I congratulate Senator Chambers, who has chaired the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union for some time, on the interim report. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, back to the House. Having served in the Seanad for many years, I am sure he is delighted to be back. I congratulate him on chairing a session of the United Nations Security Council. We are proud that a former Member of the House has done so.
Interim Report of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Motion
That Seanad Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union entitled ‘Interim Report on the Impacts of Brexit’, copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 8th July, 2021.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, to the Chamber for the debate on the interim report of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, titled "Interim Report on the Impacts of Brexit". I pay tribute to the committee secretariat, our clerk, Christy Haughton, all the members and all the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee culminating in the publication of our interim report just before the summer recess.
This is a welcome opportunity to engage with the Minister of State to discuss the findings of the report and, more important, the recommendations of the committee, on which we hope the Minister of State and Department will be in a position to follow through. The report and the work of the committee spanned a number of key areas. We decided as a committee what we felt were the key impacts of Brexit on our citizens, businesses and the island as a whole.
The committee discussed, took evidence on and debated trade flows and customs; infrastructure, particularly our ports and roads; the rule of origin issue as it affects exports; the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland; citizens' rights in a post-Brexit world; mutual recognition of qualifications between Ireland and the UK; education and research; health issues, which have dominated some of the discussion on Brexit on the island, North and South; data flows, which may not at first have been considered one of the big issues but came to the fore when we realised the changes that came about as a result of Brexit; and future relations between the two islands, which we felt was one of the most important areas to focus on, including how we conduct business between Ireland and the UK following Brexit.
We kicked off by discussing trade flows. One of the key concerns running up to the Brexit deadline was how the import and export of goods would work at Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and across the island. How would they impact on businesses and citizens and how would we deal with that? We made a number of recommendations. One was to streamline the process at our ports for exporters and importers. We noted the need for a one-stop shop. A key complaint we received from stakeholders was that their engagements with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the HSE and Revenue, were not conducive to efficiency at the ports. They had to go to a number of locations to get what they needed. We made a number of practical recommendations on documentation, including using electronic forms where possible, and to establish a one-stop shop to provide all the relevant information from the various Departments. The latter was a key recommendation.
When we discussed infrastructure, we concluded there was a need for increased investment at our ports and the arteries leading thereto, including roads and rail infrastructure, to make life easier for the haulage sector and businesses engaged in the import and export of goods.
We discussed rule of origin issues. Two industries that presented to the committee were the whiskey and dairy sectors. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that milk produced in Northern Ireland and Ireland is of similar quality, produced in a similar fashion and often used in the same production lines. This posed a difficulty. A key ask of the committee was to look at how we could include goods produced in Northern Ireland and still have Irish origin and EU origin status. This presents a difficulty and is something we need to keep an eye on, particularly in future trade agreements between the European Union and third parties.
We spent a considerable amount of time discussing the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland and obviously this continues to be an ongoing area of contention. We looked at how to resolve issues that we see coming down the tracks. I will get an opportunity to discuss other issues towards the end of the debate but the key ask around the protocol is that we know that there is a vote coming in Northern Ireland, a consent vote which was built into the withdrawal agreement. It is the strong view of the committee that the Government and the European Union should be proactive in preparing for that vote and not take for granted the outcome of it, and that we seek a key plan from the Minister and the Department in the coming months on how we are going to prepare the country for that vote.
I thank the Deputy Leader for chairing our Brexit committee. For all my colleagues, it has been a very useful and informative engagement. I thank the Minister and the Department officials for their work.
One issue we all felt was important, and I am sure the Minister will appreciate it, is that in the past on the fringes of EU summits, it was always possible for Irish Ministers and UK Ministers to engage but that opportunity is no longer there. It is really important that those links, whereby there is engagement not just between Dublin and London but between Dublin and Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, continue.
The Chair of our committee outlined some of the issues we covered, including the rules of origin issue. There is one other issue, which is very important. An issue we need to address is around flour and the importance of trying to produce flour in this country rather than having to rely on its importation.
I want to focus on two areas. One area is around the data adequacy decisions. When I started talking about it, a few eyes glazed over, but the question of data transfer is hugely important. As Members know, the EU has agreed that the data transfer regime with the UK currently is adequate and that it is subject, under the normal course of events, to review in a couple of years. There is, however, a serious problem. The UK Government yesterday decided to publish a consultation document with regard to its own data protection laws. If it moves significantly away from the GDPR regime with which we are familiar, then that will cause a significant problem. If the legislation the UK Government brings forward to replace GDPR is seen as not being compatible with GDPR, then the European Commission will have no option but to suspend or terminate the adequacy decision concerning data flows into the UK from the European Union. That has very serious consequences.
People might think it only affects big multinational companies, but it could affect a small business in Monaghan whose payroll is done in Armagh. There will be obligations placed on those companies. The UK Government is conducting its consultation at present. For a variety of reasons around the importance of and believing in a citizen's right to data privacy, I would hope that the UK does not make significant changes in that area. However, it has very significant consequences for business here. When asked to cost it, the Data Protection Commissioner informed our committee that it could cost up to €1 billion in additional costs for businesses in this country if there is not a data adequacy decision concerning the flows from the UK.
The other issue I will briefly mention is Rosslare. We engaged with the ports and I am glad to say Rosslare is booming. There are far more direct sailings, although the concentration has been on freight. We are going to look at attracting many more tourists through Rosslare, hopefully from next year. One issue of concern is that that has obviously required additional staffing in Rosslare. An issue for the Garda is that the Wexford division is required to provide the staffing in Rosslare. Given the added importance of Rosslare, the fact we are going to have phytosanitary inspections and so on, we must ensure we have an adequate number of staff at our ports and airports, but particularly in Rosslare given how rapidly the port is growing.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to discuss the important issue of the Brexit report that has been published. I compliment the Chairperson who has done a fantastic job in combining all these key issues regarding Brexit. It is a good work in progress. The Brexit report is a good starting base to have a detailed discussion about core areas affected by Brexit.
I will stick to the agricultural industry and how it is going to be significantly affected. There are 59 dairy milk processing plants on this island. It is an industry worth literally €17.5 billion to our economy. It will affect every single dairy farmer and every community if we do not get the issue of origin of product sorted. Some 40% of milk is coming from the North to the South to be processed. These are huge issues for our communities and our manufacturing industries. How we deal with that origin issue is really important. It is probably one of the most significant issues, not alone for rural Ireland but for our economy itself.
Another key issue is that we need veterinary certificates to be signed. At the moment, roughly 100 veterinarians graduate each year from our veterinary college. We have a huge issue around a shortage of veterinarians on farms because of the lack of veterinarians in the country. Now veterinarians are being sucked out of practice and are doing departmental work because of Brexit. That will have a potential knock on effect on services on the ground. We will have to look at how those veterinary certificates are being worked on and who signs them. With a limited number of graduates coming through, we cannot have a situation where veterinarians are literally taken away from the farm gate to do this work.
The Chairperson mentioned the whiskey industry, which is a really significant industry for Ireland, with massive potential to grow. Again, however, the all-Ireland origin issue is a massive one for us. I mentioned it on the first day the committee met. I still believe it is one of the most important industries in regard to growth and we need to protect it. We need to protect the all-Ireland nature of it. That is going to be a significant challenge with Brexit.
My final point is our tourism industry. We were moving to an all-Ireland tourism model. Brexit has damaged relations, without a shadow of a doubt. A renewed effort is required to make sure we can build on that all-Ireland tourism model because that is a key driver for our economy and for our society. The work the committee has done is a great start but significant engagement is required to keep it going.
I will make two points and try not to repeat those already made. I commend our Chair who chaired the committee most ably, inclusively and professionally. This was not about party politics. I hope communities, especially in the North, realise that this was a most sincere, professional attempt on our behalf to try to move things forward.
Unionists have genuine concerns. From my contacts and from those of other public representatives' contacts, I do not see the amplification of those concerns. There is a great opportunity here. Some experts, who have published, have said there are benefits flowing from this.
In my humble opinion, those concerns are driven by the cohort of party politics as distinct from the business sector and the people on the ground. Nevertheless, they exist, and the challenge we face is to assuage and allay unionist fears. No one on the committee set out to undermine unionism and fragment it, but it thinks otherwise.
We have a job of work to do to convince them of that.
The second point I will make is covered well in the recommendations of the report. We have two recommendations. One relates to the democratic deficit which now exists in Northern Ireland. I quoted from a statement in the committee but, for the Minister of State's sake and for the record of the House, I will repeat it. It was a statement by the former leader of unionism, now a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Lord David Trimble. His view of the protocol, with which I do not agree, is as follows:
The laws that will apply to the economy, the environment, agriculture, workers rights, and regulations covering everything from building standards to use of weedkillers, no longer will be made at our parliament in Westminster or the local Assembly in Belfast. They will instead be determined by a foreign authority in Brussels.
I happen to disagree with him, but he has a point and I agree with some of what he is saying. That democratic deficit does now exist. I have mentioned this to the Cathaoirleach in his constitutional office. We are pushing an open door. The Cathaoirleach also recognises that a segment of the population of the island that has never been so close to Europe has no representation and no MEPs. They are always afforded a very warm welcome when they come here but those visits are not made on a formal, structured basis. In the long term, that might require constitutional reform, but in the short term, if these are our fellow islanders, their voices and concerns must be heard. This should not be done through committees with good intentions whose remits encompass Europe; they should be there in their own right. It is their voice. If no one else will give them a direct line, their fellow Irish people in the Republic of Ireland have to leave the door open to them and be proactive in giving them a formal voice. Two of the recommendations in this detailed report, recommendations 31 and 32, which I am sure the Minister of State has read, cover this issue. It was a matter of serious concern for the committee.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá súil agam go bhfuil an tuairisc seo agus obair an choiste ina chuidiú dó agus é i mbun a chuid oibre, ní hamháin i dtaca leis an mBreatimeacht ach i dtaca le cúrsaí níos leithne arís.
I join with colleagues in thanking our Chair and acknowledging her work in bringing together such a comprehensive and representative body of groups and organisations, not least in the context of Covid and all of the difficulties and challenges that represented for her and the secretariat. I am very conscious of, and thankful for, their hard work in ensuring that we got to this point, when the report is before us.
I will make a couple of general points. The report speaks for itself. Colleagues have also made general points so I do not need to rehearse them. It is always important in discussions such as this to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a good Brexit, that the people of the North rejected it and that the agreed protocol is in place to offset the negatives that have been forced upon us as a result of Brexit. It is always important to remember that as we navigate our work.
While I have nothing but the fullest respect for Senator Martin in respect of what he brings to this Chamber and, indeed, this debate, I speak to people from a unionist background all of the time who were opposed to Brexit and voted against it and who are now in favour of the protocol and acknowledge the protections and mitigations it offers to them and their communities, businesses or whatever it might be. What we hear on the airwaves or on social media is not always reflective of the truth. Anyone who took the opportunity to go around the Balmoral Show last week would have heard from farmers from all traditions who were deeply concerned at the rhetoric from the British Government in respect of Article 16 and the protocol. These farmers acknowledge the significance and importance of the protocol in protecting themselves and our all-island economy.
I will make a few points on the issue of trade and the economy. I spoke about this the other day. The figures published by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, for June show that, over the first six months of 2020, North to South trade increased by 78%, from €998 million to €1.77 billion, in comparison with the same period in 2020. South to North trade has increased by 43%, increasing from €1.1 billion to €1.576 billion. That is why we need to ensure the protocol is front and centre in protecting people. In addition to the macroeconomic issues, one of the key intentions of the committee was to ensure that citizens' voices were heard and that the issues people faced when going about their everyday lives were recognised because, unfortunately, Brexit permeates all aspects of our lives. There is no part of our lives it has not impacted upon.
Senator Currie and I tabled a Commencement matter this morning with regard to the EU digital certificate. By the way, I welcome the announcement by the Government. It is a positive and important move to allow people in the North to apply for the EU digital certificate. There were a few initial teething problems, but that was an issue for the Commencement matter. What is important is that people have retained an EU entitlement that they would have lost as a result of Brexit. I believe the committee would agree that it is important that, where the Government has the opportunity to ensure that such entitlements are upheld, it takes a proactive and effective approach to doing so. That also goes for Senator Martin's points regarding our representation and ensuring that our voices are heard at an EU level.
I too welcome the Minister of State to the House. I join with colleagues in thanking our Chair, Senator Chambers, for her inclusiveness, for what she has done in bringing us all together and for arranging for the number of witnesses we saw in respect of this very important report to appear. We are here today to discuss the interim part of that particular report.
A number of colleagues mentioned investment in ports and staffing levels. My colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, has been mentioning Rosslare at every meeting we have had. I had the privilege of sitting down with Deputy Howlin of my own party to discuss Rosslare in the last week. He agrees with the sentiment Senator Malcolm Byrne has expressed today. We need investment in our ports. We also need to look at staffing, particularly with regard to the policing and Garda element Senator Malcolm Byrne raised today.
I could not agree more with the Cathaoirleach about preparing for a protocol vote. It would be very interesting to hear what the Department is doing in that regard in the Minister of State's reply. The one-stop shop for imports proposed in the report is something we heard suggested by an awful lot of witnesses, particularly those involved in the transport sector. I am still getting reports of problems. Even today, I heard of an issue with goods coming into the country. These still have not been ironed out. We still do not have a one-stop shop. Again, I would be interested to hear the plans of the Minister of State and his Department as to how we can do that. It is very achievable and, in fairness, people are working towards it but we need to get to it a little bit quicker than we are, given where we now stand.
We were to talk about the cross-border health directive this morning but, unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, we were unable to go ahead with that particular meeting. This is something I have raised previously. I raised it with the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Defence, earlier in the week in the context of the benefits it provides for PDFORRA members through the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, PMAS, that body administers. I understand that the current scheme is due to end at the end of December. Our colleagues in Northern Ireland have extended the equivalent scheme to July of next year, providing a further six months. This is causing a lot of worry for those benefiting from PMAS. If I may just concentrate on our Defence Forces, the scheme has brought tremendous benefits for those who need medical care. As the Minister of State knows, this care can extend the lives and military careers of members of our Defence Forces and is badly needed. I ask the Minister of State to consider that matter. I have raised it with the Minister for Health and the Minister for Defence. Perhaps the Minister of State can also comment on the matter.
I will raise two final issues. The first relates to exports. The Minister of State will be aware that, once again, the UK has put back its declarations until 1 January or even into the first couple of months of the new year. In conversations we had with a number of witnesses, we heard that they were worried about our exports to the UK.
I ask the Minister of State to comment on where we are with that. I know a significant amount of work has been done in that regard, but it is a worry for many exporters. In recent days, Marks and Spencer has commented on the problems it is experiencing with goods coming in and going out. It is an important topic for which we have to be prepared.
On the issue of tourism, my colleague raised a very important matter. It is very important that we consider tourism on an all-island basis. It is essential for this country that we portray ourselves on an all-island basis. That is the way it should be done. It goes to the heart of what the committee is all about. I look forward to the comments of the Minister of State.
I compliment Senator Chambers and the committee. They have been working on the report in a very productive and united manner. I pay tribute to the Minister of State on his work and, of course, that of the Taoiseach. All Senators know the difficulties and troubles that have been created for Irish farms and agribusinesses, as well as for many other sectors but we should not forget that Ireland has done very well out of the Brexit fund. The fund of €1 billion is really important for the future of those businesses and the agri-sector in terms of the supports to get them through this.
Like other speakers, I wish to again encourage businesspeople and others North of the Border who know the reality of what needs to happen here to accept that and move forward. The hand of friendship is extended to assist unionists, in particular, because they have issues with this. I have previously put on the record of the House the need to assist and support those people because we have to move froward as an island in this regard.
Brexit has been an absolute disaster. We have to reconsider matters in the context of the fear that still exists in the agri-sector, in particular. In my county and the adjoining counties of Galway and Mayo, many family agrifood businesses have been set up in recent years, each providing ten, 15, 20 or 30 jobs. Those businesses will acknowledge the support of the Government and the Brexit fund but the reality is that they are in constant fear and always looking over their shoulder to see where this will go. We are by no means out of the woods yet in terms of there being a smooth path forward. We do not have that. There is a significant amount of work to be done.
That said, an extraordinary amount of work is being done in the Seanad by the committee that is dealing with it and its Chairman. Much of the work is being done behind the scenes, which is very important in the context of this issue. Kite-flying or wild statements on this matter are not helpful in any way. We must all work closely together as politicians in the South to ensure we bring people in the North with us on this matter because it is a massive threat to the whole economy, North and South. That said, the procedures on which we are currently engaged and the fact we have the Brexit fund and are working together as a group are very clear statements that we can make progress and move in the right direction.
Let there be no doubt in anybody's mind that the threat still exists. It affects rural and urban Ireland, but in my county, the west midlands and the Border counties, the fear is always there in the farming and small business sectors. There is no doubt that Brexit has created difficulties for some of those businesses. They appreciate the way we are working here. That is the message I get at my constituency clinics, particularly from small businesses. They accept that the matter is being well handled South of the Border.
I again make the point that the hand of friendship has been extended to people North of the Border, particularly the unionist population which has difficulties with this. Unionist businesspeople always did business with people from the South of Ireland. Whether it was farming business, enterprise or whatever, they always did it and they know the realities of business. It might not take too much to bring them back to reality on this issue. Of course, the British Government is a major difficulty in all of this, as Members are aware.
I welcome the Minister. I say "Well done" to the Chairman of the committee on the report. I am only at page 31 but I am making my way through it.
There is no such thing as a good Brexit. It has forced us to make decisions we did not want to make. We have had to work to protect our island from a hard border and we are dealing with the fallout of Brexit every day. The issues relating to Brexit are not going away but what strikes me about the report is the hunger within it. I know from my experience as a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that there is a significant amount of hunger among civic community groups, voluntary groups and business groups for engagement because they recognise the challenges that exist.
It is such a pity that, exactly at the time we need to be leaning in to North-South co-operation, others are leaning out. That makes me focus on parts of the Good Friday Agreement that have not been implemented. I refer to the North-South consultative forum. If that forum were in being, we would be in a much better position in terms of dealing with the resilience, communication and connections needed in order to come up with practical solutions. It would also provide an opportunity to get a sense of what is happening on the ground instead of the political narrative that is constantly pushed. Dual market access is a major opportunity for the North. It is an opportunity for people to move away from identity politics and towards prosperity politics, which is exactly what the region needs. What is the view of the Minister of State on the North-South consultative forum? I know North-South co-operation is currently very difficult, but what can we do to bring together the people who need to be brought together? I make those remarks in the context of east-west relations as well. All Senators are saying that more connections are needed.
I am proud to be Chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association, BIPA, committee on sovereign affairs. We are working on a report in respect of strengthening or consolidating the British-Irish relationship. I would welcome the views of the Minister of State on the North-South consultative forum. That impacts things like tourism, Waterways Ireland and the all-island economy. The rules of origin are so important. I know a fix is seen as problematic but we have to keep this on the table because protecting an all-Ireland supply chain is fundamental to where we wish to go with the Good Friday Agreement. It is important in the context of making sure that we are able to retain mixed-origin goods in future trade agreements. The impact that can have on goods such as dairy and whiskey is significant. The Minister of State referred to mitigation measures but, fundamentally, this is something we need to push to try to find a solution.
I refer to the concerns raised in the document in respect of citizens' rights and the concern of the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for the Executive Office regarding the decision of the UK not to incorporate the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law and the fact that the UK Government is undertaking a review of the Human Rights Act. The latter is also something that we have to keep an eye on. I say that knowing there are proposals on the table relating to legacy that, for us, completely undermine international law and the European Convention on Human Rights. We need to be very wary of potential erosion of the rights of citizens.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as an bhfáilte a chur sé romham filleadh ar an seomra álainn seo, seomra inar shuigh mé ar feadh cúig bliana, idir 2011 agus 2016. Tá áthas orm a bheith ar ais leis an Seanadóir Daly agus é ina Chathaoirleach. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an roghchoiste maidir leis an mBreatimeacht. Tá obair an-tábhachtach déanta ag na comhaltaí go léir faoi chathaoirleacht an tSeanadóra Chambers. Is obair í atá an-tábhachtach chun cur in iúl do gach duine go bhfuil fadhbanna fós ann; go bhfuilimid sa Teach agus san Oireachtas uile ag lorg réitigh ar na fadhbanna sin agus, mar a dúirt an Seanadóir Murphy, go bhfuilimid ag cur lámh shíochána amach do gach cearn de Thuaisceart na hÉireann.
I am grateful for the invitation to return to the Seanad today and for your kind words earlier, a Chathaoirligh. I was very glad to be a Member of the Seanad for five years. I believe this is my first time back in the Chamber since I left the Seanad, although I have addressed the Seanad previously in the Dáil Chamber.
I thank the Chairperson of the select committee, Senator Chambers, and members of the select committee for the important work that has been done. When I was a Member of the Seanad, I always felt that it was a real gap that select committees were not used. It was only after my term that select committees started to be used on a thematic basis. Certainly, I believe they should be used more in the Seanad. That is important because sometimes they provide a different reflection given that in the joint committees, perhaps, Members of the Dáil are more to the fore, not in all cases but by the very nature of democratic representation.
The Seanad select committee provided an important platform for businesses, community groups and civil society groups when appearing before it. I am aware that a final report will be issued. The Brexit response has required a massive, collective, change-management exercise across the Government, the Oireachtas, business and civil society. I emphasise the word "collective". The cross-party approach on Brexit in this Chamber and in the Dáil has been of great importance. When we go to the European Union and get unity from all the member states, it is easy to ask for and expect that unity when they see that the political system here is united on the issue of Brexit. That is welcome and I thank the Opposition and Government members for it. It cannot be underestimated. That has held for the last number of years and, unquestionably, it has been very much in the national interest.
It is nine months from the end of the Brexit transition period, but it still feels like a transition. The British withdrawal from the Single Market and the customs union, two big mistakes, in my opinion, which I believe it is seeing now, has resulted in changes to our imports and exports. It has had negative effects in this country and we can see the disastrous effects in Great Britain. The way in which we move goods on and off the island has changed. We are monitoring trends closely and are cautious at this stage about long-term conclusions because the effects of Covid and the Brexit transition still exist. However, there are a number of issues in the report and I will try to address them and the issues raised today.
Regarding improvements to flows in our ports, some improvements have been made. For example, a dedicated communications interface between traders' customs systems and the Revenue Commissioners roll-on roll-off system is now in place. Further improvements are also in train. Relevant agencies are working together to streamline processes and reduce the administrative burden for traders as much as possible, but we have to meet our obligations under EU law. The change here is that Britain has left the Single Market. It has built these barriers. We will work as hard as we can to ease the requirements, but the fact is that this is the result of Brexit. This is the Single Market that Margaret Thatcher and others, including Charles Haughey, put together. They eliminated those barriers. By leaving the Single Market, Britain has raised them again. There will be UK import controls as well, which will bring more challenges for our businesses. We have been expecting them for some time but Britain keeps postponing them. These will be a problem for food businesses in particular. We are investing substantially in additional State capacity to meet certification needs, as well as providing guidance, advice and support for exporters.
Of course, it is not just business that is affected by the withdrawal of the UK. The report recognises the impact it has had on individual citizens in areas such as health, education and data flows. There have been positive developments in these areas, such as the EU adequacy decisions, but we must continue to monitor the issue closely. In my opinion, the biggest change and difficulty has been the rules of origin. A number of Senators mentioned that. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I have raised this at the highest level and we will continue to do so. It is having a massively detrimental impact on business, so we continue to work on it.
Senator Malcolm Byrne referred to Rosslare Europort. There has been work done in that regard. I visited Rosslare Europort and a lot of work has been carried out there. Unfortunately, Brexit has caused this problem. Space is limited there, but the Government is keeping everything under review. Some 1,500 staff have been engaged there since the start of the year.
The issue of tourism is very important. It has been mentioned that it must be done on an all-Ireland basis. Tourism Ireland is an all-Ireland, cross-Border body. We will continue to see that when it promotes Ireland for tourism, it is the island of Ireland it is promoting. That has to continue.
Senators Martin, Murphy and Ó Donnghaile referred to cross-community relations. That is very important. It is important that a strong message is conveyed from this Chamber and the Oireachtas that the concerns of unionists are understood and that the protocol, in particular, is not a threat to anybody's identity. It simply cannot affect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Whether one is a nationalist or a unionist, one probably feels more protected within the European Union. If one is somebody who does not want to leave the European Union, one is happier there. However, even from a unionist point of view, one will be more closely integrated with everybody within the European Union. Also, we cannot exaggerate the effects. There are supermarkets there that have not featured in the newspapers and that have had no problems. Senator Ó Donnghaile lives in Belfast. I visited supermarkets on a fact-finding mission and there was plenty of food and no issues. Some supermarkets are substituting as well. We also know that Northern Ireland has some of the largest pig processing factories, probably in the world. That got lost during the summer. The protocol is a huge opportunity for them. We must continue to remind people that Northern Ireland is open for business. One of the difficulties with all the uncertainty coming from London is that if a business is planning to invest in Northern Ireland it does not know what is happening. We have the protocol and we have to bring certainty to it. We must work with it.
Engagement in Northern Ireland is important. It was good and welcome that Vice President Šefčovič visited and spent two full days there, which is longer than most Ministers will spend on engagements in another country. It was two full days of listening to communities. That was important, and they felt they were being listened to as well. MEPs will continue that. We will encourage that. I want MEPs to do it, and not just our MEPs but also MEPs from across Europe. Earlier this year, I had the Portuguese Minister, who holds the Presidency of the Council, engage with civil society in Northern Ireland and I am hoping to do that with the Slovenian Presidency as well. That will be welcome from the Council point of view. The Senator mentioned the North-South consultative forum and civil society. That would be good and important. We have already started that in terms of listening to civil society in Northern Ireland and on our side in the Council of Ministers and I want to see how we can develop that further. It is about people being listened to and giving their ideas.
On the health issue, that scheme is there and the plan is to put it on a permanent legislative basis. That will continue but, again, it is a problem because of Brexit. That is the truth. It is a European directive that gave rights to us and to citizens in Northern Ireland and in Newcastle, but it is gone because of this decision. We see roaming charges back in the UK. That is a tragedy. It was all too predictable. We must keep reminding people of the advantages of the protocol. We are certainly not out of the woods with regard to lorry drivers or the supply issues that Britain is facing because this is an island nation. I will not count my chickens too quickly, but the truth is that we have not had the same disruption as Great Britain has had. That is because of our membership of the European Union and the stability it gives. One lorry driver quoted in the Financial Times said that he feels European when he comes to the Netherlands and to Ireland, but that he does not have the same feeling in Britain.
We are all one. When it comes to referendums and when parties oppose the European Union I always say that there is give and take. The take we all get from working together is far greater than what we all give individually. We need to remember that about our membership of the European Union. We have to be passionate about that membership. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of accession. We joined the EEC in 1973. There are many events happening and I think the first Seanad debate will probably be sooner than that. It will be worth recalling that sometime early next year because the Taoiseach at the time signed the accession treaty in February 1972. There will be one country not the table next year because it will be Ireland and Denmark remembering that event, rather than Ireland, Denmark and the UK. That will be a pity.
We have to be passionate about the benefits of this, as given to us, and we need to keep reminding people that we cannot take these things for granted. That sense of being European is a major advantage to us.
I have much more to say but I am running out of time. I have tried to answer most of the questions put forward. I thank Senators for the calm nature of this debate and for the process in which they have engaged. They have also been firm that there are agreements between the EU and the United Kingdom; they have to stick to their agreements, as we do. That is to everybody's benefit. There is major work under way between the EU and the UK to try to make sure the protocol will operate in the most efficient way possible. It will still be there but it will work efficiently so we can ensure the problems we see in Britain do not transfer to Northern Ireland.
I welcome the ongoing work. I hope it will result in what we need most - certainty. We can then have discussions on other issues and start moving on. We will see what the next generation in the UK brings to the table in terms of where it sees its destiny. I certainly hope at some point in the future that destiny will return that country and, indeed, the North of Ireland to the EU, which has proven to be the greatest peace process in the history of the world and which was an inspiration for the peace process in Northern Ireland. It is our complete objective to sustain and maintain that and to bring economic prosperity North and South.
We all concur with the hope that some day we might see the UK return and see the entire island be a part of the EU. The Minister of State will have taken from all the contributions during the debate that Brexit is still very much a live issue. If it was not for the pandemic, we probably would have had greater discussions on the impact of Brexit throughout the country. He rightly pointed out that one of the key objectives of our committee was to give a platform to those businesses, citizens and communities affected by Brexit that wanted to have their voices heard to ensure the Oireachtas and the Government took on board their views and experiences.
One of the issues I did not get to a chance to mention in my opening remarks was that around the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. As a committee, we are very keen to see that addressed in any meaningful way we can to make sure the voices of Irish citizens, and people in the North who feel very much part of the EU and want to remain part of it, are heard. As Senator Ó Donnghaile rightly pointed out, Northern Ireland rejected Brexit and yet it now finds itself outside the EU, which is not a satisfactory position for many people and citizens in the North. We want to see that addressed through all the channels open to the Government.
The Minister of State mentioned Vice President Šefčovič, who will be before our committee in the coming weeks. That is something we are very much looking forward to. Commissioner McGuinness and Congressman Richard Neal have also appeared before the committee. We were very heartened to have Congressman Neal at our opening meeting to reiterate the support of the United States for Ireland's position of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and driving home the message to the UK that there will not be a trade deal if it jeopardises that agreement or seeks to undermine it in any way. The Seanad Brexit committee has been an important platform for Ireland and the Oireachtas to get those views heard and aired and to give us an opportunity to drive home our message that, as the Minister of State said, we are committed members of the EU, which is a club with a very proud history and Ireland is very proud to be a member of it.
As public representatives, it is important we remind the public of the very good work the EU has done for Ireland, as the Minister of State vitally pointed out. Brexit has done that for us in that it has shown citizens the benefits of membership of the EU. We see certain events happening across the water that remind people of what happens when you step out of the Single Market and the customs union. They were designed for a very good reason and with very good benefits for members. It is unfortunate that things have transpired in the way they have.
We will continue our work over the coming weeks and months, with the intention of producing our final report at the end of the year. We will then have either the Minister of State or the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, before the Seanad again to hear about our final report. We will then follow up with the Minister of State, as he no doubt knows, and the Department on our recommendations and plans for implementation. The committee looks forward to engaging with the Minister of State in seeing those recommendations implemented.
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. Once again, I thank our members, witnesses and the committee secretariat for their work in putting this report together. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his leniency in allowing me a few extra minutes for my remarks.
When is it proposed to sit again? Is it 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday?
Is that agreed? Agreed.