fact that we are in a bit of a limbo concerning Brexit. We appreciate that the Minister has taken the time to be here with us today.
Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Go raibh maith agat. It is nice to be here.
We will now move into private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.