That Seanad Éireann:
- the Withdrawal Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union entered into force on 1st February, 2020 and has legal effects under international law;
- as of that date, no party to the Agreement can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret or disapply it anymore;
- the Northern Ireland Protocol forms an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, even though the relevant substantive provisions are only applicable from 1st January, 2021;
- the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, is a legal obligation under international law;
- violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations;
notes with concern that:
- comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 8th September, 2020, that the United Kingdom Government intends to ‘break international law in a specific and limited way’;
further notes that the Internal Market Bill published by the United Kingdom Government on 9th September, 2020:
- explicitly allows (in section 45) certain provisions of that Bill to have effect even if inconsistent or incompatible with the Withdrawal Agreement, notably the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland (‘The Protocol’) and European Union law made applicable by the Withdrawal Agreement;
- allows the United Kingdom Government (in section 43) to adopt regulations disapplying or modifying certain provisions of the Protocol, including by providing that those shall not be interpreted in accordance with European Union law or the case-law of the Court of Justice;
- permits (in section 43) to abolish domestic remedies and enforcement procedures in connection with rights under the Protocol;
- declares (in section 45) any relevant international law as irrelevant for the lawfulness for the sections regarding the Protocol and gives priority to this Bill over inconsistent or incompatible international law obligations;
- the statement by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives that Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland and that the United Kingdom must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the European Union to ensure the free flow of goods across the border; and
- the United Kingdom Government to withdraw from its Internal Market Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month those provisions that breach the Withdrawal Agreement;
- the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland; and
- the European Union to take all appropriate measures to ensure the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brexit is firmly back on the agenda after what may have felt like a break these past few months. The pandemic has forced us to focus elsewhere but time still ticked on and yet another Brexit deadline is looming. Yesterday marked 100 days to Brexit, when the transition period will officially come to an end.
We have been here before, approaching the cliff edge and every time we have managed to avoid going over but right now there is nothing to suggest that we can avoid this fast-approaching deadline and we cannot be complacent. I had hoped the UK Government would have done the sensible thing and extended the transition period by another year to give time for more meaningful negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, but it was intent from the outset to guillotine its own negotiation, presumably in the hope the additional pressure would work in its favour. This tactic does not appear to have worked for it. I would have thought that the crisis that has gripped the world - not just the UK but across the globe - would have allowed it to think again and give more time to all sides for further negotiations. At the end of the day a deal is the best outcome for all involved. We in Ireland want to see a good deal for the UK because a good deal for it is a good deal for Ireland.
The withdrawal agreement which was negotiated, agreed and adopted jointly by the EU and the UK contains the very important Northern Ireland protocol. The purpose of this protocol is to prevent a hard border on our island and importantly to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Such was the difficulty in agreeing the protocol on Northern Ireland and the long and protracted negotiations surrounding it, it could not reasonably or credibly be suggested by those on the UK side that they did not fully understand what they were agreeing to, that they were somehow bounced into agreeing to it or that a different interpretation of what was agreed could be applied. What was agreed at the time was very clear given the amount time we spent discussing it and both sides were very clear at the time that it was signed.
The withdrawal treaty, including the protocol on Northern Ireland, is binding under international law. Any attempt to unilaterally walk away from that is a breach of international law. Nobody could have foreseen the UK Government bringing forward domestic legislation blatantly designed to breach the withdrawal treaty and break international law. This, even by Brexit standards, is an extraordinary development and one which threatens to undermine the relationship between the EU and the UK, and also the relationship more directly between Ireland and the UK. It also threatens peace on this island and the Good Friday Agreement, which none of us here can countenance or stand for. It is difficult to understand what exactly the UK Government hopes to achieve by these actions or what advantage it thinks it might gain. I cannot see any.
The UK Internal Market Bill, which gives British Ministers the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol is a complete breach of the withdrawal agreement they signed up to. It is a breach of international law and must be withdrawn in its current form. This is what the Fianna Fáil motion calls for today. We are under no illusion and know that we in Seanad Éireann have no way of forcing the hand of the UK Government. We cannot stop it from passing this legislation. I note the Bill has passed the most recent Stage in the House of Commons without a single amendment from the Opposition, despite the best attempts of many MPs to make changes to the Bill. We know that this motion is only about putting it on the record and hoping that it may fall on the ears of somebody who can do something about it.
I find it remarkable that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been quoted as saying that the Internal Market Bill does "break international law in a very specific and limited way". It is extraordinary that a British cabinet Minister has said the Government of which he is a member is going to break the law. The UK Government also seems to be attempting to spin that the withdrawal agreement was subject to the condition of a future agreement being reached. This is an absolute fabrication and utterly untrue. As the UK Government knows well, it is designed to operate in all circumstances, including in the absence of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Following the publication of the UK's Internal Market Bill on 9 September, the Taoiseach raised Ireland's grave concern regarding the Bill directly with the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, on that same day.
The following day, on 10 September, Ireland also took part in an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK joint committee on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement at senior official level as part of the EU delegation. This meeting was also attended by representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive. At this meeting, the EU and Ireland made clear to the UK Government our very serious concerns about the UK's Internal Market Bill. European Commission Vice-President, Mr. Maros Sefcovic, stated after the joint committee meeting that if the Bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an "extremely serious violation of the withdrawal agreement and of international law".
Right across the European Union and beyond, pressure is mounting on the UK Government to pull back from what it is doing. The UK Government is under no illusion as to the seriousness of its proposed actions and the impediment it may present in negotiating a future trading agreement between the UK and the EU.
What is at stake here for Ireland is extremely serious. The prospect that we may not have a free trade agreement with the UK leaves Ireland in a precarious situation. We know from much research that has been done in this area that even with a free trade agreement, we are looking at GDP being 3.2% to 3.9% lower by 2030 than it would have been without Brexit. That is with a deal in place.
The negative impacts will be strongly felt in those sectors with strong export ties to the UK market, particularly, areas such as agri-food, manufacturing and tourism. The impact will be particularly noticeable in regions with a reliance on these sectors. I think, particularly, of my own region in the west of Ireland where agriculture and tourism are major employers and a major part of our local economy. Further to this, given Ireland's unique macroeconomic and sectoral exposure to the UK, these impacts would be disproportionate relative to the rest of the EU.
The economic shock of a no-deal Brexit on top the severe economic implications of Covid-19 would be devastating. When we started this process and these negotiations we did not foresee the global pandemic that has hit our country and every country in the world. We are already dealing with the economic fallout of that. On top of that, we are facing into the prospect of a no-deal Brexit or even a weak-deal Brexit because that is what is on the table here. It will be absolutely devastating for our country. There is a limit to what we can borrow and how much we can fend off the eventual impacts of both of those massive shocks happening to our economy at the same time.
It is worth acknowledging and noting that it is the same for the UK. It also finds itself in a situation where it is probably less able to countenance a no-deal Brexit than it was a year ago, again, because of the impact the pandemic has had on its economy. Yet, for some reason, it seems intent on pursuing a policy domestically that threatens the real prospect of any deal taking place between the EU and the UK. I note there is currently no application for an extension to the transition period. I would, however, hope and plead with the UK to consider allowing more time for the negotiations. More time is always a good thing because going off the cliff together is no place for any country to be. There is still time to pull back from the brink of this and get a deal done. We always hope and show positivity that something can happen.
It is sad to see Great Britain, once considered a great superpower internationally with one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world to which many nations have looked for leadership and that has always set the standard in terms of the rule of law and how it operated on the international stage, find its reputation dwindle and become so damaged in such a short space of by such a small number of people. It really is a sad moment. Any hope we held that it would have pulled back from this is fast dwindling.
I have no doubt that tonight in discussing this motion there will be widespread support across the Chamber and we all agree that the UK needs to pull back from this. I note that the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, leader, Mr. Colum Eastwood, when he commented on the Bill in the House of Commons, acknowledged, obviously, that the Government conceded one change. It was not an Opposition request, but a change from the Government that a parliamentary lock would be in place to stop the UK breaking international law and that it could only happen with the assent of Parliament.
Mr. Eastwood started by saying the Bill itself was unfixable and amendments would not fix it. He went on to say:
Only last week this House voted in full knowledge to allow this Government to break international law. It has voted down every single attempt to prevent this Government from breaking international law, so Opposition Members will be very cautious about waiting around for this Government to check back with this Parliament as to whether or not they are going to break international law.
Mr. Eastwood issued that caution right across the Parliament. He was asking how anyone could trust that the lock would be adhered to or respected, given that the UK Government is not currently holding any respect for the withdrawal agreement that it negotiated just a year ago. I also take on board the comments of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that the parliamentary lock is not sufficient and does not ease the concerns of the Irish Government or the Irish people.
I am warmed and heartened to hear the comments from across the water. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, clearly stated that if the UK Government does anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement or breach the withdrawal agreement in such a way as to undermine peace on this island, there will be no agreement from the US Congress to a US-UK trade deal. The same sentiment has been echoed by potential future US President, Joe Biden. It is encouraging to see that the Irish lobby in Washington is strong, that our connections with the US are strong, and that we have friends in the US who are willing to back us publicly and tell the UK strongly that if it breaches international law, threatens peace on this island and looks to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, pressure will be put on it not only by Ireland and the European Union but also by the United States. That is welcome.
A strong message must go from this House that we will not accept any attempt to unilaterally walk away from the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland. Those negotiations were entered into in good faith. Both sides made concessions and nobody walked away from that negotiation getting everything they wanted. An agreement was reached and signed off on and everybody who signed off on it knew what they were agreeing to at the time. I plead with and ask the UK to pull back from the Internal Market Bill and not to pass domestic legislation that would breach international law. It is bad for Ireland but it is also bad for the UK and it would be extremely damaging to an already very damaged reputation.