I welcome the Minister to the House for these important statements on matters arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. I ask the Minister to address the Senators.
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am pleased to be back in the Seanad this evening. The ongoing engagement of Senators is very welcome on what remains an issue of vital importance for businesses and citizens on the island of Ireland.
Since my last appearance before the Senators, we have seen the successful conclusion of EU-UK negotiations on a future relationship and the end of the transition period. Securing the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, together with the withdrawal agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, means that Ireland's key Brexit objectives have been achieved.
The TCA puts in place the platform that facilitates a new phase of co-operation with the UK on a wide range of areas. We look forward to the final steps in its ratification being concluded as soon as possible and welcome the further certainty that this will provide. When ratification is complete, we expect that the work of the TCA's joint bodies responsible for implementing the technical detail of EU-UK co-operation will begin in earnest.
As we have throughout the Brexit process, Ireland will continue to do everything we can to build a strong EU-UK relationship. I have made our support and ambitions in this regard very clear time and time again.
No agreement could every replace our shared membership of the EU but the TCA avoids the most serious consequences that a no-deal outcome would have brought, including tariffs and quotas.
I understand the disappointment felt by our fishing communities over the new fishing arrangements. As the House knows, that was one of the most difficult and hardest-fought elements of the negotiations.
The Government is working to support the sector and the coastal communities that depend on it. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and I remain actively engaged with the Commission - exploring options and seeking constructive solutions on how best to address the disproportionate allocation of pain in this area and to restore balance quickly to member states' fisheries quota shares.
Even with the TCA in place, the end of the Brexit transition period brought about the largest change in EU-UK relations in almost 50 years. The new reality, with the UK outside the seamless trading environment of the EU Single Market and customs union, is that additional formalities apply to trade with Great Britain. These formalities take time, and require additional administration. At the same time, because of the protocol there are no new checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland or the rest of the EU in either direction.
We said there would be challenges and that it would take time to adapt to the new realities of Brexit. Preparations have been undertaken by our importers, exporters, hauliers, logistics companies and ferry companies to ensure that they can continue to move their goods, secure their supply chains and find new routes to market.
Trader familiarity with the new formalities is improving by the week. The percentage of movements receiving a green routing, which is to immediately leave the port on arrival, has increased from an average of 50% in the first two weeks of the year to more than 80% now.
Departments and agencies are pulling out all the stops to help. Assistance for traders remains available on a 24-7 basis. Our financial advisory and upskilling supports are also still available. I pay particular tribute to the Revenue Commissioners for working incredibly hard in this space with traders.
Over recent decades our trading patterns have diversified but the UK remains a key trading partner for Ireland, especially for the food and drinks sector and for our SMEs. Ireland has an almost €80 billion trading relationship across the Irish Sea. The CSO trade data for January 2021 shows that imports from Great Britain were down 65% on the same period last year and exports were down 14%. Trade flows with other parties were also down, but not as significantly as those numbers.
While a number of unique dynamics were at play in January such as the end of the Brexit transition period, pre-Brexit stockpiling, and the effects of the Covid-19, there is no doubt that Brexit will have longer-term structural impacts on trade with our closest neighbour. Further time and data will be required before we can draw any firm conclusions on post-Brexit trade patterns and supply chain changes. We continue to monitor developments closely to ensure we are in a position to assist and adapt as we seek to have a strong trading relationship with the UK. Of course, the Government also remains committed to developing new markets for Irish traders. In line with our ambitious Global Ireland initiative, we will open new embassies this year in Ukraine, Morocco, and the Philippines, and a new consulate in Manchester.
It is important we all realise that Brexit is not over. Further waves of Brexit-related change and disruption arising from new UK import controls are coming later this year. This will impact businesses exporting food and agricultural goods to Great Britain. The UK recently deferred the introduction of these controls by six months. It is vital that exporters capitalise on this extra time to prepare as these challenges will be significant.
Our EU membership is essential to addressing the challenges of Brexit. We will continue to enjoy access to the EU Single Market of 450 million people and we can count on support and assistance from our EU partners. Last July, EU leaders agreed to establish a Brexit adjustment reserve to assist the most affected member states and sectors. Ireland can expect to receive a substantial allocation from this €1 billion reserve. Negotiations to finalise our allocation continue and we are pressing for these discussions to conclude quickly so that funding can flow to where it is needed, for example to sectors such as the fisheries sector, which need assistance now.
I now turn to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This Government engaged throughout the Brexit process in ensuring that the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland fully taken into account and sensitively addressed. We will continue to be proactive and pragmatic in our approach. The protocol safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, avoids a hard border on the island, and protects the Single Market and Ireland's place it. What we must deliver now is its full and effective implementation, giving people and businesses across the island much needed clarity and certainty going forward. We need to give Northern Irish business the space to benefit from the unique opportunity of open access to both the EU Single Market of almost 500 million consumers as well as the British market.
We recognise the challenges Brexit itself has brought for the whole island of Ireland. I am in ongoing and often daily contact with politicians and representative groups for business and civil society across the island, and in particular in Northern Ireland, to listen to their concerns and understand and explore possible solutions together with them. Opportunities exist to reduce many of the burdens arising from Brexit, for example an EU-UK sanitary and phytosanitary agreement could remove the need for many of the checks and controls on agrifood products, if the UK were to decide go down that route.
Either party imposing its own will unilaterally will certainly not work. The UK's unilateral actions needlessly damage trust with the EU. Agreements must be upheld and respected. Where actions are taken contrary to the terms of the protocol, a negotiated international agreement, it can be no surprise that legal action ensues, with all that that entails. This is not a space for solo runs, no matter the intent or substance of those actions. For solutions to be effective and sustainable, they must be joint solutions. There is a clear framework for engagement and decision-making that must be respected. Let us not forget that those structures were agreed by both sides only a few months ago.
I encourage the UK to take every opportunity to build trust and re-establish itself as a credible partner for the EU. It is essential that the structures established under the withdrawal agreement are used to resolve existing challenges. We are committed to doing that and to showing the flexibility and pragmatism that may be necessary to resolve outstanding issues that people may have. I am pleased that a specialised committee on the protocol took place last Friday, 26 March, and work continues towards a meeting of a joint committee in the hopefully not too distant future. Agreement on a roadmap towards full compliance with the protocol is a key focus of this process. I acknowledge the positive role being played by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, his sustained willingness to find solutions and his continued engagement with a wide range of stakeholders on this island. It has been really impressive and he continues to show that commitment.
We will continue to do all that we can to ensure stability and certainty in the operation of the protocol, to encourage and sustain a positive working EU-UK relationship and to ensure that the protocol works in the interests of people across the island. This has been a difficult number of weeks since the start of the year with regard to the protocol. It is unfortunate that the implementation of the protocol and related issues have been a source of tension and polarisation with regard to political opinion in Northern Ireland. We all have an obligation to work to try to reduce those tensions and to rebuild trust and good relations. We can only do that by implementing what has already been agreed and complying with what is now international law, and also by looking in a pragmatic and flexible way at how the implementation can be adapted to recognise frustrations and real difficulties when they occur. I believe all of that is possible but it has to happen with people working together, not acting unilaterally.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge and thank him for the determined, skilful and really committed approach that he has taken right through this process, both through the achieving of solidarity with Ireland as Brexit was unfolding right through to the negotiation of the protocol and the avoidance of a hard border, on to the present day. That committed, skilful approach is so appreciated by the people of the country and was necessary in this context.
In the time allowed, I can only do a little survey of some of the main points that occurred to me, which I would like the Minister to respond to in some instances and just to make them in others. On the protocol, I am encouraged by what the Minister said, that his approach has been to make the protocol work in a sensible, pragmatic way and to achieve an east-west solution. That was my view. In the notes I prepared, I was going to make the point that I thought that in the outworking of the protocol, we should be reasonable, achieve consensus and be there to do that. That is not to say that we are not correct in objecting to the breach of an international agreement when that occurs, but I think that a pragmatic approach is required. That is what the Minister is doing and I commend that continuing.
An issue that is often raised in this House by Senator Ó Donnghaile and which I also wish to raise is the need for mutual recognition of professional qualifications on an east-west basis. I gather that an initiative of the two Governments could greatly accelerate that process and I urge the Minister to begin negotiations to that end. While a number of professional bodies are working through this themselves and approximately ten have achieved it already, an intergovernmental approach would be very helpful here.
As the Minister himself said, our relationship with the UK is of extraordinary importance now. We must maintain the bonds of kinship and friendship as well as the cultural and interpersonal ties that exist, not to mention our trading relationship, which is crucially important. I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe, one of the bodies of which the UK is also a member and through which we can interact, and of course the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly provides similar opportunities for interaction. Such interaction remains important, as does our trading relationship.
An issue was raised at a recent meeting of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union by the Irish SME association, ISME to which I draw the Minister's attention. ISME representatives said Revenue is debiting VAT and duties due by the importer 30 minutes before port arrival. In cases where the importer has multiple inbound shipments, Revenue may make a deduction which means the importer has insufficient funds to clear a shipment that is 30 minutes from port. The importer can transfer funds during working hours via Revenue's online service, ROS, but cannot do so outside working hours. This can hold up other shipments. ISME suggested that Revenue has offered a solution for this but it is not working yet. While I agree with the Minister that Revenue has done a great job so far and is very committed to finding easy solutions, I ask that this issue be examined. According to a submission from ISME, there is a problem with the payment system, particularly out of hours. It appears that there are some outstanding issues with clearance.
The trade and co-operation agreement is working well but needs to be built on and made to work in a very practical sense. Another issue of concern is the mutual recognition of EU and UK data protection rules. An agreement is in place in this regard that runs until July 2021 but there could be a lot of difficulties after that date at borders and on an east-west basis. I urge the Minister to engage on a bilateral, intergovernmental level to resolve this issue. We were part of a single data protection area when we were all in the EU so it should not be too difficult to continue a working arrangement.
It is worth noting that there has been growth in our trade with Northern Ireland in the first quarter of the year, which is a great by-product of Brexit. Imports from Northern Ireland increased from €137 million to €177 million and exports to the North increased from €170 million to €190 million. That trading relationship is very important. As the Minister said earlier, it is vitally important we keep the North-South trading relationship strong and we protect the Good Friday Agreement.
Another issue that has arisen at the aforementioned Seanad select committee is the potential for increases in the price of bread which, while affecting everybody, will hit the poorest in our communities the hardest. The problem is the milled flour for bread is being imported because we do not have sufficient flour milling capacity in Ireland. The price of bread is potentially an issue and this must be addressed on two fronts. We must increase our domestic flour milling capacity and reach some sort of international agreement to get over the problem.
The question of the reunification of the country arises and was debated very recently on "Claire Byrne Live". I remember engaging in a school debate on this question as a youngster. I won that debate on the basis of saying that what was needed was a reunification of hearts and minds and not just territory and fields.
We should be considering the reunification question and how we can establish areas of co-operation. A simple suggestion I have always made, which is not the Minister's direct area of responsibility although I would appreciate it if he considered bringing it to the Cabinet, is that we should make it a condition of sports capital grants and all sorts of grants that they have a North–South dimension. Thus, a club receiving a sports capital grant here would interact with a club in the North, even just once or twice in the year. It would not have to be often but enough to establish a normal North–South relationship in both directions.
A beef farmer in Ireland is getting €300 less than a beef farmer in the UK for the equivalent animal. There is now a kind of nationalism in the UK associated with the eating of UK beef. It is a concern. In the context of Brexit solidarity funding, etc., our beef farmers will need support. Our dairy farmers will also need protection to ensure they do not suffer later on. It is important in the context that we protect our farmers.
I would like the Minister to comment in his reply, if he does not mind, on the prospect of EU solidarity funding and supports that we could use to deal with vulnerable sectors, even the milling and flour sector, so we could in some way compensate those affected.
I thank the Minister for being present.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Since 2016 we have been caught in the middle of what, for many, has been the Brexit nightmare. Its prevalence in the public mind has been more or less continuous. Obviously, Covid-19 changed that somewhat but Brexit has never fully gone away and we continue to deal with its fallout. As an issue, it deserves much thought and constant attention, now and in the future. Here in the Republic, we have gained a growing appreciation of the fact that while we are not quite serving two masters, we are seeking to keep two friends. Our membership of the EU mandates support for the associated law, yet our irreplaceable trade links with the UK mean we cannot afford to place a foot wrong in either direction lest we step on some toes. All of that is in addition to the unique challenges presented by the fact of there being two jurisdictions sharing this island, with one no longer bound by EU law although still within the Common Market.
While we spoke earlier in this House about the vaccination programme, I did not get to welcome any supply of vaccines that we might obtain from our neighbours in the UK. We should, of course, seek new supplies wherever we can get them at a fair price and in a way that is ethical and does not result in vulnerable people in other countries going without the vaccine, which we should always keep in mind. I was surprised and disappointed by the reticence of the leader of Sinn Féin on this issue yesterday. Others have said, and I have often said, that when it comes to Brexit, an anti-British mentality and an associated style of rhetoric directed at the UK should have no place in our politics, yet there is still plenty of it around, latent or otherwise. The UK Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Matt Hancock, has said that Britain does not currently have surplus Covid-19 vaccines but will consider how they are allocated as they become available. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs has said he would be very interested in talking to the British Government about that, which is a position everyone should support. Given that the UK remains on course to offer a first dose to all of those aged over 50 in the UK by 15 April and all adults in the UK by the end of July, it is very plausible that the UK will have surplus vaccines that we could avail ourselves of in this country. We should be trying to plan for that now so we will be ready to receive and distribute them when the time comes.
I find it remarkable that in much of the talk about Brexit, it has been portrayed fairly constantly in this country as Britain shooting itself in the foot, acting against its own national interest and being unable to let go of its vision of its past glory, so to speak. In the fullness of time, maybe Brexit will turn out to have been a big mistake for Britain, it will be the end of the union, and Boris Johnson will end up as king of Wessex, turning the clock back 1,000 years, but there are times when one believes the British could just make a go of this.
The United Kingdom has shown remarkable resilience. Certainly, its speed in moving to get adequate supplies of the vaccine and its efficiency in distributing the vaccine is something we should admire. We should give credit where credit is due.
I thought there was something of the "Cool Britannia" in recent developments. It would certainly be a diplomatic masterstroke if Britain was to make vaccines available to this country. It would do much to improve relations between our two islands at a time when they have been under strain for obvious reasons, largely through no fault of ours. There was something of the "Cool Britannia" about this and perhaps something of the "Cruel Britannia" about the way the UK has interacted with the European Union on occasions in this matter as well.
I believe the suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was poorly handled. I cannot help but take the view that Brexit had as much of an impact as any perceived danger from the vaccine itself. I have looked at the figures relating to those at risk of developing a blood clot and the understandable concerns about that. However, when we look at the figures and the claimed incidence of blood clots, we have to wonder whether there is something more going on. The inevitable slowdown in the rate of vaccination and the damage to public trust in the vaccine generally will sadly lead directly to deaths that could have been avoided. One concerning question is whether the European attitude to this had something to do with the idea that it was a British-driven project trumpeted by the UK as an example of its ability to thrive outside the EU. Did that lead to a latent hostility towards that particular vaccine and, as a result, cause a knee-jerk reaction? That is a question we need to engage with honestly.
We should have regard to the attitudes and actions of the European Commission in recent months. I regard myself as someone who is pro-European albeit not uncritically so. There are many things about the EU project that I have had a problem with in the past and that I continue to struggle with. I am a person who is in favour of our membership of the European Union and the great benefits it has brought our country. However, I struggle sometimes to love the EU and the way it does business. The handling of the AstraZeneca issue was one example. Its handling of the vaccine roll-out more generally is another. I note Austria and Denmark have already broken ranks with the EU. They have said they will not rely solely on EU channels in future and will work with Israel to develop second-generation vaccines. This prompts the question of whether we too need to take a more independent line than we always do. I know it is difficult as a small country and I know we rely on the support and solidarity of the EU as we deal with our economic and other challenges.
In three days' time, on 1 April, further new UK trade import requirements were scheduled to come into effect as per the Northern Ireland protocol. Despite the date, the controls are no joke. Pre-notification to the UK authorities of all consignments of products of animal origin entering Britain were to be required and these had to be accompanied by veterinary certificates or export health certificates, over 350,000 of which will be required per annum according to estimates from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Obviously, that will not happen at this point. The UK Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, has postponed the increased import requirements until 1 October. That move has been welcomed by some but not others. Our Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was pleased, saying that Irish exporters should maximise their use of the additional time to prepare in a comprehensive manner for the next phase of Brexit.
After that date, the second slew of import controls will come into effect three months later in January 2022. While the postponement of these requirements may be a boon for Irish trade, it must be pointed out that there is an issue in respect of contravention of the protocol which was agreed by both parties. We know about the European Commission and the infringement proceedings that have been launched. Northern Ireland is in a legal limbo. Do the supermarkets and food suppliers there abide by the EU's imposition of import requirements or by the UK's postponement of such? In many ways we find our Government having to play the part of interpreter between the British and EU sides. While we must honour our EU membership by upholding the rule of law, the more time we have to prepare for costs associated with Brexit red tape around trade, the better.
I am keen to touch on the issue of farming. I note Ciaran Fitzgerald said in his Agriland column last week that mainstream media's consciousness and representation of agriculture rests solely these days on the characterisation of agricultural output in terms of carbon emissions or environmental impact.
We must remember the hundreds of thousands of jobs supported across the economy by agriculture. We produce food for the equivalent of 40 million people. It is absolutely vital that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is successful in his engagement with the Commission in fighting for the lion's share of the Brexit adjustment reserve. The €1 billion portion of that fund allocated to this country will be badly needed when those trade barriers eventually kick in.
I welcome the Minister. We are only three months into this new Brexit environment but it feels much longer. It is fair to say that a lot has happened in the short few months that the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement has been in operation. There is still a bedding-in period to go yet. There will inevitably be further teething problems.
I take this opportunity to relay some of the thoughts, ideas and challenges brought to the Brexit committee, as well as the difficulties that different stakeholders are having with the new system. There are areas where the State can assist in making life a little bit easier, particularly for those trading in this new environment. The committee had good engagement with US Congressman Richard Neal, Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. That was timely towards the end of last year when things were a little challenging, as they have been on many occasions throughout the Brexit process. It was very good to be in the Seanad Chamber with our colleagues and to have Congressman Neal relay in very strong words his support for the protocol, the Brexit agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. That support from our friends across the water is always welcome and really helpful.
The committee also heard from Mike Russell, a Member of the Scottish Parliament and a representative of the Scottish Government. In some ways, Scotland has had many of the difficulties we have had with trade, access to the land bridge and getting goods in and out of the country. The Scots have faced some of the challenges that we had as well. It was good to engage with Mike Russell, the Scottish Government representative, to see what we can learn from one another and even just to have that solidarity in dealing with what is a difficult situation that nobody really asked for but we have had to deal with.
The committee engaged with the Northern Ireland Executive's committee. Its members attended our committee meeting and then we, in turn, attended theirs. That was a really positive engagement between the two Parliaments and among colleagues, North and South. Many of these issues are all-island ones and we have to work together to resolve them.
There were no unionist representatives at the meeting we hosted, which was disappointing. That disappointment was expressed by members. All of the committee members and I, as Chair, are eager to ensure when we produce our report in the summertime that we will reflect that difference of views from a significant community in a significant part of this island. When we reciprocated and attended the Northern Ireland committee's meeting, there was an independent unionist voice present. He said he was almost there but not quite on that side. We did get a different perspective and it was a different way of looking at the situation. It was good to hear it and that we reflected on it. Sometimes we can be in an echo chamber all saying the same things on Brexit but there is a large community with a very different view on what has happened and what is going to happen.
The issue which has cropped up for many of the stakeholders is that relating to customs and practical matters like getting goods in and out, the extra paperwork, as well as the cost of transport. One aspect the committee will be exploring in the middle of May will be the challenges being faced at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort in the context of the HSE, Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine working together to make life a little bit easier for traders. There are all of these extra checks in place. For example, we have heard from the Irish Road Haulage Association and Dublin Port that the three different agencies are located in different places. One can be moved from pillar to post and delayed leaving the port. That is just making life difficult for the hauliers and for the businesses with goods on board. There is a job of work to be done in getting those three organisations to work better together and to streamline their IT systems.
We have been told that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine is still looking for the production of actual paperwork, which in this day and age should be digitised to make life easier for those working in that sector.
We heard from representatives of the ESRI. Regardless of the committee before which they appear, they are always interesting witnesses to listen to and they give an objective overview of what is happening. One of the most poignant points Dr. Barrett made when he presented to the committee was that the Northern Ireland protocol presents a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland, but if it is removed, the opportunity will be gone. I am paraphrasing slightly, but that is the essence of what he told the committee.
It is important that we persuade and send the message that the protocol is a good thing that protects the Good Friday Agreement and ensures there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. In addition, there is a trade opportunity for the North, which now has access to both markets, the best of both worlds. When I said that previously, other parties and Members did not quite see things that way. However, that is my view and certainly the view the ESRI also expressed.
Senator Joe O'Reilly spoke about the data protection issue. Representatives of the Data Protection Commission are also to present to the committee. They have raised concerns over the transfer of data between the UK and Ireland. The UK now being a third country poses significant challenges in maintaining that data flow. The deadline is 30 April, but we are confident, as is the Data Protection Commission, that it will be extended to 30 June. Beyond that, we need to ensure that those data flows can continue because that is how the world works now. It would be good to get some clarity on that.
We had a very interesting engagement on the cross-border treatment directive with PDFORRA, Kingsbridge Hospital in the North and the HSE. As Members will be aware, the cross-border treatment directive facilitates people in the Republic to avail of healthcare in other EU member states. That used to include Northern Ireland but does not anymore. There is a sticking plaster, if I can call it that. There is an administrative system in place just for this calendar year to facilitate people in the Republic accessing healthcare in the North. We need a longer-term solution to that.
Remarkably, PDFORRA has set up its own system for members of the Defence Forces. To access the cross-border treatment directive, someone must pay the hospital upfront and then get reimbursed by the HSE. Many people do not have access to that kind of money or would need to go a lender. Many older people, in particular, do not like to do that. PDFORRA has very cleverly put in place a system allowing it to pay the cost upfront with the individuals paying it back when they are reimbursed. If there is a shortfall in what the HSE pays, PDFORRA will meet that shortfall. It is looking after the members within its own organisation. It is a fantastic example of an organisation that has got around the barriers that have been erected to people accessing this service.
I make one plea on that. As healthcare between North and South is no longer bound by the cross-border treatment directive, let us improve on what is there. Let us remove those barriers. We should not expect people to cobble together €5,000 or €10,000 to access treatment if we are going to give it back to them anyway after they get it done. Let us find a way of replicating what PDFORRA has done for members of the Defence Forces to facilitate people to access that healthcare because they are doing it anyway. Out of sheer desperation, people are begging, borrowing and stealing to try to get that money together to access it. We can improve on that situation.
It is important that we look after the protocol and maintain it. It is important that we listen to the significant number of people in the unionist community. For them, this is an affront to their identity and to their being in their own country. We need to listen to that and find a way around it.
We have a longer-term body of work to do relating to democratic oversight of the long-term implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement to ensure that this Parliament and the European Parliament have oversight over the operation of the agreement into the future.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I again put on record my thanks to him for the considerable work he has done on all the details of the complex Brexit issue. I take the opportunity to thank the Chair of the Seanad Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Senator Chambers - although she covered my entire speech in her latest contribution - for the varied and detailed engagements on all matters related to Brexit, mainly the challenges and problems.
Perhaps we could concentrate on the opportunities. There are opportunities and it is important to state that today. The Minister acknowledged in his opening remarks that there are opportunities arising from this major challenge for our country.
The Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU met and questioned representatives of Enterprise Ireland today. I was heartened to hear that its programme to diversify trade to our EU partners following Brexit saw a growth in exports from €4.1 billion to €5.6 billion in 2019. That is something Enterprise Ireland is continuing to develop. I am sure the Minister will agree it is important that Enterprise Ireland is supported in its growth as it identifies and supports companies that can export into non-EU markets and ensures that our country has a range of balanced export markets. That will be important.
It is also important that we ensure that the 31% of our country's total exports that go to our nearest and biggest market is maintained. Our conversations with the various trade and business representatives over the past number of months have continued to bring up a number of problems, many of which seem, unfortunately, to be home grown at this early stage, as has been stated. It was also encouraging to hear that in recent surveys by Enterprise Ireland, 83% of Irish companies identified growth potential and opportunities in the UK, showing the importance of our trade with our nearest neighbour and that it needs to be maintained, as I said before. That is positive.
Other Members have already mentioned the challenges and discussions we have had with Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME, and the Irish Road Haulage Association at the Brexit committee. As others mentioned, there are issues surrounding the number of agencies currently involved in our export and import contracts, particularly at our ports. Those are causing problems. We have been told that the delay caused by the amount of paperwork is costing Irish business. We are asking for a quicker and more economical way to complete these transactions. There must be a better way for State agencies to interact with each other. I ask the Minister, as others have, to investigate this issue and ensure the additional paperwork that these businesses knew was coming runs in a smoother and more timely manner.
I will raise a matter I also raised in our most recent discussion on Brexit, that is, the cross-border health directive. Senator Chambers outlined the situation and I want to go through it again with the Minister. The most important thing is the need for a new permanent solution to be put in place for the many thousands of Irish people who avail of the health services in the North of Ireland each year. I am sure the Minister, as Minister for Defence, is aware of the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, PMAS, which was described in a recent session the Brexit committee had with the Department of Health and the HSE as an "excellent scheme". PMAS was set up by PDFORRA in 2018 due to continued lack of investment and, indeed, withdrawal of medical services available to members of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA set up a separate company that will operate the scheme which previously used the cross-border health directive to provide medical treatment to members of PDFORRA for a subscription of €1 per week. To date, PDFORRA has invested €150,000 to establish the scheme and support injured members. Since 2018, the PDFORRA company has sent nearly 255 members to Kingsbridge Hospital, Belfast, for treatment. This has had a twofold benefit in that it has removed members of the Defence Forces in the scheme from public waiting lists and, most importantly, it has allowed serving members to return to work quicker, thereby, of course, assisting the Defence Forces in retention and allowing for overseas service and promotion. The impact of Covid-19 has now created a waiting list of a further 60 members who are awaiting referral.
I asked the Department on the day of our engagement what was the socioeconomic background of those availing of the previous directive and the interim one that is in place at the moment. The HSE stated that it does not collect that type of information simply because it does not have the right to do so. However, when HSE representatives talked to patients, their opinion was that the majority of them were from the middle and lower-class groups. They stated that, in the main, they do not have health insurance and almost all of them are borrowing the money from credit unions, banks or relatives, as has been said here this evening. The HSE stated that the two main providers of the money are relatives and credit unions. That is where the patients are getting the money for treatment. Officials gave examples of those availing of the scheme as being in their 70s or 80s, living in rural areas with no access to services and usually on a long waiting list. We were told by representatives of the HSE that a patient such as that would be waiting two, three or four years to access a cataract operation. As was said, such a period out of one's life at the age of 70 or 80 has a huge impact and would affect the quality of life. In fairness, patients also outlined that once their procedures were carried out, they were able to drive again, regained independence and could live their lives once again.
It had a huge impact on them, they went on to say. The other patient, typically, is a person with Covid who tends to be a tradesperson, for example, a carpenter who has knee or hip pain, is off work because of Covid and is using the opportunity to access healthcare while it is not interfering with his or her ability to work. They are the two types of patients referred to in our conversation and they are not the higher socioeconomic group of patients.
The Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme is an interim scheme to replace the EU cross-border directive. Given the importance of it to those I have outlined and the desire of PDFORRA to extend this scheme to the families of members of our excellent Defence Forces, I ask the Minister to commit this evening to support the extension of this scheme. I am informed the interim scheme is working well, thanks to the excellent staff operating and administering it, I am told, but there is still no word on an extension of the scheme by the end of this year. It is in this regard many would welcome the support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Government.
I would like now to raise a number of other issues raised with me over recent months. I am hearing locally that, owing to the stockpiling of goods or logistics and paperwork, many local businesses are seeking replacement complementary products as they fear they may run out of product or may not have it on time. From the local dentist to the manufacturing plant there is concern that Brexit will have serious implications for their businesses and customers. In light of discussions we have had in committee and the fact that the UK is not due to implement its procedures for a number of months, I would appreciate it if the Minister would comment on those fears and outline what preparations Government is making for the procedures which the UK is due to implement in the coming months. This was a concern among the business organisations we spoke to over recent months. Is the Government preparing for the difficulties that will arise when these procedures are put in place by the UK?
During my recent engagement with the agencies they all commented on the opportunities that may arise from Brexit, particularly around foreign direct investment. Many commented they thought Northern Ireland would be in many cases a better area to locate such investment given the access to both markets that that part of Ireland enjoys. I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline what the Government proposes to put in place to examine this potential. Even if this investment is in the North, I am sure that with continued co-operation, it will benefit the Border counties. As much as Brexit is a threat, we must examine the opportunities that exist or may arise and Government must be ready.
I thank the Minister for his time and I wish him well in the work that is needed for all of the reasons outlined by Senators.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim buíoch go bhfuil seal againn leis an ábhar seo a phlé. I welcome the Minister. I am glad we have the opportunity to hear from him as well as the opportunity to discuss some of the very important issues that pertain, which colleagues have rightly raised in this debate.
Brexit is the product of a project of collaboration between the DUP and the British Conservative Government that has lasted more than four years. Despite the rather hollow and hypocritical howls of protest from the DUP and others about the so-called border in the Irish Sea, Brexit and its consequences are to be owned by those who drove them. The campaign to leave the EU was championed by the DUP and right-wing Tory Brexiteers. They did so without consideration of the political, economic and social implications for Ireland and our peace process. The EU was integral in supporting and underpinning peace in Ireland. Joint membership of the EU by Ireland and Britain, and in particular joint access to the Single Market and customs union, enabled many of the rights and freedoms of peace to be realised. Despite this, the implications for the peace process of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU played no significant role in the Brexit campaign. Instead, withdrawal was backed by some of those supposed to support and protect our peace process.
The people of this country and in the North thought differently. Brexit was rejected by the people of the North in 2016. It was rejected by the North's Executive and Assembly. Despite the majority of people and their elected representatives in the North rejecting Brexit, the DUP, in partnership with the Conservative Government, embarked on trying to withdraw the North from the EU, a key institution in uniting the people of the North and South. That great party of unionism, the DUP, who lectured anyone and everyone who was foolish enough to listen to it about the importance of the ballot box and democracy, engaged in an undemocratic campaign in its failed attempts to undermine the expressed will of the people of the North.
Against the will of the people and the will of the North's Executive and Assembly, against our express democratic will, the DUP supported every effort the Tories made to take Britain and the people of the North out of the EU. After years of negotiations, the Irish protocols were agreed alongside the wider EU-UK withdrawal agreement, which mitigated the worst consequences of the right-wing DUP-Tory Brexit agenda. The Irish protocol provided the mechanics to avoid a hard border in Ireland. The protocol not only allows for unfettered trade to continue between the North and South but also allows for the North's continued access to the EU market and the opportunities that come with it. As for east-west arrangements, the protocol also avoids the need for unnecessary customs duties on goods moving from Britain into the North.
The protocol has successfully tailored all the interests of the parties and created the best opportunities for business to carry on largely unhindered, yet the Brexiteers, the very people who required its existence in the first place, are attacking it. The principal target has been the so-called Irish Sea border, referring to the need for paperwork and checks on certain goods moving from Britain to the North, yet the sea border is the direct product of Brexit and all those who championed it. It was not inevitable, as the Minister knows. This is a clear case of the more local Brexiteers having to reap what they sowed with the English Tories. The need for red tape anywhere was caused by Brexit and the rejection by the DUP and the Tories of sensible proposals on access to the customs union. Contrary to the now changed DUP narrative that the protections of the protocol and continued access to the EU Single Market offer a unique opportunity to build and develop new all-Ireland trading opportunities while minimising the negative effects of Brexit, the Minister will remember that the DUP, along with every other right-thinking person, acknowledged the opportunities the protocol presented. That has perhaps changed, however, with the findings of recent opinion polls in the North.
While trading between Ireland and Britain is in decline, trade across Ireland has been increasing, as other Members have indicated. In January, trade going south increased by 10% as trade going north increased by 17%. Supply chains have already begun orientating towards the all-Ireland model. Hauliers north and south of the Border have shifted towards using direct ferry services from Ireland to the European Continent in order to avoid the British land bridge and the associated red tape. The surge in demand has been mirrored by an increase in supply services offered at south-eastern ports, increasing from 12 per week to over 40 since the end of the transition period.
The changing trading arrangements imposed by Brexit present opportunities to deepen North-South co-operation in terms of trade and economic and social progress and to bring investment and jobs. Central to this is the full implementation of the protocol and the protections it contains. It did not matter to the DUP or the Tories that the consequences of Brexit would damage the economies of this country and would add to the economic difficulties presented by the pandemic. Now the EU, the Government here, the North's executive, business people and the workers of this entire country have to ensure that the EU-British Government deal, the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocols are fully implemented to minimise any potential damage caused by Brexit to Ireland's two economies.
At two levels last week, Ireland's constitutional future had a particular focus. On national television and various other platforms it was being debated while others were bringing forward ideas and proposals to protect and develop Ireland's economies despite the problems created by Brexit. Dublin Port Company published a series of discussion papers to contribute to the consultation process on increasing the long-term capacity of the port between 2030 and 2040, including moving the port to Bremore, County Dublin, which would mean additional capacity required elsewhere and would open up other port locations along the eastern corridor, namely, Rosslare, Drogheda and Waterford. The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the executive's finance minister, Conor Murphy, joined representatives from eight councils, including Dublin and Belfast and all in between, to discuss a report jointly prepared by Dublin City University and Ulster University on developing the eastern corridor as an economic powerhouse. It has to be business as usual for the people of Ireland, North and South, as they develop all-Ireland plans to minimise the impact of Covid-19, Brexit and partition. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that legally binding agreements must be upheld and implemented fully - and that does not pertain just to the two we deal specifically with tonight - and that solo runs serve no one. Problems, whether perceived or actual, should be dealt with around the committee table.
I thank the Minister. I have been asking for these statements for some considerable time and, while appreciating that this is a live dynamic and it is not always easy to come in and give a fully comprehensive report, it was important we had the opportunity to discuss this before Easter.
I appreciate the Minister making himself available to the Seanad as he very often does and, indeed, the Leader facilitating my request.
Other colleagues have regularly said that, in the context of the pandemic, we have perhaps taken our eye slightly off this at a political and institutional level, for understandable reasons, but the work goes on. That is not to do down the sterling work of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU and our chairperson. The need to protect the protocols and the withdrawal agreement by the Minister, his colleagues in the Executive who wish to do so and, indeed, colleagues across the EU, is of vital importance as we steer our way through the unwanted consequences of Brexit and the dangers posed to our economies as a result of the pandemic.
I wish the Minister well in his endeavours. He has very willing colleagues on this side of the House in ensuring that we work to uphold those agreements.
I also welcome the Minister to the Chamber. We appreciate that he has made himself available. I also want to express my gratitude for the phenomenal work he has done on Brexit on behalf of the people of Ireland. It has been brilliant and we appreciate it.
There has been much discussion about the impact on our country of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Most of the discussion has been centred on the economic impact of this withdrawal but issues such as education and health have also come to the fore. It is vital that we maintain common standards and approaches across the entire island in key areas such as environmental protection, healthcare, education and human rights. This is particularly clear when it comes to the environment. The UK is no longer bound by key EU environmental directives post Brexit and this has caused a great degree of uncertainty. Environmental issues, by their nature, transcend borders and there is a big overlap on issues like biodiversity, waterways and air quality. We need a co-ordinated, consistent approach across the island, treating it as a single biogeographic unit and realising that our rivers run across borders.
An all-island approach must be taken for human rights protection as well. At present, the European Convention on Human Rights applies in both jurisdictions and this should be maintained. It would be regressive and unsustainable to remove rights currently enjoyed by people living on the island. With the UK withdrawal from the EU we have to ensure they are not placed with a Bill of rights that is watered down and less far reaching. We simply cannot row back on people's rights. Human rights protections must be equivalent on both sides of the border. This is outlined, as the Minister well knows, in the Good Friday Agreement and we need to maintain it. On rights and equality, it is worth remembering that the Northern Irish protocol contains no diminution guarantee. It is vital that this is effectively implemented in the North. There still seems to be a lack of awareness around it. I also look forward to seeing the human rights and equality institutions on the island working much more closely together in the future.
There was a real concern among disadvantaged third level students in the North that they would no longer be able to avail of the Erasmus+ scheme to study in Europe. However, I welcome the Government's arrangements to enable students of relevant institutions in the North to have continued access to the programme. It means that third level students in Northern Ireland have access to programmes no longer available to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Covid pandemic has brought the health service, North and South, into focus. The shortcomings of both systems have to be addressed. It is essential that there is a unified health service for the whole island. The planning for this needs to be undertaken as soon as possible. The roll-out of the Sláintecare model all over the island should be researched and costed.
Brexit will create challenges and opportunities for the Irish economy and Irish-based businesses. Some immediate challenges have emerged as companies deal with the reality of the new rules and paperwork. The withdrawal of the UK has resulted in problems for Irish exporters and importers who previously used the land bridge. While new ferry routes to Dunkirk and the expansion of the services to Cherbourg from Rosslare are welcome, sidestepping the land bridge is not possible yet. Hauliers, wholesalers and retailers are struggling with the new complexities when it comes to important goods going across the land bridge or direct from the UK.
This has led to drivers being stuck at customs and food safety inspection bays at Dublin Port for days on end.
Brexit has initiated a process of divorce by those in the Irish retail sector from their UK partners. It is easier to import directly from the EU rather than routing through the UK. However, the buying power of Irish importers is likely to be much less than that of UK firms. In addition, the cost of setting up totally separate distribution streams is significant. The results are likely to be less choice and competition and higher retail prices here.
Besides the challenge of increased trade friction with our largest trading partner, opportunities could emerge in many areas. For example, new foreign direct investment projects that would have historically looked to the UK as an English-speaking base in the EU may now consider locating in Ireland.
An unexpected issue that has gained real prominence in discussions is the constitutional status of the North. A majority of the people in the North voted to remain in the EU and have been taken out of it against their wishes. The conversation on reunification of the island has taken on an energy like never before. Thankfully, the assertion that is discussing Irish reunification is divisive is being discredited.
The Taoiseach's shared island unit is to be welcomed. However, there is an urgency in planning and preparing for the inevitable Border poll. I am heartened by the call from Fianna Fáil's Deputy James O'Connor, who represents Cork East, for a special Minister for State to be appointed to co-ordinate the work of the unit. As Fianna Fáil's Deputy Jim O'Callaghan said in his address to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge last week, a huge responsibility rests on civic groups freed from the constraints of party politics to propose, discuss and debate what a new Ireland may look like and how it may operate. However, I am concerned that civic society is moving faster than the political parties and that the research and planning that can only be undertaken and funded by Government will not be ready for the electorate to make an informed choice when a referendum is called. I am also concerned that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the power to call a referendum at any time, but is not prepared to divulge the criteria he will use to make this decision.
An issue that seems to worry some publications in the South is the threat of loyalist violence. The latter is a concern. The threat of violence should never halt the legitimate discussion on the constitutional future of this island. If it does, then I believe the Good Friday Agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. Brexit was supported by many who are now objecting to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was a direct result of leaving the EU. The Good Friday Agreement, a fantastic agreement, allows the people of both jurisdictions on this island to democratically decide the constitutional future of the island. Many of the issues resulting from the withdrawal of the UK from the EU were addressed in the withdrawal agreement. If the terms of this agreement are adhered to the problems that are now being experienced can definitely be resolved.
I again thank the Minister and his Department for all of the great work they have done. I wish him well in continuing with that.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House and I echo the comments of others in thanking him for his commitment on this rather tricky issue. I also thank all of the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and other Departments for their work in this area.
Some of my colleagues have already covered a number of the issues involved. At the Brexit committee, I raise four issues on a regular basis, namely, data, flour, the question of Rosslare Europort and education. On a previous occasion, I raised the issue of data protection with the Minister. It is an issue that does not tend to get the same level of attention as other issues in the Brexit debate. As we know, there is a draft adequacy decision to the effect that the data rules in the UK must be adequate to match those of the EU. I am concerned, however, that if at some stage in the future the UK's data regime does not remain in line with our data protection laws or that if the UK were to breach fundamental rights concerning the handling of personal data, it would lead to a suspension. This is not just about the interruption that will happen to business with data flows back and forward - the estimated cost here could potentially be more than €1 billion.
There are also implications with regard to sharing sensitive security and law enforcement data. This is a concern, particularly knowing the issues on this island around the need in certain circumstances to share particular information about security. It is important.
Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital Culture, Media and Sport wrote recently in the Financial Times that the UK now has the freedom to strike out on its own in international data partnerships with the world's fastest growing economies. Depending on the UK Government's attitude, I worry whether we are sufficiently prepared if the UK diverges and whether the Data Protection Commission has all the resources, with all the other work it has to do. As colleagues have said, every four years the adequacy decision will expire and this is something we need to address.
The importation of flour and the rules of importation has a direct impact on consumers. It could add 9% to the price of bread or bread products. In light of that, we need to examine import substitution. I hope that some of the resources from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund could be used perhaps to set up our own mills but certainly to address some of the concerns around import substitution.
Senator Black just mentioned Rosslare Europort. It is finally booming. It is now our nearest point to France and the EU. There are 36 weekly direct services linking Rosslare and continental Europe. I ask that we move towards granting Rosslare tier 1 port status, that it is recognised for the national contribution it is making and will continue to make. As part of the review of the national development plan it ought to include the completion of the M11 motorway from Oilgate to Rosslare, as hauliers and others raised regularly with the Brexit committee. It is an absolutely essential piece of infrastructure, not only for County Wexford but also nationally.
Education is one of the areas where Brexit provides an opportunity. Others have spoken about Erasmus and particularly the Government's generosity towards students in the North but there is also an opportunity to attract a greater number of Erasmus students from continental Europe to study here in Ireland. There are issues around capacity in student accommodation and other issues but it provides a real opportunity for Ireland. We need to further explore higher education links with continental Europe.
The Minister mentioned how we continue to expand our role internationally with new embassies in Ukraine, Morocco and the Philippines, as well as the consulate in Manchester. These are very welcome. All this has taught us why it is important for Ireland to continue to be at the heart of the European project. I am proud to be Irish but I am equally proud to be European. It is a message that we need to continue to spread. Our soft power has been very much on show in recent years. Globally, the EU will play a major role in facing some of the world's challenges. I commend the Minister on his work and wish him well in everything he has to do in the months ahead.
As the Minister knows well and has often said, Brexit is not good for Ireland at all and nor is it good for Europe. The Minister's steady steering of Ireland and the key role he has played with our European colleagues in softening the blow of Brexit is commendable. He has done this country and Europe enormous service in his calm, sure-footed approach to dealing with a tricky, complex and difficult issue that will, if not done right, have long-term implications for the country. At least we can minimise those implications. I listened to Senator Byrne and others talking about flour.
There is a case to be made. It will be an issue because it is likely to increase the price of bread, which is a key consumable, by 10% or 15%. We will have to consider alternative suppliers or developing mills and producing flour ourselves. These trade issues will not be resolved overnight, but they will be in due course with proper Government intervention. I have no doubt that the Government is working on them.
We have discussed the negatives and challenges. A variety of areas face challenges that were probably not expected, but the unexpected was always going to appear after Brexit. Car importers are experiencing significant difficulties. Many of our cars come through the UK, including second-hand models. Not everyone can afford to buy a new car. However, there is a commitment at Government level to working through and resolving such problems. The whole-of-government approach to Brexit is appropriate and welcome. It has moved seamlessly from the previous Government to this one. Brexit is a political issue, but not a political football and everyone in the Chamber is on the same page when it comes to cushioning the effects for our citizens as much as we can.
Senator Black spoke about Deputy O'Connor's proposal for a Minister of State over the all-Ireland unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. A positive element of the programme for Government was the setting up of that shared island unit. There is a case to be made for considering the appointment of such a Minister of State, albeit perhaps not immediately. It could be done in this Government's lifetime. For a long time, there was a Minister of State with specific responsibility for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is within the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs now, but that ministerial role could be reconstituted in terms of a shared island and building relationships and understanding on the ground. For example, a great deal could be achieved through connectivity in the arts, sport, entertainment, fashion and tourism. We share an interest and commonality in more areas than we differ on. Education is a key component in that regard. I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, that the Government would fund students from the North who wished to participate in the Erasmus+ programme. That programme has enriched many people of various ages. They learned a great deal from participating in the programme. Making that opportunity available to every young person on the island of Ireland is an example of the importance that we place on education and our realisation of the benefits of education.
I wish to flag a couple more issues for the Minister. First, it would be great to have him back in the Chamber after Easter to update us on the work that Ireland is doing on the UN Security Council. We need to be updated on that work constantly during the two years we hold that very important position. Second, the military coup in Myanmar saw 100 people slaughtered over the weekend. That is appalling. We cannot just issue statements expressing our horror. We have to use our influence in the world, in particular through the UN Security Council, to do something about it. It is clear that there will have to be international interventions, and not just sanctions. There will have to be serious interventions to deal with this affront to democracy, which is happening before the world's eyes. The world has to do something about it.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for the work he has done not only in recent months but also in recent years. It has been a really difficult time over recent years for anyone in business with the uncertainty of Brexit and what that brings. Anyone who thought that uncertainty would end when Brexit was agreed was incorrect, and uncertainty continues. In my constituency, in a town like Clonmel there are an awful lot of small to medium-sized businesses that trade with the UK on a range of products. Bulmers does an awful lot of trade within the UK and has people working over there and in Ireland. The complications it has experienced post Brexit have been huge, and anything it ever imagined they would be before Brexit happened, they are ten times more in terms of workload and complications.
I have been working with my colleague in Clonmel, Councillor Michael Murphy, on a number of issues post Brexit and what we can do to help businesses. Obviously from our perspective, we look at Tipperary and Clonmel, but it is for all businesses across Ireland. It was welcome when the announcement was made that Ireland would receive €1.3 billion of the €5 billion Brexit fund, which is a huge amount of money for one country of the 27 member states to receive - almost a quarter of that fund - and then, on top of that, we have almost €1 billion from the recovery and resilience fund. We should look at how we spend that money and where we spend it. It needs to go directly to small and medium-sized businesses that have been affected by Brexit and not just the big projects and big groups. It needs to go to the small-time business people who employ two, three, seven, eight, nine, ten people and that have been directly affected. The people who are most in tune with those groups that are affected by that are the local authorities. We should give local authorities an enhanced role, especially with local enterprise offices, in singling out areas, groups and businesses that need that support over the next number of years. It would be really helpful and give local authorities a real influence and connection with the businesses that need that support. I would encourage it if it were possible.
One of the biggest sectors that has been affected by Brexit over recent years has been agriculture. It has been a really difficult time for many sectors in agriculture, particularly beef. Senator Joe O'Reilly was speaking earlier about how the price of beef in the UK is £300 more than it is in Ireland at the moment. It is a real challenge and it almost seems there are always challenges in agriculture, whether they are in dairy, beef or any other sector. Even this week, and it is not Brexit related but is related to agriculture and the challenges it has, we had an announcement with Glanbia that there is going to be a temporary cap on its milk supply, and this is going to cause restrictions of people's milk supply over a three-month period, in April, May and June, every year . To all intents and purposes, for dairy farmers that is quotas being brought back in a certain way. I am interested to get the Minister's perspective because we have been seen over the past ten years as a party and a Government that has promoted rural Ireland, agriculture and the dairy sector to expand and enhance. Now we have a situation where a body, An Taisce, which does not have a democratic mandate and has no mandate whatsoever, is essentially attacking a sector in rural Ireland, the dairy industry. When we are trying to encourage people, and certainly on a day when we have launched a rural strategy for Ireland for the next number of years, we now have a situation where this sector is effectively being hamstrung by decisions made by An Taisce. I would love to hear the Minister's views and thoughts on it.
In terms of the next number of months ahead, I wish the Minister well. It is a difficult challenge. I welcome the approach the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have adopted in terms of negotiating with the UK.
I do not think what the EU has been doing in the last number of weeks is appropriate. We have to remember that these are our closest partners, with whom we will be trading for a long time. The approach the Taoiseach and the Minister have taken in negotiating with our partners across the water is the right approach to take going forward.
I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in his job. He has had very difficult work to do over the last number of years and when dealing with Brexit over the last four years. I certainly never thought there would be a pandemic thrown in on top as well. The Minister is to be congratulated. I also join with him in congratulating the Revenue Commissioners, the shipping companies and all the transport agencies throughout the country for keeping this country going and keeping trade going under very difficult circumstances with Brexit, and with the pandemic thrown in as well. They have done a marvellous job. When I was on the finance committee we had the Revenue Commissioners in over quite a number of meetings and they told us all the details of what they had to go through and the changes that would be made due to Brexit going forward. They have worked tremendously hard over the last number of years in that regard and they have to be congratulated.
Like previous speakers, I raise the issue of the price of bread. There was a time when nearly every county in Ireland had a company milling wheat for the production of bread. Now, there is no milling at all in the country. This is an opportunity to bring back the milling industry but it will require some initiative. There should be cross-party and intergovernmental support and Departments should work together to do this. Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland should take more risks in providing industries and helping industries like this to rise to the challenge, because it will be a challenge to bring that back. As Senator Conway said, this will take time. We need to have some type of milling here in this country and there is an opportunity.
We have a common travel area with the UK, including Northern Ireland. Previously, anybody who came into the UK from outside the EU could come to Ireland as well if they had a visa. What is the position now as regards those people who are coming into the UK from outside the EU? Can they come into Northern Ireland and then southern Ireland with just the visa they have to come to the UK? I would like some clarification on that. They might be coming here for work or holidays or they might want to stay for a while.
Regarding the cable from Killala to New York, I understand that the NTMA had quite a big shareholding in that, which it has sold in the last number of days. This is a retrograde step. The State would have had a stake in that cable, which is a vital piece of infrastructure for this country, particularly now that the UK is gone out of Europe. I ask the Minister to investigate the situation because it is a vital piece of infrastructure from Ireland to New York.
Senator Ahearn alluded to the €1.2 billion we were getting from Europe's Brexit fund. I understand that the French are trying to renegotiate that and that we could lose anywhere between €300 million and €400 million of it. We were to get €1.2 billion out of over €5 billion. I ask the Minister to confirm whether that is true. If it is, what countries will benefit from that extra €300 million or €400 million, which would be our great loss? I also ask him to outline what areas might get that money. Would agriculture, fisheries, industries or tourism benefit from the €1.2 billion? As Senator Ahearn said, small businesses are in dire straits. Some of them will never open again.
Any assistance that they could get would be greatly appreciated. The reduction of €300 million or €400 million from the €1.2 billion fund is sizeable. I hope it is speculation rather than the truth. I would like to know the areas that will suffer in that regard because it is a considerable sum that the State would miss out on.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important issue. At the outset, I wish to put one matter on the record, which is the language we use about some of the issues that have arisen since Brexit took place. I very much take issue with a border in the Irish Sea. We should knock that idea at every turn because there is no border in the Irish Sea. Issues arise as to how we export goods to the UK and import goods from the UK, but language is important, in particular when it comes to dealing with Ireland's future, North and South, and the difficulties faced on a North-South basis. We should call it as it is: there is no border there, it is an imaginary border and Brexit has resulted in there being a lot more checks and balances for trade. We should knock that idea every chance we get.
I thank the Minister for the work he has done to protect our interests throughout the Brexit negotiations. It was no easy task and there were a lot of rough days, but he handled the process very well and protected Ireland's interests very well.
There are consequences to how the EU handled the Northern Ireland protocol. Overall, issues arise in terms of the relations that existed between the Government and its officials and the British Government and its officials following the Brexit process. We need to do a lot of work to try to repair them. It is not something that can be done overnight, but we must be very conscious of it and we must put a lot of work into it because it is in our interests to do that. In the same vein, I believe we must put a lot more effort into North-South relations given the strained nature of relations as a result of the protocol. Unionist communities and representatives are in an awkward position and we must recognise that and not do anything to ramp up the situation, rather the opposite. I am concerned at the approach being taken by a supposed independent academic producing a report on Irish unity that has no academic basis, but is rather a party political statement on behalf of certain parties, which completely ignores the Protestant and unionist populations in Northern Ireland. A North-South poll is very much to the forefront of debate in recent weeks. We must all be respectful of how we got to where we are thus far, how the Good Friday Agreement was won and the approach taken by all those involved to bring about the agreement. There must also be a recognition of the sentiment with which they came to the table because a similar sentiment is needed now if we are to move this country forward on a shared basis.
This country coming together as one is not necessarily about territory; it is more to do with people. The Good Friday Agreement was established on that basis. We all have work to do collectively around the table. If there is going to be a Border poll some years down the road, we all have work to do and we all have responsibility.
Even for a party like Sinn Féin, although we sometimes we rub each other up the wrong way, it is fair to recognise that we all have responsibility. Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, perhaps, has an awful lot of responsibility in the relations it will try to set about and establish over the next few years. It needs to put more emphasis into developing those relations, particularly on a North basis and on a Stormont basis. I look forward to helping in any way I can in that regard. I thank the Minister again for coming to the House.
Like many others, I compliment the Minister on his stewardship of this whole area. He and the Government and been very good and very much to the fore in doing the right thing for Ireland. His announcement in January about the Brexit adjustment reserve fund of €1.2 billion was fantastic. Other Members have mentioned that a campaign by some countries to probably try to reduce the amount of money coming to Ireland would not be acceptable. I know the Minister will fight that tooth and nail because it is important that these funds should come. There is no doubt that Ireland is taking the biggest hit.
Of course, the UK announcement of a change in the sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks and controls removes much uncertainty from the beef exports. It means the beef factories can access the market without having to worry about any additional checks. That is crucial. I will say to the beef business here, however, to also step up to the mark and match the price that is being paid. That is very important. I come from what is mainly a suckler beef area. The Minister knows how crucial that is in our area. I acknowledge there are also challenges for the dairy sector but I urge the beef factory people to give the farmers a decent price now. One argument they used concerned the SPS checks, which are gone. There will be an increased demand for beef in Britain because there will be a reduction of beef in England in terms of its production. That excuse is, therefore, gone.
When one looks at opportunities, I read an article in The Irish Times earlier today which stated that up to one in four small businesses in England have given up on exporting to the EU because of Brexit. That certainly opens up quite an opportunity for additional business for Irish firms. It is obvious to many in Britain now that the Brexit decision was a bad one which will negatively affect their country.
Brexit throws up many peculiar situations. I received correspondence from the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations about an English guy who is trying to import 15 million bees from Puglia in Italy to England. He is trying to bring them through Northern Ireland because of Brexit. The correspondence stated that if the bees go into Britain, the authorities there will burn them. Therefore, it is now being stated clearly that he will try to put the bees up for sale in Northern Ireland.
There has been a serious disease in the bee population in that part of Italy. The Italian Government has spent seven years trying to get rid of a species of beetle that absolutely destroys the bee population. Sometimes, we talk about bees in this country and people laugh as if it is not an important issue. The reality, however, is that one third of the world's food production depends on bees. Every third spoonful of food depends on pollination, which is a key word.
To protect our bees is very important. I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is aware of this situation, as is the Minister, Deputy Coveney. It is a British issue because they come into Northern Ireland. We need to stop those bees being released in Northern Ireland because the fear of the bee people is that they will infect our bee population and cause enormous damage.
I apologise for not being here earlier. I was at a shared island conversation organised by Young Fine Gael. I thought it was a brilliant conversation and the more of these conversations we have, the better. I am not interested in shutting down these conversations. It is good that we, as an island, begin to really see and engage in conversations in the North and on what is actually happening in the North. That can only bring good things. The more we talk, the better things get.
The Cathaoirleach will know I have a saying that, for me, it is not if one wants a united Ireland but it is what kind of united Ireland one wants. That is one we work for, not one we win. It is on all of us to work for reconciliation, to work for the relationships that were there as part of the Good Friday Agreement and to work together.
I want to focus on how much we, as an island, need the protocol. It is worth fighting for. I remember, as a child, being confused by the expression that we cannot square a circle. When the realism of Brexit kicked in, that expression really haunted me. Ireland and the UK have gone from being partners within the European Union to redefining their relationship along the lines of EU membership, and then being a third country. It is incredibly difficult to recreate an interlocking and interdependent relationship based on that, such is the scale of the challenge with the protocol and the work that went into it. I know the Minister has been absolutely committed to that. The Good Friday Agreement found a way to square the circle. It was based on respect for each other, for different identities and for different goals, on parity of esteem and on the blurring of hard lines, whereas, time and again, Brexit and those who have supported the hardest of Brexits gave us hard and red lines. Unfortunately, at the moment, they still do. I do not mean any disrespect by that but it is hard to draw any other conclusion, whether it is the call to scrap the protocol after a week, triggering Article 50 without a plan, or a vote against the various solutions that were on the table.
We did not arrive at the protocol overnight. We got here for a reason. If there were better solutions, we had five years to come up with them. It is far from ideal but we have to protect the peace and we have to protect ourselves from the worst-case scenario, which is a hard border on our island, a visible trade border on top of an invisible border.
That is not to say I do not understand where unionists are coming from. I firmly believe the Minister also understands where unionists are coming from and that he approaches this with the flexibility and the compromise that is needed. I am sorry the Minister has been pinpointed or targeted over the last few weeks but I know he is committed to finding solutions, to making trade as seamless as possible for Northern Ireland businesses and to focusing on the vibrant future of Northern Ireland, and the opportunities that could be there for us in regard to having access to the Single Market and access to the Great Britain market as well.
Brexit changed everything, the protocol did not. However, some things will stay with us forever and that is the need for us all to get on and the need for relationships, whether they are east-west, North-South or in the North. Whatever happens, whether it is Brexit or constitutional change, that is just the way things are. It is sad to see that trust has been eroded and that people play politics with everything from bridges to devolution and from legacy to the withdrawal agreement.
We still have to stand firm, know our own values and always try to build trust. I admire the Minister's commitment in that regard. He never gives up. Building relationships for the future is always first and foremost in his mind and I hope that is something we will all learn from.
I welcome the Minister. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. We are very fortunate to have in the Minister such a strong advocate for Ireland in the EU. Officials and staff in his Department have demonstrated clearly the negative impact on Ireland of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, as evidenced by Ireland winning over €1 billion of a €5 billion post-Brexit EU fund. The impact on our society, trade and travel is enormous. The challenges we face are clear, including the health crisis arising from a pandemic that does not recognise boundaries and climate change, which threatens us all.
The Minister mentioned the difficult months relating to the Northern Ireland protocol and the Good Friday Agreement. The quality of leadership in the EU, representing Ireland and protecting this protocol, is a top priority. It is also positive to see President Biden's unequivocal support for the Belfast agreement.
In terms of Brexit itself, I ask the Minister to consider how the Brexit adjustment fund could be used in a number of areas. First, as a society we have family and friendship connections with Northern Ireland and must work towards a safe society, with respect for identities taking account of all. As a student of Irish history in Galway, I went on to study further at the University of Ulster in Coleraine and made friends on all sides. That experience gave me a deeper understanding, having walked in others' shoes, of how important it was to achieve peace.
The second area is trade and especially agriculture. How can we use this fund to prepare farmers for the impact of UK import controls? As we know, half of all our beef exports previously went to the UK market. How can we use Bord Bia in a more effective way?
Third, as Fine Gael spokesperson on further and higher education, research and innovation, I look forward to exploring opportunities for Science Foundation Ireland to engage in joint research projects with Northern Ireland universities. I also support the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Deputy Harris's engagement on a Derry campus which is part of the work of the shared island unit. The Government has also committed to supporting students in Northern Ireland to participate in the Erasmus scheme. I had the opportunity to study for a postgraduate diploma in the University of Ulster which led to an internship for a few months at the European Commission office in Belfast. As Senator Currie mentioned, we have just come from a talk on Northern Ireland by a branch of Young Fine Gael in Queen's University, Belfast. It was sad to see the aforementioned European Commission office close last year. Would it be possible to review that decision in the future?
As Senator Burke mentioned, departmental officials and groups in the ports have done phenomenal work to maintain trade and to create new direct trading and shipping lines. I am also aware that €500 million has been allocated to the shared island unit to deepen North-South co-operation, an all-island economy and an all-island climate strategy. I urge the Government to maintain, protect and further develop cross-Border potential in healthcare, particularly under the health directive, and to examine how our health resources can be shared to the benefit of all.
We have difficult challenges ahead but we have a very strong team in place. I look forward to working with the Minister and his team to achieve the best for Ireland and the island as a whole.
We have had a very wide-ranging discussion, with a lot of different points raised. I thank the Minister for being here and invite him to respond to the debate.
This has been a really good series of statements from Senators from all parties. The tone has been very considered and generous in terms of trying to link the challenges we face with the relationships we need to rebuild and manage. At times this is difficult, especially when people approach the same challenge from a very different perspective. Trying to reach a common understanding is often not easy.
I will now deal with a number of the issues raised. It is important to understand why the protocol itself is so important in terms of functioning.
The idea that the protocol could simply be dismantled and removed at this point, now that Brexit has happened, would essentially have a consequence for the Republic of Ireland whereby we would effectively have two very unpalatable choices as a way forward. The first is to choose to protect our place in the EU Single Market by putting in place some form of Border infrastructure North-South, which I do not believe we could do politically or get agreement on doing politically. The second is that we would be taken out of the Single Market by default. The protocol is not just about Northern Ireland; it is about the island as a whole functioning as it needs to function in order to protect relationships and trade.
The way in which the Brexit debate developed meant that the protocol was not the first choice in terms of a solution to the very difficult island of Ireland questions that Brexit forced. Members should not forget that what we wanted in the context of the UK leaving the European Union was to talk about the potential of a shared single market with the UK outside the political union. That was rejected. We then looked at a shared customs union. That was rejected. We then looked at a temporary solution for all of the United Kingdom together, which became known as the backstop, while more detailed discussion took place around how the disruptive impact of Brexit could or should be managed in the context of relationships on the island of Ireland. The backstop was rejected. The then British Prime Minister lost her position on the back of that rejection. The kind of Brexit that was pursued by the British Government meant that we had to essentially tailor or design a solution specifically for Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom not wanting to be part of a shared single market, a shared customs union or a backstop-type of arrangement.
As a result, this arrangement was put in place whereby, in simple terms, Northern Ireland became a de facto extension of the EU Single Market to prevent the need for any form of border infrastructure, but the price of that was that there was some level of checks required on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland because, essentially, it is an entry point into the EU Single Market for goods. That is the backstop. The upside of that from a Northern Ireland perspective is that businesses in Northern Ireland will have completely unfettered access into the EU Single Market of 450 million people, as well as unfettered access into the GB market. It is only for product coming the other way that the EU has to understand what is coming in, in terms of standards and origin and so on, because, otherwise, there would essentially be an unguarded back door through Northern Ireland into the EU Single Market.
Senators should make no mistake about it - if the protocol collapses, Ireland will face some really difficult choices, politically and economically, forced on us by a choice that was made by the United Kingdom in the context of Brexit. This solution is not perfect, but it is certainly the best way we could have designed of mitigating the disruption of Brexit for the island of Ireland and the relationship between the islands of Britain and Ireland. It was designed as much in London as it was in Brussels, but many people seem to conveniently forget that. This was an arrangement and an agreement that was signed up to. It is part of an international agreement and it is international law. It was passed and ratified in the British Parliament as well as in the European Union and European capitals. It was campaigned on in a British general election which was won on the back of the message that Brexit was getting done and on the back of the withdrawal agreement which includes the protocol. We have to be honest about this because the narrative now around the protocol is that it is being foisted on Northern Ireland by the EU and the Irish Government.
That is not the case. We are looking at pragmatic implementation and the realistic flexibilities that are possible to try to remove unnecessary disruption, while ensuring, at the same time, that the essence of the protocol remains intact in the context of being an entry point into the EU Single Market that prevents the need for Border infrastructure on close to 300 road crossings between North and South on the island of Ireland. If we were trying to do that on the Border, it would, let us face it, be a charter for smuggling and it would be impossible to deliver politically. Instead, we have limited checks in place at two ports and an airport.
I understand why many in the unionist community see this through a different lens, one that focuses on identity and a disruption of goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. That is why we want to try to limit the impact of those checks as much as we possibly can. We have to do that in co-operation and partnership. We cannot have a situation where one side, whether it be the EU or the UK, decides unilaterally to declare that it is going to implement the protocol in one way or another, in a manner that contravenes not only the spirit of the protocol but the legal obligation under the protocol as well. That is why the EU feels forced to resort to legal action if it cannot find a way of building a partnership through the committee structures that have been put in place to manage the protocol.
Let us talk about the facts and try to deal with the genuine concerns around how the protocol is impacting on Northern Ireland. I would be the first to try to do that. Despite the fact that I have become somewhat of a bogeyman for some people in the context of the protocol and trying to tell people the truth about it, the irony is that the Government, and my office in particular, has been constantly talking to the European Commission about the need for flexibility, the need to understand the tension in politics in Northern Ireland because of the protocol and its implementation, and the need for pragmatism in terms of implementation. We will continue to make those arguments and to work with people like Vice-President Šefčovič, who has been extraordinarily understanding and has made himself available on many occasions to meet representatives from Northern Ireland and south of the Border. The protocol is there, it is in international law and it is not going to be cast aside, but we can, of course, work on implementation in a way that addresses genuine concerns.
Regarding trade disruption, the disruption is not only in Northern Ireland; it is very much south of the Border too. There is a whole series of grace periods that have made the disruption of Brexit far easier to manage in Northern Ireland, albeit the politics of it is much more difficult there. Those grace periods do not apply in Dublin and Rosslare in terms of product coming in from the UK. As I said earlier, the Revenue Commissioners, in particular, have done an extraordinary job in really difficult circumstances and on tight timelines. They are working and available 24-7 to try to help businesses make the adjustments that are needed. These are not Irish-imposed systems in Irish ports. They are EU requirements under trade rules with a third country. We are managing the integrity of the EU Single Market as well as managing goods coming into our consumer and retail base in this country. There are no grey areas. We are required to do these things as an EU member state under EU rules and laws. Of course we will try to do so in a way that is as streamlined as it possibly can be.
There are genuine problems with flour, cars and a number of products, mainly linked to rules of origin issues. For example, a lot of the flour that came into Ireland was milled in the UK but, in some cases, the raw material for those mills would have come from Canada and other parts of the world.
If the raw material does not originate in the UK, then it is not considered a UK country-of-origin product and a tariff applies as a result. Even beyond that, if a product originates in the EU but goes to the UK for re-boxing or repackaging to then be sold into Ireland, tariffs may also apply. The TCA does not apply because the product did not originate in the UK and because it has been repackaged or re-boxed in the UK, it is no longer considered an EU product because we cannot guarantee its integrity once it leaves the EU. This means that, in a strange way, it is stateless.
The answer in that regard is to alter supply chains, which is what has already happened.
Let us take the example of a box of corn flakes. Corn flakes sold in Ireland are produced in Spain, by and large. They go to a redistribution centre in the UK and are redistributed into the UK and Ireland supply chain from there. However, because they are repackaged and re-boxed there, a tariff applies. Retailers are looking at redesigning their supply chains in order to be able to source products in a way that does not involve tariffs. Nobody should be surprised that Brexit has meant disruption. Politicians do not have the capacity to remove all of that disruption. We are talking about a country that is considered, in legal and trade terms, to be a third country outside of the European Union. Regardless of how close we are and how much we want to reduce the disruption of it, there is only so much that we can do by way of law and with systems.
There is more that we can do, but the UK Government has to be willing to work with us. For example, if we could conclude a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement between the EU and the UK, it would significantly impact, in a positive way, in the context of reducing checks on live animals and food products, because we could see alignment around sanitary and food safety standards and issues pertaining to live animals, etc. We know we could do that, but the British Government has decided that it does not want to do it because it does not want alignment with the EU. We need a partner with whom we can negotiate and put common approaches and standards together to try to ease the burden for our traders.
The Brexit adjustment reserve, which many Senators mentioned, is still under discussion. We are pushing for this discussion to conclude, because the sooner it is concluded, the sooner the money will be made available and the sooner we can allocate it to the people, businesses and sectors that need it. It is essentially a fund which is split into an initial allocation of €4 billion. A further €1 billion will be allocated at a later stage. The initial proposal from the Commission was that Ireland would have access to over €1 billion of that €4 billion, which is one quarter of the overall fund, and was significantly the highest net gainer from this fund. Rightly so, because Ireland is disrupted by Brexit by a number of factors more than any other country in the EU, and has been in the past number of years in respect of uncertainty and disruption, both politically and economically. That is recognised. It is a recognition of the generosity of spirit and the solidarity within the EU that that proposal was made, that a country that has around 2% of the EU's population is being allocated 25% of the Brexit adjustment fund. Again, it reflects the understanding Ireland has received from the outset in the context of the disruptive nature of Brexit on the considerations we have to make.
That brings me to the relationship North-South and east-west. I must say that Senator Blaney made a most thoughtful contribution this evening. What he had to say reflected on the part of the country in which he lives and his understanding of the mindset of the relationships along the Border in the north west.
Perhaps the most challenging element of Brexit for me as a politician concerns how we rebuild trust and relationships that have undoubtedly been damaged because of the way in which Brexit has been negotiated at different times. Stand-offs were resolved only at the very last minute, a trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, was finalised on Christmas Eve, and there was an decision on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol when many people had written them off.
This has not been an easy negotiation. How many Ministers for Brexit have come and gone in the British Government? How many Prime Ministers have lost their job because of Brexit? This has been a strain on the British system as well as on the Irish system, and we have to recognise that and work to rebuild those relationships. From my experience, good things happen in Northern Ireland when the British and Irish Governments work together with parties on divisive and difficult issues, whether that is legacy, implementing the New Decade, New Approach agreement or sensitive issues such as language legislation, which we have to find a way of doing because that is what we have committed to, and in many other areas as well. It could be managing centenary commemorations or celebrations, depending on one's perspective of history in the context of 100 years of Northern Ireland, just like we had to do here in regard to respectful commemorations in 2016. I hope this House as a whole can make thoughtful contributions on how we can build new, stronger and more constructive relationships in the context of speaking honestly to one another and of not hiding our own aspirations and dreams for the future. Just as it must be okay and facilitated for unionists to speak about why they believe in the union, it must also be facilitated and understood for people to talk about a different kind of future for the island of Ireland, which many people advocate for. How we manage that debate, in a way that does not simply drive people to tribal corners based on identity and a different version of history, is deeply challenging.
That is why the Taoiseach and the Government set up a shared island unit to push back against that separation that comes from anxiety, fear or aggressive advocacy. We have had three successful dialogues in the shared island process, the first of which was between young people, a direct and blunt debate with very different perspectives but it was respectful and worked well. The second was on the environment and climate, which Senator Black raised, and the importance of that area. It was a really interesting discussion where people were focusing on something that was not identity based but was a shared interest, that is, how we could work together on the island of Ireland to protect biodiversity and water quality and act together on the climate challenge and so on. Last week, we held the third shared island dialogue, on the role of civil society, and more than 100 civil society groups appeared on a video-streamed call with groups from north and south of the Border interacting with and challenging one another and so on. We will move on and have further dialogues on economic co-operation, healthcare and education. Hopefully, that shared island concept can allow for a sharing of perspectives and contribute, partly at least, to a rebuilding of trust in respect of some of these issues.
On the issue some Senators raised about the constitutional question, future border polls and so on, for what it is worth my view is we have to focus first on building relationships and trying to ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can function again because they are not functioning as they were meant to.
They are just about hanging on. We have real work to do to use those structures and institutions that are linked to the agreement to best effect to rebuild relationships after a bruising number of years, in terms of North-South co-operation, relationships within Northern Ireland and also east-west relationships between Governments and political leaders. I assure the House that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister are also talking and thinking about what structures we can add to the current structures that are there to strengthen those relationships.
Nobody should deny that people are entitled to discuss and debate the future of our island as a whole. Nothing should be out of bounds in that discussion as long as it is done in a spirit of respect and generosity. That is the challenge. It is pretty hard to do that at the moment in the context of the pressures and polarisation that have arisen on the back of the protocol and the tension generally in society that the pandemic has caused over the past 12 months. I ask people to think about that.
There are a number of other issues on cross-Border health. The cross-border directive no longer applies because Northern Ireland is no longer part of the European Union and, therefore, EU directives no longer apply. We have to put in place new structures and systems. Not for the first time, PDFORRA has been clever and ahead of the pack in acting early to protect its members. I commend it on that. It has adopted an interesting model. The Government is committed to ensuring that cross-Border healthcare continues to function. We are also committed to trying to ensure that we also facilitate a recognition of qualifications on both sides of the Border. That cannot be done easily government to government in the context of a third country and needs to be done at a regulatory and professional body level, as is happening at the moment. We can do most of what we need to do through those bodies.
I am conscious, a Chathaoirligh, that I could go on about Brexit all night, as you know. I am not sure if I answered all of the questions but I believe I answered most of them.
I heard Senator Ahearn’s comments on Glanbia’s planning permission for a new cheese plant. This is an important project which is about diversification. However, as the issue is in the courts for decision, it would not be wise for me to comment on it. I certainly understand the frustration that the Senator outlined and I have heard it from Glanbia and many others.
On data, the EU will produce a data adequacy decision which will provide some certainty in this area. It will then be up to the UK Government to decide what it does and how it behaves. If it wants to fall outside of that decision, it will be a decision for a future British Government to make and one which will have a series of significant knock-on consequences. There is a timeline until the end of June for the Commission to provide further clarity and I hope it can do that well in advance of that timeline.
I will finish on this point as it is the one I started with. In terms of being constructive on the protocol, I believe we can move away from threats of legal action and get back to a partnership and discussion between the EU and the UK. Through the specialised committee and joint committee, that can work to get the protocol back on to an even keel in terms of a roadmap for implementation on what has been agreed. In return for that roadmap for implementation from the British Government, there is also perhaps an opportunity for more pragmatism and flexibility from the European Commission's side, within the confines of the protocol of course, to try to ensure that both sides are focused on making this work for everybody and building a partnership that recognises the challenges and pragmatism needed to ensure the protocol is robust and, most importantly, provides certainty for businesses in Northern Ireland into the future. I hope we can make some progress on that issue this week.
Well said. I hope we will have a debate on China on some other day.
I will happily come back on the issue of the UN Security Council. We can talk about China.
It will fit in. We need to talk about China.
We will take one global problem at a time. I thank the Minister and Senators for their contributions on the issue of Brexit which we know from the date of the referendum gets to be a bigger problem each day that passes.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 19 April in the Dáil Chamber.