I welcome the Tánaiste.
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the state of play regarding the Brexit negotiations. As Senators will have seen, we had a very productive time yesterday in Dundalk with the Taoiseach and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, at the fourth plenary meeting of the all-island civic dialogue. I will say a little more about that later. Before doing so, however, I wish to address two distinct but complementary tracks of the Government's work: first, the state of play in the Article 50 negotiations; and, second, the intensive work being undertaken to mitigate the impact of Brexit on Ireland and to get businesses and citizens as Brexit-ready as they can be.
I will deal first to the negotiations. The European Council in March was another significant milestone in the withdrawal process. EU leaders took stock of the progress made by EU and UK negotiators on drafting a legally-binding withdrawal agreement to give effect to the principles and commitments agreed by the two sides last December. They also adopted guidelines setting out the EU's approach to the framework for the future EU-UK relationship. As regards the withdrawal issues, EU leaders welcomed the agreement reached by negotiators on parts of the withdrawal agreement, including on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and the transition. However, they also underlined that work remained outstanding, including on Irish-specific issues. As the House is aware, the unique issues relating to Ireland are addressed in the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. Some progress was made on this draft protocol during the negotiations that immediately preceded the European Council in March.
Agreement was reached on some articles of the draft text, including the common travel area and other areas of North-South co-operation, as well as areas linked to the Good Friday Agreement. This is recorded in a colour-coded version of the draft withdrawal agreement published by the Commission task force on 19 March. The sections agreed by the two negotiating teams are marked in green, the sections agreed in principle are marked in yellow and the sections not yet agreed are marked in white. It is very clear now in the withdrawal document, which essentially will become a withdrawal treaty, what is agreed, what is agreed in principle but needs to be finalised in the wording, and the areas where there is no agreement and which require more negotiation.
Importantly, the UK agreed in March that a backstop solution for the Border will form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. The two negotiating teams agreed that this legally operable backstop will be in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December and that this backstop will apply "unless and until" another solution is agreed.
The UK has also agreed that all the issues identified in the EU text will be addressed to deliver a legally sound solution for the Border. For some, that progress was lost. We hear a debate now on whether we can accommodate the so-called Irish Border backstop in the withdrawal treaty, but that commitment has already been made and does not need to be made again. The question the negotiators are now grappling with is how to do that. How do we agree a text that both sides can support in the withdrawal agreement? As Michel Barnier said yesterday, there will be no withdrawal agreement without a text relating to the Irish Border backstop that is legally operable. I will discuss this further presently.
The Prime Minister, Mrs. May, confirmed these assurances in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March, which was part of a packaged deal at the time. This was in addition to reiterating the UK’s commitment to agreements reached last December on protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and sustaining the gains of the peace process. This also includes the overarching guarantee of avoiding a hard border. We have been clear at every stage that the backstop is only that, a fallback or insurance mechanism. In fact, David Davis referred to it as a spare parachute. While it is our preference to resolve issues relating to the Border through a comprehensive future relationship between the EU and the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The reason we want to have the backstop is to provide the reassurance that things cannot get worse than this, and then we go on to negotiate, we hope, something better that suits everybody.
The draft protocol and other outstanding withdrawal issues have been the subject of detailed negotiations between the EU and the UK since the March European Council, with the aim of closing the gaps that remain. These negotiations are ongoing and it is the European Council’s stated intention to return to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and to the framework for the future relationship at its next meeting in June. Some have suggested that setting targets for June is an artificial deadline, but it is not. June is specifically mentioned in the guideline document for the task force, in other words, its negotiating mandate, so we can assess progress as we move towards where we need to get to by the end of October next. The EU has also made it clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full.
In the last six weeks, I have met and discussed Brexit with my counterparts from Sweden, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Netherlands and Portugal, all of whom expressed their commitment to this principle and their continuing solidarity with Ireland. This support has always been forthcoming at every stage from Michel Barnier and his team, as we saw again yesterday. Ahead of that engagement, Mr. Barnier had set out his view, shared by the Irish Government, that we will need to see substantial progress on the Irish issues before the June European Council. This is a message that I have set out in very clear terms in recent engagements with British Government representatives too, along with my expectation for a significant increase in the pace of progress over the coming rounds of negotiations. Our teams in Dublin and Brussels are working daily with the task force led by Michel Barnier. We saw the fruits of that collaborative work in December and in March and I am confident it will drive us towards the end we need to reach both in June and, more importantly, in October. I am very grateful for the diligence and commitment the EU task force has shown in understanding the complexity and vulnerabilities of the Irish situation linked to Brexit.
As regards the EU’s approach to the framework for the future EU-UK relationship, the Government has always been clear that we want the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK. I welcome that this perspective is clearly reflected in the guidelines. It is envisaged that this future partnership will not only cover trade and economic co-operation, but will also encompass other areas such as the fight against terrorism and international crime, co-operation on environment and sustainability issues as well as security, defence, foreign policy and development aid.
With regard to the economic relationship, the European Council has confirmed its readiness to start work towards a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement. While a free trade agreement is not Ireland’s preferred end goal in the negotiations, we recognise that the European Council has to take into account the repeatedly stated positions of the UK, including its wish to leave the Single Market and customs union, which set limits on the depth of the future partnership. We want something much closer than a free trade agreement, if possible. It is not loo late for the UK to revisit its red lines on these options; indeed, we are hopeful that such a re-examination may yet take place. This is especially important because it is clear that being outside the customs union and the Single Market will inevitably lead to frictions in trade and will have negative economic consequences, in particular for the UK.
The EU guidelines are absolutely clear that the integrity and proper functioning of the Single Market must be upheld. The Government fully shares this view. A non-member of the Union, which does not live up to the obligations of membership, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits. In this context, it is important to note that the guidelines are also clear that, should the UK positions evolve, the EU will be prepared to reconsider its offer. This is vitally important from Ireland’s perspective. I must also stress that the agreement on a future relationship can only be finalised and concluded once the UK has become a third country, that is, after it leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. This is why a status quo transitional arrangement is so important, to give people time to adjust and to give politicians the time to negotiate a new relationship. For this reason we welcome that there has been conditional agreement between the EU and the UK on a transition period. Such an arrangement is essential for providing certainty to businesses and citizens, and for minimising unnecessary disruption.
In terms of the future relationship, the guidelines propose that a free trade agreement would cover all sectors and include zero tariffs on goods, and that it would also address trade in services. The proposed maintenance of reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources contained in the guidelines is also very welcome. The Government will continue to be firm in arguing that any agreement must protect key sectors of the Irish economy given the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and the importance of our economic relationship with the UK.
In parallel with our engagement with the negotiating process, the Government is also acting to ensure that Ireland is Brexit ready. Dedicated measures were announced in budget 2018, including a new €300 million Brexit loan scheme for businesses and a €25 million Brexit response loan scheme for the agrifood sector. This is in addition to supports for capital investment in the food industry and Bord Bia marketing and promotion activities, amounting to over €50 million in total.
The fund of €116 billion announced in Project 2040 for capital investment over the next decade will also allow the State and its agencies to properly plan major infrastructure projects which can accelerate economic growth and mitigate the impact of Brexit.
In my Department there has been a strong focus on extending our diplomatic reach with a view to helping Irish companies as they seek new markets in a post-Brexit world. Increased funds will allow for the opening of six new diplomatic missions over the year ahead as part of the first phase of expanding our global footprint.
At home and abroad, our Government's enterprise agencies continue to work with companies, helping them to deal with Brexit, making them more competitive, assessing opportunities for increased market exposure and upskilling teams. My Department is also leading an all-of-Government approach to contingency and scenario planning, including intensive work on a no-deal or worst-case scenario Brexit. Of course, work on a disorderly Brexit scenario is carried out very much in the spirit of "hoping for the best but planning for the worst". It is also the case that this work provides a baseline scenario for the impact of Brexit across all sectors, which can then be adapted as appropriate in light of developments in the EU-UK negotiations, including in respect of transition arrangements and the future relationship. This work is already well advanced and takes account of the extensive planning and outreach that has already been undertaken by individual Departments and agencies as well as by stakeholder organisations, academics and others. It also takes account of the work being undertaken at EU level by the Commission's new preparedness unit, which is issuing information notes aimed at different business sectors all the time.
The Government's engagement with stakeholders is significant in informing our approach to Brexit and taking advice and taking the temperature from different sectors all the time. My colleagues in government and I are in daily contact with individual companies as well as representative groups, whose valuable insights, analysis and expertise are critical to informing our approach to the EU-UK negotiations as well as our wider domestic response. It was encouraging this week to see the publication of a new IBEC report which confirms a dramatic increase in the number of companies now putting together Brexit plans or Brexit response plans. Over 20% of the companies polled already have a contingency plan in place, and 53% of the companies polled either had a plan in place or were in the process of preparing one. I think that if the same poll were to be carried out six months ago, the percentage of companies that were Brexit-ready or preparing to be so probably would have been in single figures.
The importance of this engagement with stakeholders was highlighted again just yesterday in Dundalk, where the perspectives of young people, civil society and the business community on a post-Brexit Ireland were debated and discussed in detail. Michel Barnier also had excellent engagement with a number of stakeholders, demonstrating once again the willingness of the EU to listen to the concerns of stakeholders here in Ireland.
We regret that Brexit is happening. We think it is a bad idea and a bad development for the European Union, a bad development for Britain and a bad development for Ireland. However, we must deal with the realities that unfold and respond and prepare accordingly. I assure the House that my Government colleagues and I will continue to work with both our EU and domestic partners, and indeed our friends in the UK, in the coming months to secure the best possible outcome for Ireland. In this respect, I welcome the continued support and engagement demonstrated by all parties in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Finally, since it is my first time in the Seanad since two new Members have joined, may I say how delighted I am to see Senator Anthony Lawlor back in the Houses of the Oireachtas? I know him well and I am delighted he has been successful in being elected to the Seanad. I think he will serve this House very well. I also welcome in particular Senator Ian Marshall to the House. In the context of the debate we are having today, I am sure he will bring a perspective and an understanding that we need to hear in the context of the solutions we find to Brexit. Many unionists in Northern Ireland whom I have met have real fears and concerns about proposed solutions to solve significant problems linked to Brexit, particularly in respect of the Irish Border issue. I think Senator Marshall's contribution will enhance not only this debate, but also many of the other debates we will have linked to Northern Ireland and relations on this island and between Britain and Ireland, which I intend to develop in a positive way during my time in this Ministry. I thank the Acting Chairman and I look forward to hearing the Senators' contributions.
I thank the Minister. This debate, I am told, must finish by 6.15 p.m., and the group spokespersons have eight minutes each, so we will keep strictly to the time to fit in as many contributions as we can. I call Senator Mark Daly.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House. I, too, welcome to the House Senator Ian Marshall, an important voice on Brexit. Arguing for the best deal for one's own community is the responsibility of all public representatives. We in Fianna Fáil have argued that Northern Ireland should get a special deal or a special status, a foot in both camps, which would mean it would have the best of both worlds. It is hard to understand why some members of the unionist community and those who represent them do not want the best of both worlds for their own community in order that they are able to access the best of the EU while remaining in the UK.
Be that as it may, the facts are hard to come by when it comes to Brexit. Take, for example, the facts, as we were led to believe, in respect of the Irish Border and the number of Border crossings. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency said there are 275 Border crossings between the North and the South of Ireland. Recently, the UK Government and the Irish Government agreed that there are only 203 Border crossings between the North-----
The figure is 208, actually.
I thank the Minister. Five are in dispute. However, this is just a small example of the fact that it is hard to get the facts. We have a border agency stating there are 275 crossings and the Irish and British Governments stating there are actually 208. This is just one problem, and there are a myriad of others.
The Minister has just referred to a poll stating that 20% of people or companies have a plan, or 63% have a plan or are preparing a plan. According to a survey done by AIB, just 6% of SMEs in the Republic have a formal plan for Brexit, but nothing-----
That was last November. The Senator needs an update.
Yes, but nothing speaks better than money. It speaks volumes that the Government is offering a grant to companies to draw up a plan. One hundred companies have drawn down the grant to draw up a plan, which shows that the figure of 6% is probably more accurate than the figure of 63%. If someone rings up a company and asks whether it is planning or preparing a plan, it would want to say it is preparing a plan. However, it does not sound as if they are preparing many plans when only 100 companies have drawn down the grant from Enterprise Ireland.
The Minister outlined in principle and in total what is agreed and matters that are yet to be agreed. Regarding the Border, are we still in the green area or are we marked in yellow or white, as per the colour coding of the draft withdrawal agreement? Regarding the backsliding, there is a concern about language. I would love to know which EU official came up with the phrase "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". We had all understood that until citizenship rights, the divorce payment and the issue of the Irish Border were agreed, nothing else could move forward. Now everything has moved forward, everything is rolled in together and "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".
My concern about this is that when it comes towards the end of the negotiations and our issue of the Border and the North is piled on top of all the other issues, the pressure will come on late at night to get the deal across the line and there will be a fudge. The last time there was a fudge on the Irish Border, it finished in a disgraced Boundary Commission in 1926 and in a complete debacle. At the same time there was a debate and a Treaty negotiation ongoing for weeks and weeks and, under high pressure, the issue of the Irish Border was kicked to a commission and was due to be resolved at some future date but never got resolved. That is one of our key concerns.
We are also looking for citizenship rights. We know the citizenship rights of UK citizens around Europe and EU citizens in the United Kingdom. What about the special rights of citizens in Northern Ireland, of both traditions, who are entitled to be EU citizens by virtue of the Good Friday Agreement? On this side of the House, we have spoken about employing a Nordic Council-style model in the future relationship between these islands. That, of course, is already provided for in part by the Good Friday Agreement, namely, in strand three mechanisms involving the British and Irish Governments. It could involve formalising, in a more structured way, the British-Irish Council and its meetings so it would yield tangible results and have considerably more powers than at present.
We must ensure a relaxing of state aid rules in light of the fact that the Republic will be the region of the island most affected by Brexit. The backsliding on the backstop by the British Government must be addressed. Our delegation to the House of Commons and the House of Lords was led by Senator Neale Richmond. One of the most startling documents we read in advance of the meeting concerns the House of Commons analysis of possible solutions for the Irish border. Mentioned are the "Boris border", the Canada-USA border and other solutions. Despite this, as I am sure the Minister is well aware, the House of Commons document contains no technological solutions other than theoretical ones, currently available anywhere in the world, that will keep the border open in circumstances other than those in which Northern Ireland remains in the customs union or Single Market. The frightening reality is that most British politicians do not understand that. They do not realise it or do not want to. I do not know how one can engage with them to a point where they actually do realise it and acknowledge the reality of what is involved in order to keep the border open in the way it is today, with its 203 crossings, 208 crossings or 275 crossings. I do not know how the EU border agency is going to take the fact that we have reduced the number of border crossings but the reality is that the British Government does not know what it wants. If one does not know what one wants, one does not know one's destination or how to get there.
While the transition arrangement is helpful, I have concerns. We are now in circumstances in which, ironically, the status quo in terms of the make-up of the current British Government is the best we could have at this time because the alternatives after an election, when Mrs. Theresa May gone, would be either a Brexiteer in charge of the Tory Party or Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, who is purging his own party, the Labour Party, of anybody who has any EU sympathies whatsoever. This would bring Mr. Corbyn to his goal, which is the nationalisation of everything in Britain. Once one is outside the European Union, one can do all those things but how he is going to pay for it, I do not know. We are actually dealing with the best British Government we could possibly have because the alternatives will be worse. The status quo will not remain for much longer, however. We are concerned on this side of the House over the backsliding by the British Government. I refer to its disagreeing with what it signed up to and we are anxious to have the arrangement formalised. If it is not, there can be no deal whatsoever.
It is now the turn of the Independent group. As Acting Chairman, I welcome Senator Ian Marshall. He spoke a couple of hours ago when he took his seat but now he is going to make history for the second time by making his maiden speech on the substantive debate on Brexit.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I welcome the Tánaiste to the House.
Unfortunately, time is running out and everybody is acutely aware that the clock is running. The huge chunk of time everyone felt we had is disappearing rapidly. The industry I come from and represent has studied and examined all the possible outcomes and solutions and the findings clearly indicate the agrifood industry will be disadvantaged or be in an undoubtedly worse position than if the United Kingdom remained in the European Union. There is some concern over the misunderstanding of some of the terms, one being "free trade agreement applies", the implication being that it does what it says on the tin. Actually, a free trade agreement is not that straightforward. It is a matter of inefficiencies and costs to businesses. There are huge concerns over an arrangement such as a free trade agreement.
Traditional arrangements and agreements are fine in the interim but very often prolong the uncertainty. Uncertainty is not good for businesses or industry and it results in an inability to plan for the future and invest, resulting in stagnation. That is a significant concern. As much as I am reassured that a Brexit-ready Ireland is a reality, I am seriously concerned that only 20% of businesses have engaged in or been proactive in considering their future outside the European Union. I am a glass-half-full person but it still means that 80% of businesses have not considered this. That is a concern.
I have concerns over the optics of the discussions and their current position. The reality is that a message is being peddled by the popular press, both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, that the position in Dublin and of the Irish Government is to fight against the United Kingdom and to try to be disruptive and create blockages and reasons deals cannot be struck. I would like the public to hear the truth that the Irish Government and European Union are working to try to solve problems. I do not believe Brexit should happen. I have strong opinions on that. I firmly believe that the message needs to be sent out that Ireland is working with the European Union and the United Kingdom to try to deliver some solutions.
Reference was made to the Border. A point was made that British politicians do not really understand the implications and significance of a border for businesses on both sides, across northern and southern Ireland. In all the discussions on the Border, everybody keeps referring to all the problems, and we go around in circles doing so. If we know the problems, we need to determine the solutions. I do not believe the solutions exist. We need to be open and transparent and man up to the fact that, at the minute, technology cannot deliver solutions for the Border.
With that as our starting point, we must decide what comes next.
There is a message we are missing because there is a notion, in a Northern Ireland context, that by leaving the European Union opportunities will open up within Great Britain. I refer to markets for industry, business, manufacturing, construction and so on. The reality is that these opportunities exist now. Why do we not capitalise on and maximise those opportunities now while we are still part of a big trading bloc? I see no reason the British Government or the Northern Ireland Executive would even consider life outside the European Union.
In times of global insecurity, taking into account the United States, Russia, China and Syria, serious concerns arise over the United Kingdom leaving Europe and becoming very exposed. Strength and unity, involving Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, are imperative. Even though the clock is running down, there is an opportunity to go back to the people in the United Kingdom and let them decide. Ultimately, it is the people who will be affected.
I, too, want to be associated with congratulating Senator Marshall on his election to the House. He brings a unique perspective.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I join others in welcoming Senator Ian Marshall and I thank him very much for his very considered contribution and the work he was doing outside this House prior to his election. I welcome Senator Anthony Lawlor on his return to the Oireachtas, where he will make so many contributions in his area of expertise, agriculture, and in other areas.
There is much that I would like to say but it is hard to sum up all the contributions I would like to make in eight minutes when it comes to Brexit. The first thing I have to say, however, is that Brexit is bad. There is absolutely no such thing as a good Brexit. Regardless of what is decided in October and regardless of what receives the assent of the European Parliament and the European Council and comes into force after the transition period, there is no such thing as a good Brexit. There is no such thing as a good Brexit for Ireland or a good Brexit for the wider European Union and there is certainly no such thing as a good Brexit for the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Putting all that aside, I commend the Tánaiste and his vast team in the Department of Foreign Affairs and throughout Government on the stellar work that has been carried out since the fateful decision of the British people to leave the EU to prepare Ireland and to work through the political and diplomatic process.
There are a few people who keep referring to Ireland and Europe and to Ireland and EU and who say that the EU is doing this or that on behalf of Ireland. It is very important that we recognise that, in this matter, we are Europe. Michel Barnier is not there to act as an honest broker, rather he is there to negotiate on behalf of this jurisdiction. Ireland is Europe. Our negotiator is Michel Barnier and the UK's negotiator is David Davis. Going by Mr. Barnier's statements yesterday in Dundalk, he is completely in line with everything the Irish Government has been saying over the past two years. That is no small achievement. If one looks at the 680 meetings which have been held at diplomatic and political level since 2016 between the Irish Government and all its counterparts in the remaining member states as well as officials of the EU institutions, it is a credit to the effort. The fact that Ireland has maintained itself as one of the top three priority issues for negotiation is quite remarkable. The internal preparedness which the Tánaiste has laid down is significant. It is very important that when we look at those preparations we look at what is happening now and at what will happen in due course. It was the iar-Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, who proposed the transition period to give business and society those 16 months until December 2020 and the end of the multi-annual framework to adjust and prepare for the finality of Brexit when we know what that will look like.
All that said, I am very worried about the tendency to knock everything. I expect that from the arch-Brexiteers in the UK who are living in an absolute fantasy land and who believe that the empire will rule supreme, that they can just leave, that they can punish little old Ireland ,and that Europeans and their German car companies will be queueing up to beg them to stay. I expect that from them and I expect it from the hard-line unionists, including those who resort to racist slurs as we saw yesterday, and those who are actually delighted by the prospect of a hard border and direct rule from Westminster, where they have a strong influence. I expect that, but I am starting to get very worried about some of the domestic knockers who now see Brexit as an opportunity to attack the Government and score petty political points. We have seen that over recent months.
We have seen certain people, including Border representatives, from certain parties call for that hard border and say that we need those checks for migration from the North. We have seen certain party leaders say that it is time we started negotiating directly with London. That is one of the most idiotic suggestions I have heard. Why would we give up the negotiating stance we gain from being part of the world's largest economic trading bloc comprising 480 million people in favour of a direct Dublin-London negotiation? Going down that route makes absolutely no sense in the short term and in the long term it would absolutely erode the serious solidarity which this Irish Government has built up in European circles. It makes no sense. We look at what has been done and what has been achieved domestically. It is very important to say what is being achieved here and now rather than resorting to reports in November, which are quite simply ancient history when it comes to the Brexit negotiations.
I know there are other comments which will come through. Some have said that we need to use this as the catalyst or opportunity to go for a united Ireland. The constitutional issue on this island has been agreed for the next generation and any premature move towards a Border poll or towards a united Ireland forced without consent would be a very dangerous path down to take. We have to be wary of our constraints and our responsibilities within the European Union when we talk about things like special status for regions and islands. Let us be aware of what we are; .we are part of the European Union, the most successful peace project in the history of mankind and something that has been wholly positive for Ireland in our short history since accession. We joined the EEC in 1977 wholly reliant on the United Kingdom, which accounted for 60% of our external exports. We stand here now faced with a very difficult decision, but the percentage of our external exports which go to the United Kingdom is down to 12% to 13%. That is an achievement of our membership of that European project. We are staying within that European project. It is the right decision, it is a forceful decision and it is about time some people realised that if one tries to play petty politics with Brexit, all one is doing is damaging the Ireland's case, the European Union's case and the people they represent in this House.
I welcome the Tánaiste back to the Chamber today and join others in welcoming Senator Marshall who has joined us here today. I thank him so much for his input today. I also thank the Tánaiste for his continued engagement with Seanad Éireann regarding Brexit, and particularly its impact on the North of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. We had a very positive debate marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement last month and in challenging times it is reassuring to know that everybody in this House appreciates just how important that agreement is and how we need to do everything in our power to protect it.
Brexit is posing huge challenges in that regard but it is important to give credit where credit is due and to recognise the leadership and real commitment the Tánaiste has shown on this issue. I was in Washington last week and, speaking with civil society leaders and members of the Irish community in the US, it really struck me just how much positive feedback and strong appreciation there was on how the Tánaiste, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Taoiseach are handling Brexit. It is important to mention that today. Everyone can see the amount of time and energy being put into it and the effort being made to mitigate against its worst effects. We do have strong debates and disagreements in this House but, on this particular issue, the Tánaiste really does have a broad level of support within the Oireachtas for the work he is doing. Party political disagreements just should not come into it and he needs to know he has our full backing in the negotiations. With March 2019 fast approaching, we must ensure that Ireland is prepared and united on this and I wish the Tánaiste well in the hard months to come.
In that sense I do not want to preach to the converted. We have outlined in detail just how important it is that we avoid a hard border, that we protect the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, and that we ensure people’s jobs and livelihoods are not lost to a hard Brexit. The Tánaiste know how vital these issues are already and they were outlined in detail by the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union last year, a committee of which I am proud to be a member. On that issue, I also want to pay tribute to Senator Neale Richmond who did a great job on the report.
Our report launched last July was comprehensive and offered more than 100 potential solutions cutting across a huge number of areas. One of my key priorities for that report was ensuring that the focus was not solely economic. That is really what I want to emphasise today. Brexit can have a hugely negative impact on trade and investment and that has rightly been a key concern for the Government, but it cannot be the only one. We have to ensure that citizens' rights and protections are not seen as merely fourth or fifth in a hierarchy of issues but are treated as equally as important as trade. On human rights, for example, Brexit is putting huge pressure on the Good Friday Agreement and the equality protections that are such an important part of it. When the agreement was signed 20 years ago, it saw the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into domestic law in the North. It is worth noting just how important this was in terms of prohibiting discrimination on multiple grounds, including "sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status". These are not just words on paper but concrete legal protections that can slowly but surely change people’s lives.
Similarly, in 2010, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights came into force and built on this further, offering improved protections on workers' rights, employment conditions, protections against unjust dismissal, access to healthcare, housing and social support, environmental standards, non-discrimination, gender equality and disability. However, Theresa May’s Conservative Party seems intent on repealing the Human Rights Act which underpins these protections. There was a fantastic legal report produced by a team of London-based lawyers which outlines the threat this poses for human rights in the North. The report states: "Brexit, on the current proposals of the UK Government, will weaken the protection of fundamental rights across the UK for both UK citizens and EU citizens." This is a huge concern and we must be absolutely clear in Dublin, London and Brussels that we cannot see any reduction of human rights standards in the North of Ireland. We must ensure that the protections currently available are upheld, that they are legally enforceable, and that they are equivalent to those enjoyed by those living South of the Border.
This important equivalence is the bedrock of peace. Brexit is not just about economics. It is about the basic conditions of life and the rights afforded to everyone living on this island, North and South.
Another matter that has been forgotten in much of the coverage so far is the importance of continued cross-Border co-operation on environmental protection. It seems possible that the UK may no longer be bound by key EU environmental directives after Brexit. There is a real uncertainty over the impact that could have. I have admired the work of my colleague, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, on this issue. It has been made clear that environmental issues transcend borders. There is a considerable overlap on issues like biodiversity, waterways and air quality. It we are serious about protecting our natural environment and climate, we need a co-ordinated, consistent approach across the whole island. Ireland is a single bio-geographic unit and Brexit will not change that simple, material fact.
I note that the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, has stated that the UK wants to remain a "leading actor" on climate change, but in this area in particular, actions speak louder than words. We need to ensure that this means no slipping in standards. I thank the Environmental Pillar for its great work in briefing the Seanad Brexit committee on this matter.
More attention needs to be paid to the role that EU funding has played in the North and the importance of maintaining it after March 2019. During our committee hearings, we heard from many different groups and communities. It was clear that many opportunities were being jeopardised by Brexit, particularly for young people. Students from Northern Ireland are concerned that they could be excluded from EU programmes like ERASMUS or that they could be asked to pay tuition fees of up to €20,000 to attend college in Ireland. They fear that they may not be eligible for SUSI grants, which are important for accessing education and making university possible for families on lower incomes. These may be minor details in the grand scheme of the negotiations but they are very important and can change people's lives. Similarly, we heard that researchers in Ireland had been awarded €386 million in EU funding as part of Horizon 2020, but there is major uncertainty about whether that scientific research will be jeopardised.
A matter that is extremely close to my heart is the provision of well-funded mental health services and community supports, especially in the North where such services are sorely needed. The EU-funded PEACE programme has provided more than €2.2 billion for cross-Border projects related to post-conflict recovery. This includes assisting victims and survivors, providing conflict resolution workshops, trauma counselling, dealing with post-conflict substance abuse and addressing barriers, both physical and non-physical, to acknowledging and dealing with past trauma fully. This sort of trauma carries a significant emotional weight. Unless it is properly addressed, it can do untold damage to families and communities. Despite the formal end to the conflict in the North, a substantial proportion of the adult population still suffers the adverse mental health effects of chronic trauma exposure. If Brexit means reduced EU funding, then public expenditure cuts could see the closure of vital services. We simply cannot allow that to happen. I want the British and Irish Governments to show a strong commitment on this and make firm promises that funding for individuals, families and communities will be maintained no matter what happens in March 2019.
I thank the Tánaiste again for his work and commitment on this matter and I urge him to keep the issues of human rights, environmental protection and mental health services at the forefront of his mind during the negotiations in the coming months.
Go raibh maith agat a Aire as a bheith linn arís don plé tábhachtach seo agus tréaslaím leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Black. Tá moladh tuillte ag an Aire ó thaobh teacht os ár gcomhair go mion minic chun na hábhar seo a phlé.
I agree with Senator Black's assertion that the Seanad welcomes the Minister's sustained engagement with it on this important issue. Members have shown a significant interest and are ready and willing to engage with him through our memberships of the Seanad and political parties or independently and stand up for Ireland's interests.
I agree with Senator Richmond's assertion that there is so much one could say about Brexit and its implications that an eight-minute slot does not afford one the opportunity to cover it all. Those implications will permeate negatively through all aspects of our lives in Ireland. However, I disagree with the Senator's statement on Irish reunification, as I have no doubt he would expect me to. I was attending the Good Friday Agreement committee when the Tánaiste asserted that he was a constitutional republican and wanted to see reunification in his political lifetime.
Ours is a broad church.
It is a perfectly legitimate and democratic aspiration, and one that is laid out in the Good Friday Agreement, which the Senator lauded, and Bunreacht na hÉireann, but sin scéal eile. I hope that we will have that debate on another day.
I wish to focus on citizens' rights in a post-Brexit scenario. I will raise a number of questions as well as a number of points in that regard. Where is annexe 1, the list of rights that the protocol stated would be produced? Will that list be signed off before the June Council meeting? I recognise that the Tánaiste and the EU have stated that they are in the midst of a negotiation but rights are a fundamental issue. People from the agricultural and business communities are concerned about what Brexit and any re-emergence of a border would have on their lives, but there are also fears about how people will access justice, their rights as workers, the European courts and their rights as Irish and EU citizens trapped against their will in a post-Brexit North.
In asking my questions, the Tánaiste will appreciate that my consistent position has not been to be combative or confrontational with him, but to ask them from a sincere and deep-rooted place, given the conversations and engagements that I have been having with people. To be fair to him, the Tánaiste has also had such engagements. Civic nationalism has certainly mobilised around the rights issue and has called on him and the Taoiseach to ensure that our rights as Irish citizens are fully protected as we move forward and that they do not become a high-wire act or 11th hour issue in the negotiations. They must be well resolved, well assured and well set in legal and political contexts before we move closer to the 11th hour. I also note and welcome the response from people within civic unionism who are keen to have that engagement with their nationalist counterparts and the Irish Government.
The Taoiseach stated that never again would an Irish Government abandon citizens North of the Border. With respect, it is time to put that assertion into action. I would be keen to hear from the Tánaiste where we stand in terms of annexe 1 and the list of rights, which we were told would be produced. When will it be produced?
The Tánaiste might not remember it, as he is a busy man, in which case I will give him a by-ball. At the same Good Friday Agreement committee meeting five months ago, I put to him a suggestion - he said he was open to it and would engage with his officials - about a dedicated citizenship hub, namely, a facility or outlet for citizens in the North to have a direct interface with the Irish Government and engage with it on rights issues, agricultural issues or, as Senator Black referenced, the rights and entitlements of students under various programmes. One of the main questions I am asked by pupils when I visit schools with my colleague, Ms Martina Anderson, MEP, is whether they will be able to attend Trinity or study Irish at NUI Galway. There is uncertainty about these matters. I can answer up to a point but, given his exchanges and engagements in the North, the Tánaiste appreciates the need for a dedicated resource that is open to citizens in order that a conduit through which to engage with the Irish Government and EU structures, the protection of rights and the ability to avail of information are afforded to us.
Mar fhocal scoir, I will finish by raising the issue of annexe 1. When will that be produced? The issue cannot be prolonged until the 11th hour. Moreover, does the Tánaiste have any feedback on the citizenship hub?
Before I call the next speaker, I note that I am conscious of time. I have to call the Minister at 6.09 p.m. and three Senators are willing to contribute. It is up to the House but if Senators can be as brief as possible I will accommodate all three Senators with approximately three minutes each.
I am happy to go along with that. Perhaps the Acting Chairman might indicate to me.
At the outset, I thank the Tánaiste for his attendance and for his continuing commitment to getting this process right. If it is difficult to make these points in eight minutes, it is more difficult in three but I will try. At the civic engagement yesterday, I was chatting to somebody about how the vast majority of the population of Europe now do not remember the Second World War, its horrors and all that went with it. That is a huge part of our difficulty. They do not see the need for this ongoing European peace project. That is particularly the case in the UK, though there are elements of it right across Europe. That is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy caused by a lack of memory. God knows it is difficult to get over that, but it is a problem.
I am happy that the common travel area is sorted and we have received a commitment on the backstop. I will read one sentence from paragraph 49 of the December agreement. It states, "In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement." That is a very unambiguous commitment. Similarly, Prime Minister Theresa May in March 2018 stated that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 must be protected in all its parts. Those commitments have been achieved. That is a huge achievement on the part of our diplomatic service, our permanent Civil Service and the Government. Two Governments, the last one and the current one, can take a bow for that. It is an enormous achievement, which I would love to discuss further.
I agree with the Tánaiste that the obvious preference is to achieve a comprehensive agreement that prevents the backstop, that is, one that removes the need for it. That is what we all want to achieve. The Tánaiste mentioned the customs union in that regard, and the need to ensure there are no customs barriers on the Border. I agree fully. I am sure that as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, he will have no difficulty with the view that we also need an agreement on alignment of standards. We need to prevent a situation where substandard food or improperly produced beef could come into our islands and could use that as a way of getting into the EU. It is important that we have an alignment of standards, as well as no customs duties.
In deference to the Acting Chairman's ambition to accommodate all the speakers, I will conclude by saying to the Tánaiste on behalf of the people of the Border area in Cavan and Monaghan that this is life-and-death stuff. The whole society depends on this. We want him to hold the line right up to the end. There must be no flinching on the hard Border, and if it comes to it, no matter what it takes, we want him to hold the line.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. I know he is under time pressure. It is rather unfortunate for such an important issue to be squeezed into such a short time. I know it is a special day for Senators Lawlor and Marshall, and I can appreciate that. I will not go over any of the previous items that have been mentioned by other speakers because of the amount of time available to me. I will ask a couple of questions of the Tánaiste. He said something I suppose we have all said when speaking about Brexit, that we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That is the phrase the Tánaiste used. With that in mind, what is the attitude of the EU if it were to be a hard Brexit, if the negotiations were to break down or if there could be no agreement? What plans have the EU put in place for Ireland? While Mr. Barnier and everybody who speaks are 100% on the Irish side and see the disaster a hard Brexit would be, what actions or contingency plans are being prepared on the European side in case it does happen? As the Tánaiste said, we have to plan for the worst, though we all hope for the best. If that were to happen, for the sake of the Irish economy and Irish society we would need to secure exemptions from state aid rules to support sectors which will be worst hit such as the agrifood sector, which is close to my own heart and is the area where I have the most interest and knowledge.
Such exemptions are part of every accession treaty, and I think they should also be part of the UK exit treaty. Behind the scenes, is the EU planning with Ireland for a worst-case scenario, and if not, why not? We have to plan for such an outcome. I know the Tánaiste is in the midst of negotiations, and it is important in most negotiations to hold one's cards close to one's chest in order that one's position is not public knowledge. The Tánaiste and the Government need to get out the message of the potential effects of a hard Brexit and of this not working out in the fashion we might all like. When one talks to people on the street on a daily basis as I do, one sees that there is an unbelievable number of people in every walk of life, including business, education, the medical sector or any profession, who say it still will not happen. They believe the British will back down at the 11th hour. I know and the Tánaiste knows that is probably not going to happen. People out there are in denial because they cannot see a solution. They say that the British are looking at the problem in a similar fashion; they cannot see a solution, so they will roll back at the 11th hour. We need to dispel that attitude among the people.
I will not delay the Minister, other than to say that every time I see him, the Taoiseach and the Minister of State on television, my confidence that they know what they are about grows. The job they are doing is exceptional. They are representing this country well and anywhere we travel we hear of the work they have done. However, it is not the members of the Government that bother me. It is those on the other side of the water that bother me. It is the UK. There seems to be a total lack of any coherent plan. I know I should not use the b-word, but I do not believe that a border will imposed by the European Union per se. However, I do not believe that the British are prepared to establish some way of managing traffic to and fro on the Northern side. This will eventually force us into a situation where a border exists, whether we like it or not. That is my fear. I know we do not like to talk about that, but it is my fear.
The problem is that we do not have the resources to manage any sort of border. We have a barracks in Donegal, a barracks in Dundalk and nothing in between. There are 208 crossings and 490 km of road. We do not want to go back to blasting unapproved roads. I hope, as my colleague has just said, that there are contingency plans in place and that we are thinking about the unthinkable. One of the things we might do is look at Mullingar barracks, and perhaps close its gates and have it ready in case it is needed. That would be one of the things I would suggest, but I can see the Minister smiling. I know why he is smiling but that is all right.
I thought Senator Craughwell would get the barracks in all right.
The bottom line on it is that I trust the Minister and his colleagues. I do not trust the other side. I would the Minister to consider those points.
I will now ask the Tánaiste to respond to the Senators. I note that we must conclude at 6.15 p.m. I hope the Tánaiste will make his points during that time.
I thank the Senators for their engagement. I am sure we will be talking about Brexit in this House again. I know there is a lot of interest in it, and indeed in other issues linked to Northern Ireland and our relationships on this island.
Of course there is an impatience for certainty in these negotiations. Often, when people speak about Brexit in this House or in the Dáil, there is a sense that no solution is possible because we do not have a solution now. This is arguably the most complex negotiation Ireland has been involved in in my lifetime when we consider the political circumstances we find ourselves in. We are trying to negotiate our closest neighbour leaving the European Union, along with part of our island. Britain will leave 750 international agreements the moment it leaves the European Union. This involves unwinding 46 years of membership and everything that has been built up, layer by layer, by virtue of EU membership. It involves trying to manage a situation where 38,000 Irish companies trade directly with Britain every single month. Some 200,000 people work for those 38,000 companies, which represents 10% of our workforce. There is a relationship worth €65 billion in terms of trade, which is €1.3 billion every single week. That is a large amount of money for 5 million people. Of course, factored into that is a commitment and determination to protect the Good Friday Agreement, put in place as a foundation for peace in Northern Ireland 20 years ago, which itself was a very complicated but hugely important framework for peace and reconciliation which allowed neighbours to live together in the absence of conflict and friction on this island. We have to protect that through all of these negotiations.
There is a different and somewhat confused political situation in Westminster, after a referendum on EU membership which resulted in a vote which was almost 50-50. Of course, a majority in Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, as was the case in Scotland, yet both of those places are leaving the EU because they are part of the broader United Kingdom. We have one party in Northern Ireland which is part of a confidence and supply agreement with the British Government, allowing it to pass legislation. We have an absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland during all of this, and we are trying to put that back together too. We are facing multiple challenges at the same time. We are trying to maintain relationships throughout all of this.
Ireland is determined to stay in the European Union as an active supporter of the project, and as part of a Single Market that has been so good for the Irish economy, while at the same time ensuring that our relationship with Britain remains closer than ever post-Brexit. There are more Irish-born people living in Britain than there are people living in Connaught, in case anyone is unclear about how interwoven this relationship is.
All of that complexity is part of what Ireland brings to this negotiation. Britain also has many other things to deal with besides the Irish issues. We have focused on building a solidarity on the Irish issues, and we should not forget the progress we have made. Ireland is at the centre of these negotiations. A relatively small EU member state is now probably more influential in these negotiations than any other member state in the European Union. Our relationship with Michel Barnier and his task force, which is negotiating on behalf of 27 countries, is very special. I am sure Mr. Barnier would not mind my saying that. We literally work with that team on a daily basis to try to figure out these issues.
I do not see this as Ireland versus Britain. We need to work with the United Kingdom to try to find a way forward to ensure that at the end of this process, we maintain the closest possible relationship with it that we can. Britain is going to be outside the EU, but will still be tied to Europe as a confidant in the future. That is the objective, and we have already succeeded in getting many of our specific Irish issues across the line. The preservation of the common travel area will allow students from Northern Ireland to come to Trinity and other universities in the future. There is much consensus that the Erasmus programme has to be maintained. We have consensus that PEACE funding has to be maintained into the future. We have a clear political commitment that there will be no border infrastructure of any kind and no related checks or controls. We also have an agreement that a backstop insurance mechanism will be put in place as a fall-back position if we cannot negotiate something better. I want to be clear; we do not want any border down the Irish Sea, in the same way that we do not want any border on the island of Ireland. It is not in Ireland's interest for that to happen. However, the current negotiating position of the British Government makes many of those things more difficult than they need to be. There is an acceptance that the next move on the Border issue is Britain's to make.
The progress of the negotiations will be assessed towards the end of June. I am optimistic and confident that we can find a way forward. While we will continue to prepare for the worst-case scenario - much of the contingency planning has been done - I believe we will make progress on citizens' rights issues. I also believe that we will see a list emerging in annexe 1; I am glad to say that there is goodwill in the effort to make that work from both sides. We can also find a way forward on the Border issue, but it will require a change of approach from the British negotiating team, and I hope that we see that soon.
I thank the Minister and the Seanadóirí. This is a topic we will revisit again.