I welcome the Minister to the House for this important debate and thank him for all the work he is doing and the support he is getting for Ireland, not only at an EU level but also in the United States of America and across the globe, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which is a key reason for the Northern Ireland protocol.
Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland: Statements
I am delighted to be back once again in the Seanad to participate in this timely discussion on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The ongoing work of this Chamber on Brexit issues, particularly the efforts of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, underlines the continued importance of this issue for communities across the country.
Northern Ireland did not seek Brexit and did not vote for Brexit. It is a policy whose problems were all too foreseeable. Week by week and month by month, they become increasingly clear to us all. The particular form of Brexit chosen by the British Government created new trade barriers. Leaving the Single Market and the customs union and prioritising the pursuit of regulatory divergence have inevitably created burdens for businesses and traders. That choice brings new checks and controls on goods. It has led to significant supply chain challenges, resulting in needless friction, delays and, in some cases, shortages.
Thankfully, the protocol, agreed by the EU and the UK, is there to mitigate those negative effects as much as possible. It clearly and explicitly protects the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process. It prevents a hard border on this island. It protects and supports an all-island economy that continues to flourish, building on years of sustained growth, and maintains the necessary conditions for continued North-South co-operation. It also protects the European Single Market and Ireland's place in it, equal to the other 26 member states. We see regular polling data, including recently from Queen's University Belfast and the University of Liverpool, telling us that most people in the North see the protocol as, on balance, a good thing for Northern Ireland. They consider it an appropriate means of seeking to mitigate the harsh realities of Brexit. They see that it provides a unique set of economic opportunities that can and should be seized on.
It is clear from my regular engagements that the Northern Ireland business community shares that positive focus. Business leaders in the North, from the Confederation of British Industry to Manufacturing Northern Ireland to the chambers of commerce to others, are clear that the protocol creates opportunities for jobs and growth. Invest Northern Ireland is experiencing historically high levels of foreign direct investment interest. The Dairy Council for Northern Ireland has been emphatic: without the protocol, the effects on the dairy sector, North and South, would have been devastating. During the course of this year, we have seen a series of jobs and investment announcements clearly predicated on Northern Ireland's free, open and seamless access to the massive European Single Market for goods and to the UK internal market.
We all know that legal uncertainty and political instability can be hammer blows for economic growth and investment. That is why it is particularly disappointing that the British Government might consider further actions that would stoke needless uncertainty. Proposals to effectively dismantle the protocol, to renegotiate its basis or to remove Northern Ireland from the European Single Market by putting the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice at issue needlessly undermine efforts to create jobs and investment opportunities in Northern Ireland.
We have always recognised that the disruptions of Brexit would be very difficult to manage and contain. The Irish Government has devoted great efforts and resources to doing so, North and South. We continue to engage with business and community leaders across Northern Ireland on the protocol and responding to the challenges of Brexit. We do so in good faith, seeking working and sustainable solutions. We do so in close partnership with the European Union, which has steadfastly supported the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process with substantial funding over many years and a genuine commitment to have a sustained peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Vice-President Šefčovič, as the Commission's lead on EU-UK relations, has been a committed ally of the island of Ireland, North and South. I wish to acknowledge his engagement with the Oireachtas this week in coming before the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. I met with Vice-President Šefčovič yesterday. It is very clear that he remains fully committed to finding creative, credible and durable solutions to the genuine concerns raised with him by people and businesses in Northern Ireland. The EU's proposals can ensure that Northern Ireland's medicines supplies are fully secured. They can ease further the flow of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland, cutting hugely the sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, and customs formalities faced by businesses. They can also provide new opportunities for Northern Irish voices to be heard and listened to on how the protocol is to be implemented in the future. The European Union's bona fides as a good faith actor are clear and are motivated by the desire to sustain peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. To help to secure this goal, the British Government too must step up and engage credibly with the EU proposals, seeking genuine agreement and resolution in the ongoing talks.
I welcome that the EU and UK teams continue to talk this week, today and tomorrow, and that Vice President Šefčovič and Lord Frost will meet again on Friday. Our focus remains on those ongoing EU-UK talks. We should give them every chance to succeed. We need to see the focus of engagement within those talks not on ideological ends but on the practical needs of people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We need to develop trust and a positive working relationship. It is difficult to sustain such a relationship when one party holds out persistent threats to destabilise its own recently negotiated agreements. As the Taoiseach said recently, it would be irresponsible, unwise and reckless for the UK to invoke Article 16. Not only would this further mire the EU-UK relationship; it would carry serious negative implications for the bilateral relationship between our two Governments. The protocol creates genuine and unique potential for Northern Ireland, offering unrivalled potential through its free and open dual market access. In recent days Northern Ireland's business community has made clear that invoking Article 16 would produce unnecessary uncertainty and instability for traders, and they do not want that.
The people of Northern Ireland are clear: they want a society and an economy that provides good jobs, stability and opportunity. They want a political establishment working on their needs and focused on their interests. These are not unreasonable expectations and they are not undeliverable.
I believe that the remaining issues can be resolved in the context of the implementation of the protocol. However, to do so we need to get a much more positive, much more stable and much more trusting EU-UK relationship. We have some way to go to get there but I can assure this House that the Government will not stop doing all it can to help to develop, support and sustain such a relationship in the interests of all of the people on this island. I look forward to listening to Members' own thoughts and questions. If there are specific queries or questions, I will try to address them directly when I come back in again.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It is a timely debate while this issue continues to move on and change all of the time. The Minister has very correctly pointed to the engagement we have recently had at the Seanad Brexit committee with Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on Monday of this week. It was a very interesting debate and exchange of views between members of our committee and with the Commissioner. Commission Vice-President Šefčovič was very diplomatic in his answers to us, and he very openly and honestly answered questions from committee members. There was a very clear message from the EU that it does expect to be treated with respect from the UK, and that it expects to see genuine solutions coming to the table.
It is worth reminding those who might be listening to this debate that the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland was a result of a number of years of negotiations. It was the only option left on the table when everything else had been explored. It was the only option that allowed us to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland to maintain peace of this island, and to ensure that we could mitigate against the worst possible impact of Brexit, in full acknowledgement that the people of Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit and that we here in Ireland did not vote for Brexit or ask for Brexit. It is a British policy and we are now dealing with the fallout from that. It was the best we could do in very difficult and challenging circumstances. It is also worth pointing out that the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland contained within the withdrawal agreement was negotiated and signed off by the British Government. The British Prime Minister said that it was a great deal and he won an election on the back of that. That seems to have been forgotten.
It is disappointing, to put it mildly, how they have approached these negotiations and how they have conducted themselves through these negotiations, and in particular Lord Frost, who I think at times has treated Maroš Šefčovič and his team, and us here in Ireland, with a degree of disrespect. It is fair for us here in Ireland, and other member states, to expect that when one signs an agreement in good faith with eyes wide open, having talked about it for months and years at that point, that everybody knew what they were signing up to. To then turn around and say that somehow there was an imbalance in the negotiations and that there was not fairness at the heart of the heart of the negotiations, I do not accept that. I utterly reject this assertion put forward by some in the British Parliament, the British Government and the British media. That is not the case. They are tinkering around the edges of what is fact and what is fiction. The fact remains that everybody knew what they were signing when they signed that agreement and now they are seeking to renege on that. The constant threat of Article 16 is destabilising and it damages trust between Ireland and the UK. It damages trust between the UK and other member states. It makes it very difficult to find a resolution and a solution to the issues that are there.
It was said at the Brexit committee on Monday, and I reiterate it in this House, our appreciation and gratitude to Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič for the work he has undertaken, and particularly in the past months in his engagements in Northern Ireland. He has gone above and beyond with his team to engage with business owners, the public and politicians right across the island on this issue. It is fair to say that he has a deep and genuine understanding of the issues on this island and how important the protocol is to ensure that peace is protected and that we protect the Good Friday Agreement. Mr. Šefčovič has taken the time to really get under the covers and understand what are the issues here, including the position papers that he published and the solutions he brought to the table with his team, having consulted widely with the people in Northern Ireland and with the business community.
Mr. Šefčovič said on Monday that they have removed 80% of all checks. That is the practical implications of how the protocol is working on the ground. I do not believe that it has been properly acknowledged by those negotiating on the UK side how significant those changes were with regard to the operation of the protocol, and how much the team had taken on board the concerns of the people living in Northern Ireland. Essentially, the proposals were rejected before they were published at all, which is not the way I would approach a negotiation or how I would conduct my business working with anybody. We got past that and they were published, but they were still not taken with the degree of seriousness one would expect the UK to have taken. There are constant threats of triggering Article 16, knowing that this is supposed to be a safeguard. It is not supposed to be used as a stick to beat with which to beat the other side. It is a safeguard if there are genuine economic, societal and environmental disruptions that are likely to persist. That is the wording of the protocol and that is what it is there for. Equally, they tend to gloss over with their own citizens that the EU would also have an opportunity to rebalance that by taking action too. We are skirting around the edges of discussing the potential for a trade war, which would be disastrous for both islands and for the European Union. Nobody wants to go there.
I take note of what the Commissioner said on Monday, and the tone that Lord Frost is striking today in Northern Ireland. There does appear to be a degree of pulling back somewhat from that cliff edge, and a bit more of a constructive approach to these negotiations in the last couple of days. That is a positive thing but there is no doubt that damage has been done by that constant threat to pull the plug and to walk away and leave the table. I would urge the British Government to think long-term about the impact that their conduct is having on their relationship with their nearest neighbour and with the European Union. We are all trying to resolve this. This does not discount or take away from the fact that they had a vote. They had their referendum and we accept and respect the result. We must all get around the table now to resolve this.
Throughout the work of our Brexit committee, time and again we have been told about the opportunities and the silver lining that is the protocol for Northern Ireland, which are the opportunities this can present for Northern Ireland. I understand that Lord Frost rejected this argument today in Northern Ireland. It does present an opportunity for Northern Ireland and it does represent the best of both worlds. Access to both markets is an opportunity if it can be seized upon. It is not just me saying this. The Economic and Social Research Institute came before our committee on two occasions to reiterate that point and to make the point very strongly that if they can give certainty to the protocol, it could be fantastic for Northern Ireland. At the end of the day, we should want to get some benefit from this disastrous number of years with regard to our relationship with UK and the Brexit process, so that we can take some positive and actually make it work for the people of Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland.
I thank Senator Chambers for her work on the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and for highlighting the issues and opportunities that are presented for Northern Ireland in the protocol, which is often lost in the debate in Northern Ireland.
On Senator Chambers's last comments, I also remember the days when the current and one of the former leaders of the DUP also talked about the positive potential of the protocol and how it offered the best of both worlds.
I thank the Minister for being with us today for these statements. I have consistently called for statements in the past weeks, while appreciating fully the sensitivities of a live negotiation, and the discussions and engagements that the Minister and his European colleagues will be having with their British Government counterparts. At no point did I seek to inject further heat or noise into these exchanges. Rather, I wanted to try to begin to inject some facts. I believe that the platform of the Seanad might be an important place to do that. I feel very passionately and strongly about this issue, as do colleagues across the Chamber. I also feel passionately about ensuring that some of those truths were amplified and told and given the space they deserved. This is a platform that the vast majority of the community in the North and beyond, and the vast majority of business, community, voluntary, trade union, and all kinds of sectors want, to cut through some of what has been said, which unfortunately has taken hold and prevailed over the past weeks and months.
On Brexit, the attitude of the British Government and the DUP to the protocol and Article 16, are the politics of the battering ram and the politics of self-interest, of confrontation and humiliation, the politics of division and demoralisation, the politics of despair and hopelessness, the politics of the big lie, and the narrow and reactionary politics of the past. As the Minister is aware, and as we have seen recently over the past few months, the politics of the veiled threat can become a real threat when violence and instability is brought to the streets.
I want to take this opportunity again today to condemn this violence and thank all of those on the ground seeking to resolve it. The Good Friday Agreement is the politics of accommodation, compromise, respect, power-sharing and hope for a better future. Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement, its all-Ireland power-sharing institutions, the new accommodation between nationalists and unionists on this island, the better understanding between the peoples of Ireland and Britain and the mutual recognition and support between the Irish and British Government. Above all else, Brexit risks peace. As we have seen from comments by the British Government's Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, in the House of Lords, peace in Ireland is now a commodity to be traded in the negotiations with the EU. Lord Frost said peace could be at risk if the EU decided to retaliate in a disproportionate weight to the threats to trigger Article 16. It is important to reiterate today that peace is neither a commodity to be bartered nor collateral damage to the self-interest of Boris Johnson and the Tory party.
The actions of the British Government and the DUP are flagrantly undemocratic. They ignore the fact that in 2016 the people of the North voted to remain in the EU and that the majority of the political parties, business organisations and people in the North are opposed to Brexit, and that the Irish Government and all of the parties in the Oireachtas are also opposed to Brexit. The big lie is that the protocol is damaging the North's economy but business and trade union organisations say the opposite. They recognise that the North's economy is well positioned with access to the EU Single Market and the British market and to the foreign direct investment that helps economic growth, sustains jobs and creates stability and certainty for businesses and workers. This is precisely the message I heard from almost 200 business organisations represented at a Sinn Féin breakfast in Belfast this morning. The majority of people, political parties in Ireland and the Government view Brexit, not the protocol, as the problem.
The protocol is an imperfect solution to the problems created by the British Government and its Brexit. It was negotiated, as Senator Chambers said, and agreed between the British Government and the EU. It is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement, avoid a hard border and protect the all-island economy. The protocol, the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement were all negotiated between the EU and British Government. If the British Government unilaterally triggers Article 16 it risks the overall Brexit deal. The British Government is acting in bad faith. It is breaching trust and acting irresponsibly. In the past, it has flouted international law. As the Minister and other colleagues have said, it should step back from the brink. I am sure this is a message Lord Frost heard loud and clear at his meetings in Belfast this morning.
In contrast to the behaviour of the British Government and the DUP, we have the welcome support of the US and EU capitals. President Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Richard Neal have made it clear that any interference with the Good Friday Agreement would result in no trade deal between the US and British Government. Recently, a bipartisan motion of support for the agreement was passed by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Good Friday Agreement and the protocol must be protected from the British Government and the DUP. This weekend, the people at the sharpest end of Brexit, namely, those who live on either side of the Border will protest in support of the protocol and to demand no hard border in Ireland. The protesters will gather at Flurrybridge, Carrickcarnan, Belcoo, Blacklion, Mayobridge, Aughnacloy, Lifford Bridge, Bridgend and Derry. Their message to Boris Johnson is to back off. This is a message the House, the Irish Government and all those opposed to Brexit must continue to send to the reckless Brexiteers.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As a Member of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union I have heard at first hand the issues that businesses, communities and individuals have already faced since the UK took it upon itself to leave the EU. The fall-out from the withdrawal is still being felt on a day-to-day basis throughout the island as days and weeks are added to the delivery of parts and ingredients from many industries and services here. I had the experience of a three-week delay for a car part. I was told that continuing delays for such associated parts is due to the withdrawal of the UK. Against this backdrop, it would seem the UK Government wants to engage in a full trade war by potentially triggering Article 16. It seems to want to threaten the very hard-earned peace on this island, as well as using the protocol to change the demands, agreements and confidences it has entered into, as has been said by other Members.
The committee met Vice-President Šefčovič on Monday. I am sure like other Members of the House and everybody else listening in, I was very encouraged by the obvious change in language from the Commissioner and the upbeat nature of his contribution. The Commissioner told the committee that all issues under discussion could be solved and that the EU legislative proposal is ready. He stated he could put it on the table this week but that he wanted to do so in a joint approach with the UK. The worry for us all is that the Commissioner went on to say that sometimes he has the feeling that when we come up with a solution to one problem, other problems are put on the table.
At the heart of all of this debate of course must be the EU's continued support for Ireland and our part in the Union. Once again, it was heartening that on Monday we were informed by the Commissioner that the most important currency in dealing with the UK is the unity of the EU. He stated he was very glad he had unwavering EU support for a constructive approach. I am sure it was also encouraging for the Minister to hear the Commissioner state the EU is preparing for all scenarios and that whatever the outcome, the EU will be ready. The Commissioner stated that despite the sometimes very tense atmosphere, he continues to engage, that his A, B, C and D scenarios would be positive and he hoped this attitude will also prevail in London.
In the committee's discussion with business owners in Northern Ireland, they outlined their support for the current proposals and their defence of the existing arrangements. It was also encouraging to hear the Commissioner state this was also his experience of speaking to businesses in the North and that he wanted to work with the UK on amplifying these opportunities and to reduce the problems Brexit has brought to Northern Ireland. The Commissioner encouraged all Irish politicians to continue to reach out to colleagues in the EU. It is very important to put on the record my thanks and, I am sure, the collective thanks for the Minister's efforts on such an important issue for this country. It is important in such debates to thank politicians from all sides in the United States, including President Biden, for their continued support of the protocol and what it means to this country.
I welcome the support of the British Labour Party on this very important matter. The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Louise Haigh, MP, made comments during a recent speech in Belfast and she repeated them at the Labour Party conference in Dublin at the weekend. Ms Haigh said invoking Article 16 would not end the dispute or uncertainty but would prolong and deepen them. She went on to say the British Labour Party had repeatedly stated it opposes the Government using the mechanism and accused the Conservatives of sowing division and undermining stability in Northern Ireland. She stated, "With tension rising in Northern Ireland and a cost of living crisis across the rest of the UK the last thing that is needed is more poisonously instability and the prospect of a damaging trade dispute with our nearest trading partners." She also stated:
People and businesses are pragmatic - they want solutions, not a stand-off. So the Government must not ventriloquise for people and for communities who they have shown little understanding of.
There can be no doubt this is crucial for the future of the island from an economic and social point of view. There can be no diminishing of the protocol. It must receive the unconditional support of the EU, as outlined by the Commissioner on Monday. As the Minister recently said, our job is to be positive and optimistic and to try to create windows of opportunity when they are there. Clearly there is one there now. I wish the Minister well in all of his endeavours. He will have the full support of the Labour Party in that.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. I commend him and the Department on the work they have done on this issue. I also commend Senator Chambers on the work she has done on Brexit. It has been phenomenal. Her dedication has been brilliant.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the protocol. No doubt about it, the starting point must remain Brexit. No one should ever forget the North was removed from the European Union against its will. The people do not want Brexit. It was imposed upon them. Their collective voice was clear. Evidence suggests that most understand why the protocol is required and agree it is needed. A legally guaranteed special arrangement was always required. Common membership of the EU was an underpinning assumption of the peace process. We are now in uncharted territory as a result of Brexit and, may I also say, the increasingly reckless actions of the British Government, which is playing games with the future of people of this island once again. The protocol is there to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure no hard border emerges on this island and to support ongoing North-South co-operation. The protocol is about mitigating the damage of Brexit and the preservation of the precious peace on this island. It must be defended and upheld. The British Government must implement what it has agreed in good faith. It is heartening to see how many in the international community agree with this.
The protocol offers well-recognised opportunities for the North. These should be promoted and developed. I almost feel as if I am copying the Minister in saying this. Businesses and communities know this and they want to make good use of these opportunities. I believe the protocol offers protection for the many Northern Ireland businesses trading primarily across the island of Ireland and-or with the EU, as the status quo position is largely retained into the future with the absence of border checks, customs declarations or tariffs. While there have undoubtedly been problems and challenges, particularly for the Northern Ireland businesses that trade primarily with Great Britain and some Northern Ireland consumers, we have also seen many businesses building new opportunities. It has been brilliant. There are potential investors interested in coming to Northern Ireland to benefit from the unique dual access to the UK and EU markets if located in Northern Ireland, but they are waiting for the protocol to bed down and for the remaining problems to be resolved.
The protocol also contains an important human rights and equality guarantee. I believe this has been neglected. Civil society organisations know its value, as do the human rights and equality commissions on this island. They correctly want to make use of these protections. We must hear more about this valuable aspect of the protocol. We still do not hear enough about the many opportunities the protocol delivers for the North.
Let us be clear, and let us send a strong message. Problems that have arisen are the direct result of decisions made by the British Government and choices that are made in London. The British Government continues to put narrow Brexiteer ideology above the interests of all the people of the North. It selected the dangerous path and it must face the consequences of its actions. This must be called out and we must name it for what it is. The British Government does not care. Its approach remains the primary cause of our current difficulties. The attempt to destabilise the North for its own strategic interests undermines the agreement. It has abandoned even the pretence of adherence to its obligations.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that we must also remember that there is another way forward on this island. The people of the North have a way back to the EU through the Good Friday Agreement. I proudly chair the civil society organisation, Ireland's Future. We are determined to promote a responsible and focused conversation about constitutional change on this island. The people of the island want to have that conversation. The North has a guaranteed automatic EU re-entry option. To ignore it is unwise and ill-advised.
The Irish Government has an obligation to plan and prepare for the Border poll that is promised in the Good Friday Agreement. The Government has the necessary resources to undertake the research on what a new Ireland, a new Ireland that is a warm house for all, would look like in areas such as health, education and housing. It is legitimate to promote the idea of reunification of the island - it should not be seen as negative to use that phrase - and to have a clear vision of what the new Ireland would look like-----
-----so that when people are asked to vote, they will do so with as much knowledge as possible. Let us plan for a better future for everybody on this island.
We must defend the protocol, we must embrace the many opportunities it provides and we must prepare for a better future together on this island within the European Union. I would love to see the establishment of a cross-party Oireachtas committee for planning on preparing for the future. It would be brilliant. Last week, Ireland's Future held a very good event in the Mansion House. It was attended by Deputies Jim O'Callaghan, Neale Richmond and Mary Lou McDonald, who were all in agreement on this issue. It was so powerful to see Members of the Oireachtas sitting together and discussing what a new Ireland would look like with an all-inclusive warm house for all.
I welcome the Minister and salute and thank him for his painstaking and very competent work on the question of Brexit - first, in winning the support of our European partners for the Irish position and its solidarity right through the process and, second, in dealing with the minutiae throughout the protocol. The Minister will observe today that this entire House is mandating him, supporting him or echoing the call to him to continue to work steadfastly to make the protocol work and to arrive at consensus there, while maintaining international agreements.
I also salute my colleague, Senator Chambers. I have the privilege of being a member of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union with her and a number of the other speakers today and she leads that committee with extraordinary competence and commitment. That is a very important committee, certainly for the region from which I come.
The protocol is an international agreement and that must be the starting point. It was negotiated between the EU and the UK. It is not something we negotiated, but an international treaty between the EU and the UK. It must be seen as such. As Senator Ó Donnghaile said, it stands alongside the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in that regard. They are inter-changeable and connected.
What is interesting, and the Minister and colleagues in the House are very aware of this, is that some of the political people in Northern Ireland are so out of sync with and unconnected to the reality of what ordinary people, business people, the trade associations and the commercial sector in Northern Ireland think. They want to work the protocol and to see the great opportunity, which I will mention briefly momentarily. First, the ordinary people of Northern Ireland voted not to accept Brexit. Having voted against Brexit, they now want to work the protocol. One can only say that there is a cynical exploitation and that the people of Northern Ireland are almost like pawns in a game that they are not part of and do not wish to be part of. They want to work the protocol. The alternative to the protocol was a hard border and the obvious threat that would be to peace, the Good Friday Agreement and the welfare of the island. It does not require further elaboration. No Member of the House is unaware of that. Suggestions that perhaps technological solutions were possible are nonsense. Ultimately, it was going to lead to violence and trouble there. That must be remembered.
The protocol is a great opportunity for Northern Ireland in that it gives it the capacity to trade efficiently with the UK and similarly to have its status, membership and trading capacity here between the North and the South and into the EU. There has been a great expansion of North-South trade and that is a very important development. It is an exciting development on a number of fronts and it is great. It is a by-product of all this.
We should recognise that Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič made very generous and workable proposals. If I understand them correctly, and I presume the Minister mentioned this earlier and will perhaps mention it again in summarising, they remove about 80% of the potential difficulties of the protocol in terms of checks, customs checks and trading difficulties. There is a real effort on the EU's side in that regard. I hope that the UK will refrain from the nuclear option, as it were, of Article 16, and I believe it will. Our major appeal here is that we all be sensible and calm and that we negotiate. I know that is what the Minister will do, but I wish to repeat that it is desire of this House, my desire, the desire of the Brexit select committee and the desire of all rational people that an accommodation be found, that there be negotiation and reasoned argument and that we sit down together to make things work to the benefit of the people in Northern Ireland. We must stop short of any grandstanding or anything that would lead to trade wars and so forth.
The protocol is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, the economy of Northern Ireland, the all-island economy and, ultimately, of the UK and the EU. First, if there is a message I wish to give to the Minister, it is that we endorse it.
It is a consistent theme in all of the contributions made today that we support the protocol. It is an international agreement but we do want to support negotiation, we do want a reasoned outcome, we do not want confrontation and we do want the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to be the ultimate arbiter of how we go about this. The best interests of Northern Ireland certainly lie with the Šefčovič proposals and with further modifications to ensure we have smooth trade North, South, east and west. We must avoid anything that would contribute to polarisation or flashpoints. All of that is a consistent theme and I welcome this important debate.
It is great there is consensus, unanimity and clarity in the House. It is a reasoned approach that we must continue ultimately for the welfare of ordinary people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure their incomes, livelihoods, way of life, and supply of goods and quality of life remain intact. We also must ensure there is a respect for the fact they did not, in the first instance, vote for Brexit and voted against it, and that there is a respect for the fact the great majority of people there want to work the protocol. Ultimately, those people should be the arbiters of our direction. I favour a negotiated, peaceful and reasoned approach, trying to arrive at a consensus and us offering an olive branch where we can.
I, too, thank the Minister for coming to the House again with a fresh update on the Brexit negotiations and the protocol. It is fair to say we must thank the US Administration for its steady and supportive hand throughout this process. As I have said in this House before, the Minister has built up a number of contacts over the years and been a steady hand throughout this process. Our interests are pretty well protected from an EU perspective. His experience and expertise have shone through.
Last Wednesday, a cross-committee meeting took place with the House of Lords. I found it interesting to hear their views because sometimes one feels perplexed that parties, like the Labour Party in the UK, have not been stronger with the Johnson Administration on Brexit and the protocol. It felt like a breath of fresh air to listen to Lord Peter Hain, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and how strong he was in opposing what the UK Administration is currently doing and how it has undermined its position from the point of view of a future trading situation with the EU and the US, which Lord Hain mentioned. It is pretty much a case of the UK Government cutting off its nose to spite its face.
On Thursday, we travelled to Belfast with colleagues in this House as part of a delegation from the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We were there two days and had numerous meetings. We had meetings with the unionist parties and it was interesting to hear their insight into Article 16. They had a general belief that implementing Article 16 would not necessarily be serious or as bad as we were inclined to think it would be. I found it fascinating that this was their position. It seemed as if they have been fed the line that it is a simple part of the protocol and, from that perspective, not something to worry about as it was just another negotiating position. They displayed no real insight into the real damage Article 16 will do. I am interested in hearing the views of the Minister on that.
The unionist parties also expressed an interesting solution for medicines. They felt that resolving issues regarding the importation of medicines into the UK will not be as easily resolved as the EU now proposes. Again, I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.
We met two professors about a study done in Queen's University Belfast on the implementation of the protocol. They conducted a vast poll of 2,500 participants on that implementation. I found it interesting to hear the breakdown of the study and see how support for the protocol came down pretty much strongly on sectarian lines. That situation would lead you to believe there is a very poor understanding of the implementation of the protocol, how it will be implemented and the effects that it will have within Northern Ireland. Possibly, the Irish Government has a job of work to do on that.
The Minister mentioned in his speech there were opportunities for Northern Ireland to be heard and help implement the protocol. Is there an opportunity for us to look at some mechanism whereby representation within Northern Ireland can be brought into being, because currently the North is part of the EU trade-wise but it does not have any say? We have difficulties in getting a unionist voice as far as Dublin, but I think it would be worthwhile looking at creating some sort of oversight role for members of a committee of members from Stormont and the Oireachtas, which could perhaps be Stormont-based for once, with some UK input as well. From a number of perspectives, it could be an interesting idea to look at.
We had a meeting with the Ballymurphy and Springhill families. Their solicitor, Mr. Pádraig Ó Muirigh, made the point that the families would not have got as far as they have with inquests had it not been for the independence of the Judiciary. There is a fear that if such independence is eroded by the UK that seeks to water down the input of the European Court of Justice, then the implications for the families and for many other things is something we need to look out for and protect. I would like the Minister to take this matter on board.
I welcome the Minister to the House, particularly as he has an extremely busy schedule at the moment. We appreciate him giving of his time to come here to discuss this important and evolving issue that will affect this country for generations to come.
As the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU said earlier, we had a very useful engagement with the European Commission Vice-President Šefčovič on Monday and it was interesting just to engage with him. I asked him whether the European Commission had developed a strategy if Northern Ireland triggers Article 16 because we must be ready for all eventualities. I am interested in hearing the observations of the Minister on the readiness of Europe if Article 16 is triggered. Obviously we all hope Article 16 is not triggered. We all stand in solidarity with the efforts the Minister, his officials and, indeed, the European Commission are putting in to make sure this does not happen.
I very much welcome the mood change on the part the United Kingdom in recent weeks, especially from Mr. Frost because certainly the utterances were very pointed, provocative and unhelpful. I hope we are moving into somewhat calmer waters, which is what are needed if a deal is going to be delivered, because the consequences are fairly striking. Yesterday, I spoke to an ophthalmologist who operates in Temple Street children's hospital.
She specialises in prosthetic eyes for children. No operator in this country makes these types of plastic eyes. There are some arrangements with the UK National Health Service in Belfast, but many of these eyes are delivered from a private operator in Wales. What happens is Temple Street hospital purchases the prosthetic eyes and would normally receive delivery in two or three days, but a child in Limerick has been waiting for one of these eyes since 21 October. The item has been caught up in customs since that date. There are consequences, therefore, for where we find ourselves and they impact greatly on people's lives in a range of areas.
Colleagues have spoken about trade and various other aspects, but I am interested in the Minister's reflections on the area of medicine and medical care, one issue we should be able to resolve. I hope solutions can be found for the team at Temple Street hospital, who find themselves in very difficult circumstances, not least when they must try to explain to the parents of a small child that there is nothing the hospital can do because the item has been held up in customs. These are real-life scenarios and I acknowledge the Minister is fully aware of them. The effort he is making reflects how concerned he is and how much he knows about the consequences there will be if this does not work out the way all of us want it to. I imagine most people in the UK want that as well but there seem to be difficulties at leadership level, which is regrettable. I hope that will sort itself out.
The Minister is welcome. His presence in the House is timely and important. As a resident of County Louth and a Border community, I am always anxious about talks relating to Northern Ireland and the safety and security of those of us who live near the Border. We are always conscious of the reckless and manipulative manner in which the actions of the British Government always end up affecting us on the Border and across the island.
On Saturday next, I will stand on the Border, in solidarity with all citizens of this island and the business communities, calling for the security of this island and the protection of its status within the EU. We will protest at the Border, in Carrickcarnan, County Louth. The protest has been organised by Border Communities Against Brexit. It is important we stand together in solidarity, of all parties, businesses and backgrounds, to say we will not stand for this and that we need to move on from this. We have been talking about the Northern Ireland protocol for more than 12 months. We thought it was done when it was, originally, welcomed by all parties including the British Government, which had been involved in negotiating it. Nobody forced its hand to sign this; there were no threats from the EU as to what would happen if it did not sign up. It won an election on the back of Brexit being done and being oven ready. It is incredible how wrong we all were.
It is worth noting the citizens of Northern Ireland support the protocol and are willing its success. The disingenuous and disturbing manner in which the UK Government is acting is not surprising, although it never surprises me. It is opportunistic and always tries to take advantage for its own political gain of that nationalistic view growing within the UK. It is taking advantage also of the Northern unionist parties, which, in many ways, are going through a crisis of identity themselves. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the Brexit for which the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, campaigned so strongly is that it could be the sword on which it might fall. That party welcomed the protocol and now, with a severe degree of inflexibility, it says the protocol is fundamentally wrong.
It is beyond belief we are still discussing Brexit and the protocol. I wish we could just move on. We are almost beginning to doubt the British Government really wants Brexit, given it is protesting so much. We had an excellent engagement with Commissioner Šefčovič on Monday last. He is very positive and it is heart-warming and encouraging to see his commitment to this island, to upholding EU law and to looking after citizens throughout this island. His fear was that no matter what the EU brings to the table, the British Government will bring something else, and that there is a continuous shifting of the goalposts. We must reiterate it will be reckless of the UK Government to invoke Article 16. We have to move on together. I restate my support to the Minister in respect of his endeavours in Europe. He has the support of the entire island and the business communities repeatedly speak about the benefits of the protocol. Earlier today, the president of the Derry chamber of commerce stated:
Reports that the UK Government are preparing to trigger Article 16 are damaging and will do little to allay the concerns of everyday traders who want to make the Protocol work. As negotiations continue over the future direction of GB-NI trading arrangements, Lord Frost must reflect upon the significant damage that this unnecessary step would have upon the North West and beyond.
Businesses, the island and the EU are behind the protocol. The DUP and the UK Government need to get behind it as well.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus an díospóireacht seo. I acknowledge the work he has done on this. It has consumed his Ministry and, indeed, this country and our neighbouring country for a long time. It is in that context that the behaviour we have seen in recent times has been extraordinary. In the week after we lost Austin Currie, it is appropriate to think back to the leadership demonstrated by people such as him and others in the context of Northern Ireland, and how that contrasts with the behaviour of the British Government. I have pointed out previously during debates with the Minister how extraordinary it is to see a country that once prided itself as a world power and respected principles such as honour turn itself into one that simply cannot be trusted.
Earlier this week, we had the honour of speaking to Commissioner Šefčovič at a meeting of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. We are lucky to have him dealing with this issue because, of all the people involved, he has made especially great efforts to acquaint himself with the issues and to familiarise himself with the intricacies of this debate and how important it is to both sides of the Border. He told us how he felt the tone of the British approach had changed, which is encouraging. I asked him whether, assuming we reach a resolution both sides can live with, we can trust that resolution to hold. I asked that in the context of us having got to that point and where it seems the British Government has no respect for the deals it has done or regard for the fact it has signed on the dotted line and made a commitment, and is willing to walk away from that.
I compared the British Government to a child with a football who says he is taking his football and going home, so the other kids cannot play, without realising he has to play football to survive. There is an extraordinary contradiction whereby the British Government believes it can hold this sword of Damocles over Ireland and Europe in respect of invoking Article 16, as though it will somehow damage us more than the UK. It will undoubtedly damage us, and it will undoubtedly damage Northern Ireland, but the British Government does not seem to realise it will cause Britain untold difficulties, just as, when it first supported Brexit, it did not anticipate all the problems it would cause. Notwithstanding the fact it is looking down the barrel of the fact it cannot distribute goods around the island of Britain, get fuel into cars or manage matters the way they are at the moment, it professes none of this is due to Brexit but rather that it is all just coincidental that it happens to be happening at the same time it is fiddling with international relations and playing puck with agreements it has signed up to.
I do not envy the Minister's position but I will ask him the same question I asked the Commissioner.
I assume we will get to the point where another signature is made and where the British sit down and agree to whatever conditions. I am confident we will get there, particularly in light of what the Commissioner said on Tuesday and in light of the work that is being done in this area. Can we have faith that this will hold and that we will not be in the exact same position in whatever number of months or years? How can this country have faith that our international partners in London and in the Conservative Party will stand by the agreement they make? They have not stood by those agreements in the past. If past performance is a guarantee of future performance, how can we in any way be sure that the deal will stand? How can we have confidence that we will then have a foundation on which to move into the future of proper, functional, all-island trade between us and our neighbouring country? How can we have faith in that?
The Minister is welcome. We live in extraordinary times. Who would have thought that a man such as John Major would describe his party leader as acting to break his word, break treaties and break the law? That was a huge and ringing condemnation of his party and government. It is important to understand why the British Government is acting the way it is. It is clear that it is trying to hold its electoral coalition together, in England in particular, by constantly painting the EU as this bogeyman and monster that is threatening Britain and its newfound "freedom". Unfortunately, it is clear that Boris Johnson is prepared to use the North as collateral damage and he has been doing so for years. It waxes and wains, agreements are made and broken and the issue is constantly wound up whenever there is a prospect of coming to an agreement. That is done purely for domestic reasons. I respectfully disagree with Senator Ward as my recollection is that the British generally have not acted with honour in history, certainly not in this country.
I said they prided themselves on doing so; I did not say they did.
Perhaps they prided themselves on it but perhaps they did so mistakenly. As the Minister will be aware, the British Government has a long history of not being totally honest and of not honouring the words it would have previously agreed to. Brexit was a prime example of a cart before the horse scenario and the then UK Government promised the sun, moon and stars but was unable to even deliver a sunny day. In 2016, the people of Wales and England voted to leave the EU while on the same day the people of Scotland and the North voted to stay. A clear majority of 55.7% in the Six Counties voted to remain in the EU. Why? They did so because they knew their best interests would be served if they were to remain in the Union and remain part of the Single Market. It has been troubling to see threats around Article 16 but it is clear, as a number of Members have mentioned, that business in the North recognises that it is not in its interests for this uncertainty to drag on. It is interesting to see the contrast between that narrative and the narrative of the DUP leadership, for example. The DUP leadership is more and more out of touch with the reality of what business needs to thrive and prosper. We all need to ensure we give civil society voices their say on this issue. If we listen to what they are saying, they are clear that they recognise that the protocol is necessary, that it has to be made to work and that this uncertainty does nobody any good. More importantly, businesses in the Six Counties are saying that there are opportunities in this for them that they need to grasp and work with. It is important that we listen to those voices and rally around them because I am sure that this will be revved up again in a few weeks.
I will exercise the old Seanad privilege of saying things that people might not necessarily want to hear. I see myself as a cultural nationalist and I want to add my voice to those paying tribute to the late Austin Currie for all the good work and good things he did.
When we have these discussions we should be aware of groupthink. Dealing with the British authorities is particularly challenging at this time and there are some things that cannot be defended, but we sometimes slip back into an old anti-Britishness in the way we have these discussions as well. Listening to what is going on, there is too much emphasis on the personalities of the people involved in the Northern Ireland protocol and perhaps there is not enough meaningful discussion on the issues that are causing concern. It is a mistake to fall into continuing and persistent criticism of the British Government and I do not see what useful purpose that will serve. It is pretty much a unanimous view within unionism that the Northern Irish protocol in its current format compromises its position. We cannot get away from that but that is how unionists see things. There is no good in us in the South telling them that they ought to see things the way we see them. I do not see a future in such an approach to the problem.
We should be open to considering things that we rarely consider here. Do they have a point about the Court of Justice of the European Union, ECJ, on some level? I get the argument that it has to be supreme but to some degree I also get the argument that is being made by the Poles and others that there is competence creep and that sometimes the court interferes too much. The British Government has seized on this and it questions the efficacy and practicality of the court remaining the ultimate arbiter of important matters. We have had successive citizens' assemblies picking apart the integrity and fabric of the Constitution, but I cannot recall any similar consultation process being invoked in respect of the ECJ. The question of triggering Article 16 on the grounds of "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties" should provoke a much broader discussion on how the ECJ works because it is common knowledge that the best way to promote delay and the resolution of any legal dispute in the Irish courts is to raise an issue of EU law and have a legal question referred to Luxembourg because one is tactically assured of a considerable delay and considerable expense.
For the purposes of our diplomacy, let us at least attempt to see things from the other side because when this consistent view is being expressed in unionism about the protocol, we are in a difficult situation in how we make our arguments down here.
I thank the Minister for attending and I thank him and his officials for all their work. I thank Senator Chambers for her work as chair of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU. I agreed with most of Senator Gavan's points, although I observe that the Conservative Party is not the only party that has tried to paint the EU as some kind of bogeyman in recent years on this island. At times we might have taken some of the benefits of the EU for granted and Brexit has shown that. It is important that we look at selling the EU, that we stress why the Single Market is so important and that we talk about freedom of movement and the benefits of the EU to Ireland, particularly in the context of us approaching celebrating 50 years of membership.
We can go a number of ways from here and there is the question of building trust because the fear is, as colleagues have said, that we will get over this issue and in six months there will be another issue. The difficulty is, as the Minister will be aware, is that there is no opportunity to meet on the margins of meetings between Irish and UK Ministers and that there is not the same level of interaction between parliamentarians and Ministers as there would have been in the past on a broader range of issues. We have to look at how we can develop those ministerial links to a greater extent to build trust and parliamentary links. Crucially, we also have to build links between civic society. Much of the focus in the shared island unit has been on capital projects but we also have to look at how we can get our citizens working together closely.
Commissioner Šefčovič warned that we would see serious consequences if Article 16 was triggered. If we end up in a trade war, which I sincerely hope we do not, we know we have the Brexit Adjustment Reserve fund in place for businesses that have been affected by Brexit. I would like some assurances that if we end up in a trade war, the Government and the EU will step in to provide as many supports as possible for those companies and sectors that may be affected by tariffs.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for being here to discuss this important issue. I compliment him and his team for their extensive work over a lengthy time in terms of the negotiations and discussions on Brexit. The Minister is correct that Northern Ireland did not seek or vote for Brexit. That is very clear. The protocol was the only option post years of discussions and negotiations. Lord Frost has submitted proposals to change the Northern Ireland protocol. We must trust that businesses are being honest.
The protocol was signed and agreed in trust and honesty, but we still find ourselves in this position. This is not a fickle matter. The people on the island of Ireland know well the importance of protecting the protocol and upholding the Good Friday Agreement. I tuned into the discussion on Monday. It was very interesting to hear Commissioner Šefčovič say that the message from the EU has been clear and consistent throughout, that is, it wants to find practical solutions. Similar to Senator Chambers, I believe there must be a relationship built on respect. The UK cannot threaten to revoke Article 16.
We must consider the voices of those in Northern Ireland. The triggering of Article 16 raises serious issues for the cross-Border economy. Post Covid business across Ireland need greater support and not further obstacles enforced on them. The triggering of Article 16 would have detrimental implications on all Irish Governments. All of us will remember the Troubles. It took years to get to the Good Friday Agreement. We cannot allow for the dissolution of the Northern Ireland protocol. We must do everything in our power to protect it.
I thank the Minister for the work he has done to date. I know that he is so committed to this, he will be working hard into the future in regard to it.
I thank all Senators for their contributions which, in some cases, were questions. I will try to move through those questions as best I can.
I will deal first with Senator Mullen's comments. He rightly asked questions that some might, perhaps, think are unpalatable and so on. I will try to answer some of the issues. As the person representing him and the Irish Government, I have tried to be very careful never to allow my language slip into a language that is seen as anti-British. It is against everything I stand for, to be honest. In many ways, my own story and upbringing is one of hundreds of thousands of examples of British influence on Ireland and vice versa in terms of my own family story, education and so on. I am not anti-British. At the same time, I have a responsibility to protect our country, to ensure that a negotiation that took years to conclude is respected and that efforts to effectively unwind and undermine previous agreements, which were essentially designed to protect a peace process in Ireland, are responded to with honesty.
It was a very difficult thing to do to find agreement on how one deals with the so-called Irish question when it comes to Brexit. A majority of people across the United Kingdom as a whole, including Northern Ireland, voted to leave the European Union. We did not like that result, but we have respected it. That does not mean that there are not many people in Northern Ireland, a majority of whom did not vote for Brexit, that have their everyday lives impacted by a stability that has been in place since the Good Friday Agreement and institutions that are associated with it. A large part of that stability has been an all-Ireland economy where relationships are built through trade and an absence of barriers, borders and checkpoints. We have fought hard to ensure that that legitimate political and social concern has been fully understood across the EU and we have built a solidarity around that message. The former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, understood that only too well and she tried to design a solution for the so-called question dealing with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a way that could protect a peace process, prevent Border infrastructure and at the same time ensure that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could continue as well.
To raise the issue now and say that we have to understand the unionists' perspective with the protocol and the problems that they have with it, these are issues that have been discussed for years. The compromise, which was rejected by some in unionism, was the backstop which did not create any difference of treatment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It was rejected and replaced by the protocol, which was a concept that emanated out of London, not Brussels, in terms of a Boris Johnson prime ministry, to be fair to him, looking to solve the Irish question, but different from his predecessor, Theresa May. That solution proposed that Northern Ireland effectively have a special solution applied to it recognising its unique status within the United Kingdom but also very connected to the rest of the island of Ireland from a trade perspective and the need to prevent those barriers and borders developing. It is not fair to now say that the protocol is not a legitimate way of dealing with this because there is a perspective that is uncomfortable with it. That perspective was there and many on the other side of the debate, the nationalist side, also had to make significant compromises. They are Irish people who have been taken out of the European Union and they have had to accept that.
They have accepted that, but they also want to maintain connection with the rest of the island of Ireland. They want an absence of borders and the protections of a free trading environment in and out of the European Union, as well as with the rest of the United Kingdom. This was a compromise where all sides had to sacrifice something. To see it through only one perspective because there is disruption linked to the protocol, there would be a lot more disruption without it. The disruption emanates primarily from the kind of Brexit that the British Government chose to pursue. The protocol was the effort to manage that disruption and to limit it as much as we possibly could on the island of Ireland by effectively extending the EU Single Market for goods to Northern Ireland outside of the EU. The price of that was some limited checks on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Even though that is a UK market, it is also goods potentially coming into the EU Single Market. That is what we are trying to manage now in a way that, through maximum flexibility, we can limit to the greatest extent possible that checks burden on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. What Vice-President Šefčovič is saying is that for goods that are going to be on retail sale in Northern Ireland, we can reduce the SPS checks, which is the majority of checks on food. For example, for supermarkets, supply chains and so on we can reduce the checks burden by 80%. That is a huge change from where we were at the start of the year. It would need a formal change to the implementation plan that was signed also by the British Government on 17 December when Michael Gove was negotiating on behalf of the EU and an implementation plan was agreed. The British Government has not only agreed to the protocol, it has also agreed to a full implementation plan for the protocol which, we hope, will be amended and changed to reflect new concerns that have emerged since the protocol has been partially implemented. It should not be forgotten that a great deal of the protocol has not been implemented because of grace periods that have been unilaterally extended by the British Government.
There is a context here that we have to understand. Every day I think about this issue I try to put myself in the shoes of a unionist to understand that perspective.
It is a perspective that I can understand causes concern but there are also concerns on the other side of the argument that perhaps have not been as vocal or as focused upon because we have heard one perspective, effectively, from the British Government in the context of Northern Ireland, certainly in recent times. The focus now must be on the window of opportunity that is there. We must speak less about the triggering of Article 16 and more about which are the issues we are trying to resolve for unionists, nationalists, business people and those who consider themselves as neither so that we try to dedramatise and reduce, to the greatest extent possible, the friction and disruption that is linked to this arrangement that has been put into international law to try to manage the disruption of Brexit. I think we can do that. We can deal with the very emotive issue of medicine supplies into Northern Ireland. That is a very important issue and it is something the EU wants to prioritise and get done early. The EU is willing to change EU law to provide the legal certainty that the British Government and many in Northern Ireland may need. We should explore with both teams what percentage of checks we can set aside on goods that are staying in Northern Ireland and how we can maximise that number. The EU is up for that discussion, whether it is 80% or more, if it can be done credibly and protect the integrity of the Single Market. The same applies to customs checks.
We must not forget that from the perspective of the Irish Government, while Northern Ireland and its stability is, of course, the primary concern, this is about more than just Northern Ireland. It is also about Ireland's place in the EU Single Market. If we allow a situation where important elements of the protocol are set aside, at some point the question will be raised as to whether there is a gaping hole that is, effectively, unguarded, without any form of checks, data sharing or anything, in the EU Single Market through Northern Ireland. If it is the case that a hole exists between Ireland and Northern Ireland, where stands Ireland's status within the EU Single Market? That is why this is an all-island concern. It is a Northern Ireland concern in terms of political tension but it is also a concern for us in terms of our economic model and so on because Ireland's place in the Single Market cannot be called into question on the basis of decisions of the British Government. That is not acceptable to me, particularly when two British Prime Ministers have put agreements in place with the EU to ensure that Ireland's place in the Single Market remains guaranteed and that no Border infrastructure on the island of Ireland would be seen as acceptable. Those are the two benchmarks we must overcome for the people of Ireland and businesses here.
On top of that, we must find a way to implement a protocol in a way that I hope unionists will be able to accept in the future. The implementation of the protocol must not undermine their Britishness and must reduce, to the maximum extent possible, the number of checks and trade disruption on goods coming one way, from east to west, Great Britain to Northern Ireland. As I say, having spoken to Vice-President Šefčovič this week, his team is focused on trying to move that conversation forward in a way that is constructive, helpful and open. I hope that Lord Frost's team will be doing the same today and tomorrow so that when Lord Frost and Vice-President Šefčovič meet on Friday, we can see at least some measurable advance in terms of the relationship towards finding solutions. I totally agree that we must be careful not to slide back into any kind of groupthink that is, in some ways, anti-British because that is not helpful. However, at the same time, we must articulate the truth about how we got here and why. We must also insist that international agreements matter, particularly when our core interests are at stake and if they are undermined, with consideration of both the peace process and our economic model.
In primarily answering Senator Mullen, I hope I have answered many other questions as well. As I say, I think that for now, the less talk about the triggering of Article 16 and its consequences, the better. That will be the case for the next couple of weeks. That is not to say that the EU is not prepared and continuing to prepare for that outcome, should it happen, because it is. It will be a robust response should Article 16 be triggered, particularly if large elements of the protocol were to be set aside. The focus should be on negotiation, partnership and trying to find a middle ground in terms of how the protocol is implemented and that all sides in Northern Ireland can at least live with and move forward on the basis of that implementation.
I thank the Minister for his work on this important issue. I also thank our colleagues in the European Union and the Irish MEPs, who have been strong on this issue, working with their colleagues across the European Parliament. I also thank our friends in America. Congressman Richard Neal was mentioned earlier. I also thank President Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, for their support for Ireland's position on this important topic.