I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, back to the House.
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I am grateful for the opportunity to update Members of the Seanad this evening. Since I was last here we have witnessed some important and positive developments in the Brexit process. On 17 October, the European Union and United Kingdom agreed a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration on future EU-UK relationship. As I have said before in this House, we were content with the agreement both sides reached in November 2018. However, we needed to find another agreement with the current British Prime Minister.
We have always understood that a Brexit solution would require compromise. When the earlier deal failed to pass through the UK Parliament the new UK Government sought a different solution. In a spirit of compromise the EU engaged once again. While Ireland supported this renewed engagement, our approach remained firm and consistent. Any revised agreement must meet our core objectives, including protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union and Ireland's place in them. Our partners in the EU understood and supported this approach. Michel Barnier and the task force remained committed to finding a deal that worked for all sides, including Northern Ireland, Ireland, the EU and the UK. We worked closely with them and, when appropriate, engaged directly with the UK as well.
The new agreement has been reached after much discussion, compromise and flexibility. We welcome it as it meets our core objectives and those of the EU. It preserves much of the original agreement. It secures transition, protects the rights of EU and UK citizens and provides for a fair financial settlement. It gives certainty to citizens and businesses and allows us all to move on and develop a new and, hopefully, strong relationship with the UK post-Brexit. It upholds measures to maintain the common travel area and continued North-South co-operation. It maintains commitments to ensure no diminution of rights and safeguards equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens.
The revised protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland sees the backstop provisions replaced with new Northern Ireland-specific arrangements. These provide a legally operable solution as well as certainty that at the end of the transition period the benefits of the peace process can continue to be enjoyed by all. This has been a priority for the Government and our EU partners throughout the negotiations. Equally, business leaders and representative organisations in Northern Ireland have been clear about the need to ensure that arrangements protect the gains of the past 21 years and promote economic stability and progress. Customs and VAT provisions mean that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory but continue to apply the rules of the Union Customs Code. EU customs duties will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland if those goods are at risk of entering the EU Single Market. No customs duties will be payable, however, if the goods entering Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK are not at risk of entering the EU Single Market.
Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, notably all rules related to goods to ensure there is no need for border checks. This avoids any customs or regulatory checks or controls on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from any free trade arrangements the UK signs and will also have access to the Single Market. This unique opportunity allows Northern Irish companies to produce goods for the UK or EU markets. Some of the practical detail will be further clarified during the transition period by the EU and the UK working together in what is called the joint committee.
Unlike the backstop, which was envisioned as temporary insurance policy, the new arrangements could have a more enduring nature. In other words, they could end up being permanent if people want to keep them in place. However, no one wants to see Northern Ireland remaining in these arrangements if it does not want to. Therefore, a role is provided for a majority of Northern Ireland's elected MLAs to decide if the arrangements are to be maintained in future. Some have asked if parallel consent from unionist and nationalist representatives is needed along the lines it is applied elsewhere to key decisions in the Assembly on devolved matters. However, international treaties and international relations are not devolved matters. They are excepted matters which fall under the competence of the UK Government and not the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly.
Equally, it is important no outcome provides one side or the other with a practical veto. That risks paralysis and there being no solution at all; therefore, the process envisaged in the protocol ensures neither unionism nor nationalism will have a controlling vote, veto or an effective block. The vote of each and every individual MLA and the views of his or her constituents are of equal weight and importance. The UK Government has also given a commitment that before the vote, there will be proper consultation with business and civil society. It should be based on the lived reality and experience of businesses, farmers and citizens, not a proxy for any other issue.
Ratification of the agreement by both the European and British Parliaments will be the green light for the beginning of negotiations on what I hope will be a broad, deep and flexible partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom, a partnership centred on an ambitious and balanced free trade agreement. The European Union has indicated that it is ready to open negotiations immediately after ratification and created a new task force for relations with the United Kingdom under the leadership of Michel Barnier. The timeline for completion of negotiations is very ambitious as the transition period lasts until the end of 2020. It may be extended once by one or two years if both sides agree and a decision on an extension is needed by 1 July 2020, but that does not give us much time. As Michel Barnier said, the negotiations will be "demanding and difficult", as the Brexit negotiations have been to date.
As the talks will cover a range of issues of importance to Ireland, it will be vital to continue to ensure our priorities and core principles are appropriately reflected. This will require a whole-of-government effort underpinned by the same coherent, cohesive approach that has characterised our Brexit strategy from the start. Work is under way to identify and elaborate on our priorities, but our approach will remain consistent. We want to see the closest possible relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, while also ensuring adequate level playing field provisions to facilitate fair competition. During this process we will build on our strong relations with the task force and the Commission. We will also continue to engage with Members of the Oireachtas, domestic stakeholders and member states, as I hope we have done appropriately in recent years and months. Substantial work will also be required during the transition period to finalise a range of sensitive issues arising from implementation of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement.
While the risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October was averted, it remains a possibility for 31 January 2020 unless the withdrawal agreement is ratified by the United Kingdom and the European Union. As long as a no-deal exit is a possibility, we must be prudent. The intensive work carried out already can be banked for future use, while the additional time available can be used to add to or refine our response measures. We will continue to prioritise certain key issues in the period ahead. It is also important to take into account that some of the no-deal preparedness measures in place may also be relevant if and when a future relations agreement enters into force.
Brexit, whatever form it takes, means significant change for the people of this island. As we move, I hope, from ratifying and implementing the withdrawal agreement to negotiations on future EU-UK relations, managing Brexit will remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are determined to rebuild, strengthen and energise relationships, North-South and east-west, for the benefit of all businesses and all of the people. The Government will ensure the intensive work will continue to prepare Ireland for all possible outcomes and make sure we are best placed to advance Ireland's interests in the next phase of Brexit which I hope will happen in the not too distant future. I look forward to Members' comments and questions.
I am sure the Minister is glad to have something of a break. I am also sure he is not resting on his laurels, but at least he has a break from the frenzy of the negotiations that have taken place in the past few months.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the fact that the European Union has agreed to a Brexit extension until 31 January 2020. There is no point in going back over the farcical situation that obtained at Westminster when MPs acted like characters in a P. G. Wodehouse comic novel. Because of the volatility of that parliament, even when it comes back in a new form, nobody can take it for granted that we will have a deal. Clearly, the Government, businesses, farmers, importers and exporters must continue to prepare for all eventualities. It would be very foolish for us to take anything for granted at this stage.
Irrespective of the outcome of the UK general election, priority must be given to filling the political vacuum in the North because, as the Minister outlined in his statement, a good deal of the proposed agreement is contingent on the Assembly being in place to enable MLAs to comment on the continuance or otherwise of the agreement. To a certain extent, we are building on sand until such time as politicians in all parties in the North decide that the Assembly is worth the candle after all of the violence and everything else we witnessed during the decades. We marked the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, yet for the past three years the Assembly has been useless. I note that the Independent Reporting Commission has recently stated the continuing uncertainty vis-à-vis the Assembly is increasing the risk of a return to paramilitary violence, something nobody in these Houses wants to see. Therefore, it is incumbent on the British and Irish Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to redouble their efforts to secure some movement on the Assembly. The Independent Reporting Commission has also highlighted the increase in the number of violent deaths and attacks of a paramilitary nature. Everyone witnessed the horror of what happened in counties Cavan and Fermanagh in the case of Quinn Industrial Holdings. The situation is volatile and we cannot underestimate the dangers. I know that I am at variance with other Members of the House and possibly with members of my own party when I say this, but I do not understand why people are calling for a Border poll at this time. I do not see the logic in it. I hope that in the future, possibly the not too distant future, when circumstances touch on being normal in Northern Ireland, a Border poll will take place in a calm atmosphere, but at the moment it would be nothing short of a sectarian head count which would exacerbate emotions. As long as Northern Ireland remains an unreal political entity, there should not be such a poll. I hope the Minister will agree with me.
Another issue that concerns me is the relationship between this country and Great Britain at this time.
Naturally, where we were involved in a situation that was to a certain extent confrontational, we were not, to say the least, singing from the one hymn sheet. Tensions grew, fuelled, of course, by media and ill-advised comment from the hurlers on the ditch. It is fair to say that relationships between the British community and this community are not at a high level at present. Certainly, they have fallen a long way from the great relationship we had when the late Albert Reynolds and John Major, or Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, had an understanding which led to the Good Friday Agreement. That was a high point in our relationships and we all thought that the past was over and that kind of enmity of "the ol' enemy" was something that we could put aside. I am afraid it is there. I sense it is very much there in certain sectors of the British community. That hostility towards us has surfaced, certainly in some of the less-responsible interviews that we have heard.
Fianna Fáil, under its leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, will continue to act in the national interest as long as Brexit is in question. It was not easy for my party to undertake, and to commit to, the confidence and supply agreement. We had critics everywhere, including from within, but we have stood up. We went into a relationship with the present Government to create stability at a time when other parties which had the same opportunity ran away. They did not want to know about Government. They did not want to know about responsibilities. They could not wait for Fianna Fáil to underpin the Government so that they could go straight into their default mode of opposition. Maybe when there is another general election things will have changed. However, we did not abdicate our responsibility that time and the country appreciates that. I am sure the Government, despite all the sparing that naturally goes on between the two main parties in Ireland, deep down knows that it would not have been able to achieve anything of the sort with Brexit if Fianna Fáil had not been on side.
The UK general election on 12 December is entirely a matter for it and I will not anticipate the outcome. Hopefully, the result will provide clarity and a pathway forward because continued uncertainty, as we all know, is bad for Ireland. It is bad for our tourism. It is bad for our business. It is bad for consumer confidence.
The withdrawal deal, as outlined by the Minister, is acceptable. It is not as good as the deal that was negotiated with the former British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, but, nonetheless, the back stop has been replaced with this rolling consent mechanism. It is new. It is untested and, as I said, it is predicated on a Northern Ireland Assembly being functioning, which we cannot be sure of.
In terms of preparation, we still have to keep the no deal in our heads and some of the statistics are distressing and worrying. Some 58,000 businesses are still without an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number. An AIB report states that 41% of SMEs in the Republic and 53% in Northern Ireland have still done no planning whatsoever for Brexit. According to a recent parliamentary question, 30% of export-import companies have taken no mitigating action to address Brexit problems. Up to the end of September, only 14% of the €600 million loan fund for Brexit has been sanctioned for bank lending. This leaves an alarming €514 million in unused Brexit funds. I could quote Mr. Aidan Flynn, the general manager of the freight transport association, who made a stark statement the other day. I could go through all that. I am not a Doomsday merchant. We are where we are at present.
There is a hiatus. There will be some clarity when the British general election is over. We will have to keep pulling and working together for the good of the country. Whatever way this Brexit turns out, it will be bad but, hopefully, it will be the least worse that it could be.
I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, for his comments on Brexit. I commend the Government and all the civil servants on the work they have completed so far on this because the one word that resonates through everybody and every business in the land, North or South, is "uncertainty", and dealing with uncertainty in business is a problem at present.
It is important to reference that there has been much focus in the past few weeks and months on the North-South complexity of a land border there but the Tánaiste stressed the point that the east-west relationship, and especially the interdependence of both these islands post-Brexit, whatever that looks like, is equally as important.
Based on the upcoming elections, we may see change in the current representation in Northern Ireland and we may see the change in the dynamic of the representation we have at Westminster in Northern Ireland. It is an understatement to say there is a nervousness in all businesses and among all citizens north of the Border. Businesses, especially in agrifood, are very concerned that they do not know enough detail at present. Even though the deal will avert a land border, which was a major concern in this House and in the Lower House, the disruption and complexity at the Northern Ireland ports are a concern of businesses with paperwork, with documentation and all the other bits and pieces that will be thrown at them. As much as we have averted one problem, there is a concern that we could have created another problem at the sea ports.
A number of Senators, led by the Chair of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom, Senator Richmond, were fortunate to visit Dublin Port this morning. The work done to date is a credit to all those involved in the management and the port authorities. They were faced with a number of challenges, such as the size of the site and the uncertainty of what Brexit would look like. In my opinion, and I am sure the other Senators would echo these comments, they have done a commendable job in dealing with the Brexit implications for them.
I refer to the work done in respect of the stakeholders and the complexity that has been dealt with. The Tánaiste mentioned that the UK Government north of the Border will consult with politicians and civic society on any potential impact or agreements that there will be post-Brexit. I would be interested to know what the Tánaiste's feeling is on the civic engagement because there has been some articles in the press this week about civic engagement and civic dialogue. I have had a bit of engagement with a number of people about civic engagement because sometimes the people are ahead of the politicians on some of these matters. It will be paramount that we have that dialogue. Does the Tánaiste envisage formal mechanisms or what does he see as a way of taking that forward because there is a level of uncertainty with this continual reference to taking a position north of the Border that everyone has a say, everyone is represented and everyone is heard? I would be interest if the Tánaiste could comment on that.
I am extremely grateful to the Tánaiste, once again, for coming to this House to provide a timely update on what I have said on many occasions is probably the biggest issue facing the State since the Emergency. I am grateful to both the Tánaiste's activities within this House and, indeed, those of the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and all the officials in both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Reflecting on the comments made by the previous two Senators and, indeed, the Tánaiste, it is fair to say that over the past few months much has changed but, ultimately, not much has changed when it comes to this issue. We sit here, possibly not in a period of respite, as a Senator pointed out, but in a period of holding a watching brief as, once again, we look to Westminster to see what might happen.
I commend the Government on its work over the past number of months and its ability, along with European partners, to maintain the key interests as it affects this island facing into the crisis of Brexit and providing, within the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol, a method to make sure that we keep the Border on this island open. That was very important. That was done on the back of years of hard work, particularly by the Tánaiste as well as his predecessor, the Taoiseach and various Ministers of State with responsibility for European affairs.
It is over to Westminster, once again, and over to the United Kingdom and the four nations within, to select their next parliament and select their next Government which will decide where we go. I just read that Lady Sylvia Hermon is to step down at this general election. I would like to put on record and pay credit to her often lone voice in the House of Commons over the past few years of representing the real concerns of so many people on this island. Lady Hermon is a credit to every single person, regardless of what community or political background he or she comes from.
There is a pause. While Westminster makes its democratic decision, we wait for what comes next. Will we see a return of the Government?
Do we see an expediting of the ratification of the withdrawal agreement Bill that allows the UK to exit on time on 31 January and, more importantly, allows the EU and the UK to move on to discuss their future relationship, which will be far more complex and, arguably, more difficult than what has gone before? Perhaps the electoral arithmetic will throw up something else. We do not know what that might be and it is not our place to make predictions or recommendations or to get involved at all. That said, we must be consistent in stressing that there cannot be a return to a hard border on this island and we must work as closely as possible with our friends in the UK to make sure that never comes about.
The withdrawal agreement and the future political declaration that has passed Second Stage in Westminster and been ratified by the European Council does exactly what needs to be done. As Senator O'Sullivan rightly said, there is no such thing as a good Brexit and this House will never hear me say that. That being said, the withdrawal agreement lays the groundwork for the least worst Brexit in the circumstances. Whatever happens in the UK over the coming months, we must make this work. We must move on and try our best to limit the damage. We must point out to the unionist community the many possible benefits for Northern Ireland and work with that community.
Beyond Brexit there are massive challenges facing this and future Governments and the wider Irish body politic. We were a little lax on those challenges prior to the Brexit vote, but if anything, this should serve as a key reminder of the importance of European engagement for this country. We must make sure that we work with all partners on all issues. Just because Brexit is one of the biggest issues facing the EU now does not mean that member state solidarity is a given. We must continuously work at it and work with the EU. Certainly, we can criticise where criticism is justified, but we must be mindful of the importance of praising the EU when it is deserved. We must conduct a far more detailed analysis of European legislation at every level and continue our work with other member state governments, political parties and politicians. It cannot be just a job for the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach to maintain relationships through European Council meetings and so on. It is the responsibility of the entire Government and the Oireachtas, whether through COSAC, meetings of the Committee on European Union Affairs, or through other engagements, to push constantly for Ireland's objectives.
Brexit also reminds us of the very important responsibility of all parties in this jurisdiction to invest time and effort in the politics of Northern Ireland. We cannot take the fragile peace or stability for granted. We must work continuously with politicians, political parties, citizens and groups from all backgrounds. If anything, we have to intensify that work, which is a big challenge for everyone, regardless of geography. It can be argued that for the past 20 years we have taken things for granted to some degree, and Brexit serves as a reminder of the dangers of doing so.
We have not pressed the pause button. One of the worrying issues in the UK at the moment is that while the general election campaign goes on, work on Brexit preparedness has been scaled back. Advertisements have been pulled and engagements have been lessened. We in this jurisdiction need to use this time wisely. Senators Marshall, Ó Donnghaile, Mulherin and I visited Dublin Port this morning to find out about its work on Brexit preparedness. While that work is advancing, as Senator O'Sullivan pointed out, a lot more can be done. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the statistics cited because some may be out of date, we must continuously work on our preparedness. I know that the Tánaiste and his officials will keep up this work, but just because the UK is having a general election does not mean that the Irish body politic and Irish society can step back from Brexit. If anything, now is the time to intensify our engagement, work and preparations. So much of the preparatory work being undertaken by Irish society, particularly by the business and agrifood communities, is just good to do and is not necessarily solely about Brexit. I speak here about things like supply chain diversification and alternative market identification.
We are at a worrying stage now, despite the many reassurances. We must wait out the next five or six weeks and continue to watch events in the UK, but while we watch, we must continue to do the necessary work here. I thank the Tánaiste and his officials for their attendance and thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. I welcome the Tánaiste and thank him again for his ongoing and continued engagement with this House, which has been consistent throughout the course of the Brexit era. One of the great positives, as the Tánaiste knows, has been the coming together of Members in this Oireachtas around Brexit. While we have had differences of opinion and different views on issues, tactics and approaches, our greatest strength has been our unity of purpose in defending the peace process and the hard-won Good Friday Agreement and in ensuring no return to a hard border on the island.
This is also a political forum, so I am not naive enough to think that people will not make political points, but there has been a marked change in the Fianna Fáil tone and approach in this House over recent Brexit statements. What we have heard is a single, transferable speech about the North. It is a very confined speech. I do not want to use the word "ignorant", but it is at least a very narrow view of the political and social realities there. We have heard how wonderful Fianna Fáil has been in the context of the Brexit negotiations despite it being the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, their officials, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, MEPs in Europe, of which Fianna Fáil had none until recently, and political parties and figures in the North, from which Fianna Fáil abstains, who have done the work.
I do not think in the current climate that Members in this House should be referring to a core component of the Good Friday Agreement as a sectarian headcount. A Border poll would be an exercise in democratic expression that people are entitled to advocate for and engage on. It is what we all voted for and endorsed on this island, North and South, when we voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement. When we talk about defending and upholding the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts in the context of Brexit and if we are truly serious about that, then we must also uphold and defend that aspect of the agreement. I am amazed that the republican party would refer to an exercise in democratic expression, a right of people here to self-determination, as a sectarian headcount. Senator Marshall comes from a completely different political and ideological background and tradition than me and most of the people in this institution. That gives us a great strength and brings a great wealth to the Oireachtas, but Senator Marshall, coming from the perspective that he comes from, does not say that we should not have this conversation and nor do an increasing number of people like him. They are up for having this conversation. They do not want the same outcome but they are not running away or trying to shut down an engagement in democratic expression. I wanted to make that important point for the record.
We welcome and support the Brexit deal as it has been secured and do so in the clear knowledge that there is no good Brexit deal. Brexit is being forced upon the people of Ireland, just as partition was forced upon the people, and in both instances it was against our expressed welfare and wishes. I also commend the EU and the Government, parties in the Oireachtas and my own colleagues in Europe, our MEP team and not least, my own MEP, whom I am in danger of losing, Ms Martin Anderson, on their combined efforts over the past three years, which have produced the latest deal. The agreement makes it clear that there will not be a hard border in Ireland or a unionist veto over the planned protections against Brexit. Attempts by the DUP, in particular, to exercise a veto over matters not related to the Good Friday Agreement will not happen. The Good Friday Agreement does need protecting from this deal because it is under no threat from it. Brexit is not a devolved matter. The protections in the deal will be codified in international law, which is very important. It is particularly important when the failure of the British Government to codify in law the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement is considered. We can see the consequences of that failure in the Emma DeSouza case. I am looking forward to meeting the Tánaiste, along with other parties in the North, to discuss that case soon.
Sinn Féin has supported the Irish Government and the EU throughout the past three years of negotiations. We were the first to argue for a designated special status for the North within the EU, and we gained support for that approach with our motion in the Lower House last year. The past three years have shown clearly that when it comes to the people of Ireland, North and South, the parties at Westminster do not care. It is Britain's interests first or, more precisely, England's interests first. The interests of the people of Ireland will never and can never be taken seriously at Westminster.
As Senator O'Sullivan rightly said, Westminster is a parliament in chaos, which is the problem. Ireland and all the parties working together to minimise the damage of Brexit are the solution. The Government and the parties opposed to Brexit will need to be ever alert beyond the period we are dealing with and especially during the period when negotiations take place on a trade deal between the EU and the British Government. We wish the Government well in that regard. Further to what I have said about the issue of the North, another point on which I respectfully disagree with colleagues is where Senator O'Sullivan argued for the North to become normal. Normalisation was tried in the North but it failed because partition is not normal. It is an anomaly. It is because of partition and the union with Britain that we face this devastation, economic threat and the threat to our peace and progress.
In welcoming the deal, I again wish the Tánaiste and his colleagues well in their endeavours and work over what will be an intensely important period. There is nothing like negotiations over Christmas, but I know they will knuckle down. They will have an engaged and willing, albeit critical when necessary, partner in Sinn Féin.
I welcome the Tánaiste and compliment him and his team on the great work they have done over the past three and a half years. Any time I visit Westminster and my British colleagues ask me what I think of Brexit, I always say we view Brexit as the British accidentally shooting themselves, but in our foot. It is a difficult situation. Somebody referred to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, giving the subject of history special status in the junior cycle. It would be worthwhile for some MPs at Westminster to read up on Irish history and its complications. Nevertheless, that does not represent the vast majority of British MPs and Lords, who understand the complications of Brexit. Moreover, there is a generosity towards the island of Ireland, which I greatly appreciate. Similarly, in this House and the other, there is a generosity towards Westminster. We have come an awfully long way since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement, and we are in a much better space.
We have very good friends at Westminster. There are Lord Dubs and Conor McGinn, and I note that in the past half an hour Lady Sylvia Hermon has announced she will not seek re-election. We need people such as Lady Hermon in the constituency of North Down, who was a voice of reason. I hope that whoever takes the seat will be as balanced and measured as she has been since she became an MP in 2001. That such people will not stand is not a good sign. While it is a unionist or Alliance seat - certainly not a nationalist seat - I hope that whoever takes it will look out for the island of Ireland. While Lady Hermon fights her corner and believes in the union, given that is her background, she has always been open, measured, reasonable and understanding of different points of view, which is welcome.
As I have noted in the few times I have visited Westminster, we work closely with our Sinn Féin colleagues there, who do not take their seats, which is fine. The three SDLP MPs, namely, Alasdair McDonnell, Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie, work closely with us, along with the two Ulster Unionist Party MPs, namely, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, and the Sinn Féin MPs. We work closely together to try to articulate a view from Ireland. I wish Ms Ritchie every success in the House of Lords. People attacked her on Twitter but hers is a measured voice we need. She was previously the leader of the SDLP. I wish her every success. It is a bit like our two colleagues in the House, Senator Ó Donnghaile, from one background, and Senator Marshall, from another. They bring a voice from the North from two sides of the equation. It is welcome and it informs us of the nuances of the North and the wider island of Ireland. I always talk about Northern Ireland and have always had an interest in it. My greatest day was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and Margaret Thatcher introduced something that gave us a say in Anglo-Irish affairs and that led to the Good Friday Agreement because it opened the dialogue.
For many years, including during the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women travelled to the UK. We built the roads, taught the children and cared for the sick. While we were well treated, there was no political dialogue between the two countries. It could not have happened in any other place in the world. There was such an impact. My father, grandfather and many others' fathers worked there, but there was no dialogue. Is it not wonderful that we can now travel to London, visit Westminster and talk to our colleagues? The Tánaiste and the Taoiseach can meet the British Prime Minister or the British Foreign Secretary. I was once told that if members of the Government travelled from Dublin to London in the 1950s or 1960s, they might have to wait three or four weeks to have a meeting with a third undersecretary at the British Foreign Office.
That has changed since our accession to the EU in the early 1970s. It gave us a parity of esteem with our nearest neighbours. Unfortunately, some of those neighbours have not yet accepted that Ireland has moved on from the point of, as another speaker noted, there were just 11% of exports to the UK. We want to be friends. Whatever happens in the next few weeks or months, we will do our best to work with our friends in the UK to get the best deal possible. Nevertheless, we are committed Europeans and Europe has given us a roadmap to a new, prosperous Ireland. Our membership of the EU has helped to break down the divisions on the island of Ireland and those between Ireland and the UK.
We have to be conscious that the outcome of Brexit remains uncertain. As a Government, country and Parliament, we are still trying to plan for multiple potential outcomes. No deal is now far less likely, but it is certainly still a possibility. The intensive work on no-deal Brexit planning remains very much banked and ready to be used if necessary. We are now focusing on what we had previously described as a central case scenario, namely, the likelihood of getting a withdrawal agreement and then moving into a transition period. We need to prepare for that but also for the potential outcomes. If the UK Government ratifies the withdrawal agreement and the UK leaves the EU at the end of January, a new risk could emerge at that point.
At the end of the transition period, that is at the end of 2020, if the UK does not apply for more time, there is then the risk of not having a deal and not having any managed process or structure to continue that dialogue. We would have the protections of the withdrawal agreement, in the context of the special arrangements for Northern Ireland to prevent Border infrastructure, protect the common travel area, CTA, and everything else that it does, but there could be significant pressure on our east-west trading relationship. We have to anticipate the different outcomes and prepare the country for them, as we have tried to do right throughout this process. That is despite the unpredictability of political debates and outcomes in Westminster.
For the first time, this week I brought a paper to Cabinet that focused more on preparation for the future relationship discussion than on a no-deal Brexit, although it did focus on both of those issues. We will certainly gear up to ensure that Ireland remains relevant and as influential as we can be in shaping the outcome of a future relationship negotiation. We are fortunate that Michel Barnier will be staying on as the EU chief negotiator, but in a slightly different co-ordinating role. He certainly understands and knows the British-Irish relationship intimately and that will be helpful in the context of the discussion of the future relationship. That will be the case, whatever the issues at stake, whether fishing, data protection or the implementation of the arrangements in the withdrawal agreement.
We will, of course, also have Phil Hogan as the EU trade commissioner. He obviously understands Ireland's politics and economy and the unique exposure that have in many ways to the British economy. It is true that only 11% to 13% of Irish exports are now going to the UK, that does not tell the full story. Some 40,000 Irish companies trade with the UK every month. In the past two years, approximately 102,000 Irish companies either traded with or through the UK. We know that because the Revenue Commissioners wrote to all of them during the summer to encourage them to prepare for different outcomes to Brexit.
The relationship for SMEs is important and that future relationship, from an Irish perspective, needs to be as integrated and close as we can make it. That is why the ambition in the future relationship declaration for a quota-free, tariff-free trading relationship on the back of a free trade agreement is one that we will look to shape in a positive way. We will also, however, be supportive of the EU position that if a tariff-free, quota-free trading relationship is to be facilitated, it will also have to have clear level playing field mechanisms in place to ensure that if the UK moves away from an EU regulatory model that we will not compete with the UK at a disadvantage.
The political declaration is clear that the extent of the level playing field mechanisms within the withdrawal agreement will be directly related to how free the trade will be in the context of access tariffs and quotas. That is going to become a difficult negotiation, as is every free trade agreement, but it is one that I hope we can progress positively to provide as much certainty as we can for businesses. We must also, of course, try to protect the €70 billion trade relationship we have east-west each year with the UK, which is greatly important for us.
I will say a few words about Northern Ireland because several contributors have made comments on this aspect.
I did not intend to.
I have said on numerous occasions during this process that I regret that one of the consequences of the Brexit discussions has been a real straining in the relationship between unionism and the Government. We are anxious to try to repair that relationship. We also want to continue to maintain a strong relationship with nationalists in Northern Ireland and, indeed, all political parties there, including those that do not categorise themselves as nationalist or unionist. I have spent much time trying to do that and I will continue to do so.
Following the Brexit outcome, my biggest priority between now and when we have a general election in this country will be to try to work with my British counterparts and parties in Northern Ireland to repair relationships that have undoubtedly been damaged, particularly in the past year. Northern Ireland desperately needs its own government and it needs the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement functioning and working again. When people talk about trying to create some normality again in relationships North and South, they are effectively talking about getting the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement functioning to their full extent again. Everybody, nationalist, unionist or neither, benefits from that happening.
That is a major priority for me. The outgoing Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, has played an important and constructive role in working with me in trying to do that. We are trying to do that, however, against a background that is nearly making it impossible. I refer to the pressures of Brexit and the polarisation that has emerged from the Brexit outcomes and negotiated solutions.
I am interested in talking to Senator Marshall and others about how we could explore civic engagement that could be more constructive than anything existing to date. My experience so far with civic engagement with an Irish Government, a British Government or political parties is that it tends to be nationalists or unionists talking to themselves. For example, when we tried to set up - and this turned out to be very successful ultimately - an all-island civic dialogue on Brexit and surrounding issues, it was unfortunate that representatives from unionism felt they could not be there. They had their reasons and we have to respect that. We need, however, to try to find a way of having engagement, not just at political party level but at business and community leaders level, where people can talk to each other and have legitimate aspirations for whatever future they want for Northern Ireland.
They should feel that they can talk about that without being accused of having ulterior motives, being too aggressive or being linked to the violence of the past. That goes for both sides. It is not helpful to call for a border poll right now. That has increased pressure on what is a pressurised political environment. I have said that and I think my perspective is understood. We have to try to settle Brexit issues, get the institutions up and running again and to create real dialogue where there is respect for identity and dreams and aspirations from different communities before we start talking about future constitutional challenges. Those challenges will, of course, be decided democratically consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.
That is certainly consistent with what I am calling for, which is a plan and an engagement.
Regarding British-Irish relations, I have said previously, and I am not the only person here that this applies to, that in many ways I am a product of Anglo-Irish or British-Irish relations. I refer to where I have been to university, my family make-up and where my brother and my sister have developed their careers in British cities.
That is the case for so many Irish families. There is a generation in Ireland today, though, that sees Britain as an equal in negotiations and dialogue rather than a country of which we must be fearful or overly respectful in deference or anything like that. It is how we have approached the Brexit negotiations from the outset. We want to deal with the facts, the problems and the complexity that has been thrown up as a result of a decision by the UK as a whole to leave the EU. We are not willing to concede on the basis of political pressure or lobbying. We are trying to deliver an outcome we can stand over, that is politically operable and that protects our peace process while preventing the re-emergence of physical border infrastructure.
I hope we have always maintained that position in a respectful way. It has frustrated some people but it has been a successful process from an Irish perspective in terms of getting an outcome we can live with. Any outcome linked to the delivery of Brexit has significant downsides but I hope this is an outcome we can live with. I also hope we can persuade many unionists in Northern Ireland who are fearful about the implementation and consequences of the current deal that they can also live with it in a way that is not overly threatening.
I also reassure people that we will look to put in place new political infrastructure to reinforce the British-Irish relationship in future in the same way that many closely bound countries in the EU do now. For example, these include France and Germany or Portugal and Spain. Britain and Ireland are neighbours and we have an intertwined history. Much of it is very tragic but in more recent years, there is much that is positive. We will look to put in place agreed structures between the British and Irish Governments to ensure we are meeting, at least on an annual basis, and looking at many joint projects together. I hope we can also use the mechanisms, structures and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to do this.
Like others, I pay my respects to Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a British MP for 18 years in the North Down constituency. I got to know her through the Brexit process and I have enormous respect for her. She is a proud unionist but she is an intelligent, tough, fair and open MP who listens but who is not afraid to challenge people. She has been an extraordinary protector of the Good Friday Agreement through what has been a very divisive and difficult debate for unionists in the House of Commons at different times over the past number of years. I would not have spoken about her like this if she were standing for election this time around as I would probably cost her votes by the bucketload by doing so. As she is not standing, I can say that I have enormous regard for her as a unionist, her intellect and her contribution to British politics at a time we needed a voice like hers. It is important to recognise that, shortly after she has made the decision to step down.
I look forward to returning to this House before the end of the year to give a further update. We will know much more about what challenges Brexit is likely to deliver when we know the result of the British general election on 12 December. I hope we will use some of the time between now and then to continue to prepare Ireland for different outcomes. I will also use some of that time to put thought into how we can create opportunities or windows in Northern Ireland for constructive dialogue between parties to try to find a way after the British general election of re-establishing institutions that can function.
I have learned - in some ways the hard way - that there is never an easy window in politics in Northern Ireland and there is always a reason not to compromise, whether it is a general election, party conference season or the outcome of the renewable heat incentive inquiry, etc. There is always a reason to pull back and not take a risk. We need to create windows with political parties even in the aftermath of what I am sure will be a very divisive general election campaign in Northern Ireland to ensure we can focus on the re-establishment of devolved institutions that can function and deliver for people in Northern Ireland. When we ask people on the street or in a business about this, they are exasperated by the lack of political decision-making capacity within Northern Ireland, which has been ongoing for three years. We must find a way to change that and it is in everybody's interest, regardless of background, identity or political perspective, to try to find a way of doing that. Otherwise we will face perhaps even more difficult choices around more decision-making coming from Westminster, the Irish Government needing to insist on its role as a co-guarantor of the agreement in future and the potential tension flowing from that. It is not where we want to be and I ask Senators to think about how they can contribute positively to that dialogue.