I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to the House and invite him to make his contribution.
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I am grateful for this opportunity to again brief the Seanad on developments on Brexit. Political developments in the United Kingdom cast a long shadow and we are in a period of extraordinary uncertainty and volatility. In this challenging environment we are continuing our efforts across Government to protect Ireland's priorities and to mitigate the effects of the UK's withdrawal on Irish citizens and businesses. Ireland and our EU partners stand by the withdrawal agreement agreed with the UK in November of last year. We believe it is a fair and balanced outcome that addresses the key concerns of both sides. It remains the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to move on to building a strong new relationship with the UK which we of course want to be as positive as possible after the UK’s departure. However, Prime Minister Johnson has stated that he wants a different deal. We want to be helpful. We have made it clear that we are willing to consider proposals that might break the impasse but only so long as they provide the same operational and legal protections as the backstop.
Ireland cannot move away from an agreed negotiated position to an unknown and untested solution. There remains a serious and significant gap between what the UK is putting forward and what Ireland and the EU can or are willing to accept. There has been a great deal of commentary on a reported British non-paper that was leaked last night regarding customs posts. The status of these reported proposals is unclear. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland speaking on radio this morning acknowledged the difficulty of what was being proposed. I would not intend to comment on them any further other than to note that they clearly do not amount to a credible proposal that meets the obligations of the British Government to satisfy the objectives of the backstop. Quite apart from what emerged last night, the proposals that the UK has put forward to date do not constitute formal proposals and do not amount to a legally-operable solution. The UK instead wants these to be fully developed during a transition period. Significantly, they would require a regulatory and customs border on the island of Ireland. Let us be clear: these fall well short of satisfying the objectives of the backstop which is already in the agreed withdrawal agreement. What both sides committed to in December 2017 was to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the all-island economy and North-South co-operation, and to preserve the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. We cannot allow Ireland to become collateral damage to the UK's Brexit process. We need real and honest solutions to the challenges of Brexit and they are complex. These issues cannot be kicked down the road for future discussions. It is the UK's responsibility to come forward now with legally operable solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement. The UK must match its stated aspirations with real and credible actions.
The Government continues to maintain close contact with the EU Commission and with our EU partners. The Taoiseach met with President Tusk in New York last week and I met Michel Barnier last Friday afternoon. I meet regularly with EU colleagues. Everywhere our EU partners express their continued full solidarity with Ireland and on the importance of the objectives of the backstop. The EU remains strong and united in its approach. We also continue to engage with the UK. As well as the Taoiseach's meetings with Prime Minister Johnson, over recent weeks I have met with Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dominic Raab, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Steve Barclay, and several times with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, as well as with Michael Gove.
While we have plenty to discuss, we are always very clear with our EU counterparts that Brexit negotiations cannot be made bilateral and must be conducted with the European Commission through the Barnier task force.
In regard to the Border, let me make a few remarks about the backstop. The key priority for Ireland, shared by our EU partners, has been the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. Prime Minister Johnson has referred to the "delicate balance" of the Agreement. In this, he is right. Brexit, however, is a seismic event. The EU set stable and predictable foundations for trade in goods and services, freedom of movement and questions of equality and rights, citizenship and identity, cultural and educational exchanges and cross-Border co-operation on this island. Brexit fundamentally alters these relationships of trade, transport, co-operation and people-to-people connections that have flourished since the Good Friday Agreement. The backstop is an essential part of the withdrawal agreement because it provides the guarantees that it does. The backstop was shaped by the shared understanding of the EU and the UK of what needed to be addressed regarding the Border, along with the UK's red lines on leaving the customs union and Single Market. It was a complex puzzle to solve and it took us two years of negotiation to get there. It is a compromise. It is not the status quo, nor is it the same as Northern Ireland staying in the EU - far from it. It is a guarantee that there is a clear plan to preserve the delicate balance of the Agreement and the peace process. That is if it is needed at all. The point of the backstop is that it is a default fallback position if future negotiations are not able to resolve the Border issues. However, it needs to be agreed and in place now to settle nerves for obvious reasons.
This approach is fully supported by our EU partners. It has also had the strong support of a cross-community majority of people in Northern Ireland since it was negotiated. It remains the only viable solution on the table that avoids any physical infrastructure and related checks or controls, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement and North-South co-operation and preserves the all-island economy as well as the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland's future place in it. No one has yet come up with any alternatives aimed at avoiding a hard border that match what is safeguarded in the backstop text. It is deeply disappointing that the British Government has now decided to step back from these commitments of December 2017 and appears to seek a managed Border. Equally, its stance on the future relationship, its wish to diverge from the EU and its rejection of level playing field issues make things even more problematic. In simple terms, the Boris Johnson approach has been to remove the solution to a very complex problem in Ireland and to create a much bigger problem in signalling the direction the UK wants to take in the future in terms of divergence from the rules and standards of the EU.
This issue cannot be dealt with through piecemeal measures. Elements of an all-island sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, area have been floated. The alignment of SPS rules should of course form a part of the solution, but would clearly not be enough in itself. Agreeing to this limited approach would have considerable negative impact on life on both sides of the Border without the additional regulatory alignment provided for in the existing protocol.
This is far more than an economic issue. In areas from agriculture, environment and transport to health, education and tourism, cross-Border co-operation and community ties will be undermined by a no-deal Brexit or by any approach that does not have the level of safeguards and protections provided by the backstop. It is through these daily interactions that the Good Friday Agreement has been seen to work, and this normality helps to sustain peace every day.
As we have said all along, the backstop is an insurance policy. We have no intention or wish to trap the UK, and certainly not Northern Ireland, in any arrangement against its will indefinitely.
For the avoidance of doubt, I reiterate that the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland do not go against the principle of consent. The first line of the protocol, the first clause of the backstop, reaffirms the principle of consent. The second clause reaffirms the territorial integrity of the UK and Northern Ireland. At the same time, I also want to be clear that the concerns of everyone in Northern Ireland, of all communities and backgrounds - unionist, nationalist and those who identify as neither - who are deeply anxious about the impact of Brexit matter to this Government. We understand the importance of the voice of Northern Ireland being heard in the context of the decisions on the shaping of its future. We do not want a no-deal outcome but neither can we accept a deal that risks undermining the Good Friday Agreement or puts us in a position where our place in the Single Market is jeopardised by unproven solutions or future promises without substance. A no-deal outcome will never be Ireland's or the EU's choice. There is a deal in place and without credible proposals from the UK, the best way forward still remains the ratification of that deal. We have consistently made clear that a no-deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all sorts of levels. Given the stance of the UK Government, the risk of a no-deal Brexit is significant and the Government is taking that risk very seriously.
In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions and a no-deal Brexit would result in far-reaching change on this island. Ireland is working closely with the European Commission to look at the interim arrangements we would need to put in place, in the event of no deal, which do not involve physical infrastructure at the Border. These are highly politically sensitive and technically complex issues and more precise details will not be available until discussions with the Commission have reached a conclusion. We are trying to do two things at the same time with the Commission. First, we are trying to protect Ireland's place in the Single Market by protecting the integrity of the elements of the market for which we are responsible; otherwise, we will be taken out of the Single Market by default. Second, we want to protect the peace process and the all-island economy as best we can, which are not easy to do at the same time. We aim to reach an outcome with the Commission that enables us to provide reassurance to member states that Ireland is taking sufficient steps to protect the integrity of the Single Market, thus protecting our position within it. Any arrangements for the Border in a no-deal scenario will clearly be suboptimal, as they cannot provide the same level of protection as the backstop and they will result in significant disruption for Northern Ireland and the all-island economy. Members do not have to believe me when I say that; they should believe the senior civil servants in Northern Ireland who have produced credible work on this issue.
There are, however, important reassurances for the way people, north and south of the Border, live, move and access public services. The British and Irish Governments are committed to maintaining the common travel area in any Brexit scenario - deal or no-deal. In May, we signed a memorandum of understanding to underpin that commitment for the people of these islands. The Government has been actively preparing for Brexit for more than two years to make sure Irish citizens and businesses are as ready as possible for all scenarios. This has the highest priority across government, for obvious reasons, and it involves every Department and key agencies in tandem with the EU. The common travel area means Irish people in the UK and British people in Ireland will be treated as citizens in their own country for the purposes of working, studying, accessing welfare, taking pension entitlements with them and a range of other elements. While that is good for Irish and UK passport holders in terms of free movement, all other nationalities in Ireland who are used to living, travelling and working back and forth, between Ireland and the UK, face a very different future.
The comprehensive contingency action plan, published on 9 July, set out the impact of a no-deal Brexit and the work that has been done to try to mitigate the risks.
We have passed key legislation and this House was very helpful in that to protect our citizens and support the economy, enterprise and jobs in key economic sectors. We have held over 1,200 stakeholder preparedness events in all sectors right across the country. Some 102,000 businesses that traded with the UK in 2018 and 2019 have been contacted by letter or phone. Funding supports for businesses have been an important pillar of the Government's preparations for Brexit. Our last three budgets have all contained dedicated measures to get Ireland Brexit ready. We will do so again in the budget to be announced next week. Budget 2020 will be based on the assumption of a no-deal Brexit. That is only prudent. In that context, the Government is looking at provision for timely, targeted, temporary measures for the sectors that will be most disrupted and exposed. The Government is prepared for a no-deal Brexit and stands ready to support the economy in such a scenario.
We recognise the need to provide certainty of supply chains. Physical capacity at our ports and airports has been enhanced and tested. Dublin Port alone has spent over €30 million over the past 18 months. Additional staff have been recruited and will be in place on Brexit day one. We have provided training and financial supports to increase our customs capacity. At the same time, our work to facilitate the continued use of the landbridge by Irish traders is continuing. A large proportion of Irish trade gets to and from market via Britain as a landbridge. The EU's internal transit procedure will be available to businesses and, although some additional steps and paperwork will be required, this strategically important link for getting our products to and from the rest of the Single Market remains open. Despite this, as we have said in the action plan, it is likely that there will be initial delays at ports in the early weeks. This expectation is reflected in British planning also.
We will very quickly reach 31 October. Alongside our businesses and our citizens, we are working to be prepared for whatever scenario comes our way. We continue to implement the steps laid out in the July contingency action plan update. These measures are working. Businesses registered for EORI numbers now represent 90% of the value of import trade, and 97% of the value of export trade with the UK in 2018. In other words most businesses are now registered for customs and have a customs number. This approach underlines why it is so urgent and critical that exposed businesses in particular prepare for no deal. Many have, and we are working with those, mainly smaller, companies to ensure we are ready. To support businesses in this, we recently launched the "Getting Your Business Brexit Ready — Practical Steps" campaign. It focuses on the nine steps every business, large and small, should take now to help prepare for Brexit.
We welcome the publication of the Commission's Brexit preparedness communication last month, including proposals to roll over the timelines for existing contingency measures in certain key areas, including on air connectivity and international road haulage to problems which would have been very disruptive of the Irish economy. The proposal to extend EU-level financial supports in the event of no deal to support member states and affected workers is also welcome.
I would like to restate how much we appreciate the support and advice of Seanad Members of all parties on this issue. We will continue to keep the Seanad informed of developments. I am happy to come here whenever the Seanad deems that helpful. While we respect it, we regret the UK's decision to leave the EU, and believe that both parties will be diminished as a result. However, the fact remains that the UK is due to leave the European Union. The Government will continue to represent and protect the interests of Ireland. It is for the British Parliament to decide on what it intends to do next. Time is very short, but I believe that there is still time enough for agreed solutions and to avoid no deal. This Government will continue to engage in good faith to find a way forward that protects Ireland's interests but also ensures that the commitments made to Ireland and to Irish people North and South will be followed up. This is not a question of personalities or who is in No.10. It is a matter of dealing with the complexity of the issues thrown up by the decision of the UK as a whole to leave the EU. We have solutions to those challenges. The current British Prime Minister is choosing not to use them. We have said that if he has alternatives that work and do the same job we will help him to get agreement. The onus is now on that British Prime Minister to come forward with serious and credible solutions because to date he has not done so.
I appreciate the Minister taking time out from an extremely busy schedule to be here with us. The good turnout in the Chamber shows appreciation for that. We all agree with much of what the Minister has outlined in his statement. As we are very close to the 31 October deadline it is vital that in the weeks ahead all of us in these Houses continue to work together in a non-partisan way for the good of the country. My party, Fianna Fáil, under the leadership of Deputy Micheál Martin, has not been found wanting. Despite huge pressure on the leadership of the party from within and without we have facilitated the Government to the best of our ability. Our commitment to the confidence and supply agreement has often been challenged and questioned, not least by those who would not be in government without the benefit of our patience and forbearance.
Brexit is a case of binn béal ina thost. The less said the better, or perhaps I should rephrase that, the less uninformed comment the better. We are in a very volatile situation and do not need to be rocking boats. That solidarity has been there and I am sure the Minister appreciates it. Opposition parties have a duty to oppose and to scrutinise everything that comes from the Government. As the main Opposition party we have not failed in that duty. The balance is right across the board among all parties and Independents.
The situation is changing fast, day to day and sometimes from hour to hour. The Minister has brought us up to speed here and I listened with interest to the Taoiseach's remarks in the Dáil this afternoon. Like everybody else I have been closely following the commentary on RTÉ on the documents which were leaked and which have been the basis of conversation for the past couple of days. One would not need to be a political genius to know there is an awful lot going on behind the scenes. The public knows this and I have a sense that the public is tiring of what many see as misinformation and disinformation being put about by the various parties to the negotiations. The one bit of advice I would give the Minister, and I am not implying anything against him, is that the public’s patience is not unlimited. In the final weeks before 31 October it is critical that Government speaks with one clear voice and insofar as possible in the delicate situation we are in, that it would tell the unvarnished truth about how things are.
The information leaked by RTÉ seems to have let several cats out of the bag. I listened to an interview with the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, this morning in which he stated that to his certain knowledge, the substance of the leaked non-paper document has been in circulation for more than 12 months. If that is the case, one wonders why there is all this false shock and horror. The Taoiseach indicated today that he envisages some types of Border checks being established one way or the other following Brexit, as the Tánaiste likewise suggested. Are we finally getting down to the nitty-gritty of our vision of what should happen as opposed to the vision-----
To clarify, neither the Taoiseach nor I said that. In a no-deal scenario, some checks will be required. There will not be checks one way or the other if we get a deal. Any deal will be based on not having checks.
I accept what the Tánaiste said. On the other hand, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, has come up with the ludicrous proposal that there should be spot checks at various points on the island of Ireland. Instead of having one border, we would have a type of ten-mile demilitiarised zone similar to what was in force in the Rhineland after the First World War. That is obviously a non-starter and I am glad the Government dismissed the proposal immediately.
The whole world has been watching the shenanigans in Westminster in amazement. Under other circumstances, we probably would find such events highly amusing and entertaining, but the day is far too serious for that. The former Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, secured a withdrawal agreement but, unfortunately, despite her best and valiant efforts, she could not get parliamentary support for her position. It is ironic that her main obstructor then is now, as Prime Minister, getting a dose of the same. Many say it is well deserved that Mr. Johnson is not getting his way in Parliament. The Tánaiste will agree that no form of Brexit is a good Brexit. It is not hard to envisage a time in the future when the British public will realise this, although it may be several years from now, when a lot of damage is done. I can see another referendum being held, because there is no long-term future for Britain outside the EU that compares with its current status.
It is encouraging to note the Tánaiste's remarks about preparedness. However, the anecdotal evidence is that his confidence is not shared by people in business. At any of the public meetings I have attended or the major fora where business people have a chance to express their views, it is clear that people are very worried. The transport situation is an issue that has been highlighted. I spent almost two decades as director of one of the largest port companies in the country and a major handler of bulk cargo. When port companies work well, they work exceptionally well. However, when things get snafued, they can get very bad. I am referring to a port on the west coast, which probably will not be nearly as badly affected as Dublin and Rosslare. I do not anticipate panic and I am not one to cry wolf, but I note the Government's indication that there will be some initial delays. I do not look forward to those delays at ports, and I suspect there is a lot more to this than we are being told. There is talk of turning a blind eye in the early days and that things will work out. That is not a good policy for Government.
My party will continue to put the country first. It is tragic that at such a time as this, the suspension of the Assembly means there is no voice for the people of the North. Such representation was never more needed. History will be hard on the main political parties who have contributed to this sterile situation and have failed time and again to restore the Assembly.
I am saying nothing about any particular party. We all know who is involved. Political self-interest seems always to come before the interests of the community. The politicians in the North will not be thanked by business people and farmers there. In the long run, they will not be thanked by the electorate.
I wish the Tánaiste well in the continuing negotiations. To some extent, the future of the Government is heavily dependent on the outcome. More important, the future of our economy and peace on this island are dependent on it. We have lately seen a resurgence in paramilitary activity in Derry and other counties in the North. There are still people who believe violence is the way forward and it will not take them long to jump into the political vacuum being created by an inactive Assembly. We had an example recently of paramilitary violence when a businessman was brutally beaten in Fermanagh. That type of violence is always ready to raise its ugly head. My party agrees with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste that we cannot afford to compromise on the Good Friday Agreement. As far as we are concerned, it is sacred. It underpins everything we do in respect of Brexit and in regard to the North. I wish the Tánaiste well in his continued endeavours and look forward with eager anticipation to new developments.
Last night, we learned of the proposals contained in the so-called non-papers, or, as I would describe them, "non-sense" papers. Unfortunately, Brexit has now descended into spin, rhetoric and soundbites. One would need a PhD to decipher the narrative, understand the hidden agenda and subplot, and recognise the diversion tactics, such as the "dead cat strategy", that are being deployed. Rather than address the issues in question, political leaders reference something completely obscure and unconnected to the topic of conversation to divert attention. Again and again, this dead-catting is deployed to avoid addressing the concerns that are raised.
Yesterday's leak reflects none of the feedback and advice from Northern Ireland business people to the British Government regarding designated routes, costs and delays, infrastructure and bureaucracy. None of those concerns was taken on board in these proposals. Ms Angela McGowan, director of the Confederation of British Industry, commented on Twitter earlier today:
Such proposals are an absolute disgrace. Suggesting U.K. govt doesn't take NI's economy or peace process seriously! No support whatever from biz community!
As discussed many times in these Houses and at Westminster, due to EU sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, regulations relating to the agrifood industry, there is a limited number of options as to how we can proceed. We either ensure no regulatory divergence on either side of the Border, which means no checks are required, or, alternatively, we must check 100% of trucks and other vehicles crossing the Border.
We are seeing something sinister here, namely, a complete disregard for and lack of understanding of Northern Ireland issues. I wonder whether Mr. Johnson would consider his proposed template for the Border as equally suitable for the Scottish border with England in a scenario where he has pushed the Scots to opt for independence. Is it a model he would deem appropriate to operate along the border between Wales and England? The proposals include border checkpoints away from the Border, a 10-mile to 20-mile smuggling zone, surveillance and checkpoints, and technology to track and monitor movements. Perhaps I am misguided but I thought we had agreed 21 years ago to move away from that nightmarish scenario. It would be criminal to undo all the good work and achievements of the past two decades. Generations to come would not forgive us for allowing it to happen.
It takes strong leaders to make hard decisions. It takes stronger leaders to admit when they have been misguided and have got things wrong.. There are enough good people in Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to recognise the car crash that is coming. I am confident that they will endeavour to stop the UK from falling off the cliff. It is important to remember that parliament is sovereign and must take control. This is not about individuals.
The EU in Ireland has played a straight bat and must continue to do so. It must continue to do the right thing as it has done until now because when the wind changes, as it has, one must reset one's sails. Where the UK is now means it needs to reset its sails. Ultimately, the citizens of the UK must be given the choice to make this call, to unite a country again, to build relationships again and to get back on track. Ultimately, the people must decide and the politicians need to follow the direction based on facts and not fiction or fantasy. Uncertainty is the order of the day north of the Border. Despite the valiant efforts of the civil services, businesses are understandably very worried. Credit must be given to the Irish Government and the civil servants south of the Border for their preparations and readiness in very challenging circumstances, based on very limited information. Brexit will pass but we all have a responsibility to reach agreements to deliver solutions to the challenges and to act for the long term and the greater good.
I am delighted to welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber once again. I am very grateful to him, his officials and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for their continuous engagement with this House on what is easily the biggest issue to face our generation in politics. I speak on behalf of our usual spokesperson, Senator O'Reilly, who is attending an engagement at the Council of Europe on this subject with President Macron.
I commend the Tánaiste and the whole Government, including officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Taoiseach and elsewhere, for their steadfast work in the last three and a half to four years on the preparation and acknowledgement and expectation for the very serious challenges posed by this fateful decision of a minority of people, a small majority of people in the United Kingdom, have taken. I also give credit to members of Opposition parties and Independents who have shown consistency and clarity in these very testing times. Senator O'Sullivan referred to the shenanigans in Westminster but perhaps, to paraphrase a word, it is an omnishenanigans by now. It may make for fascinating viewing but it is utterly depressing and worrying.
More than worrying about the non-papers discussed last night by Tony Connolly from RTÉ and Peter Foster in The Telegraph is the Prime Minister's subsequent comments this morning on BBC Radio 4 and this afternoon on television where he proposed the idea of increased customs infrastructure and much else. These comments and suggestions run absolutely contrary to the joint political declaration of 2017 which was agreed in good faith by the European Commission and the British Government. It underlines why the backstop and withdrawal agreement as is are so vitally important to all of us on this island who share those common interests and goals. We have absolute solidarity from the 26 other member states across the EU in that regard. It was heartening to see so many other politicians and political leaders, including from Germany, France and Bulgaria, express their continuing belief that the backstop is so vitally important to any withdrawal agreement.
However, as the Tánaiste rightly said, while we are prepared to listen to any proposals, the British Government must be clear about its intentions and be clear about its ability to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement as well as allow us to protect the integrity of the vital European Single Market. It was very interesting to hear the Tánaiste refer to the 97% of business activity that has engaged with taking up the EORI numbers, a statistic which is a credit to the recent weeks and months of work by Revenue and Government officials who increased that figure from 48% at the start of the summer. That is exceptionally important and goes to the heart of the matter of how seriously this issue is being taken by every individual across the country. On Friday I spoke with my local chamber of commerce on what might happen and the preparations it has taken. Among those present were the CEOs of large multinationals operating across the world as well as those of SMEs and microenterprises of two or three employees, which might combine the role of managing director with those of head of sales, head of HR and everything else. They must also look worryingly at their supply chain, contracts and market diversification in light of what might come around the corner. It shows that the country is alive to the concerns and possibilities. As I have said many times, and Senator O'Sullivan said it again, there is no such thing as a good or okay Brexit for Ireland. Equally there is no such thing as a good Brexit for the UK or the wider European Union.
I take serious issue with politicians and commentators in the UK in recent weeks and months who say "let's just get Brexit done" and that they need a clean Brexit. They are clearly ignorant that there is no such thing as a clean Brexit. There is a managed Brexit allowed for in the withdrawal agreement which is on the table, negotiated over many tortuous months by the European team led by Michel Barnier and the British officials, or there is the other option, a crash-out, no-deal Brexit that abandons so many responsibilities and commitments. While the withdrawal agreement allows for a transition period of 16 to 21 months, a no-deal crash-out Brexit is anything but clean. We could look at Brexit dominating the body politic of this island and across the EU for the next decade. The trade deal with Canada took nine years to negotiate. There is an opportunity under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty to ensure that this is managed rather than a crash out which goes under Article 218. The last three and a half to four years has really shown the importance of European Union membership to this small country and all small member states across the EU. The solidarity shown has been a credit. It also shows the importance and value of membership to this island in the future. Whatever comes with Brexit, and as Senator Marshall put it eloquently, Brexit will move on, Ireland's future is absolutely within Europe. It is through Europe that we can continue to trade with the world and with the UK, and guarantee things that are so precious to us beyond economics, foremost of which is peace on this island.
I thank the Tánaiste again and wish him and his officials all the best in coming weeks.
I echo the words of thanks to the Tánaiste for his commitment in engaging with this House, listening to our views and hopefully taking them on board. We appreciate the opportunity to air our views and engage with the Tánaiste and through the officials who are working very diligently on what is a complicated and challenging time for all of us.
The Tánaiste alluded to the latest news coverage from Britain on the proposals in the non-paper or, as Senator Marshall put it, the nonsense paper. If we take the Tánaiste and Taoiseach at their word, and I do, that this is an absolute non-runner for the Irish Government and the vast majority of the people of Ireland, North and South, we need to dig a bit deeper and go beyond these papers to look at what has been said today.
This morning the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said on BBC Radio 4 that the reality of Brexit was that there would have to be customs checks on the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. I will take Senator O'Sullivan's advice to an extent that "is binn béal ina thost" because I believe this is a crucial and pivotal time for the Tánaiste and his negotiating colleagues. However, I wish to outline to the House other realities including that the people of the North voted to remain. We should never, ever forget that. There is also the reality that the Good Friday Agreement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, says that there will be no change to the constitutional status here unless a majority of people consent to it. No one in Ireland, North or South, has consented to Brexit. We have rehearsed those arguments before but they are fundamental points that need to be repeated even at this late stage.
Reflecting on last night's leak, and I am sure Senator Marshall felt the same, it is probably the most concerned I have felt since this process began to be inflicted on us over two years ago so I can only imagine what people along the Border are feeling. This is indicative of a school of thought in the British establishment that could not give a hoot about Ireland, about our peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, our rights or our political, social, economic and cultural aspirations for the future. It is a matter of deep concern. As correct as the Tánaiste was to address it so quickly and succinctly, I do not think that this fear and concern will dissipate any time soon.
In page 3 of the Tánaiste's address to us this afternoon he referred to the backstop. He knows our party's position on the backstop; it is the bottom line. It is the least worst option. We wish him well in trying to advance and secure the backstop in terms of the overall negotiation. In the fourth or fifth paragraph, the Tánaiste stated the backstop remains "the only viable solution ... that avoids any physical infrastructure and related checks or controls, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement and North-South co-operation and preserves the all-island economy as well as the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland's future place in it." The other opportunity to protect all of those things is within the Good Friday Agreement. The Tánaiste knows my view and the view of Sinn Féin on that. I refer to the opportunity to give a real people's vote, one which we have all democratically endorsed and support, namely, a referendum on the constitutional future of the North. It was, after all, a previous Fine Gael Taoiseach, who secured from the EU a commitment that a unified state would enter in its entirety back into the EU. The Good Friday Agreement is our political life raft. It is our escape route out of this Brexit mess being inflicted upon us. I am all for a people's vote. I am in favour of a people's vote that we all supported and endorsed in the Good Friday Agreement.
I wish to put a number of questions to the Tánaiste on the Border and the common travel area. The latest advice from the Department of the Taoiseach states: "There are no requirements for passport controls in operation for Irish and British citizens travelling between Ireland and the UK and there will be no change to this as a result of Brexit." In addition to making reference to the separate matter of air and sea carriers that might want identification in the common travel area, the advice states, in contradiction, that immigration authorities may also require one to have valid official photo identification which shows one's nationality and, therefore, people should please check that their passport is valid. That is the advice on the Department of the Taoiseach's website.
The current legislation concerning passport checks is section 11 of the Immigration Act 2004, which was amended in 2011. It, in fact, does not just exempt Irish and British citizens from duties to carry passports on journeys from the North or elsewhere in the common travel area, but exempts Irish and other EU citizens, including currently British citizens, the latter group which would be affected by Brexit. I am not aware of any other law that obliges the carrying of other photo identification showing my nationality. When the Tánaiste responds to me could he confirm that there is no legislation that obliges me or any other EU citizen to carry a passport or other form of photo ID when travelling here from the North? Could he therefore correct the online advice if that is the case? Is there any need at this stage to bring the omnibus Act back before these Houses to review it, based on some of the political realities that are coming to pass? Sin an méid atá le rá agam.
I welcome the Tánaiste back to the Seanad. I appreciate his continued engagement with the House on Brexit. I have listened closely to each address and participated in each debate we have had on this issue. As a member of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and as someone who is extremely committed to avoiding the return of a hard border on this island, it is a major priority for me both politically and personally. I give credit to the Chairman of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Senator Richmond, who is doing a great job.
It is to our credit that Brexit has not been seen as a partisan issue. As the negotiations have progressed, the Irish position on the need for a legally-operable backstop has been made crystal clear by the Tánaiste and our diplomatic officials and that has been recognised and supported in these Houses. The need for such an insurance policy to avoid the return of a hard border has been agreed and understood within the Oireachtas but also across 26 other EU capitals. That is not something that is taken for granted. It is the result of years of careful work and preparation.
As the Tánaiste may know, I was in Norway last week, speaking with Members of its parliament's foreign affairs committee about my own legislative work, and they told me about how they had been to visit the Border counties, and had physically walked across the invisible Border. That kind of experience is invaluable in making sure the importance of this issue is understood across Europe, and it takes a lot of time and effort. That work is very much recognised and appreciated.
In preparing for today's debate, I must admit that the situation feels different compared with previous updates and discussions we have had in this House. Thirty days out from a Brexit deadline that has already been postponed once, the sense of fear I have when thinking about the path towards a workable solution is much greater than it has been previously. I cannot even imagine what it is like for people living on the Border. I look to Westminster, and the extremist positions being outlined there, and it is really difficult to comprehend. If a deal or an extension is not agreed before the European Council on 17 October, the prospect of a disastrous no-deal Brexit becomes a reality. It truly is a frightening prospect.
There was discussion in the Dáil this afternoon about the so-called non-paper UK proposals leaked late last night, regarding border posts. They were rightly condemned both by the Government and Opposition parties, and even the British Prime Minister quickly distanced himself from the documents. While nothing else has been forthcoming in the meantime, it is a recognition of how grossly unacceptable the proposals are. The idea that a 20 km zone bookended by border posts could credibly solve the problem is an affront to our hard-won peace, and an insult to all those living on this island. It is particularly troubling that the UK Government, and those negotiating on its behalf, seem to think the issue is with the location of border infrastructure and not the fact that it could be erected in the first place. We must be clear on this: there is absolutely no mandate for the return of a hard border on this island. It would run contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, and it cannot be allowed to happen. That was stated firmly in the Dáil this afternoon, and it should be restated here in the Seanad.
It is also important that we try to consider exactly why proposals like that are being made. Partly, it is due to an inherent disregard for Ireland that has been apparent in Tory politics for decades, but it is also the result of a context that we are soon going to find ourselves in. The proposals on potential border infrastructure or checks taking place at posts removed from the Border are being delivered in part because the UK Government is trying to reconcile three competing goals that seem fundamentally incompatible. It is effectively trying to square a circle and meet three conditions. The first is to leave the European Union in a manner that will satisfy the hard Brexiteers, which seems to mean exiting the customs union and so on. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been clear about his desire for a clean break from the EU and his actions have reaffirmed that. The second is the stated commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is an absolute priority for everyone here, as well as the rest of the EU 27. The third is to ensure that the integrity of the EU Single Market is protected, and that there is not a 500 km long gap at what may soon be an external frontier of the European Union.
The insistence on the backstop in the first place is recognition that these goals are so close to being incompatible as to require a legal guarantee. Throughout the negotiations, in effect, an insurance policy has been sought that would secure the latter two goals against the former. The withdrawal agreement has always allowed for technological and other solutions to be presented to satisfy all three demands but they have not been forthcoming. Yesterday's leaks are just another example of that. The absurdity of the Johnson Government's latest proposals, or lack thereof, must be seen in that light. It is not just a matter of competence; they are the result of attempts to square a circle.
What is especially worrying about this situation is that while we can rightly say that it is a problem of British invention, that does not do a single thing to bring about a solution. It is a problem made by the UK, but in the event of a no-deal Brexit, on the morning of 1 November it becomes our problem in a very real manner. There is a cruel irony here, in that we will find ourselves in effectively the same situation as Boris Johnson is in now, but of the three goals mentioned previously - a hard Tory Brexit, no Border and protecting the EU Single Market - the first one already will have happened. The UK will have left and we will be asked how we are going to reconcile the two remaining goals. How are we to secure the external frontier of a 500 million-person strong continent and trading bloc, while also honouring our commitments to ensure no hardening of the Border on this island?
This is a question that has yet to be answered. I appreciate the Government's position and that in the final days of a year-long negotiation what is said is bounded by diplomacy but, similarly, I appreciate the growing frustration at the lack of detail on what exactly we will do if the UK crashes out of the EU in a few weeks. We hear that discussions with the European Commission are taking place but we do not have any detail. This is not reassuring to hear as a legislator and it certainly is not reassuring to the thousands of people who are waiting for an answer with regard to their jobs and their daily lives.
I do not say any of this to point fingers. Every time I have spoken on this issue I have noted my respect and appreciation for the leadership shown by the Tánaiste and his officials working on the backstop and getting support for it, but if a deal is not agreed and no backstop is in place we will need an answer very soon to the question on what we do with regard to the Border on the morning of 1 November. What will we do on 30 November, over Christmas and in the months afterwards? It is undeniable that the rise in the potential for a no-deal Brexit significantly increases the possibility that a border poll could be called in the coming years. I understand the sensitive position the Government is in but this is something we have to start talking about openly and without fear. It needs to happen in a manner that includes everyone on this island and demonstrates a generosity of spirit and respect for diversity. The Brexit vote itself should act as a stark reminder on what can happen if people go into something without proper planning. At present, we find ourselves in a catch-22 position. We cannot consider the potential for a border poll without detailed planning but any effort to do that detailed planning is similarly rebuffed. In the absence of detailed plans from the Government these conversations are already happening in every part of the island.
Trinity College, UCD, University College London, Ulster University and Queens University Belfast have launched an academic project on what a border poll could mean in practice. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement I have spoken with nationalist and unionist communities in the North who engage with us in good faith. The overwhelming feeling is one of uncertainty. It is about practical questions. If Brexit makes a border poll more likely what will this mean in practice? What would the impact be on people's daily lives? What would be the impact on identity? People are asking these questions. In my view, we need to start working on answers in a manner that is open, inclusive and generous in spirit. It is not inflammatory to recognise this possibility and to want to account for it in a sensitive manner. I have said before that I believe this is something a parliamentary committee could do in an inclusive manner working on a cross-party basis. It could be similar to the work of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and seek to engage in good faith with all parties based on the principles of consent and parity of esteem. I am very passionate about this issue. These conversations will happen. While I understand the sensitivity, the Government has a responsibility to be involved. I dearly hope a deal is reached in the next 30 days but if it is not it will be incumbent on the Government to share its plans with the Houses on how previous commitments will be maintained.
Last January, prior to the Brexit deadline in March, the Tánaiste told the House that no matter how good we are at no-deal contingency planning we will not be able to create a situation whereby the status quo persists through a no-deal Brexit. He went on to say that deal or no deal, the Government will insist on finding ways to avoid Border infrastructure on the island. This is a genuine and strongly felt commitment but if a deal is not reached in the coming weeks we urgently need details on how this will be achieved. Everyone in the House will work with the Minister of State and the Department in this regard. I thank the Minister of State for all of the great work she, the Tánaiste and all the officials involved are doing.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and join others, including Senator Black, in commending her, the Tánaiste and the officials on the negotiations and on maintaining the strong position we have on the need for a backstop. I agree with Senator Black that a notable strength on the Irish side is that all in the Opposition have expressed our support for the Government position, particularly today when we see the leaked proposals from the so-called non-paper of the British Government. I echo the words of my party leader, Deputy Howlin, who said today that the proposals for a mess of new border checks is completely unacceptable and wherever they were placed would breach the agreement reached with Theresa May's Government to ensure regulatory barriers to trade on this island would be avoided. There has been a united front throughout the parties in this jurisdiction and, as others have said, this is in marked contrast to the utter chaos of the shenanigans we have seen in Westminster. This is very important.
I also commend Senator Richmond and the Seanad committee on the work done in seeking to put forward thoughtful approaches as to how we can deal with this mess, which is not a mess of our making. I listened to the remarks of the Minister of State this morning when she stressed the Irish response to the non-paper leak was not just an Irish response and that the EU Commission has also rejected the non-paper as a non-starter and stated no credible proposals have been put forward for alternatives to the backstop. As did Senator Richmond, I listened with incredulity to the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, on the BBC this morning. I thought it betrayed no understanding of the reality of the lived experience of people on both sides of the Border on this island. His suggestion that he would table a very good offer soon is very hard to take seriously given how little by way of credible proposals has come forward from the British side to date. The EU's negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier, and Heads of Government throughout the EU 27 have spoken eloquently on their awareness of Ireland's concerns about the backstop and we must take heart from this and the solidarity and support shown to Ireland by other members of the EU.
I have a number of observations on events this week on the British side. I know it is only a leak and there has been some rowing back from it by the British side during the course of the day, which has been welcome, but anyone with any knowledge of security issues North and South would be aware that the suggestion we would see customs posts in the vicinity of the Border some kilometres north and south would be as much of a risk to security and peace as customs posts on the Border. Placing them at some kilometres distance would not make any difference. I speak as somebody who acted in the Special Criminal Court over a number of years and I have some knowledge of some security issues.
Something that is very striking about the language of the leavers, who are the majority in the British Tory party, is the way in which they describe the Border as an Irish Border and that it is an Irish Border problem. It reminds me of the truism-----
From their point of view it is a British border. We have been hearing so much that little phrase "the Irish Border" and it has really been bothering me because it is from people who insist it is actually a British border. For them, it is a border with the United Kingdom. They never mention the British side. It is that old truism that if athletes from Northern Ireland do well they are regarded as British and if they do badly they are regarded by British people as Irish. While this may seem a somewhat frivolous point, nonetheless the language shows the dismissive attitude by so many pro-Brexiteers on the reality of the very serious issues of the Border. Conveniently, it also disregards the fact the British Government has commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and completely sidesteps those commitments and legally binding responsibilities on the British Government by referring to it as an Irish Border and an Irish problem. The current British Government is downplaying its own significant legal role and responsibility. This is a very serious point.
I listened carefully to what Senator Black had to say about a border poll.
If a no-deal happens, it will clearly bring forward much more strongly the case for reunification on the island. It is a very obvious point. I have been reading Seamus Mallon's autobiography and both he and Andy Pollak, with whom he wrote it, make some very interesting points about how one could move forward with the many considerations that would have to be taken on board in any move in that direction. There has been increased interest among business leaders, North and South, in the issue. It is something about which we will have to think very carefully, but it is a very sensitive point.
A further observation about developments this week in Britain is that what we have seen in the language from the Westminster parliament has been very distressing. Misogyny and contempt were displayed for women MPs in the Labour Party who raised serious concerns about safety and the incendiary language Prime Minister Johnson and others were using in speaking about "betrayal" and "surrender" and the way in which they were dismissed. For many of us, particularly in the Labour Party, it was really distressing to hear Jo Cox's name being used by the British Prime Minister in this manner and dismissing the concerns of friends and colleagues of hers about their safety. On the other hand, many of us who read the full text of the unanimous judgment of the 11 members of the British Supreme Court given by Baroness Hale could not but have been heartened by the clear accessible, rational and sensible language used in it.
Another heartening development has been the defection of the 21 Tory remainers who broke ranks, at some cost to themselves in many cases, and have stood out against a no-deal scenario.
As I explained and as party leader, Deputy Howlin, has said, we believe the British non-paper proposals are completely unacceptable. We will stand in support of the importance of the backstop. We have been doing all we can - both Deputy Howlin and Senator Nash were present at the British Labour Party conference in the past week to press their British Labour Party colleagues - to ensure they will put forward a proposal for a fresh referendum of the people, with the option to remain on the ballot paper. It is very heartening to hear Keir Starmer say very clearly today that the proposals made in the non-paper are unacceptable to him and the British Labour Party and restate the commitment to hold a second referendum. These developments are very welcome. He stated the proposals were utterly unworkable and would represent a rolling back on commitments made two years ago to ensure there would be no return to a hard border. He called it another failure of the British Government's negotiating strategy and argued that the issue should be put to the people again in a public vote. We have been pressing and using any influence we have, as I know other colleagues have been doing, to ensure this will be position put forward very strongly by the British Labour Party.
Finally, the Government and all of us must do all we can to protect jobs and ensure there will be a sustainable and lasting peace on the island. None of us wanted to see Brexit happen and we still do not. If there was any way to avoid it happening at all, it would be infinitely preferable. However, if it is to happen, clearly the best possible way for it to happen is with the withdrawal agreement and the backstop in place as our approach in Ireland. We support that position.
I thank Senator Bacik. I neglected to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, back to the House.
I also welcome the Minister of State. I will indulge myself by saying that at Westminster there is huge admiration among most MPs for the Minister of State, the Taoiseach, the Tanáiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, and my colleague, Senator Neale Richmond. As we have said in the House before, there is huge unity here among all parties that a key priority which is shared by our EU partners is the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts. In the Tanáiste's contribution he said both sides had committed in December 2017 to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to protect the all-island economy and North-South cooperation and to preserve the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. We cannot allow Ireland to become collateral damage in the United Kingdom's Brexit process. We need real and honest solutions to the challenges presented by Brexit. We did not get them last night. The Conservative Party seem to think this is game-playing or a bit like the Oxford debating society. We are, however, dealing with people's lives. As we know, Ireland has a shared and complicated history with its near neighbour. We look back at events such as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, partition on the island of Ireland, the Economic War and the times when tens of thousands, the fathers and grandfathers of many people here, were emigrants to the United Kingdom. They built roads, taught schoolchildren and nursed the sick. They were well treated. However, we had two parallels. There was no political discourse with our near neighbour. The people in question were effectively on their own and we were hardly capable of catering for them in this state.
We have come a very long way because of one issue, the United Kingdom and Ireland entering the EEC in 1973. It gave Ireland parity of esteem with our near neighbour. Some 26 meetings, on average, take place every day between Irish and UK officials. That did not happen until 1973. I have no doubt that they brought us to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and certainly the Good Friday Agreement. We are now a good friend and ally of the United Kingdom and that it has decided to leave has been a huge issue for us also.
In 2016 I was invited by the SDLP to launch the Irish for Europe at Westminster. Effectively, what we were trying to do, even though the decision to leave was sovereign, was ensure Irish people living in the United Kingdom who had a vote appreciated the fact that it was in our interests for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. It was the only party which campaigned for those citizens to remain, but I stand to be corrected on that point. On that day I said what happened in referendums was that people did not vote on the questions put to them. There have only been two referendums in the United Kingdom since the 1940s and 1950s. We have had 27 held here in 27 years. In referendums people never vote on the question put to them. They may not like the Government and the issue could be about water or turf-cutting. In the United Kingdom it was about immigration. The island of Ireland and the Border did not come into the discourse. We have to ensure the Good Friday Agreement will be protected.
I pay tribute to Dominic Grieve, Keir Starmer, Anna Soubry and many others. I know that among 80% of MPs and Lords there is generosity towards the island of Ireland. They are absolutely horrified at what is happening because what we now have is the worst form of English nationalism which is causing and has caused a huge cancer in the politics of the United Kingdom, but it cannot be allowed to cause a cancer on the island of Ireland. I thank our colleagues in the European Union for standing up for us, ensuring we are united and that we count. There are people within the Conservative Party who still have not accepted that we have parity of esteem on the island of Ireland. We want to be a friend and good neighbour, but they have to accept that the days of the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s are over. They do not reflect the generosity of the British people.
I hope that, in the coming weeks, Boris Johnson will come up with some credible solutions. As I said, we respect, although we regret, the UK's decision to leave. The fact remains that the Government will continue to represent and protect the interests of Ireland and, as the Tánaiste said, it is for London to decide what it intends to do next. It is a worrying situation. What we heard from the UK last night was especially worrying because it was like flying a kite that did not fly high. We must be united in ensuring the island of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement will not become collateral damage in the UK's intent on Brexit.
I welcome Deputy McEntee to the House and thank her for her work as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. She has been very active in all the capitals of the other 27 EU countries, including Britain. She has also created a very good image for the State. She has done well.
The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, has outlined the present position in great detail and it is moving very fast, so perhaps the less said the better at this stage. The matter is at a very sensitive stage. The speech by the Tánaiste was an opportunity for him to address this House and update us and the country in a comprehensive manner as to the position, and he took it. His assessment of the situation is one to which we all remain joined. It is unique, at least in the years that I have been in this House, that we have had such unity of purpose between all parties and Independents. Everyone is singing from the one hymn sheet as far as this issue is concerned because everyone understands this is the most serious issue that has affected us in the past 100 years. Everything must be looked at comprehensively.
The key point at the moment is whether an agreement will be reached on 31 October. An agreement would have to be ratified by the European Parliament, the negotiators and the House of Commons. Will the Hilary Benn Bill kick in and an extension be sought until next January or a year's time? It would certainly be better to have an extension than to have no agreement at all. The no-agreement situation would be the most serious one because it would create absolute chaos for the whole Single Market, including exports, imports and so forth.
I watched John Redwood MP at the Conservative Party conference last night. He and I were members of the Council of Ministers when we negotiated the Single European Act, and he was an active member and good colleague in that regard. It is sad to see that he has become such a Brexiteer because, at that time, he put forward many issues that were accepted unanimously by all the Council members. There were fewer than 28 members at that time but there was never a division. He was a very good colleague from an Irish point of view when we brought issues forward. At that time, the Single European Act was a very forward-looking plan and we got derogation on many issues that we were not in a position to compete with at the time.
Let us consider Ireland's relationship with the United Kingdom before the European Union. We signed the very important Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965. It was signed between the Governments of that time in advance of the European Union and allowed free movement of trade between our two countries. Our joint membership of the European Economic Community, EEC, brought about new opportunities for trade throughout the whole region. The British Government is throwing away agreements that have been negotiated with Japan, Canada, the United States of America and South America, the last of which is not a particularly popular deal from our point of view but it can be tweaked.
I am pleased, in that regard, that the outgoing Commissioner, Phil Hogan, has secured one of the most significant commissionerships in the European Union and he will be a vital cog. He will be representing the 27 countries of the European Union, not only Ireland, if and when Britain leaves the Union. He will be at the forefront of all negotiations on a future trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It is good to have somebody of his experience there who is so conscious and naturally well aware of the sensitivities of our position.
At this stage, Ireland is in no position to renegotiate any situation. It is a matter for the European Union and Mr. Barnier, in consultation with his colleagues, Ministers and the Commission. I, like others, compliment the European Union on standing firmly with Ireland as far as the backstop is concerned and protecting the integrity of the negotiated Good Friday Agreement. We have built those relationships through the Tánaiste and our Civil Service. I compliment our negotiators in the European Union, our ambassador to the EU and the marvellous staff over there. Senator McDowell served in government and will have realised the support and briefings that we Ministers received when we went to Europe. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, knows the calibre, quality, negotiating skill and high standing of our officials. I pay tribute to them. They are geared towards exactly what is happening in the European Union and are among the most influential civil servants in the European Union because of their ability to communicate and their warmth with members and colleagues throughout the Union.
I say the same thing for organisations in Ireland that represent barristers, solicitors and auctioneers and that have representatives in Europe. There are many organisations in Europe that have representatives from Ireland and we play a vital role in that regard.
Our negotiating team is negotiating along with Mr. Barnier, not directly with the United Kingdom. My choice would have been that the United Kingdom and Ireland became one special economic zone within the European Union. That would have solved a lot of problems at the very start. We are only 1% of the population of Europe but will be feeling nearly 90% of the collateral damage of the UK leaving the EU. At some stage, that solution should have been considered, but that is in the past now. We are down to realities at this point. The British Government cannot walk away from its financial commitments to the European Union because they are commitments to its own citizens who will be paid pensions and so on in that regard. The UK cannot just walk away and say it will not make a deal, because it must honour its commitments one way or another.
We hope there will be a deal and I am confident there will be one in the days before the deadline. It is to be hoped that deal will be accepted and not rejected by the House of Commons, or an extension triggered if that deal is not settled. The one thing we do not want is to walk away from the negotiating table because it would be chaos for the United Kingdom and Ireland.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and echo the comments that have been made about her and her Department's sterling work on behalf of this country.
I am not as optimistic as others here for the following reason. I listened carefully to the entirety of what Prime Minister Johnson said on BBC Radio Four this morning. People have spoken here about incredulity, and I did not believe a word the Prime Minister was saying, and that is my problem. I believe he was engaging in disinformation, misrepresentation and exaggeration, all with a view to achieving something. I note there was further comment this morning that some members of the Conservative Party were hoping that they would get a deal from the EU and, tacked onto it, a statement from the EU that there would be no further extension so that Prime Minister Johnson could tell the House of Commons that this is the only deal that is available, there will be no extension and it is this deal or crash out.
I would have absolutely no problem with him trying to raise the stakes to get an agreement through if I believed for one moment that he was intent on achieving an agreement but I do not believe that he is. Looking at the background of what is going on at the moment, the default position of the Tory Government that is now in office is to achieve a no-deal crash-out and then to start negotiating on the basis that remedying the chaos it has created in Ireland will be a bargaining chip. It cannot use that bargaining chip in negotiations now without repudiating the withdrawal agreement.
It is worth our while to remember why Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel are sitting at the Cabinet table in Downing Street. Although some of them voted for the withdrawal agreement, including a UK-wide backstop, their fundamental aim was to remove Theresa May from office by using the alliance between the European Research Group, ERG, and the DUP to make her position untenable. Whether this was for the sake of personal ambition or a genuine ideological position is hard to say. Again, it is hard to work out whether Prime Minister Johnson is motivated by his own political ambitions or a deep-rooted view on Europe, given that he wrote articles both ways before deciding to plump for the Leave campaign, as we all know.
It is also worth reminding ourselves of another proposition. The ERG-DUP alliance forced Theresa May to establish a red line of no checks or controls in the Irish Sea and forced her into the position of considering the whole of the UK as a single entity which would have a very close trading relationship with the EU. The ultra-right elements in the Tory party, such as Bill Cash, Mark Francois and all the others, leapt on that as a reason to reject her withdrawal agreement.
We are codding ourselves if we do not ask this question. Given the night of the long knives he inflicted on the Tory establishment, which has left him in a decidedly minority position, what kind of deal could he now bring back to Westminster that would command a majority? What kind of deal could he put before Westminster now, apart from one accompanied by the threat from the EU that there would be no extension if it was not accepted? Why would members of the Labour Party, including people like Kate Hoey and others, cross the floor to help him out when they know that the very first thing he will do is call an election and leave them scuppered? We should not fool ourselves about what is likely to happen. The present Johnson Cabinet is minded to produce a no-deal outcome. I do not believe the flannel and nonsense we heard today about them working with might and main to produce agreements or the disinformation saying they have been working dramatically behind the scenes and there has huge progress, which is constantly ladled out without any substantiation. I tend to believe it is not so and that it is a smokescreen. That is a pessimistic view and I am sorry to have to utter it.
Senator O'Sullivan said it is a pity that there is now nobody in Westminster to represent the majority of people in Northern Ireland who are opposed to Brexit. I want to deal with this very briefly, and not in an antagonistic way. I understand the Sinn Féin position to be one of abstention from Westminster but I would remind them that the abstentionists of 1918 did not abstain just to sit at home. They abstained to go to the Mansion House and establish an alternative Parliament. Dáil Éireann succeeded as an alternative Parliament for the people of Ireland. That is what happened in 1918. I do not state this in a lecturing or hectoring way but it is time for the majority in Northern Ireland to have some voice, other than the brave Sylvia Hermon of North Down, to tell Westminster that the majority of people there do not agree with what is going on. I refer to the people Senator Marshall was talking about, the leaders of business and civil society. Their view of the Union is not based on the right-wing Tory view that it must be a Union with no differentiation in the status of Northern Ireland vis-à-vis EU matters and no recognition of the North-South all-island economy.
Is the Senator going to give way?
I want to say this if I may, because I am in my last minute. As far as I am concerned, we need a different approach to Northern Ireland. I commend Senator Black on her comments. It is not good enough any more to simply talk in vague terms about a border poll. That is counterproductive and useless. I took the trouble to develop the question of what could be at issue in a border poll in the recent Kennedy Summer School discussion of this matter, which was a very useful and positive discussion. Members can look at my website if they are interested. I prepared a paper for use on that occasion and in all humility, I ask Members of this House to take a look at it and see if it merits some consideration. There is no point in talking about border polls, pursuing the abstentionist policy or leaving Stormont empty as a general strategy. We have to get institutions going in this country in order that decent people of all persuasions in Northern Ireland can get their viewpoints across on this issue.
I will finish by saying that as far as I am concerned we would be very foolish to play along with what the Johnson Administration in England is doing to fool its own people. I do not believe that Dominic Cummings has any agenda for a real deal. I believe that Government wants to create a situation where there is no deal. It will move heaven and earth, if it can, to circumvent the so-called Benn Act and bring about a no-deal situation because that is where its heart really lies. If it gets the UK to crash out it will use the Irish angle, the economic, social and political pressure that will exist, as grounds to try to negotiate a better deal in the UK's future trading relationship with the EU. That has been its strategy all along.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank the Tánaiste for his comprehensive statement on the UK withdrawal. Everybody here has talked about the profound implications for this country. A no-deal exit will bring lasting damage at every level. I tend to concur with Senator McDowell when he says the UK Government has no intention of getting a deal. It is playing silly games by bringing up various non-papers. It is a bit embarrassing. It is prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater and many of its supporters in England will support that because they have been led to believe that this will make Great Britain great again.
Anybody living in Ireland who holds a driving licence from the North or Britain must exchange it for an Irish one before 31 October in case Britain leaves the EU. After that date, if there is a no-deal Brexit, such a driving licence will be invalid in the South and one will not be allowed to drive here. British licences are older, made of paper and last for 30 years rather than ten years. Many people's licences, therefore, will have a lot of time to run yet. It is believed that approximately 70,000 people resident in the State have such licences. While 30,000 people have swapped them, the other 40,000 have thus far failed to do so. It is not a problem of advertising. We have all heard the advertisements and the encouragement to take action, and people are informed. Rather, the problem for the majority is the cost. One might ask why one should swap one's licence when it will not expire for another 20 years. One will be charged €55 to obtain a ten-year licence and, therefore, one might not understand the rationale for that. The cost is prohibitive for many people. We need to examine the matter urgently and to propose an idea for a decreased cost to persuade people, or even to propose that there be no cost. There will be great challenges but people are just waiting for 31 October to see what will happen. For drivers working for businesses, not least small businesses whose staff must drive up and down the country, it will have an impact.
Brexit will also have an impact on the supply of medicines. Is there an update from the HSE as to what it believes that the impact may be, both in this State and the North? When the Brexit process kicked off a long time ago, I asked about the all-Ireland breast milk bank, which is in the North. Have we worked out how that will operate following what may be a severe no-deal crash out? Perhaps the HSE is working hard to provide medicines and the all-Ireland breast milk supply.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and join others in commending her, the Tánaiste and their team on their work in representing Ireland in the current negotiations. As others have noted, there has been some strong commonality of concern from all parties. There are also some shared clarities on core principles, which are vital to all of us and about which all of us have spoken in different ways. Among those principles is the idea that the Good Friday Agreement must be protected, maintained and prioritised. In the conversation about the backstop, sometimes the agreement has been somewhat lost.
The agreement is not simply some piece on a chessboard or something to be moved around. It is an internationally recognised peace agreement lodged with the Security Council. It is a document to which the UK and Irish Governments and the EU are guarantors and for which they have a responsibility to guarantee. It is important to remember that it was passed by referenda - by more than 70% of those in Northern Ireland and more than 90% in the Republic of Ireland. There is a strong mandate, therefore, although sometimes that is forgotten in conversations that seem to suggest it is an aspirational document to be moved around, edited or lightly referenced. It is a fundamental responsibility to guarantee its provisions to everyone on this island, in respect of citizens' equivalence, rights and all the core principles that obtain.
That guarantee to those on this island is reflected in the backstop. That the backstop would extend throughout the UK was, as was rightly pointed out, a proposal of the UK. The responsibility is to guarantee the agreement's provisions to those on this island, which has been rightly reflected in the negotiations and whose seriousness cannot be understated. The agreement is especially pertinent in respect of our alarm when we saw the non-paper. While the document has been discussed and rejected, what is notable is not simply its unworkability, lack of understanding or utter disregard for the Good Friday Agreement but that hundreds of thousands of people live within the highlighted zones. It just shows what an extraordinary proposal it is that there would supposedly be a 10 km zone through heavily populated areas. It reflected the lack of understanding.
Others have spoken to the wider issues but I will comment on a few specific issues. We are at a crucial point and it is a different time. While we have spoken about the UK and what proposals it may bring, I would like the Minister of State, especially given her European remit, to comment on the question of the perspectives of our colleagues in Europe, in view of the pending European Council meeting. We cannot be sure, and many of us may not expect, that the current Tory Administration will put forward a proposal for an agreement that will be accepted. I was in London on the day the British Parliament was prorogued. I protested with many others and was glad to hear the British Supreme Court ruling on the matter.
The British Parliament has required the British Prime Minister to seek an extension if no deal is agreed. If there is the form of a request for an extension but there is not a substantial offer or a meaningful proposal, there will be a question as to whether our European colleagues consider the potential for a future proposal. Will they consider the prospect of a British election or even of another referendum, as has been put forward by the main British opposition party? Other proposals, in the event of a different arithmetic in a future House of Commons, may even lead to former versions of the withdrawal agreement being put forward. Will such considerations be in the mix? For a request for an extension to be accepted, will negotiations need to be at the point of a final agreement? The preference of the current British Administration has been made clear in some of the language it has used. Insofar as the Minister of State can - I acknowledge she has limits - will she outline what argument we can make to our colleagues in Europe on the issue?
Others have spoken about the necessary review of the omnibus Act, and about various business sectors and companies. How ready are our universities in respect of Horizon 2020 projects and ensuring that no major research projects or collaborations will be discontinued in the event of the scenario for which none of us wishes, namely, a no-deal crash out? The Tánaiste commented somewhat on our ports and the landbridge. I expect that the Minister of State, given her European remit, will contribute to a decision on special European projects of common interest. I urge the Government to consider prioritising the investment in Ireland's port infrastructure as a project of common interest in our connection with the EU, which is more important than our investment in a repository for fracked gas, as is the current Government priority. Such special projects will determine to a large extent the funding we receive from the EU over the next period.
On financial speculation, it has been galling for many British people, who face severe insecurity in respect of their employment and devastating impacts for their families, that many of the most vocal supporters of Brexit, some of whom funded and invested in the campaign for Brexit, are now betting on a collapse in the value of sterling if there is a no-deal crash out.
It has been pointed out by many that the date of 31 October is not an accidental date but is a date with very serious implications around liabilities, corporate tax and speculative returns. It is particularly galling to see many who are pushing for Brexit moving their assets, companies and financial speculations and investments to Ireland. I do not know what the capacity is or what may be looked at but I urge the Government to try to think creatively on that issue. It is appalling that they may seek to profit financially from Ireland's financial situation while at the same time causing such damage to our country.
I shall now turn to human rights and emergency supports. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and I am aware that Ireland has common recognition of entitlements and rights, but we are potentially looking at a period of time where the emergency supports that we give to our social welfare system may be stretched if we see families who are moving or returning in the wake of Brexit. This is an area where a special and extra budget may need to be allocated. This would apply not simply to routine entitlements but also to the measures that may need to be in place, for example, before people can demonstrate habitual residence here or whatever other measures they may need to demonstrate. Potentially there is a greater caseload to come through our social welfare system. Those are some of the practical questions and issues.
I am aware that it is everybody's wish that we continue to have our open border and, appropriately, that we have our soft border but given that the Taoiseach today mentioned the prospect of border checks in a no-Brexit scenario I would like to know what steps the Minister of State is taking to ensure that we do not return to the border infrastructure or the militarised border of the past, or the militarised border that we currently see in other parts of the EU, for example, under groups such as Frontex?
There is a responsibility for us to ensure this, and an assurance is needed by the public that Ireland will do everything it can from its side to avoid, even in a no-deal scenario, anything that looks like the borders of the past or the borders in other parts of Europe at this time.
I commend the Tánaiste and the Minister of State on holding firm and on not giving in to the bullying behaviour we have witnessed over the last years, months and weeks. I commend the 27 member states that have stood by their word. When Michel Barnier was in the Dáil he gave a firm commitment at that time, and I acknowledge that he has kept his word. The very big difference this time with regard to our relationship with the British is that we are part of the EU. This puts us onto a different playing pitch. As we wait to see which orifice Mr. Johnson is going to talk out of on any given day we have to do everything possible to respect the wishes of the majority of the people in the North and to protect the welfare of our citizens right across this island in farming and in business, and for jobs and employment.
I shall now address Senator McDowell's suggestion on Sinn Féin taking up its seats in Westminster. It is a very simplistic attitude in a sense.
I do not say this to be argumentative because I really believe that it is very important that we are all on the same page and that there is unity of purpose in addressing the challenges of Brexit, but people who vote for abstentionist candidates are also decent people.
Some 340,000 people voted for Sinn Féin in the last election in the full knowledge that we are an abstentionist party-----
I accept that.
Is it a good idea to stay with it?
Perhaps I will tease it out a bit. People voted for abstentionist MPs because they see Westminster as not as the solution but as the problem. The more we see coming out of Westminster the more we recognise that is the problem. When we consider the Six Counties and the neglect over the years and decades and the disparity between North and South, there is an enormous neglect there that has not been served. More and more citizens across the communities in the North are beginning to realise that their interests and the interests of their families are not served from Westminster, and we also believe that. There are more than 50 Scottish MPs in Westminster. Perhaps we should ask them what influence they have on policy there, or what influence they have at the moment. We can see and hear them with the Scottish accents on TV but what real influence are they having on policy? I do not believe they are having any.
It is about the balance of power with the seats.
I do not think they are having an influence. Then one is in a different situation. To say that also ignores the fact that there is enormous work being done by our MPs and by other MPs in Westminster. One does not have to sit, or lie as the case may be, on the green seats to be able to have an impact. Right from the beginning we have had a case for the North to achieve designated special status within the EU, and I am sure everyone has seen the document.
It became the backstop.
It did. I do not say it was just us because we are a team in that sense. Sinn Féin has been proactive right from the get-go in addressing Brexit. We do not embrace it. I am not sure if Senator Feighan referred to that with regard to who canvassed for or supported the Remain side, but we canvassed to remain from the North also, and we used every influence that we had to ensure people saw the advantages of remaining. An interesting thing was brought up on "Sunday Politics" this week with Allison Morris and Professor Peter Shirlow. They discussed why marginalised people see the likes of Prime Minister Johnson as a saviour. I believe this is something we need to reflect upon and look at here also. People who are further marginalised and people who will really suffer as a consequence of Brexit see somebody such as this elite public schoolboy, who is propped up by Dominic Cummings, as the saviour to get them out of the poverty traps, marginalisation and exclusion zones they are in. We need to find ways, collectively, to address that.
I read Senator McDowell's document with interest on what we mean by Irish unity. I agreed with parts of it and disagreed with other parts, and there are parts I would like to discuss further. I welcome this and it is very important that people from different perspectives start to examine the issue in a serious way. Sinn Féin has produced several papers over the years, weeks and days at this stage, around Irish unity, but it cannot just come from us as a party; it also has to come from other people. That is why Sinn Féin advocates setting up the cross-party forum here - Senator Black and others have also referred to this - so we would have room and space to discuss all of these things and how we would create a new and agreed island that would serve all of the citizens. There is a responsibility on the Government to do that sooner rather than later, and to issue a White Paper on Irish unity. This is not to disregard any community but we need to bring the conversation on further. I welcome civic nationalism and civic unionism getting involved in the debate. Everybody needs to be involved.
It is the responsibility of the Government to set up the structures where that can be discussed.
It is ironic that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, would put the North in a uniquely advantageous position, and this is badly needed to address the decades of neglect I spoke about. I find it really difficult to understand why people who purport to represent these people are disregarding it. It is a way of protecting the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If we have empowered people and they are content with the status quo in the North, the withdrawal agreement and backstop would ensure this position. The language of the debate and argument that this will somehow affect the constitutional question if people agree to it means many lies are being told and there is not enough clear examination. We often speak about what will happen and the potential impact of Brexit. I am deeply worried about the impact of the language used, particularly by the British Prime Minister, and that it is polarising individuals, families and communities. I wonder how much that will cost us even in terms of what has been achieved in the North under the Good Friday Agreement.
We can no longer be the pawns on Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Cummings's no-deal chessboard. It is so obvious that they are playing a game. I commend the Minister of State, as well as the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Sinn Féin Party will continue to work with them to ensure the interests of all the citizens of this island can be protected. We all have a duty to do that.
It is good to be back in the refurbished Seanad and I wish everyone well for the new session. I thank all Members for their contributions this afternoon. It is very clear we all share the same concerns and, for the most part, we have the same objectives in addressing those concerns. As we get ever closer to a possible no-deal position on Brexit on 31 October, it is essential we continue to work together to face the challenges that Brexit poses for Ireland, and to again stress how important and welcome is the ongoing support and engagement from all political parties. I specifically thank the Members of this House for their assistance in passing the Brexit omnibus Act, which contains the essential legislative provisions we need to have in place immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A no-deal Brexit in just 30 days remains a very clear and significant risk. A week from now, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will outline the details of the budget for 2020, which has been prepared on the basis of a Government assessment of the implications of a possible no-deal position. This is not because we are resigned to this being the outcome but rather because it is the most prudent way to prepare. Despite the extensive media coverage of the United Kingdom's recent domestic political developments, the fundamentals of Brexit remain the same and our requests have not changed. We can say that we, as part of the European Union, have been clear and consistent in the more than three years in which these negotiations have taken place.
Ireland and our EU partners stand by the withdrawal agreement but are committed to finding a way forward. We are open to hearing any credible and fully worked out proposals that the United Kingdom has, although these must achieve the same aims as the backstop. They must avoid a hard border. After what we heard and saw last night, I took out the withdrawal agreement and went through some of the specific chapters, and there is a very clear commitment not just to avoid a hard border but also any related checks and controls. We need to protect fully the Good Friday Agreement and North-South co-operation. The United Kingdom has identified at least 152 areas of such co-operation. We need to preserve the all-island economy. The reference to protecting the all-island economy in the letter to the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, is not very strong and it has been omitted from much of the commentary. We must also protect the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. As Senators have outlined, this is not just about trade or business, as has often been referred to; this is about people's lives and communities, working together and co-operation that has evolved in the 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement. We should also remember it is also about people's identity.
We welcome the intensification of discussions between the UK and the European Commission. The Commission has clearly stated, however, that the proposals that have been set out to date, particularly in the non-papers, fall very short of satisfying the objectives of the backstop and everything I have just outlined. Senator Higgins asked about the support of the European Commission. It has not changed and it will not change. Even in the past hour, any suggestions from Bloomberg that the EU had been looking at a time limit for the backstop have been met with confirmation that this is simply not the case and the position will not change.
Any request for, or consideration of, any extension by the EU or individual member states must come from the British Prime Minister. Without any specific request, it is not something we can discuss or collectively agree. We must wait and see what happens in the next two weeks. The Benn Act in the United Kingdom legally requires the British Prime Minister to seek that extension but the position has evolved in a very unpredictable way in the past few weeks. We will have to wait to see how that progresses.
As the Taoiseach stated after his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson in New York, there remains a very significant gap between what the United Kingdom is putting forward and what Ireland and the EU can accept. That is still the case as of today. With just 30 days to a possible no-deal Brexit and only 16 days until the European Council, or two weeks to the General Affairs Council on which I sit and which prepares the agenda for the EU, the UK must match its stated aspirations with real and credible proposals. A no-deal outcome will never be the EU's choice or our choice. It is the United Kingdom's responsibility to come forward with legally operable solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement. Neither Ireland nor the EU can move away from an agreed negotiating position to unknown and untested concepts. The idea that what we have now - a legally binding solution - would be removed and replaced with further promises or commitments that are not legally binding is not something we can accept.
Our focus since the United Kingdom referendum result has been on securing a deal to ensure the closest possible relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom but we are also working to try to mitigate any effects that Brexit would have on our economy and citizens. Brexit is a serious challenge for our nation but we do not face it alone. We must remember that we are acting from a position of strength and as a member of a family of 27 member states. We welcome the publication of the Commission's Brexit preparedness communications at the start of September, which is the sixth version of its communications, the first of which was published last December. This includes key proposals to roll over the timelines for existing contingency measures in essential areas, such as aviation, rail, road transport for passengers and freight. Essentially, the six-month timeframe given last April will be extended beyond 31 October in the event there is no deal. The Commission has also outlined proposals for the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund to be made available to support EU workers who are made redundant as a consequence of a no-deal Brexit. These are just some of the examples of the EU's very clear commitment to protect citizens across Europe from what would be some of the worst implications of a no-deal Brexit.
At home, Departments and agencies have been addressing the challenge likely to be posed by Brexit. Our contingency action plan, first published in December 2018 and which has been consistently updated, has documented in an upfront fashion the risks posed by Brexit. We are very clear that the impact would be serious and even in the event of a deal, we must be clear that Brexit will mean change. In the event there is no deal, that change will be much more significant. The Brexit omnibus Act signed into law on 17 March ensures we have additional staff, infrastructure and information technology facilities in place, including at ports and airports. We have used the time afforded by the extension last April to extend and refine preparations, particularly in encouraging businesses and citizens to prepare.
Since July, the Revenue Commissioners have written to over 100,000 companies that traded with the United Kingdom in 2018 and 2019, and over 25,000 of those have to date received direct phone calls to offer advice on the next steps. Even now, many more businesses will receive those phone calls in the coming weeks. Based on trade values, 97% of those companies which have exported in recent times to the UK and 90% of those which have imported from the UK have the economic operator registration and identification, EORI, number. That demonstrates how hard the Revenue Commissioners have been working and also that people are responding to the issue. There has been a large focus on the EORI number but it is only the first step for many businesses in preparing for the changes that could be brought by a no-deal position.
For example, they need to decide who will complete their customs declarations. We are talking about going from just over 2 million declarations to as many as 20 million. This is not something that business is used to or has had to do for some time. Some businesses have never had to do it. There is clear information on the www.gov.ie/brexit website outlining the steps people can take. Since 16 September, local enterprise offices have used weekly slots on a number of local radio stations nationwide to provide information on getting businesses ready for Brexit.
Regarding the specific questions on medicines, the Department of Health, the HSE, our medicines agency and various private sector organisations have been meeting regularly. I believe they will meet again this Thursday. They have stated clearly that, at any given stage, there is an eight to ten-week buffer in the supply of all medicines. Even with the landbridge, which we will have difficulty in controlling if there is a no-deal Brexit, that buffer will remain. Ensuring the short-term supply of certain medicines will present a challenge, but that challenge exists currently even without the risk of Brexit. That private and governmental agencies have been working together closely is important.
I cannot give an exact answer about breast milk supply. That a memorandum of understanding on the common travel area has been signed means that people will still be able to access funding and supports, including medical supports, North and South, east and west. I will revert to the Senator with greater clarity on this specific issue.
The question of what Horizon 2020 will look like for universities was raised. The backstop is not the only element of the deal, as it also addresses citizens' rights and the financial settlement. There is still a year and a half left in the current EU budget. As such, the deal would cover the continuation of any project that has been agreed and financed through Horizon 2020 in collaboration between universities on this island or in Britain. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, however, much of this will boil down to what the UK is willing to continue co-funding. There is no suggestion that those projects should have to stop, but there would have to be an element of co-funding, and that will depend on what the UK Government is willing to fund and on its engagement with the universities in question. We do not want to see a reduction in that engagement and co-operation between universities North and South, east and west. A large amount of engagement has taken place between various bodies on both islands.
I have outlined a snapshot of what has been happening and how businesses will be impacted. A large-scale campaign to inform citizens about the impact of a no-deal Brexit started this week. Our contingency planning will continue to intensify until 31 October. In next week's budget, the Minister will have €900 million of additional funding to spend. Divided between 15 Departments, it becomes much smaller, but it will be focused on Brexit contingency for those most in need. I do not have the details, but the Minister will fill Members in next Tuesday.
A number of Senators have discussed the uncertainty surrounding the arrangements for the Border in a no-deal scenario. That is the question being raised most frequently. I understand the concerns of Senators and the fact that we need to accept that we are only a month out. Since day one, however, central to the Government and EU's approach to Brexit has been the need, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the reintroduction of infrastructure that would in any way cause a security risk or threat, and to protect the Single Market and our place in it. It is important that we try to, and reach, these twin objectives. We are working intensively with the European Commission to try to find solutions that will best serve the objectives, but we are not there yet and we are still working through it. As people understand, they will be difficult to achieve, but we are determined to do so.
The Single Market is not just about our trade with Europe, which is substantial in its own right, but also about our access to more than 50 other markets through the EU's free trade agreements. This is why Irish butter can be found on supermarket shelves in Germany and South Africa. Being a part of the Single Market means opportunity, advantages and protections for our citizens and businesses. That is why we are so insistent on protecting it as well as the Good Friday Agreement and the invisible border that currently exists.
While Brexit will mean some changes on the island of Ireland, the Government has worked to try to minimise the impact on citizens. The Irish and British Governments have committed to ensuring the common travel area will be maintained in all circumstances. The common travel area, which dates back to the 1920s, is a mixture of various agreements and allows Irish and British citizens to move and reside freely in either jurisdiction. It enables us to access the range of associated rights and privileges in one another's country. This will continue after Brexit, which is an important message for people to hear and understand. Irish citizens in the UK and British citizens in Ireland have the right to reside, work, study and access healthcare, social welfare and other public services in one another's country as well as to vote in certain elections.
In 1973, we joined what is now the EU on the same day as the UK on the basis of a referendum that, as many have mentioned, was supported by 83% of Irish voters. Recent polling indicates support for the EU to be as high as 93%. When we ask our young people, it is as high as 97%. People recognise the crucial role that the EU has played in our development as a nation and how important it is for our future. Brexit is not a development that we wanted, but we respect the decision of the UK to leave. Similarly, the UK must respect the fact that the EU has the right to protect its businesses and citizens and that Ireland, as a member state, has the right to protect its citizens, industry and economy.
The withdrawal agreement remains the best way to ensure an orderly Brexit. It is a fair and balanced outcome that addresses the key concerns of both sides. It allows us to move on to build the strongest possible relationship between the UK and the EU after the former's departure.
Many have suggested moving in the direction of a border poll. While I understand the basis on which some of the political parties are working in that regard, it is not the right time, given the severe sensitivities and complexities of where we find ourselves. The question will most likely be asked within my lifetime, but it should not be used as a means to an end in the context of Brexit. Our focus should be on re-establishing the institutions in Northern Ireland and ensuring there is a strong voice and representation for the North's people.
In negotiating the agreement, the EU demonstrated a significant degree of flexibility and compromise. We have always negotiated in good faith. Not one of the EU 27 wants a no-deal Brexit. The approach from the EU has been clear and consistent throughout and has Irish interests at its heart. Whatever Brexit scenario we face, we will face it with the full support of the EU 27. The Government will work together with the Oireachtas, businesses, citizens and our European partners to try to secure a future for Ireland at the heart of the EU.
I thank Senators for their support and ask for its continuance in the coming weeks.
I thank the Minister of State. Before we conclude, I welcome Deputy MacSharry to the Visitors Gallery.
He was in the Seanad previously.
I hope he is not looking for his old seat.
For a change, he cannot say anything.
That concludes the debate. When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.