I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She is always welcome. I wish to inform the House that following the Minister of State's opening remarks, group spokespersons will have a maximum of 12 minutes for their contributions and all other Senators will have eight minutes.
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019: Second Stage
Will we be getting copies of the Minister of State's speech?
Yes, copies will be distributed. Senator Norris is jumping the gun a bit today.
I hope he does not fall at the first fence.
It is now jumping season.
It is very hard to trip Senator Norris up. He is a seasoned campaigner. The Minister of State has the floor.
Brexit poses an unprecedented challenge for Ireland. The ongoing uncertainty we are facing only serves to increase the scale of this challenge as we prepare for several possible outcomes. The potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland would be severe. Negative impacts would be felt across a range of sectors of the economy, across our regions and by our consumers, farmers and fishermen. Our preparations, including through our legislative proposals, are focused on minimising these impacts. Our focus remains on ratifying the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, that has been agreed between the European Union and the United Kingdom because this remains the best way to ensure an orderly British exit. It would also allow us to move on to start work on the agreement that will frame our future relationship. The withdrawal agreement gets us to that next phase in the best way possible.
Managing a no-deal Brexit would be an exercise in damage limitation. It would be impossible in a no-deal scenario to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across the range of sectors which are, at the moment, facilitated by our common EU membership. Comprehensive, cross-government preparations were set out in the Government’s contingency action plan which was published on 19 December. This work continues on a daily basis at both national and EU levels. All Departments have sector-specific plans in place. These address key challenges arising from a no-deal Brexit and associated mitigation efforts. They include a range of measures such as the recruitment of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, officials, preparations at our ports and airports and a range of financial and advisory supports for businesses to help them to prepare for Brexit.
Our work at national level goes in tandem with the significant work under way across the EU to prepare for the UK’s possible departure without a deal on the 29 March. A no-deal scenario would be a lose-lose-lose scenario for the people of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the EU. The only place that can prevent this from happening is Westminster. In the context of tonight’s vote in Westminster, the outcome of last night's meeting in Strasbourg between President Juncker and Prime Minister May was very positive. It is our hope that the withdrawal agreement will now be endorsed by the House of Commons. Although we are seeing how things are progressing, it is still our hope that it will be endorsed by the House of Commons.
Ireland has insisted that the withdrawal agreement could not be rewritten and that the backstop arrangement, while intended to be temporary, must continue to apply unless and until it is replaced by future arrangements that can achieve the same objective, namely no hard border. We have, however, always said that we were willing to offer guarantees and further assurances to the UK. We have offered such assurances on a number of occasions. The instrument agreed yesterday puts those assurances on a legal footing and represents an unambiguous statement from both parties of what has been agreed. It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement. It does not undermine the backstop or its application. It says that we will work together in good faith in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures the objectives of the protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met.
Brexit will bring real changes for all of us. The Government has been working hard to ensure that Ireland is ready for the changes and challenges that Brexit brings. We continue to seek to mitigate, as far as possible, these impacts. With the impending approach of the Brexit deadline, we have had no choice in recent weeks but to ramp up our no-deal preparations, including bringing legislation before the Oireachtas. When the Government published the no-deal Brexit legislation on 22 February, the Tánaiste said he hoped that it would do no more than sit on the shelf of his office. That was and is my firm hope as well. That said, given the ongoing uncertainty we need to have this legislation in place.
The enactment of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019 has been given the highest priority by the Government and Oireachtas. The co-operation of all sides in the Oireachtas to work together to ensure that this legislation is in place before 29 March is very much appreciated, and clearly demonstrates the unity of purpose in our Parliament in our approach to Brexit. The Bill completed all stages in the Dáil on Wednesday 6 March following good and substantive discussions of all Parts. I want to put on record my appreciation of the co-operation of the Seanad in taking all Stages of the Bill this week. This will, undoubtedly, ensure that there is sufficient time for presidential signature and other commencement measures, as well as enabling us to put in place the necessary statutory instruments envisaged by the legislation.
The Bill covers in primary legislation the issues that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no-deal scenario, ensuring that key measures and protections are in place. It focuses on protecting our citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors that would be affected.
The Bill forms part of the extensive preparations that are under way across Government and across the EU. At EU level, 12 separate legislative proposals have been made as part of Brexit contingency preparations. They range from aviation connectivity to road freight connectivity and from dual-use goods to fishing authorisations. Ireland has engaged on the detail of what is proposed at EU level on contingency to ensure that our concerns are reflected in the proposals being taken forward.
Given the emergency nature of this legislation, the Government took the decision that progressing this through the Houses as an omnibus Bill was the most practical and sensible way to ensure that we have the necessary legislation enacted before 29 March or before that. The Bill contains 15 parts, addressing issues which require immediate primary legislation in a no-deal scenario. These have been identified following a detailed screening by all Departments of legislation currently in force. A range of issues will also be addressed by statutory instrument before 29 March. This work on statutory legislation is being taken forward by all Departments and co-ordinated by the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade.
While the Bill is primarily about preparations for a no-deal Brexit one measure, Part 15, deals with a time-sensitive issue that would arise should the withdrawal agreement be ratified. The Bill will make provision in domestic law for a transition period during which EU rules and regulations will continue to apply to the UK, even though it will be formally a third country. This transition period effectively maintains the status quo up to December 2020. It will allow for the negotiation of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, and provide certainty to citizens and business, as we continue our preparations for the new relationship with UK outside the EU.
The remainder of the Bill covers the areas in legislation that require immediate change in a no-deal scenario. Protecting and maintaining the common travel area, CTA, and the associated rights and privileges is a key part of our planning and preparations. This is vital in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as for broader lreland-UK relations. The Bill, therefore, includes measures to underpin the CTA to ensure that the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this longstanding arrangement will continue in any circumstance. In the area of health services, the Bill provides continuity for a range of existing healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK, once the UK leaves the EU. The Minister for Health will be provided with the power to make regulations in a number of matters, including to enable persons from Ireland to access healthcare in the UK. This seeks to ensure that insofar as possible there is minimum disruption to health services and that essential services are maintained on a cross-Border, all-island, and Ireland-UK basis. In the area of social protection, the Bill provides for the continued payment of a range of benefits, including old age pensions, illness benefits and child benefit. It ensures the recognition of contributions made when working in the UK, and access to social insurance payments. It is important that we ensure a seamless transition and existing payments are protected and maintained. The Bill also provides protection for workers whose UK-based employer becomes insolvent.
In the area of higher education, the Bill protects the continued mobility of students under the common travel area. It will allow for the student universal support Ireland, SUSI, grants to be paid to eligible Irish students studying in the UK, as well as to UK students in Irish higher education institutions. This provides certainty for Irish students studying, or considering studying, in the UK, and for UK students in Ireland. These measures protect and enhance the longstanding excellent co-operation and collaboration between higher education systems in Ireland and the UK. Having taken on board a Fianna Fáil amendment in the Dáil this Part of the Bill also now facilitates the continuation of the free fees initiative for third level students. It does this by ensuring that periods of UK residency and being a UK citizen count for eligibility for a student accessing the initiative. The Government is determined to maintain the strong co-operation with the UK in the area of law enforcement, particularly regarding Northern Ireland. The Bill includes provisions to ensure that justice and security co-operation with the UK, as a third country, can continue. It puts in place measures to apply the 1957 Council of Europe Convention on Extradition to the UK. This will ensure workable extradition arrangements are in place between ourselves and the UK. It also makes amendments to the Immigration Acts, which might otherwise expose the State to the risk that removals would be unsuccessful and undermine existing arrangements.
From the outset, the Government has made it a priority to minimise the impact of Brexit on North-South co-operation, and the all-island economy. The Bill addresses sectors where major challenges associated with a no-deal Brexit have been identified, including all-island transport, and energy. Provisions in transport will, on a precautionary basis, where other international measures are not agreed, protect cross-Border bus services, ensuring continued service provision for passengers and commuters on the island of Ireland. This covers compatibility with EU rules that govern services between a member state and a third country. The Bill enables the energy regulator to address possible issues arising from a no-deal Brexit, to maintain the operation of the single electricity market. Amendments to this part were agreed in the Dáil providing a basis for re-certification of companies and individuals working in the F-Gas sector in circumstances where the UK leaves with no deal on 29 March. The Bill also covers tax measures that seek to minimise the disruption to business operating cross-Border in the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit. On the capital acquisition tax, CAT, the Bill provides continuity in existing treatment that landowners who operate cross-Border will not be disadvantaged. On corporation tax, the Bill maintains current practice for tax treatment of certain transaction or corporate group structures. The part on taxation also now includes a number of measures relating to excise and the value added tax, VAT, retail export scheme. In practice, these measures give the Minister for Finance discretion to take a number of steps to control and minimise the scope for abuse of the VAT retail export scheme. In respect of duty free, the proposed measure is also a precautionary one that will be subject to activation by commencement order.
The Government and the Commission have paid particular attention to the impact of Brexit on Irish business in its contingency planning. Businesses and other affected areas need to respond and prepare themselves, and the Government is providing an array of supports and information measures to assist them. The Bill will now give Enterprise Ireland additional enabling power to further support businesses through widened investment, loans and research, development and innovation grants.
This is to further assist Irish businesses in remaining competitive and resilient in a no-deal Brexit context. This will maximise our capacity to support business in the face of what could be a difficult transition. The Bill also provides for continuity for financial services while the Irish market transitions to a new central securities depository provider. Other measures provide for a temporary run-off regime to protect Irish policy holders from continuity issues with their insurance contracts in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. The Bill includes provisions to introduce postponed accounting for VAT purposes in a no-deal scenario. This will alleviate the impact of a potential cash flow burden faced by businesses post Brexit. This is a practical measure which will support business. It was an issue highlighted by many involved in the industry.
The Government is determined to ensure Britain and Ireland will build and maintain their strong and special relationship. We are working together to develop that relationship and build new structures to do so, even as the debate on Brexit continues today at Westminster. As the Taoiseach said this morning, we should give MPs time and space to consider what is on the table. However, I again say Ireland’s future is in the European Union. As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I am determined, with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and all of our colleagues, to build and develop Ireland’s future as an active and committed member of the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union. There is no greater demonstration of the benefits of EU membership for a country like Ireland than in the unity and solidarity shown by our EU partners in the face of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal.
There is an old Chinese saying or blessing, "May you live in interesting times."
It is a curse.
We are certainly living in interesting political times, but they are also confusing and ever-changing. The Minister of State may have had to change her script two or three times in the past 24 hours, but we will certainly be very responsible in debating this important Bill and not say anything that will in any way set back the outcome for which we all hope and wish. Those on my side of the House wish Mrs. May the best of luck in her difficult task in the House of Commons this evening. The latest developments are certainly not very auspicious, but perhaps there might yet be another turn or two.
I warmly welcome and commend the Minister of State. Everybody in both Houses accepts that she has been exemplary in carrying out her duties in dealing with Brexit. It is a pleasure to say this to a Minister of State, rather than to attack them.
Particularly coming from a fishing specialist, it is quite an accolade.
It is better when it comes from the ranks in Tuscany. In respect of the entire body politic in this country, when the history books on this period are written - I am sure there will be loads of them - it will be found that the conduct of these Houses was exemplary across the board, in stark contrast to the mayhem in the mother of parliaments where those involved have let themselves down so often, but we will not comment further.
Last week I expressed my disappointment - I am voicing it again today - at the comment made by the Taoiseach. Admittedly, he was speaking to the party faithful at a convention. Therefore, we will allow a little licence. However, he said he did not believe my party was wholehearted in its support for the approach taken to Brexit. Nothing could be further from the truth and it bears repeating. My party has a proud history so far as the European Union is concerned. It was Jack Lynch and Paddy Hillery who signed us up, with Fine Gael, at a time when other parties represented in the House were vehemently opposed to Ireland joining the European Union, but they have now realised their mistake and are very anxious that we stay in it and that there is a good Brexit.
My party is disappointed that there will be so few sitting days before 29 March. As a consequence, we will not have as much time to scrutinise or analyse the Bill as we would wish. Other countries, including France and Netherlands, published their Brexit legislation months ago. We are behind the curve in planning for it.
Fianna Fáil intends to do all it can to facilitate the passage of the Bill through the House, having been passed expeditiously by the Dáil. We want to ensure this emergency legislation will be in place, should we require it. This morning I half thought that this debate would be entirely academic, that we would just have to go through the motions and pass the Bill, but it is now vitally important that it be passed because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.
The omnibus Bill is made up of 15 Parts which deal with matters within the remit of nine Ministers. Each part will be commenced by the individual Minister responsible at the appropriate time. My colleagues in the Seanad will take turns in the next few days to deal with matters in their areas, while my job is to look at the macro side. I will also conclude the debate at the end of the week. It is clear from the Bill that the industries and sectors most opposed to Brexit will need additional support and financial aid. Thousands of jobs are on the line and businesses and SMEs will need much greater support and assistance than the Government has offered to date. The time for waiting to see what will happen has long passed; we must stop talking and start doing. There is no room for complacency when it comes to safeguarding jobs.
Fianna Fáil is acutely aware of the impact Brexit will have on the country and the entire island. Given the uncertainty in the United Kingdom, it is in the national interest to provide stability and continue to facilitate the confidence and supply agreement. Many other parties have acted irresponsibly by looking for a snap election and repeatedly tabling motions of no confidence. They are entitled to do so, but that is the easy thing to do. My party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, has given unerring direction and shown courage in that regard. There are critics in our own ranks of the confidence and supply agreement, but any rational person knows that we would have been wrong and putting the party before the country if we had done anything else in the past couple of years, especially in the light of Brexit. Politicians tend to do such a thing from time to time and my party has made mistakes in the past, but I am proud to say that in this case we have made no mistakes and that my party leader has made no mistakes in that regard. He deserves a little more appreciation from the Taoiseach, rather than provocative and goading statements from time to time.
A no-deal Brexit would mean that on 29 March under EU law the status of the United Kingdom would change from being a member state to a third country, with no trade co-operation agreement in place. The transition period, as provided for in the withdrawal agreement, would not apply, the United Kingdom would be outside the Single Market and the customs union and it would no longer be part of the framework of EU law known as the EU acquis. Every effort must be made to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which would cause severe economic harm to Ireland. We hope there will be a no-deal Brexit. I assume the Minister will have more up-to-date information than I have. We cannot second-guess what will happen at Westminster this evening or tomorrow.
I think the Senator meant to say he hoped there would not be a no-deal Brexit.
Yes. We hope there will not be a no-deal Brexit.
The next question is whether there will be an extension and, if so, how long will it be. There is also the question of whether the European Union would want to see an extension, because at this stage the peoples of Europe are pretty much fatigued of Brexit to the point where they are switching off. They are asking if it will ever end. If there is to be an extension of the time limit, the period should be curtailed and based on positive proposals that could be looked at and worked on in the interim. There is no point continuing this non-stop, cliff-edge drama, moving from one crisis to another. We are in favour of the Bill and want to expedite its passage. The way in which Dáil Éireann concluded the debate at around 4 p.m. last Wednesday, while we were still toiling in the Upper House, was exemplary. We should follow its example.
As others have done, I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for the manner in which she has personally handled the issue, especially in the media and at the wrong end of probing questions from doubting and sometimes hostile interviewers from a neighbouring jurisdiction. She has remained calm, cool, objective and persuasive at all times. I agree with what has been said about her and add that her performances make one proud to be a Member of the Irish Parliament, compared with some other parliaments which I will not name.
Like everybody else in the House, I hope for a soft Brexit if there must be a Brexit. I regard Brexit as a disaster which should never have happened. Although one may look to the unity of the Tory Party through decades of hostile press treatment of the EU in Britain and to the cynicism with which a referendum was offered to the electorate as immediate causes for Brexit happening, it is a superficial understanding. One of the reasons Brexit took place was that a small minority in Europe continued to press a case for federalism against the wishes and inclinations of the great majority of the people of Europe. I recently noticed that the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, stated he was now combating negative nationalism throughout Europe, and he called for an increase in integration as the antidote to disintegration. It is not so simple, however, and he should ask himself why it was that the then French President, François Hollande, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the then Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, stood on an aircraft carrier deck on the island of Ventotene, off the coast of Italy, while Mr. Renzi announced that he would use Italy's six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union to pursue a United States of Europe. These people must take responsibilty for the reactions they provoked.
The same applies to the German Chancellor, Ms Merkel, whose handling of the immigration and refugee crisis in the context of the Syrian civil war was a mistake and produced a reaction in vast swathes of central Europe. The same also applies to those people who persist in pursuing the European super state, that is, the federal solution, when it is not a cause which carries the support of a majority in any member state of the European Union, all the way from Germany to Greece to Ireland. This concept of Europe is producing a reaction. What is wrong with Europe as it is? Why must we constantly create this kind of false struggle between scepticism on the one hand and federalism on the other, when the great majority of the peoples of the European member states have a different vision of Europe in which it is a partnership of sovereign states which pool their sovereignty to some extent but retain it for other purposes? This tragedy has been visited on us not merely by reactionary elements in Britain and by negative elements of British politics. The counterbalance and necessary condition for that was the constant reference to an ever closer Union and to federalist proposals such as a European army and so on, which were anathema to the great majority of the British people. Having said that, given that the British people have voted to leave the European Union in a referendum offered to them, if the British Parliament is determined to implement that referendum's outcome, it is in our clear interest that it should be as soft a Brexit as possible.
That applies no matter what way one looks at the issue. In that malign scenario, the deal which Prime Minister May has negotiated seems to be the best of a bad lot, which should attract our support. In that sense, I wish her every good fortune in her parliamentary struggles but it is really the lesser of two evils and I believe that the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a disaster for many reasons, especially for this country. Now we come to what is happening in Westminster today. I share with the Minister, Senator Ned O'Sullivan and nearly everybody in this House the view that we should still hope that the worst will not happen and that a no-deal Brexit will not arise out of the parliamentary process in Westminster. The obvious way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to accept the deal that is on offer. Listening to DUP spokesmen, however, especially to the contribution of Nigel Dodds in the House of Commons, it became clear to me that there is very little appetite for Prime Minister May's deal on those benches.
They have said "No".
They have said "No".
They have said "No", so that is it. Looking, as I did earlier, at the opinion given by the Attorney General, Mr. Cox, it became clear that this scenario was about to evolve. This means that, on the face of it, although we can hope for the triumph of hope over experience, the realistic view is that she will lose the substantive motion and we will then go into the uncharted territory of hoping that there is a majority in the House of Commons for the rejection of a no-deal outcome, which I confidently believe is the case unless it is interfered with by partisan politics. The cross-party view in Westminster is that there should not be a no-deal exit.
If such a resolution is passed, one is then left with the question as to where the House of Commons goes to from there and what we can expect from that. The obvious next step is to seek a postponement of Article 50 in some shape or form. One thing we have to bear in mind was that Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday, in the clearest possible terms, not to come back seeking an amendment or to renegotiate anything. We face a serious situation. If it is the European Union's position not to signal that further concessions are available to the European Research Group and the DUP, which I think is the correct position, we are depending on the emergence of a cross-party consensus within the House of Commons to reject a no-deal exit. That is a precarious hope on which so many of our fortunes will depend.
I support this Bill as a fire brigade measure, which is necessary. I believed, like Senator Ned O'Sullivan, over the last few weeks that it would be a theoretical exercise. It is now becoming far less theoretical and far more realistic that this legislation may be needed. For there to be something in place before 29 March, I believe these Houses should co-operate with the Government in passing this legislation without further delay or complication.
I accept that it only addresses the immediate potential adverse consequences of a no-deal exit. I am taking it on faith that the Government has done the minimal job necessary to protect us from major negative outcomes of a no-deal Brexit. Further refining legislation may be required to deal with issues that simply have not been dealt with in this legislation, but I hope that is not the case. If it is, we should give the Government the support it will need in introducing further legislation if it is absolutely necessary.
This is a sad day for Ireland and I am not making a point about Sinn Féin because it is pointless in doing so. It is a sad day that no one is speaking in the halls of Westminster for the majority of people in Northern Ireland. They deserve to have a voice and the people in the rest of the United Kingdom deserve to hear it in the clearest and strongest way possible.
I do not believe the members of the European Research Group, ERG, really care about Northern Ireland. I do not believe their concern about the union is valid. Even if there were differential treatment, for the purposes of the European Union, between the two parts of the United Kingdom - Northern Ireland and the island of Britain - I do not believe it would weaken the union. However, I strongly believe the motivation of ERG members has been much more complex and slightly more devious than has been generally accepted. They want the next best thing to a no-deal Brexit because they want to have a World Trade Organization or Canada-type scenario and know that the situation in Northern Ireland is an obstacle to it.
In their contributions in public Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Pattel have said Britain should be willing to use potential damage to this country as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. If we were to abandon the backstop and allow the next phase of negotiations to proceed, I have no doubt that that card would be played repeatedly to receive concessions, weaken the resolve of our partners in the European Union in the transition phase negotiations and put us in a progressively weaker position in upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
I admire the Government's stance, of which I am totally supportive. I particularly admire the Minister of State's personal contribution to the debate. This House has shown itself to be conscientious and responsible. We established our Brexit committee. I commend Senator Richmond on his work as chairman of it. We have done our best to try to be constructive, but the time is coming for us to be realistic. On this occasion realism comes down to this. It is unlikely that the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, will get her deal through. It is possible that there will be a resolution in the House of Commons against a no-deal solution. It is also possible that there will be a postponement of Article 50, but in view of the position taken by President Junker and the clear statement that effectively there is nothing further to be discussed in regard to the withdrawal agreement, we should not be under any illusion that it will be anything more than a mere postponement.
We should be very clear in our diplomacy and in what we say that those who are doing so much damage potentially to this island by attempting to bring about a no-deal solution should be identified and should take responsibility.
It is customary to welcome a Minister to the House but, for once, I am disappointed to see the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. That is nothing personal. It is simply because while this legislation is necessary and while I welcome it, it is so utterly bad and disappointing that we have come to this stage that I struggle for once to welcome her. I hope she does not take it personally.
This is emergency legislation of the most base nature. The fact we are even at this stage having to discuss it is a damning indictment of the British political system. It is a reflection on the maturity of the Irish political system and the wider European political system that we are hoping for the best still, with less than 17 days or just over 400 hours to go. I have gone from counting in days to hours. However, unfortunately, we are in the position where we need to plan for the worst. Let us be under no illusion that this emergency legislation is planning for the worst. It is literally about keeping the trains running and keeping the lights on. It is not something that is workable, that is a sunnier upland pasture or that I would ever like anyone to want as a policy direction. Unfortunately, there are those who do want this as a policy direction but, thankfully, they are not in this Chamber.
I welcome the fact this legislation came through the Dáil so swiftly. I would like to address a few points raised by other speakers or which may be raised later. I acknowledge some 30 amendments have been put down by Sinn Féin. I will likely disagree with most of them based on their relevance at this stage or possibly with the policy thereafter, but we will have that discussion in a frank manner on Committee Stage, no doubt, or my colleagues will do so on a sectoral basis. I hope we can move this legislation amendment-free or without contested amendments in order that we can get it in place as quickly as possible.
In terms of the timing, when the European Commission published its no-deal notification in December, it allowed the Government to produce this exhaustive piece of legislation on foot of the European recommendations but also on foot of what is needed. When I say "Government" in this regard, I do not necessarily refer to the Minister of State, the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach but rather to the officials and the diplomats who have worked so terribly hard and so thoroughly.
I have to take issue with a number of the points made by Senator Ned O'Sullivan, although I do not know if he is making them personally. When we look at the European comparisons and say the French and the Dutch have already completed this, in fact, not everything is the same. We hear Fianna Fáil say the Dutch have hired their customs officials but they have not because they are not at that point. Continuing to say that and having the Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson continue to say it, is grossly inappropriate and should be stopped. We will have 429 customs officials in place by 29 March as needed, and a further 171 will come thereafter to allow for a total of 600. We will have the veterinary officials in place. The Dutch and the French have not published legislation in any detail that is comparable with this and they have allowed their European Ministers to act by decree.
If the Senator would like to give the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, or the Tánaiste those powers, I would welcome it. However, I acknowledge that with 49 Deputies out of 158, that probably is not going to happen in the current Dáil, let alone given the Seanad arithmetic. We need to be accurate. The Polish Government has not even produced its legislation yet and it is not available for public consumption. I can go through every single member state, if Senator Ned O'Sullivan would like, and tell him exactly where the no-deal planning and preparation is for each one. Regardless, we have to remember that the member states that will be most impacted by any kind of Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, are Ireland and thereafter the Dutch, the Belgians and the Danes and perhaps the large economies of Germany and France. However, it is completely inappropriate to compare the no-deal preparations of Estonia with Ireland. It is unfair political point-scoring. We talk about political point-scoring and Senator Ned O'Sullivan has rightly asked for-----
Senator Richmond is doing some of it himself.
I am not necessarily saying it is pointless. This is the whole argument.
It is a pity it is the most partisan element.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan rightly credits Deputy Micheál Martin with some very impressive decisions and I acknowledge his very important and welcome contribution to the debate.
However, I must question whether it was appropriate for one of Senator Ned O'Sullivan's colleagues to go out this morning and question something without any legal basis, namely, the agreement made last night or to make light of a picture outside a rugby match at this most serious time in the Brexit debate. What was the relevance of that? Perhaps the Senator will provide that in due course.
A lot of people did not like the rugby picture.
Senator O'Sullivan, you had the opportunity to make your contribution.
With regard to Senator McDowell's comments, I do not know what the obvious next steps are and I doubt that anybody does. The person who really does not know what they are is Theresa May, nor do any members of her Government or any of the Members of Parliament in Westminster. I could probably spend 45 minutes discussing what might happen later today or tomorrow, whether they will vote against a no-deal Brexit or if there will be an extension. Ultimately, however, our responsibility is to this island, to pass this legislation and to continue our ratification process.
I believe EU reform is needed but the Senator and I have a difference of opinion on where the EU should go, and we have shared many platforms. Ultimately, the EU must reform to stop the next exit of one of the other 27 member states. That might just be a reform of communication skills or starting to reach out more to the populace. I hope this legislation will not be needed and is not enacted, that it simply sits in a drawer in a desk until the last minute and is not necessary. We would love to have more time but I believe it was delayed deliberately to allow the preparation and the process to continue as well as possible.
Senator McDowell rightly spoke about the focus on no deal and the desires of the ERG. I agree. I do not believe the ERG acts in the interests of Northern Ireland or of the peace on this island, but I do not believe the DUP acts that way either. When one looks at the DUP's record in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and some of the contributions made by its spokespersons either in the Houses of Parliament or on broadcast media, particularly in this jurisdiction, one must question what it wants for the people of this island, North and South, post Brexit. What does it want for the farmers who will not be able to get goods to the market or the business people who will not be able to trade with the rest of the world, let alone their nearest neighbour, or the people who will be unable to feed their families and will face the absolute deprivation that a no-deal scenario will offer the ordinary people of this island and of Great Britain? Be under no illusion about the absolute charlatans who push for no deal, the disaster capitalists on the fringe of a certain fringe element of certain political parties in the United Kingdom. I question whether they care for anybody at all. We are faced with a nefarious element in Westminster that is pushing something that is unfathomable for this island and for its own, and that is why we are in this position.
Unfortunately, we must pass extremely regrettable legislation. We can hope it does not come into force but we must pass it. We need the support of this House, as we had the support of the Dáil. Let us get it through in time and let us see what comes next out of London. However, we should be under no illusion. There are no negotiations. They ended in November and this Government and the Oireachtas are trying to do the best for this island, and will continue to do so. The best situation, of course, is that there is no Brexit, but we have no control over that. The next best is to make sure we get a withdrawal agreement to allow a managed Brexit. There is no such thing as a managed no deal; it is merely a form of words. A no-deal scenario is like removing the roof from a house and replacing it with a sheet of paper. That is where we are.
The situation is not of our making and is not our decision, but we can do our best to prepare for it. Ultimately, no country in the EU will be able to prepare fully for a no-deal Brexit but we are making the best effort to prepare in the best way possible. I have no doubt that if a no-deal Brexit were to occur, further legislation and actions will be required but those discussions are for another day. I sincerely hope we are never obliged to have those discussions. Unfortunately, in the 419 hours to go to Brexit, we must act prudently for this island and the Union. I have become something of a late-night addict to BBC Parliament. I wish I did not have to watch it as much as I do, but that is where we are.
I commend this Bill to the House and I commend the Minister of State's statement. I look forward to us completing this by teatime tomorrow at the latest.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Mar an gcéanna le roinnt mhaith de na cainteoirí eile, cuirim fáilte roimpi agus gabhaim buíochas léi as an obair atá déanta aici ar an gceist seo go dtí seo.
I echo the words of commendation for the Minister of State and her steadfast leadership on this issue, but we are not done yet. I know that she acknowledges, understands and appreciates this better than most. I wish her and the Government well in the eleventh hour work that must be done in the next while because it is of such crucial national importance and will have an impact on every facet and aspect of Irish life. There is no corner of this island that will not be touched negatively as a result of Britain's decision to leave the European Union. As has been touched on, in typical and, as some would say, predictable fashion, this afternoon the DUP has stated "No". While not entirely surprising, what should give the Minister of State and her Government colleagues strength and focus is the fact that Ulster has not said "No". A majority of people in the North voted to remain and, according to all of the latest opinion polls which I am sure the Government has studied carefully, their support for remaining in the European Union has not just stayed the same but actually increased. They do not want this reckless Brexit inflicted on the North against the will of its people. As others have acknowledged, none of us wants to be here and I am sure that includes the Minister of State. None of us wants to have to deal with this legislation, but it is work of last resort. We are where we are in that regard.
On amendments to the Bill, Sinn Féin has sought to amend it with sincerity, in good faith and the spirit of co-operation we have all brought to this issue in the past two years. As everyone here acknowledges, the withdrawal agreement must be legally sound and binding. It must remain unaltered. The backstop - the bare minimum insurance policy - must also remain unchanged and uncompromised. It is our view that last night's events have not changed the legal position on the withdrawal agreement, as endorsed by the Oireachtas in November. Our ultimate backstop is the Good Friday Agreement. We must forever be alert to the further jeopardy Brexit and the actions of the British Parliament might inflict on the agreement which must be protected in all of its parts.
This is a time of great and deep uncertainty. People are very concerned. I am concerned, not just as a politician and someone who is privileged to serve in this House but also as a cross-Border worker. I am concerned as an Irish citizen who will, like hundreds of thousands of others, be trapped in a post-Brexit scenario against our will. I note the Minister of State's remarks about the common travel area and rights in that regard continuing to be upheld. However, we must acknowledge, even before Brexit, that Irish citizens in the North are being taken to court by the British Home Office by dint of their asserting their right under the Good Friday Agreement to be Irish. With the greatest of respect and full awareness of the importance of tempering our remarks, we need to get real on the citizenship issue. That is why some of the proposed Committee Stage amendments are of such crucial importance in asserting, fulfilling and living up to our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. To those who claim the British Government is serious about upholding the Good Friday Agreement in a post-Brexit scenario, I suggest it is not upholding it now as Irish citizens are being taken to court by the British Home Office for merely wanting to exercise the democratic right afforded to them under the agreement.
I will not prolong this process as we must get this legislation passed in these Houses. While I accept that there will be differences of opinion on our amendments, Sinn Féin will work collaboratively, in the best interests of the Irish people, North and South, with Government colleagues and colleagues in all parties and none in this House. I accept Senator McDowell's word when he says he was not having a go at Sinn Féin. I believe him when he says that. However, it is worth stating ever increasing numbers of people are turning away from Westminster and looking to institutions on this island and in Brussels because they accept that Westminster, as has been proved, is not serving their interests.
Westminster is not working for their betterment, their well-being or their welfare. It is entirely right and within the context of the Good Friday Agreement that people would look once again to Ireland to serve Irish interests, North and South. Let us forget about whether or not Sinn Féin takes its seats in Westminster: we have had that argument many times. The North has just been denied two European Parliament seats, so we have lost that voice also. We do not have the ability to have our MPs speaking in these Houses, which is another opportunity lost to us. Citizens are deeply concerned, which we discovered last week when the Brexit committee visited Belfast. I hope that this will go some way to reassuring them.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the Chamber. I do not believe that any of us can say we welcome the legislation to the House, despite its obvious importance. We are in a remarkable and unusual situation where there is a high degree of support in the Dáil and the Seanad for a Bill that none of us ever wants to see enacted. We are dealing with emergency legislation that aims to protect, to a certain extent, against the worst effects of a hard Brexit. We are trying to maintain seamless co-operation in case the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 29 March. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, the Tánaiste and the officials who have worked so hard to produce the Bill before us today. I truly hope it will never be enacted. That is just the way it is. It is a strange time to be debating this Bill, given that all eyes today are on Westminster and how the UK Parliament will vote this evening. We are, as we have been for many months, ultimately waiting to see what the UK will do. We have worked for two years to put a deal on the table that can avoid a hard border in Ireland, but despite the best efforts over the past few days, it is hard to be optimistic about tonight's events.
We are trying to balance the need for a legally-binding backstop with assurances to the UK over its concerns on the length and content of the backstop. The advice from the UK's Attorney General today, and the reaction of many MPs, seem to suggest that it may not be enough. In an almost impossible situation, it seems that constructive ambiguity over the legal character of the backstop may only go so far. The core substance of the insurance policy to prevent a hard border on this island remains the same, and rightly so. It is essential for peace and prosperity.
On whether this Bill will need to be enacted, it also seems possible that if the deal is not agreed tonight, the UK may seek an extension to buy more time. This seems preferable to a devastating no-deal Brexit on 29 March but I am not convinced about what can change with an extension, apart from us repeating this process in two or three months’ time. The Bill is trying to prepare for such a scenario and to maintain seamless co-operation as much as possible. The sad reality is that current arrangements have allowed for this co-operation and the UK is very close to walking away from it.
The Brexiteer extremists who led this process did not care one bit about the North and their efforts in recent months have only reinforced that. It barely registered in the campaign as they fought for an exit from the EU at all costs, and they seem happy to play with peace on this island. It is truly shameful. Brexiteers can pursue their tragic, imperial delusions safe in the knowledge that their investments, their property portfolios and so on will be fine. They may even see a tidy profit. The daily lives of average citizens across the UK and across this island are merely collateral damage. It is a shameful attitude. In that context, the Bill is sadly necessary and outlines efforts to deal with practical, everyday issues such as the provision of electricity, education, healthcare, our harbours and so on. We are trying to maintain the status quo.
I acknowledge the work done by the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and so many Departments to get this legislation ready. A huge amount of work has gone into producing the Bill and it is not taken for granted. Alongside the diplomatic efforts it has taken a huge amount of time and resources in recent months. Much of it is understandably focused on trade but I am glad that areas like social protection, in section 11, are included. I think of the people relying on State support, worried about how a no-deal Brexit might up-end that, and we need to ensure that they are looked after.
We also need to recognise that this Bill is largely a first attempt in an emergency situation and to a certain extent it is the bare minimum. There are much bigger and more fundamental issues that are not covered in this legislation. If the withdrawal agreement is not passed and a no-deal Brexit comes about, we will need to have the more serious conversations to which the Government has referred in recent weeks. We will need to have those conversations in the Oireachtas and in our communities but also with the UK and the EU about how we can avoid a hard border on this island. This is not something the Government can fix by way of primary legislation days before the 29 March deadline. It emphasises that the emergency measures before us today are minimal. If it is a no-deal scenario, and I dearly hope it is not, we will be back in this Chamber very soon debating and trying to work out much more fundamental issues. The UK will be obliged to comply with World Trade Organisation, WTO, rules and Ireland will be obliged to comply with EU and WTO rules. An external frontier of the EU could run across this island, and we are going to be asked how we can protect the integrity of the EU's Single Market. It makes the threat of a hard border very real. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and in all our work, at every hearing, at every meeting, in every written submission, it has been made crystal clear just how important it is to avoid a hard border. Members of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union were in Belfast last week and it was very powerful to listen to people and to hear their anxiety.
I acknowledge this is a goal shared by everyone in this House, and I have continually recognised the hard work that has been done to have that reflected in the backstop. In its work, the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, hears about this constantly from business representatives, professionals and legal experts. We also hear it from community groups and individuals, and their fear and anxiety are very apparent. People are scared about the economic, political and social impact that a hard Brexit and a hard border could have, and they do not see the plan to avoid it if the current withdrawal agreement is not accepted. Diplomatically, we have been trying to square a circle, and people want to know what plan B is if this does not work. At the moment, we do not have an answer for them, and it is causing huge anxiety.
Professor Colin Harvey of Queen's University, Belfast, gave a fantastic presentation to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality recently on citizens' fundamental rights. He asked what rights he will have as an Irish citizen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He produced his Irish passport from his pocket and asked the committee to tell him what that document really means and stands for. It is a good question and one being asked with increasing regularity by Irish citizens in the North. They will remain EU citizens after Brexit, but they will not be able to vote in European elections and as such, will have no formal representation in the EU's democratic structures. These are fundamental issues that remain unsolved, despite the common sense and practical measures proposed in the Bill. I am not laying the blame at the feet of the Government and I recognise the difficult situation we are in but this is not something about which we can be complacent. I appreciate that, for obvious diplomatic reasons, we have been careful in how we discuss what plan B is, choosing instead to emphasise the importance of a legally-binding backstop but we are getting to the point where the Government needs to tell people what plans are being made for the possibility that no agreement is reached. It is not enough to say we are not planning for a hard border. The point may arrive sooner than we would like where we are going to have to ask how. If we work through the implications of the different scenarios, it seems obvious to me that a no-deal Brexit and pressure to enforce a hard border on this island are going to put a border poll on the table. I fully understand the need to be sensitive on this but it is not inflammatory to say that a no-deal Brexit significantly increases the possibility that it could happen at some point in the coming years. I have made this point to the Tánaiste. It is something we have to and need to talk about, in a manner that includes everyone on this island, and demonstrates a generosity of spirit and respect for diversity. We need to be able to speak openly and carefully about what a border poll would mean in practice. If people may be asked to vote on reunification, we need to be able to discuss what that would mean economically, politically, socially, and culturally, for everyone in Ireland. Brexit itself should offer a warning of what can happen when one plunges head first into a referendum without proper discussion, care, consideration and planning beforehand. We need to be willing to have these conversations.
That is all I am asking. We have to start having those conversations and not be afraid of them. For today, I offer my full support for the legislation and commend the Government and so many Departments for preparing it. I dearly hope it will never be enacted. All eyes will be on Westminster tonight. It is also clear to me that we may need to come back to this Chamber very soon to work out a plan B well beyond what is contained in the Bill. Those conversations may be more difficult but we need to face them with bravery, honesty and courage.
I am sharing time with Senator Norris. I welcome the Minister of State and commend her for her steady and calm handling of this issue. I commend her officials and the Tánaiste also. We have had a very co-operative and collaborative approach in both Houses and everybody has worked with the Government in a constructive fashion on seeking a way through this disaster. I think we all agree that Brexit is a disaster. A no-deal Brexit is a disaster compounded and squared. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly likely that this is what we are facing now.
Others have pointed out how time moves on in politics. A week may be a long time but this morning, two hours was a long time. At 10 a.m. it seemed as if the new joint instrument and the declaration might be enough to overturn that 230 vote majority against the withdrawal agreement on a previous occasion in Westminster. However, by 12 noon, the British Attorney General, in the devastating final paragraph of his legal advice, appeared to have scuppered it. Now the DUP has said it will vote against it, not just abstain, as have the other hard-line Tories. It is extraordinary. When one reads this short legal opinion of only 19 paragraphs, in fact, the other paragraphs seem to be leading to a different conclusion. Paragraph 14, for example, suggests that the joint instrument and declaration provide a substantive and binding reinforcement of the legal rights available to the UK in the event that the EU were to fail in its duties of good faith and best endeavours. There was an alternative reading. Paragraph 19 seems to me to sit oddly with the rest of the opinion. In any case, it is done now.
Certainly, that is not the only piece of bad news. Within the last hour, Nissan has announced that it will stop manufacturing a particular model of car in Sunderland. We are going to see a lot more of this fall-out from Brexit. The only positive one can draw from the likely defeat of the withdrawal agreement tonight in Westminster, if that vote goes ahead, is that it could trigger a second referendum in which remaining was one option and an orderly exit was the other. That is the only positive development. There is a way to that, through the amendment that is to be put forward next week by the Labour Party backbench MPs, Kyle and Wilson. I think that vote will still go ahead. It is hard to see how they would get to a majority, however. Theresa May has said she will put the vote on a no-deal Brexit to the House of Commons tomorrow but if the majority rejects that, it means the majority will have rejected everything put to it. We have not seen a majority for anything. A majority may, indeed, vote for an extension to Article 50 but the other 27 member states need to sign up to that. The Tánaiste was on his feet a few minutes ago in the Dáil saying that Ireland would not stand in the way of an extension if the UK does seek one. However, the UK would need to give a reason in order to be seeking an extension with any real prospect of agreement from the other member states.
Some senior Tories are suggesting that the only likely outcome tonight is going to be a general election in Britain. That would certainly be a reason to extend Article 50. Perhaps at this point it is the best scenario for Ireland. It is very difficult to see any positive way through. One would have to agree with the analysis of 43 former British ambassadors speaking a month ago, who talked about the fiasco of Brexit and the national crisis. If a general election were called, it is not even clear what the manifestos of the Labour Party or the Tories would be. I speak as a Labour Party member here, and we have done all we can to seek to influence our colleagues in the British Labour Party to take a clearer stance in support of "Remain".
I hope that will come through more clearly in light of recent developments. There is a powerful cross-party movement in Britain for a second referendum and a people's vote. This is the only light that can be seen at the moment.
The Bill before us is a complex Bill, which we all hope will not be needed. Deputy Joan Burton called it a "just-in-case Bill". My Labour Party colleagues and I will support the Bill in a constructive spirit. We recognise that it is necessary to pass it but we hope it will not be necessary to implement it.
There are three issues of concern. First is the constitutional issue which my colleague and party leader, Deputy Howlin, raised in the Dáil. There is concern around whether section 4 of the Bill overreaches the power of delegation of legislation and whether the Bill purports to give Ministers power, effectively, to amend primary legislation in a way contrary to Article 15 of the Constitution, as well as case law such as the Laurentiu case and the Mulcreevy case of 2004. We can tease that issue out more effectively on Committee Stage but there is a concern that the power to delegate is too broadly stated and would replace the power to make primary legislation. The Minister said secondary legislation was in preparation but we need to make sure we do not fall foul of our Constitution in framing secondary legislation.
Deputy Howlin also raised questions about tax arrangements and pointed out that Part 6 might appear to give preferential tax treatment to the UK, which would be in breach of our obligations under the GATT treaty and the normal WTO rules. I will raise this again on Committee Stage.
Finally, in the context of immigration, how will Brexit impact on the rights of non-EEA family members of British citizens currently resident in Ireland? This has been raised with me and may have been raised with other colleagues so I will seek clarification of that on Committee Stage. We will reluctantly be supporting this Bill on a cross-party basis.
For the first time, I understand the attitude of General de Gaulle when Britain applied for membership. He saw how difficult and awkward a member Britain would prove to be. We are in a catastrophic situation because party interests were put ahead of national interests and it is a disgrace to politics that this was allowed to happen in Britain. The other night, I listened to a Tory MP who said it was like they were in the jungle or the rainforest, hacking their way through but not knowing the direction in which they were going and feeling they were going around in circles. That is exactly what is happening here. Mr. Cox is a rather unsuitable person for this role and he would be more at home playing "Rumpole of the Bailey" with his jokes about his codpiece and other things. This is an intensely serious and potentially catastrophic situation and the dimensions of his codpiece are of no relevance or significance.
The Bill is a portmanteau Bill. It is coming very late in the day, with two weeks to go until Brexit, but it is here. I wonder what has been left out and I am quite certain we will discover that some things have been left out. It is inevitable and I am not blaming anybody. As a result of Mr. Cox's statement to the House of Commons, I believe he has sunk Theresa May's deal and that is a very good thing. I am very pleased because it was a half measure. We do not want a deal and we do not want Britain to be out of the European Union but to stay in it.
I see Mrs. May's deal being voted down and the no-deal scenario also being voted down, following which they will look for an extension. I hope that will lead to a second referendum in which the remainers will be victorious. That is problematic, however, and may not happen.
If the British vote a second time for Brexit, there we are and we then will be stuck with it. I hope that there will be a second referendum. There would be nothing more democratic and the nonsense that it is not democratic is an utter lie. There are difficulties with the time extension, however, because if the UK is given an additional 21 months, we will pass right through the time for holding the European Parliament elections. What will happen then? Will British candidates stand for election? I do not know. It is yet another complete mess.
I listened with interest to Senator Richmond's contribution but I regret that he introduced a partisan note. It is exactly what happened in Britain and we are in the mess we are in because people played party politics with issues of prime national importance. The Senator stated there is no such thing as a managed no-deal. In that case, what are we doing here today? The Bill is an attempt by the Government to manage a no-deal-----
Contingency planning is very different from management.
We are wasting our time if there is no such thing as a managed no-deal. I believe that there will not be a no-deal situation but the Government is right to consider it because serious issues are involved. There are the questions of aviation connectivity and road freight connectivity. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, predicted that flights throughout Europe would stop. While that is unlikely, it is a frightening prospect. A strike in France resulted in a line of lorries 17 miles long, which is what we can look forward to. The landbridge in Britain will be absolutely landmined if that country leaves without a deal.
The common travel area is extremely important, as the Minister of State noted, and I join my colleagues in complimenting her. The attitude of some British politicians has been disgraceful. There was an idea that a second famine could be visited on this country. Have they no shame, no sense of history and no sense of what a humanitarian disaster the Famine was? It is shocking to think about revisiting it. While it is true that we must maintain the common travel area, it predates the EU and, therefore, should be saved for historic reasons. We have had it since 1922 and we cannot possibly go back on it.
There is also the issue of health services. It is obvious that patients in County Donegal, for example, need to go to hospital in County Derry rather than coming all the way round, hour after hour, in an ambulance to Dublin. Of course we must keep these ideas. Old age pensions, illness benefit and child benefit must immediately be put on track because people on the margins depend on these services and if their payments are held up, they will be in real trouble. There was a reference to free fees but that is a load of rubbish. There is no such thing as free fees. One either pays fees or the education is free.
I acknowledge that the Government has introduced supports, on which I compliment it, but while I have listened to advertisements on the radio, I note that many firms, particularly small and medium enterprises, have not yet signed up to a no-deal Brexit programme. The financial services is one area in which there is no doubt that we can benefit and it is a plus for Ireland. More than 200 financial services firms have decided to relocate from London and more than half of them are coming to Dublin, which is a tribute to the financial genius of the city of Dublin and the country of Ireland. Out of the disaster of Brexit, if we can take one crumb of comfort, it is that this area will be protected and developed. I look forward to it developing in a very positive manner.
I join in the welcome to my neighbour, the Minister of State, and the general commendation of her great work and tenacity in this area. It is becoming more problematic by the hour but if the vote is not won tonight, we all have to hope that a crash-out, no-deal Brexit will be ruled out tomorrow. That has to be the next best hope if the vote fails tonight. At that point, the onus remains on us, as is the objective of today's legislation, which I support, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and all its elements, and to protect as much co-operation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland as is conceivably possible. There is a commitment in the protocol to the protection of the agreement. There is also a commitment to the common travel area and various bilateral arrangements but this will hopefully actualise those. Fundamental rights are guaranteed in the protocol.
If there is a crash-out, Ireland and the EU will have a responsibility to protect the Single Market and customs union. The UK will be affected by the requirements of the WTO. All of those situations will have to be considered by respective governments. It was clear in last night's commitments and from talk in this House and elsewhere that the backstop is not intended as a threat to the UK. It is purely, as has been well plotted out, an insurance policy. There are sinister elements in the UK and, tragically, on this land, who are trying to misconstrue that. Let us call a spade a spade, since people are debating this question whose particular personal and family circumstances are such that they, their offspring or extended families could never be affected by the outcome, even if it was negative. They are insulated by considerable wealth and that makes their behaviour all the more reprehensible and unacceptable.
I would like to once again take a cursory look at the implications of a no-deal Brexit. That is a malign scenario that none of us wants. I do not believe it will arise because tomorrow will prevent that, and it will play out quite differently. None of us wants to contemplate that and nobody here seriously believes that will happen. There are a few stark statistics. Out of our entire export of services from this island, worth €101 billion, 18%, or approximately €18 billion, goes to the UK. Of €112 billion of goods exported from this island, €15.6 billion or 13.9% goes to the UK. Meat or beef comprises €1.9 billion, dairy products, €800 million and pharmaceuticals, €1.5 billion in trade between here and the UK. Visits from the UK comprise 41% of trips to Ireland. Those implications are national and I gather that it would take €1 billion out of the agriculture industry immediately.
I ask Members to contemplate the horrific implications for the Border region. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is acutely familiar with a region bordering her own home, in Cavan-Monaghan, and along the Border. The implications are beyond horrendous because of the many trading links and the passage of goods, North and South. There is a matter my good friend, Senator Richmond, had to listen to repeatedly when I went to London and which I cite as a classic example.
In Bailieborough, the small town in which I live, Lakeland Dairies provides approximately 300 jobs. Some 56% of its milk is sourced north of the Border. Were there to be a hard Brexit, that would have to be processed in the new LacPatrick Dairies arrangement north of the Border. The locks could be put on the town of Bailieborough if Lakeland Dairies were removed from it. This is just one typical example which repeats itself in every village and town along the Border with various trading links involving the cattle industry, the milk industry, the pig industry where pigs are going North to be processed, Carton Brothers in Shercock, etc. The implications in that area are enormous. It merits repeating that it is our responsibility to try to avoid it and we are collectively doing our best.
We have achieved a few good things. The European Commission has announced an increased in the ceiling for national support to farmers from €15,000 to €25,000. That progress is to be applauded. It will be necessary in all scenarios and particularly in the bad ones. This year's budget allocated €78 million to protect business against Brexit. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has spearheaded a getting-Brexit-ready information campaign across the country with 2,500 people having availed of the expertise there. Revenue has engaged with 80,000 businesses on their customs obligations.
The Bill makes a number of provisions. It provides for health services operating North and South across the Border, with paediatrics coming to Dublin, etc. That is an important sphere. The single electricity market remains important and is protected by this legislation. Student grants and student exchanges from one country to the other are covered. Pensions are critical. I know many people living on a UK pension, including a first cousin of mine. It is so important that those are provided for.
In summary I would make a few points.
We need to continue working for a seamless border. Along with the support of all parties in the Oireachtas, it is a great tribute to our embassy staff and our Ministers that solidarity with us has held across Europe. We need to continue that solidarity to hold while-----
I thank the Senator.
-----working in every conceivable way to get a benign deal across the line. Of course, we would all dearly love to see this decision rescinded through a referendum, however remote a possibility that might seem at the moment. It is a bad day. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, but we need to try to make the best of a very difficult situation.
Language is important and we have all learned a new language during the past two years of negotiations. There is a dangerous air of the unknown about the coming weeks and months. The language used last night in Strasbourg has made things considerably less clear regarding the withdrawal agreement or any changes to the backstop. We still await a vote in the UK House of Commons tonight and a further vote tomorrow. We still have no idea what a disorderly Brexit might be like. We have no idea how anything will be until 30 March, which is troubling. We must, therefore, prepare for a massive unknown.
I know all of us here want the same. We all want to avoid disruption and unnecessary arguments. However, we all need to be clear that we need to ensure we have made preparations just in case. Although there has been some speed here, it is disappointing that there are only five sitting days until 29 March and thus no time to properly scrutinise or analyse the Bill to ensure it is as robust as it should be.
Other countries such as France and the Netherlands published their Brexit legislation months ago. We, who have such an interest, should have had ours done some time ago.
As the time is now, however, it is right and proper that we debate this single omnibus Bill made up of 15 Parts relating to matters within the remit of nine Ministers. I am heartened to see the strong co-operation across the House to move the Bill forward. I commend the civil servants and staff of each of the Ministers on the important and technical job they have done. Fianna Fáil will do all it can to facilitate the passage of this Bill and to ensure this emergency legislation is in place as required. The Bill prioritises issues we need to urgently address but, unfortunately, it cannot fully protect us from the havoc a no-deal Brexit would wreak on our trading relationship with the UK, our all-island economy and the peace process.
It is clear that, in addition to this Bill, the industries and sectors most exposed to Brexit need additional support and financial aid. Thousands of jobs are on the line and businesses and SMEs need much greater support and assistance than the Government has offered to date. The time for waiting and seeing what happens has long passed. There is no room for complacency when it comes to safeguarding jobs and our economic prosperity. The Bill, which would reduce the possibility of a serious disturbance in the economy of the State and the sound functioning of a number of market sectors and fields of State as a result of a disorderly Brexit is, therefore, urgent and most important.
Some 100 years ago, our founding fathers and mothers fought for a better future and we must fight for a better future for all - the future that our ancestors wished for. It is vital that we have a proper plan. Historically, we have not been great at master plans. We learn as we go and, as a nation, we behave as if we have not been here for a long time. We deny our true strengths. We should be incredibly proud of our unique position in Europe as the only nation formed in the aftermath of the First World War with a continuous 100 years of parliamentary diplomacy, without occupation or dictatorship.
As friends of the UK, we must allow for space but, by the same token, we must protect ourselves. Yes, we are protected by our friends in Europe but there are worrying times ahead, politically and economically. I am concerned about the small details. I am certain everyone who has worked on this has tried to think of all the scenarios but there are always situations where unintended consequences arise out of the best plans. No matter what happens in the days to come, I am deeply concerned about the added pressures on the housing stock, as well as the potential for huge barriers to trade and tariffs on goods. I worry about the disruption of the supply chain of materials needed for construction and the knock-on effect of increased costs and delays in construction. Anything which may impact on the delivery of housing, public or private, or potential additional demands on the current housing stock is a massive cause for concern. What are the financial implications arising from the Bill if additional money is required and where will it come from? The haulage industry still has no clarity on the situation with regard to non-Irish drivers needing to cross the landbridge. Drivers are still confused about what will be required of them should they venture to Northern Ireland in their own cars.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have jointly leveraged Exchequer funding to create a €300 million loan scheme for businesses impacted by Brexit, with 40% of the funding ring-fenced for the food sector. However, the latest parliamentary question replies released show that out of 42 eligible applications from food companies, just eight were approved for finance under this loan scheme. The Minister of State should address this point. Shockingly, this means just one in five eligible loan applications for the sector have actually been approved for funding worth €3.8 million. Worse still, this equates to just over 1% of the total €300 million loan scheme having been approved for food companies so far.
Worryingly, we are over two and a half years on from the Brexit referendum and the Government continues to refuse to request at EU level the temporary relaxation of state aid competition rules in order to ready grant support schemes to safeguard exposed Irish export enterprises and jobs that will be impacted by a hard Brexit. Fianna Fáil has consistently called for an enterprise stabilisation fund and employment support scheme to be made available to the worst affected firms as a policy response to protect from the impact of a hard Brexit.
An incredible amount of issues would be worsened in the event of a crash-out Brexit. This Bill prepares us for many things, but not for everything. We cannot legislate for everything so we must see the Bill as the beginning. We will learn a great deal from these uncertain times but I believe we will be scarred by this lesson. This is very important for Ireland and our economy. We need more information and there must be more awareness. Numerous people and businesses have come to my clinics to ask me what we are doing. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify some of those issues.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the House for what is a sad but important debate on the Bill before us. These are grave and serious political times. They cause a huge weight of concern for our citizens, both North and South. It reminds me of just over ten years ago when we were legislating for the bailout, the upheaval of that time, the consequences that followed and the concerns of our citizens then. There is similar uncertainty now regarding the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the potential damage it could inflict on our citizens and economy. This has the potential to reach all levels of society in a negative way.
I commend the Minister of State on the manner in which she has engaged with our EU partners and dealt with this very difficult issue to date. I note how she built solid support from our EU partners across the EU. She has also dealt with sometimes hostile and unreasonable comment and argument in respect of Brexit and the Irish position. I also wish to commend the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the diplomatic corps in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the work they have done in protecting Ireland's interests in these difficult negotiations.
This is a tragic political time. It is a no-win scenario for the UK, Ireland and the EU regardless of the outcome, but we must do all in our power to mitigate the consequences. It undoubtedly will have a deep impact on the UK and its citizens and, sadly, on Ireland's citizens too. It is like witnessing a slow car crash, which is tragic. I recognise the solidarity shown by our EU partners. This is not an accident but is a result of the intense engagement of our Ministers, who continue to work on building understanding and support for the Irish position. It is a fact that many of our citizens, both North and South, are fearful about the uncertainty, consequences and impact of Brexit. There is uncertainty about the impact on trade and the possibility of tariffs, the impact on jobs and businesses and the impact on lifestyle standards and choices, travel and education. There are also obvious concerns about the Border region, as we have heard from colleagues.
We are an island nation and we must not forget that. We are depending on our EU partners and, indeed, the UK for trade and interconnectivity on many levels. I come from the south east and there is deep concern in that region and in Waterford. It has a strong agrifood sector that relies heavily on exports to, and trade with, the UK. Companies such as Glanbia, Dawn Meats Group Limited and many others, as well as the thousands of people in farm families, the primary producers, are depending on as good and positive an outcome as possible. It is critical that we continue to support the Government as it continues on this difficult path. It is also critical that the European Commission stands by Ireland and puts the necessary supports and contingency arrangements in place to provide for all eventualities and mitigate against the damage.
Today is a significant day in the House of Commons. I wish the MPs the very best in their deliberations and decisions today. There is fading hope for a majority to accept the deal and there are concerns about the support that is required if it is not passed today. It will leave a no-deal scenario, which is high risk and has major consequences for all. As a politician, however, I still retain hope that politics can find a solution. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Constituents and citizens depend on leadership from their representatives, both in the UK and Ireland. Sadly, it has been lacking so far in the UK but we retain hope that they will find a solution. I acknowledge the role of the Opposition in Ireland, including Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the Independents, in facilitating this Bill.
I want to emphasise that we can do without political point-scoring at this very critical stage.
There is a very noticeable void in the House of Commons in terms of representing the nationalist voice of Northern Ireland. It is a shame that all we are hearing is the amplified voice of the DUP. That party is actually ignoring its own constituents and the concerns being raised by unionist business men and women and by unionist farmers regarding a no-deal Brexit. All we are hearing from the DUP are narrow, single-minded, party-political arguments that are of grave concern to all. The DUP is putting polarising political views ahead of the genuine concerns of citizens. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and the vast majority voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. It is critical that their views are reflected in the debate and that the Good Friday Agreement is upheld. We simply cannot afford to go back to the dark days of the past. It is essential that we uphold the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a priority for the Irish Government and the Irish people. It is also important that we find a workable future relationship with the UK, as our nearest neighbour. We must continue to listen to and advocate for citizens in Northern Ireland who are genuinely concerned and fearful of the consequences of Brexit. As the Taoiseach has said, they cannot be left behind.
We are debating this Bill reluctantly in this House today. We hope that the Opposition will support us in our efforts to have it passed efficiently and effectively. It is not a Bill that anyone here wants to see implemented, as many have said already. This is a very distressing period, given the uncertainty that the British vote to leave the EU has caused. I am glad that the common travel area will be protected. This is a long-standing agreement between the UK and Ireland and its maintenance is something that the Irish Government set as one of its key objectives at the very outset. I wish this Bill well as it passes through the House. It is a Bill of last resort which puts in place provisions to mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences for Ireland and the UK of a no-deal Brexit.
I wish the Minister of State well in her ongoing engagements with our EU partners, the UK and other stakeholders. She has the support of Fine Gael and everyone in this House.
I want to start today by acknowledging the faceless people behind this Bill, the public servants who have worked tirelessly to bring it forward and who have supported the Minister of State and her Government colleagues in their work in Europe. The Minister of State, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, the Taoiseach and the Government must be commended on their steadfast support for the view that this country's interests come first. They have missed no opportunity to drive that forward.
This is a Bill of last resort. We all hoped that we would not get to this stage but we are here now. We could criticise things and suggest that things have been missed but that is not why we are here now. We are here to support the Government and get this Bill through. I know many Irish people in the UK who are deeply concerned about how Brexit will impact them. I also have many friends and colleagues in the North of Ireland who are very concerned, particularly small business owners who are unsure as to whether they should move to the Republic in order to maintain those businesses. I am thinking about them today.
The divisive people in the UK, particularly at Westminster, and some in this country who would want to see this all go wrong need to step back a little. I have no doubt that the work that the Government has done will ensure that, as far as possible, we will be supported by Europe if a no-deal scenario emerges but the UK will suffer badly. Our brothers and sisters in the North of Ireland who are depending on an all-island solution will suffer badly.
I wish to express my gratitude to the Minister of State, the Government and to departmental officials for the work they have done.
I assure the Minister of State that, in every way I can, I will support this Bill. It is too easy for people to stand up and score points against the Government. This is not the time for that. I have no doubt that plenty of other opportunities to do that will arise in the future but this is not one of them.
I am deeply concerned that people in this House and this country have some notion that there will be another referendum in the UK and they will realise they made a mistake and everything will be hunky-dory again. I think we misinterpret the British people and the way they will react. I am fearful of another referendum right now. I would like to see a period of stability that would allow people to take stock of where they are and, if a call for an extension comes, it should last long enough to allow people to sit down and consider where they are.
The advice of the UK Attorney General today has been anything but helpful. I respect his independence in the advice he has given but it is anything but helpful.
My colleague, Senator Coffey, referred to the almost incredible influence of the DUP over this entire process. They are a small group of people who are influencing it badly. They are also bringing other people from the unionist community who are involved in politics into the same sort of Brexit-or-die area. It is sad that we do not have a republican voice in Westminster today to speak for the 56% of people in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU but we are where we are and I respect the right of political parties to do what they believe is right and what they believe they have a mandate for. I am not going to criticise anybody.
All of us in the Houses of the Oireachtas in Leinster House need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government to face down whatever is coming our way. I wish the Minister of State well as she goes forward in this.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important debate. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, on the role she has played since her appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs in building relationships and forging alliances across the European continent.
I also commend the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, on his stewardship and sure-footed handling of matters. Those who criticised the choreographic nature of a photograph last Sunday misunderstand the importance of forging relationships, making friendships and being informed.
I am taken by the fact that we are in the middle of Storm Gareth. I have often wondered, in the course of the Brexit debate, what influence the late Garret FitzGerald could have brought to the whole debate. He was a very pro-European leader of the Fine Gael Party and it is fair to say that the stormy weather of Brexit is something we must overcome.
We debated the future of Europe last week and the need to reflect upon the reasons and rationale for why a plurality of the UK voted to leave. It is incumbent on all of us who are pro-European and want Ireland to be at the centre and heart of Europe and have that key influential voice to reflect upon why the British people voted to leave.
That said, I hope the Bill before us today is one we never will have to implement and put into practice. Senator Coffey touched quite eloquently on the fact that this is about the movement of people, the freedom to trade, the importance of the 32-county island of Ireland and how our people move, interact and engage. It is equally about the place of the North in a future Europe.
We have heard a lot of commentary from many voices in Westminster today. There seems to be a lack of political leadership and courage by some in the UK.
I noted the comments of the UK Attorney General, Mr. Cox, that the text agreed last night did not go far enough. What has changed from last night? We have given the UK an opportunity to leave and Michel Barnier and his team deserve our praise and thanks for that. The responses of the DUP, the ERG and others suggest that the withdrawal agreement will be defeated tonight. As Senator Richmond has often said, there is no good Brexit outcome, no matter what happens.
It mystifies me as to why parliamentarians across the water are gambling with the future not just of their own people but also intrinsically the people of Ireland and the European project itself. That is a worry.
We appointed a Seanad committee at the beginning of the Brexit debate and I commend Senator Richmond for his chairmanship of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It is fair to say that the Senator has grown in stature as part of this debate and his sure-footed chairing of the committee and articulation of the Irish argument is to be commended. I say that genuinely and not patronisingly. At a time of noise and heat from the cauldron of Westminster, it is refreshing to have calm and collected voices on this side.
It is also important to recognise that, arising from Brexit, we must work on the centrality of the importance of our future relationship with the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the difficulties we are now encountering, they are our closest neighbours. Six parts of this island are part of the UK. We want to continue with a Border through which we can come and go. Equally, we need to continue our trade relationships with the UK. As the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, said in her speech ancillary parts such as Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants, travel and medicine mean that it is important we continue an all-island approach.
The Government has always been about avoiding a hard border and protecting our interests. We can say it is regrettable that there is no Irish voice in Westminster but, in saying that, the Government has sought to build new relationships around Europe, North America and to forge other new alliances. That will be necessary no matter what happens on 29 March or in the event of an Article 50 delay.
Is the solution to keep Northern Ireland closely aligned to EU trade that bad? The people in the North voted to stay. What has the DUP to fear? Relationships have been built since the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews declaration. We would all prefer if there was a Government in action in the North but that is a different matter. Today is about giving assurances to those people who are worried. We have entered into this as a country and Government in good faith all the time. It is critical, arising from today, that this relationship is maintained. Ireland has been very clear that its purpose has been the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the withdrawal agreement that was signed and agreed between the EU and the British Government. There has been no second-guessing, hiding or obfuscation. Equally, Michel Barnier has demonstrated that he has been trying to find a way through.
I praise the Taoiseach for the work he has done. People are quick to criticise and talk about his comments on the Border commitments being bulletproof and whatever but there has been no change since the press conference at which he said that.
I thank the Government for the work it has done. I hope our colleagues at Westminster will have the sense to vote to accept the deal tonight in order that we can all plan for the future and protect citizens.
I welcome the Minister of State. We hope against hope that much of this legislation will not be needed, but there are stark lessons to be learned. It is not acceptable for the DUP and the ERG to hold a country to ransom and it should prompt further thinking about our relationship with the United Kingdom as good neighbours and whom we leave in control of our destiny. It speaks to the fact that we need to consider holding a referendum on Irish unity. This is not a party political issue but an issue for citizens. There is an onus on every citizen to look at how we can govern ourselves to avoid being held to ransom by such groups which have not just ignored the nationalist or republican population of the North but also unionist businesses, agriculture, families and all other constituents.
Reference was made to the abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin. It is the policy for which our supporters in the North voted. The Tory Government and the DUP should heed the fact that the majority in the North voted to remain within the European Union. The Union has a responsibility to play a part in shaping our future and dealing with the constitutional issue with which we are faced. At all times, Sinn Féin has sought to be constructive at MEP and MP level and also in the Oireachtas. We have played our part in every way we can. We supported the Government when we thought it was right to so do. We have contributed to critical analysis, including of the European Union. It is important that that analysis continue far beyond the withdrawal agreement. From the beginning, we have stated the North needs special status within the European Union and that need holds firm today. The backstop is of vital importance as insurance or a guarantee in the hope it will never have to be used, but it must retain its integrity. It is astounding that the British Prime Minister sought an agreement from the European Union last night without first discussing it with and having it approved by her Attorney General.
Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill. However, as evidenced by the number of amendments we tabled on Committee Stage in the Dáil, we see major gaps in it. We need explanations. Many of the amendments we tabled in the Dáil were ruled out of order. It is not acceptable just to state they are being ruled out of order. We need a full explanation of the rationale each one has been ruled out of order. We await that explanation from the Government, the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the Seanad. Of course, the Government may table amendments on Committee Stage to try to provide the extra reassurance Sinn Féin thinks is required.
Since the Bill was first introduced in the Dáil a number of weeks ago, many questions have emerged about very practical issues. The issue of car insurance and the need for a green card are still causing worry and confusion. It is disappointing that the Sinn Féin amendment which sought to give the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, the power to clarify the position was rejected.
The performance of the Minister in offering reassurance to those who cross the Border every day has been less than impressive.
On finance and taxation matters, the priorities are stability and continuity. Much of the Bill seeks to continue taxation policies Sinn Féin does not naturally support and we may have particular concerns about some of the proposals made. However, as they represent a continuation of existing policies, we will not raise objections to them because the Bill is about maintaining the status quo in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. My colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, asked the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to confirm that no additional tax measures outside those contained in the Bill were being proposed. I trust that remains the case. Many Ministers have signalled at various committees and in the Dáil and the Seanad that they will seek changes to state aid rules.
Roaming fees for mobile phone usage are of concern. Anybody living or working in a Border area knows how high roaming charges were before they were abolished. In many Border areas it was impossible to tell which carrier's service would be available. That made planning for communications costs almost impossible. In a similar vein to many of our other amendments, Sinn Féin is stating it cannot be left up to individual companies or even another government to ensure anti-business measures such as roaming charges will not return.
Ministers must to report to the Oireachtas after a potential no-deal Brexit and identify the areas that evidentially will be hit the hardest. Solutions should then be drawn up based on the recommendations made. While Sinn Féin supports the Bill, it is seeking to strengthen and expand it. We will continue to do so in the coming two days in the Seanad.
Like other Senators, I strongly commend the work of the Minister of State, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the remaining members of the Government. I particularly mention Ms Mairead McGuinness, the Fine Gael MEP, who has done significant work as Vice President of the European Parliament. All of these individuals and the officials involved in dealing with the matter have been extremely competent, focused and constructive. It has meant that Ireland has remained at the core of the negotiations at all times since the referendum. My colleague Senator O'Reilly and I are the Irish delegates to the Council of Europe and it has been very evident from our meetings with various delegations that Ireland is very much at the core of this issue and that its concerns and the negative impact Brexit will have are at the forefront of the minds of delegates across Europe when they speak about Brexit.
Approximately three weeks ago I attended a Brexit event organised by Sligo Institute of Technology and Councillor Sinéad Maguire. It was also attended by the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney. The fact that it was standing room only at the event is very strong evidence that there is significant worry and concern about Brexit, particularly across the business and farming sectors. Mr. Aaron Forde, CEO of Aurivo, was one of the speakers at the event. He addressed the implications of Brexit. He referred to the 40,000 lorries which crossed the Border each day, one quarter of which were involved in milk processing. I am aware of the significance of this issue because there is an Aurivo dairy ingredients plant in my home town of Ballaghaderreen. Brexit will have significant implications in ensuring we have the best possible relationship with the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and will not see the return of a hard border.
Obviously there is huge concern. Recently I was at an event in Glenamaddy. Half of our beef is exported to the UK. We want this to continue but any discussion on the reintroduction of tariffs will make it very much a non-viable industry. These are a number of examples of the real-life implications and why there was standing room only in Sligo IT three weeks ago. We are very aware the Government has put in place supports to assist businesses to prepare as best they can, and this is important, but we are still very much in an unknown space.
The Tánaiste quite rightly said we hope the legislation we are putting through will remain on the shelf with regard to protections we never thought we would see for pensions, travelling on a train from Dublin to Belfast and ensuring access to medical care, North and South. We need to put these preparations in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Tánaiste said it quite well, particularly at the event in Sligo, that hope is not a strategy. At this point in time, we must hope the extremes we are seeing in the UK see reason and see the need to ensure a good decision is made in the best interests of the UK and in terms of ensuring we work together. We know that working together it is better and what we have seen in terms of the politics of extremes does not assist in good decision-making. We have to await developments but it does not sound so positive at the moment. A little bit of hope is what we need to ensure we have the closest possible relationship with the UK, which we need to have because it is our closest neighbour.
If and when Brexit happens, the Council of Europe will be the organisation with which the UK will then interact and we do work very closely with our UK colleagues on this. We will continue to do so to ensure that Ireland's interests are at the forefront and that we have a good relationship with our nearest partners.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this historic legislation. We are in uncharted waters and Britain has been in uncharted waters since the call for the referendum on Brexit. I will speak from three different perspectives. The areas I will try to cover are health, climate action and social protection and what it will mean for these areas. I want to comment on what Senator Conway-Walsh said about the green card. Last week, Border Communities Against Brexit, a group I am sure the Minister of State knows well, came to Leinster House. They spoke about the difficulties with insurance and the green card. They also spoke about attending a meeting of the farmers' union in Fermanagh 18 months ago, where all but two of the approximately 20 people who attended were determined they would leave. Last week, they met the same group of people and all of them determined that they wished they could stay but sin scéal eile and we have gone beyond that.
We continue to contemplate the prospect of a hard Brexit and we are all watching the news closely. It looks more likely and then abates but then comes back again and there may be no agreement and no transition.
Brexit should come with a health warning as it is bad for all of our health and not just that of Britain. Nobody knows how it will look or feel or how it will be on 29 March. All bets are off. We do not know where we are going and Britain certainly does not know.
Any Brexit, especially what is transpiring to be a poorly handled Brexit, will affect basic delivery of health services on this island. There are deep links between this State and the North in delivering cross-Border healthcare. Along the Border there are services for sexual health, diabetes and eating disorders, and GPs along the Border have patients on either side. The integrated services between the North and the Twenty-six Counties are substantial and well-established for cancer, cardiac surgery, diabetes, paediatric care and emergency care. There are 30 service level agreement, numerous memorandums of understanding and numerous partnerships. We do not know what will happen to all of this vital healthcare infrastructure. The legislation seeks to copperfasten these services from the point of view of the State but what guarantees are there that it is a priority for the British Government? There are none so far. The pesky Border was not even given a second thought and from the outset many British politicians in some quarters did not consider or dismissed outright Ireland's concerns. They continue to blame Ireland for daring to voice its opinion on what I would call the act of national self-harm. These are the so-called intelligentsia of the British Conservative Party. I will not comment further. They are not doing the British public any good. They are imposing this national act of self-harm on their people. Brexit will affect every level of our health ecosystem and there are thousands of questions, large and small, that remain unknown and unanswered.
Climate disruption, climate change and climate action do not stop at the Border. Our future energy grid will be powered by a wider variety of energy types to displace fossil fuels. We need to feed into an all-island grid to best maintain and secure supply. Two separate grids make no sense for the energy customer, the supplier, the operator or the generators. Together the two parts of the island have considerable resources and potential to be a world leader in renewable energy. Wind, wave and water resources do not stop at borders and neither should the infrastructure to harness them.
From the perspective of social protection, what will happen to the 132,000 people living here in receipt of a state pension from the UK? What will happen to the 30,000 people in the UK who are in receipt of a pension from Ireland? What will happen to the more than 1,000 child benefit payments from the UK for children residing in Ireland? There is little detail in the Bill regarding overall social protection matters but it was the first concern raised after the Brexit vote. It is a very practical concern. Many of the concerns were addressed by the convention on social security, which was signed recently by the two Governments, and this is very welcome. The responsibility lies with each party to ensure this legally binding agreement is upheld and respected and not diluted, overlooked or ignored in the chaos and distraction of what are perceived as the bigger Brexit issues.
We hear the mantra, "Brexit means Brexit", whatever that catchy phrase means. People have latched onto it believing it is quite profound but we have not figured out what it means. With days to go, we are hitting peak Brexit mayhem. When history looks back, Brexit should be awarded a medal for being the most senseless of decisions.
It is a paradox where the British Government has pursued the Brexit policy, one contrary to the people's interests and against the interests of its own country. Sinn Féin has submitted numerous amendments and I look forward to discussing them in this Chamber in the debate in the coming days. Perhaps I am being partisan and republican but I take one positive element out of the situation, that is, that the agenda of a united Ireland is on the table and is being progressed. The same is true of the Scottish independence agenda. The Union is being fragmented, as opposed to being pulled together.
This is a difficult time for these islands and for Europe. One is very conscious of how delicate the situation is. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for all her endeavours in Europe to date on this issue. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade have been very sensitive in their negotiations and all their utterances to date. I hope I do not say anything that might cause any untoward consequences. It is clear that there is no win for anybody in the situation, either for this country or for the UK or Europe, notwithstanding how some might perceive it otherwise. Nonetheless, as with every issue that sends challenges, there also come opportunities, and there will be opportunities for Ireland. However, I think there is a general consensus that that is going to be outweighed considerably by the problems and challenges that businesses, and the agriculture and tourism sectors in this country will face.
All in this House acknowledge the close relationship between the islands. All we have to do is look at the surnames in both jurisdictions and realise how much we share genetically. That said, following what the previous speaker said, I note that neither Sinn Féin nor Fianna Fáil have any monopoly on republicanism. Many people in this country aspire to a united country, but not one united through force and enmity but rather through consensus and friendship. It is difficult for people in business to assess fully the challenges Brexit will bring for them, yet we know through the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation and through the efforts of the Department that people have been advised to examine closely how it might affect them, even though they might not directly have a business that exports to the UK or that gets its imports from the UK. There are indirect consequences in terms of from where some of their supply chain might come, even if it is through a third party or because it may have to pass through the so-called UK landbridge.
From the point of view of jobs, significant progress has been made in terms of employment in this country and we do not want to see that undermined by a bad deal or a no-deal Brexit. We hope and wish that tonight's vote would prove to be positive towards Mrs. May's proposals but, notwithstanding that this may not be case, that there can be an understanding that it is in no one's interests that we have a no-deal Brexit. I do not wish to take up the time of the House any longer than is necessary, only to wish all those involved well. I hope that common sense can prevail and that a realisation is found that there cannot be any winners in this regard unless everybody pulls together and that it is everybody's interests that a deal is reached ultimately.
As I outlined earlier, and as many Senators have stated, the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has presented Ireland with unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenges. Our relation with the UK is unique in its depth and strength. Having joined at the same time, our co-operation, for more than 45 years, has been underpinned by our common EU membership. The complexity and scale of that challenge has become all too clear since 2016 when the referendum took place. It has reminded us just how much our economies and societies are intertwined through our EU membership. From economy and trade, to education and research, from travel and citizens' rights, through to the Northern Ireland peace process, the EU has positively impacted our relationship in all of those areas. We profoundly regret the decision of the UK to leave the EU - a Union which, together, we have helped build. We also regret that the British Government ruled out ongoing membership of the EU customs union and the Single Market, but we respect the vote of the British people and the red lines set out by their Government. We set out our approach at the outset and it has remained the same. We identified our unique concerns and our priorities for the negotiations and those have remained consistent and have not changed throughout the process. These are, first and foremost, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the peace process. The second is to minimise the impact on trade, jobs and the all-island economy. The third is to maintain the common travel area and its associated benefits; and finally, to continue to reaffirm our place at the heart of a strong and prosperous European Union.
From the very start, we have worked to ensure that our concerns were understood by our EU partners. This has involved more than 1,000 meetings at senior official and political level, with member states and with the EU institutions, all since the referendum took place. I take this opportunity to thank the Members of this House who have played their part in helping to ensure that Ireland's concerns were communicated and understood through their party and interparliamentary networks. The support, understanding and solidarity we have received from our partners in the EU has been remarkable. They have taken Ireland's concerns to heart and have made them European concerns and they have certainly made them their own.
I concluded my opening statement by saying there is no greater demonstration of the benefits of EU membership to a country like Ireland than the unity and solidarity shown by our EU partners in the face of the UK's withdrawal. The withdrawal agreement was agreed between the European Commission and the UK Government in November. It followed two years of detailed and complicated negotiations, and was the result of real compromise on both sides. It fully secures the negotiating objectives we set out at the start. Most importantly, it fully protects the Good Friday Agreement, and ensures the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Importantly, it also provides for a transition period, providing certainty for citizens and businesses while the future relationship is negotiated, a certainty people crave. The withdrawal agreement represents a finely balanced compromise between the concerns and priorities of all 27 countries involved. Ratifying it remains the best and only way to ensure that we have an orderly Brexit.
Last night, Prime Minister May met President Juncker in Strasbourg where they agreed an interpretative instrument on the withdrawal agreement and a joint statement on the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. The documents are complementary to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration agreed last October. They aim to provide an additional layer of interpretation, clarification and elaboration to the UK ahead of a further vote in Westminster this evening. The documents do not reopen the withdrawal agreement, or undermine the backstop or its application. They do, however, reiterate our wish to establish a future partnership with the UK, one that is as close as possible, and marks our commitment to ensure that no negotiations on that future relationship will be delayed and that they can begin as soon as the UK leaves. We now need to see the agreement ratified by Westminster and by the European Parliament without further delay, so that we can get on with the important work of building the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK.
In terms of our preparedness and given the ongoing uncertainty, we are, however, also obliged to continue to move forward with our no-deal preparations. Brexit of any kind means change, but a no-deal Brexit would be the worst possible outcome for all involved. Our preparations, including through our legislative proposals, are focused on minimising those impacts. I reiterate, however, that managing a no-deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. No matter how much work we do, we cannot be 100% prepared for a no-deal scenario or what it might possibly bring because we simply do not know. Many Senators raised questions about preparedness, the level of support and the level of information we have provided. The Bill is just one piece in what is a very large jigsaw that has been put together for almost three years.
We have, rightly, not brought it before the Houses until now because our focus has been on ensuring we will reach an agreement. The political dimension has changed. Since last October, the focus of all officials in the nine Departments, led by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach, has been on providing this legislation. I thank all Senators for their support in ensuring it will be passed as quickly as possible. It would have been premature to introduce it sooner.
We have provided over €900 million in supports through, for example, the Brexit loan scheme, the longer term loan scheme, additional support for State agencies, the opening of a new embassy in Wellington and a consulate in Frankfurt, the additional 25% in capital spending this year or direct funding support for industry sectors and individuals. While I do not have exact figures to respond to some of the questions raised, I will come back tomorrow with them when we will deal with specific amendments.
There has been a significant outreach to individuals and businesses through the all-island civic dialogue and at Brexit roadshows. As a Deputy from County Meath, I know that there are thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises and many individuals who may be impacted on by Brexit. It is important for Members to work with the agencies, local authorities and local enterprise offices to ensure businesses will have information and support available to them. It is incumbent on all Members to work in their constituencies and with various sectors and industries in that regard.
Yesterday the Minister for Finance briefed the Cabinet on our economic preparedness for all possible scenarios. It followed a meeting with the chief executive of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners and the deputy governor of the Central Bank to discuss the detailed preparations being made. We are prioritising the building of resilience in the economy to ensure, in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit, we will have the capacity to deal with any resulting adverse economic shock. We are building our budgetary capacity, balancing the books, reducing the debt burden and establishing a rainy day fund. We are engaging with the European Union on the additional support it can provide for the various sectors which will be affected more than others such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals and retail.
The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation has announced that the European Commission has given approval for a state aid budget of up to €200 million for the rescue and restructuring scheme. Only two weeks ago, we saw how an Irish company was the first to avail of that support. There is ongoing engagement with the Commission to ensure we will receive additional support and that it will be in place when needed.
The Bill is one of the most tangible expressions of the deep and broad preparations which have been under way across government for some time for Brexit in whichever form it will ultimately take. It complements and builds on the cross-government preparations set out in the Government’s contingency action plan which was published in December and updated on 30 January.
Protecting the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, has been a key priority in the Government’s approach throughout the Article 50 process. The priorities are reflected in the withdrawal agreement and also underpin several provisions included in the Bill. The legislation provides for continuity in key arrangements with the United Kingdom, protecting citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs in key economic sectors.
Senators raised the issue of protecting citizens’ rights north of the Border and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The best way to do it is through ratification of the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol. In a no-deal scenario that will become much more difficult. The commitments provided for in the Bill, particularly those which focus on the common travel area, address many of the concerns raised.
The issue of a Border poll was raised. While I respect and understand where this is coming from for many Senators, I, along with many of my colleagues, believe that now is not the time to raise this as an issue and it is not the time to pursue a united Ireland. Brexit and a possible Border poll are two distinct issues. Given the sensitivity of the current discussions, it is important they remain separate.
If the UK ratifies the withdrawal agreement, the Bill also provides for the application of a transition period. Only then can we start to work on the agreement which frames our future relationship which we want to ensure is as close and comprehensive as possible. The Government is fully committed to building on our strong and constructive relationship with the UK and our close bilateral co-operation over the coming years.
Our hope is that this legislation is not ultimately required. If it is, however, it is important to remember that Ireland is working on preparedness contingency planning as part of the EU 27. An array of work across sectors is under way at EU level. Ireland’s preparedness work very much fits into this wider EU picture. This reflects one of our principal underlying mitigation measures, which is the fact that we are remaining in the EU. Our place in the Single Market and customs union brings with it a wide range of benefits and support which will help us to mitigate the impact of Brexit. We will face the challenge with the support and solidarity of our partners in the European Union.
I thank all Senators for their positive contributions today and the constructive approach they brought to the Bill. I thank Senator Richmond for chairing the Brexit committee. I accept the sincerity of the amendments put down by Senators. We will engage with them in the same way we did in the Dáil. For any of those ruled out of order, I expect the Cathaoirleach to give a full explanation as to why. If there are areas or sectors which we have missed, we are willing to work with Members, experts and officials to ensure they are addressed.