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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 4

Final Report on Impacts of Brexit of Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements

I thank the chair, Senator Chambers, and the other members of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union for their excellent final report. I was struck by the wide and diverse range of contributors from government, Northern Ireland, business, academia and civil society that fed into the committee's deliberations. Listening to those varied voices has ensured the committee captured the wide impact of Brexit on our society more generally as well as on the economy and politics.

The committee's report notes that many witnesses referred to the importance of eliminating uncertainty around the implementation of the protocol. This is the same sentiment that underpins the Commission's approach to the current discussions with the UK Government. The Commission's proposals on customs, sanitary and phytosanitary or SPS, medicines and enhanced representation aim to deliver much-needed predictability and stability for Northern Ireland, allowing it the time and space to build prosperity.

I will return to the report's recommendations shortly but as I was in Brussels earlier this week, I thought Senators might appreciate a short update on the current protocol discussions. Since I last spoke to them about Brexit, we have seen the resignation of David Frost and the appointment of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as the UK's Brexit lead. I have had the opportunity to speak to Liz Truss several times since she became Foreign Secretary. We spoke by phone shortly after she took up her role as the UK's Brexit lead and we met in person in early January to discuss the protocol. I also remain in close contact with Maroš Šefčovič. We met in Brussels earlier this week following his most recent meeting with Liz Truss the same day. The constructive atmosphere of the latest EU-UK engagements and Foreign Secretary Truss's stated focus on reaching a deal are both welcome. Likewise, the continuation of intensified technical talks this week and agreement to hold a meeting of the joint committee next month are positive developments.

However, following the generous package of measures put forward by the European Commission, we need to see the UK Government meaningfully demonstrate its willingness to come to a deal on the key issues.

In the six years I have been involved in Brexit, I have rarely been one to invoke deadlines or cliff edges. However, I firmly believe that reaching an agreed approach on the protocol ahead of the forthcoming elections in Northern Ireland could help reduce tensions during what will be a challenging and polarising period for communities there.

Furthermore, reaching an agreed approach on the protocol would be an important factor in opening a new chapter in a forward-looking EU-UK partnership. The EU-UK relationship underpinned by trust and shared goals will be key in addressing a range of shared global challenges. The EU has made clear that it is ready to find flexible ways to implement the protocol. However, to do so it needs a partner willing to work within the parameters of the protocol, not one seeking to renegotiate a deal that is only two years old. Renegotiation is not necessary in order to solve legitimate challenges experienced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland. This is a position upon which the EU is fully united.

I will continue to meet with political, business and community leaders from Northern Ireland and listen to their concerns. However, it is clear that Northern Ireland is seeing the benefits of the protocol in jobs and investment announcements. Businesses recognise the opportunities presented by the protocol and the unique position of having free and full access to both the EU Single Market and the rest of the UK internal market.

Turning back to the committee's report, I concur with the view set out in the report's foreword. Given the very close relationship between Ireland and the UK, the impacts of Brexit will continue to "be felt by citizens and businesses for some years and it will take some time to realise the full impact of this change". Given these longer-term impacts, the report's focus is particularly timely as we enter the second year since the end of the transition period phase and the coming into force of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement.

The themes and recommendations included in this report make clear the degree to which Brexit has impacted across all Departments and businesses. Changes in areas such as education and healthcare are having a very real and practical impact on citizens' lives on this island. The importance of the committee's work lies in considering practical solutions that will assist those negatively impacted.

I do not have time in my opening remarks to address all the issues raised, so I might just touch on a few. From the outset, we have been clear that our response to Brexit would require a whole-of-government effort. Our work has been guided by the need to mitigate these impacts and to provide support and resources to those services, businesses and individuals who have to deal with Brexit-related changes on a daily basis. Initial difficulties in adjusting to the new trading environment have largely settled as business and the State working together have done a remarkable job in adjusting to new checks and controls on imports from Great Britain.

The State agencies in our ports and airports are actively working together to streamline processes and automate inter-agency communications in order to reduce the burden on traders. This is done while also ensuring that we continue to meet our EU obligations. The agencies continue to listen to the needs of operators. For example, in response to a specific trader request, an interface has been developed that allows a trader's customs system to speak directly to Revenue's ro-ro system, thereby removing some of the manual work involved a lot earlier.

Irish businesses will face another wave of Brexit-related changes in 2022, as we see the introduction of UK customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, controls and checks. This will particularly impact on the agrifood sector. There is a lot of work under way to try to ensure that it is ready. The Government will continue to provide support and information to help businesses and the transport sector to prepare for these changes. The Government is also investing substantially in the additional State capacity needed to meet the export certification requirements that will apply for food businesses.

The committee has correctly emphasised the importance of continuing to develop our port infrastructure. I am pleased to note the Government announcement in December of a multimillion euro investment in a state-of-the-art border control post in Rosslare Europort.

Another key area considered by the committee was healthcare. The committee's report recognises the importance of the cross-border healthcare directive. The Government moved quickly to address concerns over the directive post-Brexit, with the establishment of a Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme on an administrative basis. I assure Senators that placing this scheme on a legislative footing remains our priority.

We have also seen positive progress on medicines, following the publication of the Commission's comprehensive legislative package in December. This proposal will ensure that people across the island will continue to have access to the medicines they need. I also hope that this solution on medicines can also act as a catalyst for making further progress on other protocol-related matters in the weeks ahead. It is certainly proof of the Commission's willingness to try to solve problems and show flexibility. In this same spirit, the EU is also proposing an unprecedented role for Northern Ireland's political representatives and stakeholders in the protocol, ensuring that the voices of people in the North are consistently heard.

I again wish to recognise the very important work undertaken by Senator Chambers and the committee in pulling together the many strands of Brexit and their impact on our citizens, businesses and the Government. I am happy to address any specific issues that Senators wish to raise and I look forward to hearing from colleagues as the debate progresses.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is worthy of note that he turns up in person to address these issues on a consistent basis. In doing that, he recognises the seriousness of the issues, but he is also very consistent in being here to address them. That should be acknowledged and welcomed.

Apart from acknowledging my colleagues on the select committee on Brexit and what a pleasure it was to work with them and how seriously everyone took it, all colleagues would agree that special thanks are due to the Chair of the Brexit committee, Senator Chambers. She gave the committee great leadership and motivation and was in there at all times, keeping it going and giving it the necessary gravitas and push at all times.

That was important.

When Brexit was discussed a few years ago, there was a sense of it being Armageddon, in particular in the region I come from. There was a fear that we would have a hard border and that the Good Friday Agreement would be in peril. There was also a fear of a return to violence in the country and east-west tariffs and customs. It was a very bleak scenario. It is a great tribute to the Government, the Minister and the diplomatic services, and to all of us in our own roles, in that when we went abroad, we all did our piece and worked one to one and bilaterally as much as we could.

However, it was a particular achievement of the Government and the diplomatic service that we got to the current point. While we are now fixated on the protocol, we should recognise what has been achieved. It is significant that we have succeeded in having the common trade agreement, removing tariffs and customs between the EU and the UK, and also putting in place the protocol which allows for smooth east-west trade and allows goods from Northern Ireland into the UK smoothly and without any tariffs or interruptions. That is a significant achievement. The protocol is central to preserving the Good Friday Agreement and the livelihoods of people right across Northern Ireland. We often talk about the protocol as a theoretical or abstract construct, almost as something legalistic, but there is a reality here in that without the protocol there would have been significant unemployment in the Border area including in this country.

It would have been a tremendous blow to agriculture and would have paralysed the food processing sector right along the Border had we not had the protocol in place. For that reason the successful implementation of the protocol is necessary. While it is an international and legally binding agreement and treaty, our Government's ambition, and certainly it is my view and the view of all members of the select committee and all Members of this House, is that we should be conciliatory and negotiate and a consensus should emerge.

Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič's proposals before Christmas across a number of areas, including veterinary, and across 80% of the difficulties, are a real effort to reach consensus. As alluded to by the Minister, we notice a more positive environment in recent months and weeks. We hope Ms Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, and Commissioner Šefčovič will reach agreement. It is good that the technical talks are continuing apace.

We have both the trade and co-operation agreement and the protocol. That is important as it prevents the need for checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic, allows free trade across the Border, unencumbered access to the UK and ensures the integrity of the Single Market. It is worthy of notice that the business community and civil society in Northern Ireland are ahead of our political leadership on this issue to the degree that they recognise the opportunity this presents for Northern Ireland to prosper. It has created a new dynamic on the island of Ireland because of the great increase in trade, notably North-South and vice versa. That trade increase is important and something we should welcome.

The Minister might comment when summing up on progress on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. It has been achieved over a number of them but not completely. I was glad to hear the Minister's remarks on the healthcare directive. That has been one of the great successes. I know, as we all do from our constituency work and from dealing with people in our area, that it has been taken up, used a good deal and it works very smoothly. It is important that would continue. A point that was constantly made by the Chair of our committee during our deliberations was that it would receive further modification to make it make it easier to access and to overcome the financial difficulty some people have in accessing the money initially in order to pay for treatment. Perhaps there could be engagement with credit unions to address the difficulty some people have in coming up with the money initially. There must be a mechanism to ensure there is no fraud around the use of the money. Hopefully, that issue could be addressed. That is an important point. It is also important in the context of continuing co-operation on the island that we achieve educational co-operation between third level institutions, North and South. I look forward to Minister's remarks on some of those issues.

One could say Brexit is a retrograde step and that the EU has been the greatest peace process in that this has been a tremendously successful peace process at a European level. It has brought tremendous benefits not only to this country but right across Europe and particularly to vulnerable and less well off areas. It has created great opportunity. The EU is a great project. It is such a tragedy we have lost Britain for the moment. Britain was a great ally of ours within the Council of Ministers and all the EU bodies. It was a pity to lose that but we have to work from where we are at. I hope we will see agreements around the protocol in the coming weeks and, as the Minister said, that this will well precede the elections in Northern Ireland.

I call the Chair of the Seanad Select Committee on Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Senator Chambers.

I spot my colleague, Senator McAuliffe and his mum and dad in the Gallery. I want to say "hello" to our visitors. It is nice to have people back in the House. We have been waiting a long time for that. They are most welcome.

I am thankful for this opportunity to speak today. I want to begin by thanking the members of the committee but, importantly, the clerk to the committee, Christy Houghton, and members of the secretariat, John Foyle, Claudia Zelli and Haley O’Shea, who worked with myself and committee members over the course of a year to put together this final report on Brexit on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Without that secretariat and team, we would not have the fine body of work we have today to discuss in this Chamber. It is important to acknowledge the work they did.

It was a fascinating year of work. We had established our committee the previous year with an intention to work for six months and to conclude our work at that point but, obviously, Brexit has not concluded. It still rumbles on. We did not anticipate the level of activity in this space all of last year so, understandably, we sought to extend our work by a further six months. It was worthwhile doing that. It was the intention of the committee, and I think we achieved this objective, to give a platform to community groups, industry, those most affected by Brexit and those living along the Border community but also to extend the arm of friendship and to have an outreach element within the committee’s work to link in with parliamentarians in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and in the United States and lean on our friends across the Border and beyond to get that feedback that there is support not only for a Brexit that causes the least amount of damage to our country but, ultimately, for protecting the peace agreement and the Good Friday Agreement, something about which we were very passionate throughout our work.

We engaged with industry, civil society groups, affected communities and the Minister’s Department on a regular basis and he was very generous with his time in coming before the committee on a number of occasions to update us, and we very much appreciated that. We also engaged with Commissioner Šefčovič and his team. We engaged with the House of Lords committee in Great Britain on a number of occasions. We also engaged, and it was very useful, with the Northern Ireland committee. We invited its members to attend our committee meeting but what was really helpful and insightful was our travelling to Stormont where we met them in their parliament to discuss the ongoing issues. We found that relationship building eye-opening and it gave us a much needed different perspective. Of course, we engaged with the unionist community while we did that. Initially, that engagement was a bit more difficult in terms of making it happen but we got there eventually and I am very glad we were able to include that perspective in our report. I hope everybody who engaged with our committee feel they got a fair and proper hearing and that their views are adequately reflected in our report.

The Minister touched on a number of areas we touched on during our work. We looked at trade flows and how the impact of the new trading environment was affecting businesses and those working that sector. We also looked at cross-border healthcare. That was a big focus of our committee. We were very pleased to see movement on that during the course of our committee’s work. The intention is to legislate and to put a new arrangement on a permanent statutory footing. We looked at the issue of medicines, as was said, and at data adequacy, an issue on which the wider public might not be very focused at this point but it is still an important issue. We focused heavily on the protocol and future relations between Ireland the UK and the UK and the European Union. That probably was the bulk of our work.

In terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, we engaged with many representatives from different sectors to see how it was working and we got updates from the Minister and Commission Šefčovič on that. We appreciate the update the Minister gave us today in terms of his engagements in Brussels and the latest position. We were always concerned throughout our work that the ongoing prolonged and protracted negotiations would have a destabilising effect on the island, particularly Northern Ireland. I still hold the view that the sooner we provide clarity and certainty and bed in the protocol, the sooner Northern Ireland can reap the benefits. One of the overarching facts from the contributions to our committee over the course of that year from many different stakeholders and members was that the protocol was the only option on the table after everything else had been explored to try to square that circle. There was the question of how we could manage there being two different jurisdictions on the island, one in the European Union and one not in it and the protocol was the only option that was available. It was identified throughout our work.

On the witnesses who appeared before our committee, the ESRI springs to mind in pointing out that if the protocol is seized on properly and implemented in full, it could be of major benefit and provide great opportunities for Northern Ireland, in particular, and for businesses there.

It appears that businesses and many citizens are acknowledging this fact. We hope, therefore, that the political parties in Northern Ireland will also acknowledge it. Some have but, unfortunately, others have not. The work on that is ongoing. The members of the committee are of the view that our work allowed us to delve into the issue in greater detail than would have been the case with other joint Oireachtas committees.

We looked at the future relationship in particular detail. We engaged with Members of the House of Lords on a number of occasions and with our colleagues in Northern Ireland. Despite there being different views among many members of those committees, the one thing we unanimously agreed on was the need to protect the relationship we have, to mend the wounds that have been generated over the past number of years because of Brexit and to try and chart a path forward and find a way to ensure that there is engagement between us in Ireland and our friends and colleagues across the water. The overarching contribution from all members was that despite our difficulties and differences, we all recognise the important relationship between the islands on many levels, including cultural, economic, etc. There was a desire to find a way to maintain that engagement, recognising that with the UK no longer being in the EU, the consistent opportunity to meet on the fringes of European meetings is no longer there. Replacing those meetings with another mechanism on an ongoing basis and giving all Members of the Oireachtas an opportunity to engage with all parliamentarians in the North and across the water would be of great benefit to both islands. That was an important lesson for us to learn as a committee.

There was also a desire to see the joint committee up and running and to ensure that there is democratic accountability on this island for the ongoing implementation not just of the withdrawal agreement but also of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Currently, democratic oversight in this regard is tenuous and is something we need to monitor.

Another area we focused on, which is something that we need to keep working on, is the acknowledged democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Citizens in Northern Ireland are subject to Single Market and EU customs rules but do not have a seat at the table at which those rules are debated, discussed and, potentially, amended or at which new rules created. The strong view of our committee, as expressed in our report, is that whatever we can do to ensure that the voice and views of the people of Northern Ireland are properly heard and represented at an EU level. We have to do that. In the context of how that looks and how it works, there are a number of ways to move forward. However, there is an acknowledged democratic deficit that we would like to see kept at the top of the agenda and prioritised by the Government.

I again thank the members of the committee, the Cathaoirleach for his support for the committee during its work and our secretariat. We can be proud of the report we have published. We can also be proud in the context of the platform we gave to all of those groups, both industry groups and citizens, on this island that have been most impacted by Brexit.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Cosúil leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach, aithním go mbíonn an tAire i gcónaí sásta teacht os ár gcomhair chun an t-ábhar seo a phlé agus táimid buíoch as sin. I welcome the Minister and acknowledge, as the Leas-Cathaoirleach has done, his willingness always to make himself available to us for discussions on these issues.

I commend the Seanad special select committee, our Chair and my colleagues, the secretariat and all those contributors and witnesses who helped produce this important and comprehensive report. This is the second report in as many years produced by the Seanad on the impact of Brexit on the people and economies of Ireland - all of Ireland. The report, like that which preceded it, comes at a time of continuing uncertainty caused by Brexit for all the people of Ireland, irrespective of their political allegiances and where they stand on the constitutional future of our country. Both reports, in their motivation and content, highlight the national importance of the Seanad and Seanadóirí. At a time when the people of this nation needed clear and positive direction amid the fear and uncertainty heralded by Brexit, they got it from this Chamber. This leadership was reflected in the contents of the first report and the people-centred approach we took to compiling it.

I would like to finish by again acknowledging the steadfast leadership and work of our Chair, fellow committee members and, in particular, the clerk, Mr. Christy Haughton, and the secretariat. It has at times been a difficult experience when one understands and fully appreciates, if one can, the vast implications of Brexit on our lives. Again, as I said in the course of my contribution, I hope it has been a worthwhile one. I hope this piece of work will be of positive use to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his officials as they continue to navigate the unwanted problems faced by us all as a result of Brexit.

I begin by welcoming the Minister, Deputy Coveney to the Seanad. I acknowledge the work of the committee, which was so ably led by Senator Chambers, who from the get-go adopted such an inclusive and professional approach to the work and the workings of our committee.

Ireland is the go-to English speaking member state of the EU. We are well placed to take advantage of foreign direct investment, FDI, seeking an English speaking base in the EU. Ireland now has the highest FDI in Europe by population and has stayed at high level since the Brexit bounce in FDI in 2018. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has estimated the direct impact of Brexit has resulted in a 36% decline in aggregate EU imports from the UK and a fall in exports to the UK of 24%. However, in Ireland’s case, there has been very little Brexit-related impact to date on Irish exports to the UK, whereas imports from the UK have fallen by 45%.

This also makes Ireland, in this new situation, the premiere destination in the EU for students learning English in an immersive environment. Not only is Ireland in this advantageous position, but also I wish to mark the fact that the Irish language has finally received full official and working status in the EU, providing opportunities for more Irish people to work in the European institutions. In due course, I anticipate a growing interest from member states in visiting the Gaeltacht areas on this beautiful island.

There is a golden opportunity, which as been well flagged by the work of Irish-French parliamentary grouping. This has taken on a whole new meaning because France is now Ireland’s closest neighbour in the EU. There are significant historical and educational ties between France and Ireland. The Alliance Française is, of course, located close to us here on Kildare Street. It was the first Alliance Française established in a non-French speaking country.

The Irish College in Paris has hosted Irish priests and academics since the 16th century and was the first Irish collegiate community abroad. In fact, the seminary in Maynooth was re-established in 1795 as a direct consequence of the suppression of the Irish College in Paris during the French Revolution.

Around 30,000 Irish people live in France and more than 11,000 French citizens live in Ireland. Ireland and France have aligned on many issues in the past. Today, one area where we share ambition is on interconnection. Soon the grids in Ireland and France will be linked through the Celtic interconnector, a project that is being developed by EirGrid and its French counterpart. This will provide greater security of supply and cheaper prices for Irish electricity customers.

It has been said on many occasions, and I remember the Minister, Deputy Ryan, saying this, although not today or yesterday, that Ireland has the potential to be the Saudi Arabia of energy. In due course, due to our natural advantages in this field of wind and wave energy, we could be a leader exporting our energy supplies to our neighbours.

Apart from the golden opportunities that the new political situation brings, I would like to put on record how deeply grateful we are to Irish America. The voice of Irish America fed into our committee’s work with Congressman Richard Neal. We appreciated how Irish American senior politicians understood the nuances and what was at stake, and were forthright and absolute in their stance. I appreciate that the Americans appreciate this. I get that.

I hope, and maybe the Minister, Deputy Coveney, can help us because one can never say this often enough, to communicate to America that not only are we grateful, but we hope America knows how grateful we are for the stance it took during Brexit. It was remarkable. Not so long ago I remember former president, Ronald Reagan, coming to Ireland. He was asked about the Irish question and he said I love this country but I cannot interfere. A different and fairer America is now representing the people. I would like to thank America. We are grateful and I hope it knows how grateful we are.

I would also like to say, and not for the first time, that in the longer term, we have to seek a formal voice for citizens living in Northern Ireland to feed more directly into the EU structures and infrastructure, and I have spoken to Commissioner McGuinness about this. They enjoy the best of both worlds, namely, the Single Market and the internal UK market. However, in due course, we have to organise a proper democratic voice for citizens of Northern Ireland.

I would say to our friends, our brothers and sisters, in Ulster unionism that they have nothing to fear, except perhaps fear itself. They had an opportunity to cement and secure their identity and union, but they way they are going about it is the opposite. An unintended consequence of Brexit will be to bring a united Ireland closer. A hard Brexit, which unionists want, only speeds up that prospect. If they could try to look it objectively, an unintended consequence is that they might be doing counterproductive work to their British identity and union from the stance they are adopting. I am saying that as someone who believes that on this small, shared island we must get on with our brothers and sisters and respect them and that they must feel fully secure and involved. However, there is a different way of going about it than the way they are going about it the moment. They must look out and not look in. I live to see the day where green and orange will have an amazing, beautiful and harmonious dynamic together. That is not any day soon, unfortunately.

I will conclude by saying that the one outstanding memory of the Brexit to date has been the unified approach of public representatives in the Republic of Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Members from the Opposition. On more than one occasion, they have been accused of populism, including by myself. However, when it came to the biggest issue facing us, they were steadfast, they stuck with it, they were not opportunistic and they backed the Minister of the day. It is the little things in life that sometimes cause difficulties and divisions but it is on the big things in life that we are one. We were one when it came to peace in our country. We were one when it came to doing what was best for our country, even if it meant at political loss to parties. I just want to put on record how grateful we are. A country working together on the big ticket issues is absolutely vital. I want to see more of that in the future.

I would like to welcome the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to the House. I wish to start my contribution by joining with colleagues in thanking Senator Chambers for her leadership and inclusivity in relation to our committee. It has been a learning curve for many of us. As a new Seanad Member, it was very important to me how she treated new Members and everyone on the committee. I thank her for her inclusivity in everything that she did in relation to getting us all together and arranging the list of people who we engaged with over the period of time the committee sat. As I said, it was very educational as well.

I thank Mr. Christy Haughton, the clerk to the committee, and all of those who helped us in preparing the report and its final stages.

I thank the Minister again. As he mentioned, he has spent six years dealing with Brexit. We all owe him a depth of gratitude for his work on Brexit. I am particularly pleased to hear that he has engaged successfully with the new UK Brexit lead, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. It is good to hear the relationship has developed in the weeks since she took over the role. That is very encouraging and will be welcomed by everybody. It is important to repeat the Minister's point that the EU is willing to implement the protocol and sit down and speak but it is not willing to renegotiate the protocol. As the Minister said, the EU is not willing to renegotiate a deal that is just two years old. That is a very important message to go out and one the committee heard loud and clear from many of the businesses we dealt with from the North of Ireland. As the Minister said, many of those businesses are now beginning to see the benefits of what has happened in the past two years. I believe they will see further benefits in the next couple of years.

The Minister mentioned that the State agencies have come together to streamline the process of imports from the UK. That is my experience but there still are problems in some of the sectors. I have been contacted by people in a number of sectors about problems they face. It was one of the issues the committee discussed at length. I acknowledge the fact that the different agencies involved have put their heads together to ensure imports are processed in the quickest possible time. As I said, however, a small number of problems remain but I am sure they will be ironed out in the coming weeks and months.

On the previous two occasions we spoke, I raised with the Minister the issues we will face this year when we start exporting to the UK. The Minister stated there was a lot of work on the way to help Irish companies with their exports to the UK. I would appreciate if he would indicate what that help involves. I have been contacted by many companies worried about that particular aspect and perhaps the Minister will reassure them tonight. I refer in particular to companies in the agrifood sector, which are worried about what may face them in 2022. I ask the Minister to give an update on the work under way in that area. I know work is under way because many of these companies have been contacted. That is very important and they appreciate it. However, they do not want to experience problems with exports. Most of the queries come from the agrifood sector.

Rosslare Europort is a critically important issue for us, particularly my committee colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, and my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin. I welcome the investment by the Government. It will lead to a sea change for that part of the country and make a difference for the entire country as we look past the UK to the Continent for new markets. That is an aspect that was mentioned in the committee a number of times. It is good to have that investment. As someone who travels near to the M50 every day, which is also mentioned in the report, I ask that the Government continue to develop that infrastructure. As I am sure Senator Byrne will mention, the completion of the motorway to Rosslare would make a huge difference to the haulage companies I have spoken to, which deliver goods around the country and head off to European markets.

In fairness to the Minister, he has always said he would continue to support the cross-border health directive. The Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme has been in process since late last year. This has made a difference to many people's lives, as the Minister is aware. Many of the contributors to the committee told us about the difference the scheme made to their lives and how it allowed them to continue in different forms of work. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me mention a particular sector, namely, the Defence Forces and the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, PMAS. The Defence Forces wrote to the Department in 2019 regarding the formal recognition of PMAS. I ask the Minister to comment on whether he will formally recognise the scheme. He is aware of the massive contribution it has made to the Defence Forces in retaining personnel. Well over 300 personnel have used PMAS and continue to work in the Defence Forces. The Minister has taken every opportunity to state it is important that we retain as many personnel as possible in the Defence Forces. I am sure those who administer PMAS would be grateful if he could acknowledge that and, more important, secure financial support for it. As they develop the scheme and roll it out to the families of Defence Forces personnel, it will be very welcome. The cross-border healthcare directive has made a huge difference. The Minister's acknowledgement again this evening that it will continue will be welcomed by all members of the committee.

I acknowledge what others have said about the people who live in the northern part of Ireland. One of the most important aspects of my membership of the committee is the dialogue we have had with those who live up there. It showed that we are one island. That dialogue must continue. It has been encouraging to hear so many people compliment our work, particularly over the last year. The message we must convey is that we need to continue that conversation. I, again, thank the Minister for the part he has played in reaching this point. I also acknowledge again the work done by Senator Chambers as the Chair of the committee.

I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge that he is always willing to come to the Seanad for debates such as this. I commend the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on its work over the course of the last 12 months in preparation for its final report. I highly commend Senator Chambers. I know how passionate she was about this matter and how much work she put into it. I was sorry to leave the committee when I did. Well done to the Senator on all of the great work she has done.

The report presented is reflective of the thorough and diverse discussions that took place in the committee's sessions. I hope the Government will act on its many useful recommendations.

When we speak about Brexit and its implications for the island of Ireland we are often inclined to focus on the economic losses or gains or the implications for trade across the Border. Obviously, these are hugely important issues and we need to spend time on them to ensure we iron out the many kinks caused by Brexit. However, we often do so at the expense of examining the impacts of Brexit on the lived experience of those living in the North of Ireland and the Border counties. That is, ultimately, what is at risk with Brexit and the destabilising of the hard-earned peace on the island of Ireland. We ought to remember that this is what is at stake at every opportunity.

In pursuing Brexit in the way that it did, the United Kingdom undermined the progress made on this island in the years since the Good Friday Agreement. As I have said many times, the United Kingdom chose a very dangerous path and it must be prepared to deal with the consequences. It appears to me that the ongoing deliberations regarding the protocol and the ever looming threat of Article 16 being invoked demonstrate that the United Kingdom is in total denial about these consequences. I know the Minister has been very dedicated to upholding the Good Friday Agreement. I commend him and his Department on the work they have done in recent years in undertaking to protect the agreement and peace on the Island of Ireland.

As the committee rightly noted in its report, despite there being different perspectives on the Northern Ireland protocol, it stands to have a transformative effect "for Northern Ireland in a positive way". There are opportunities to be taken advantage of and we should acknowledge this fact. We know that Brexit has caused damage to the North of Ireland in spite of the objections of the majority of those who voted in the Brexit referendum in the North. The protocol offers some mitigations and it is vital that this potential is realised in full.

Concerns have been expressed in the report about the serious human rights and equality implications of Brexit. The report identified the need for further work to assess the impact in this area. This work needs to be undertaken as a matter of urgency and the human rights and equality commissions and civil society in both Ireland and the North have a particularly significant role to play in this matter.

These organisations want to make use of the protections within the protocol as it relates to human rights and equality, but they need to be actively engaged in the conversation.

The committee is right to stress the need for the voices of those from the North to be heard and amplified, including at EU level. We have a duty here in Ireland to ensure that this happens, especially given our influence in Europe and the democratic deficit that now exists in the North. In my view, the voices of people in the North were lost in the discussions on Brexit and we must ensure that this is not replicated as we deal with Brexit’s repercussions. The Government ought to focus on the issue of voting rights specifically.

I welcome the report’s acknowledgement of the unique impact that Brexit has had on the Traveller community. The Border represents a wholly different concept for this community because of the nomadic lifestyle they enjoy, and it is important that we consider how Brexit will impact their freedom of movement. I welcome that the report speaks to the unique position of other minority groups in the North, including refugees, asylum seekers and non-EU migrants. It is imperative that there is no divergence between Ireland and the North in terms of equality rights, and I concur with the committee's recommendation that solutions to this issue must be discussed and implemented without delay.

As we bed into life post-Brexit, the implications of the United Kingdom leaving the EU are becoming increasingly apparent. It is a highly complex issue that will continue to have an impact on life on this island for many years to come. This report highlights, yet again, that even when faced with the negative implications of Brexit, this island has the capacity to find solutions and work collaboratively together for the benefit of all. There are several recommendations that helpfully emphasise deeper co-operation on our shared island, including on matters such as health, education and transport. It is time for us to make progress in conversations that envisage what a new Ireland could look like in future. Let us begin to plan for this future; I know the Minister and his Department are already doing that. We need a new Ireland that is a warm house for all on our shared island.

I am sharing my time with Senator McGreehan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Minister, not just for coming to the House, but for all his work and that of his officials on this matter. At times he must be tearing his hair out because it can be very frustrating. Every time we seem to move one step forward, another challenge arises. Genuinely, his work in this area deserves much praise. I join colleagues in complimenting the Chair of our committee, Senator Chambers, and the team that pulled the report together. We worked in a very collaborative way.

In addition to the recommendations, one of the important things we learned from this process was the importance of engagement. We need to try to facilitate and encourage much more east-west and North-South engagement, not just among us politicians, who certainly found it very useful, but also among civic society and other groups. Like anything else, this is all about trust. Trust is very important to any relationships we have. In an era where there is suspicion and so on, that can best be countered in the long term by having more co-operation and groups interacting. EU summits always provided Irish Ministers with the opportunity to meet their UK counterparts on the margins. That no longer exists. It is important that dynamic is allowed to continue into the future.

I acknowledge the Minister's remarks that there is a very clear recognition of the importance of investment in port infrastructure. If any entity had a good Brexit, it was Rosslare Europort. It is important to continue to invest in the infrastructure there.

Members of the committee must have got bored listening to me talking about data adequacy. I continue to worry about the approach the UK is taking to data privacy and data protection. These are very important EU values. If the European Commission decided to terminate the adequacy judgment or even to suspend it, that would have very serious consequences. The Data Protection Commission reckons the paperwork could cost businesses here up to €1 billion. I hope that issue will continue to remain on the Government's agenda, particularly in light of continued concerns expressed about the functioning, operation and resourcing of the Data Protection Commission.

I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. I congratulate Senator Chambers on her stellar work as Chair of this committee. I was not a member of the committee, but as someone who lives in the Border area, I took great interest in its workings. The report is an excellent report which should be read by those in the shared island unit and by all those living here who have an interest in the future of this island over the next 100 years.

Others mentioned how worrying it was, particularly for those in the Border community, when Brexit was mooted. I felt I was screaming and the world was not listening - even though Ireland was - about the potential for a hard border. I stood on the Border on many Saturday afternoons protesting in solidarity with my community to say we would not stand for a hard border. Thankfully that has not happened. First we had the backstop and then the protocol. We should congratulate ourselves on having built up 100 years of international relations. This small country has the USA and the EU standing with us in making sure this protocol works. The European Commission has worked tirelessly to understand this island and how it works. We see clear movement on the protocol to ensure it works for everybody in Northern Ireland.

The truth is that the protocol is working for people in Northern Ireland. We need to continue to explain that the protocol is better for everyone on this island. Brexit highlighted many opportunities for this island and many changes that are needed on the island, along with the importance of international relations and how our colleagues have stayed with us. It also highlighted opportunities for how we move forward in the next 100 years and our co-operation and relations with our neighbours in the UK.

I wish to highlight a few things specifically. There is a clear democratic deficit in the North at the moment. The common travel area rules need to be re-examined and taken care of. We neglected them, rightly, because we were part of the EU. We need to recognise the rights of migrants resident in this country and their ability to travel north and enjoy the North. We need to look at 11 counties close to our Border and the economic and social benefit of working within the customs union on an all-Ireland basis. There is great potential for our Border and the 11 counties - the Six Counties and the five counties in the South on our Border. The more we look at things on an all-Ireland basis, the better it is for everybody on this island. I would love to go on but I have run out of time. I again thank the Minister for his presence.

I commend the members of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on their report. Like Senator McGreehan, I was not a member of the committee, but I recognise it is a very valuable report and I thank the members of the committee for it.

I agree with others' comments about how when we work collaboratively North-South and east-west, it enriches the work we do. We see it on the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement where MPs attend on a regular basis - I wish there were more of them. Their insights enrich the quality of the dialogue and therefore the outputs.

It strikes me that we are talking about the need for certainty and stability. That is what we want. Unfortunately, the DUP has today once again threatened to bring down power sharing because of the protocol. It is incredibly regrettable that power sharing is used as a negotiation tactic. The Prime Minister has accused the EU of implementing the protocol in an insane way. I do not know what is insane about working tirelessly for several years to come up with an agreement and then implementing it. I commend the EU and I commend the Minister for his flexibility and dedication. Maroš Šefčovič stated that he is not setting deadlines but the Minister has rightly pointed out the sensitivity of the forthcoming elections and the polarisation of this issue. I commend him for that. There were interesting polls in that regard at the weekend.

I thank the committee for the report and I thank the Minister for always being available to this House, as other Members have recognised. This has been our first opportunity to engage with him since the appointment of Liz Truss as the chief Brexit negotiator for the UK. She has said she will not sign up to checks on goods moving within the UK. Jeffrey Donaldson has said that checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is at the heart of DUP opposition to the protocol and that it is the basis of his call to protect Northern Ireland's place within the UK internal market. I know the Minister has had meetings. I would love for him to give us an update on the kind of solutions we could be looking at in that regard. If he cannot get into those details, I ask him to outline the spectrum of specific solutions. I have been asked whether labelling is in there.

Of course, protecting goods on the island of Ireland and the all-Ireland economy is of great importance. I am running out of time already. The rules of origin are complicated in any trade agreement, never mind on this island. I acknowledge the report states that any products produced on the north, south, east or west of our island should qualify for 0% tariffs in both the UK and EU negotiated deals. That is in the spirit of the dual market access agreement and the all-island economy. I welcome the text of the UK-Australia free trade agreement, FTA, published in December, that allowed for some Irish whiskey to be included, although it was limited. I ask the Minister to ensure the same is applied in future FTAs between the EU and Australia, as well as other FTAs. I have 30 seconds left.

Having recently met the Derry Chamber of Commerce and having been in contact with businesses in the North, I know the protocol is not the issue. For the vast majority of voters, it is not the issue. Rather, it is health, education and housing about which people are most concerned. They do recognise the opportunities, however. I wish to focus on the importance of that. This is an opportunity for us to talk about the politics of prosperity rather than the politics of identity.

Within that, an issue arose with the Derry Chamber of Commerce. It is not exactly within the remit of the Minister but it is relevant because he fought for the provisions of the common travel area, CTA, to be protected within the Brexit negotiations and that affects people's day-to-day lives. The issue in question is a taxation issue. With restrictions being lifted and people going back to work, there are residents in the South of Ireland who work in the North and wish to work from home but will be subject to double taxation if the waiver is not lifted. I am asking the Minister to help the Cross-Border Workers Coalition. I am not alone in this room in terms of people who have advocated on its behalf. It has come up with solutions and I ask the Minister to be a voice for those workers and the everyday opportunities for people and their quality of life.

I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I again thank my colleague, Senator Chambers, and all the members of the committee for their very hard work in producing this excellent report.

I will try to respond to as many questions as I can. I thank the Seanad again for this timely report. The consistent support from across the political spectrum in both the Dáil and the Seanad has been a vital element of efforts to mitigate the challenges of Brexit on the island over a sustained period. Unfortunately, we will be dealing with the impacts of Brexit for some time to come. I remain committed to engaging with Members from all parties - Government and Opposition - in the months ahead.

The Government continues to work with all stakeholders as we manage the outworkings of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, and the withdrawal agreement. Working closely with industry, we are maintaining momentum in our preparations for the next phase of EU customs controls later this year. Some people may think they have got their heads around the trade consequences of Brexit but we are really only at half time because although goods coming into Ireland from Great Britain have the checks required to enter the EU Single Market applied in ports such as Rosslare, Dublin and elsewhere, goods going from the EU into the UK have yet to have UK single market checks applied. For several reasons, the UK has decided to postpone the imposition of those checks. As such, the disruption impact of Brexit in terms of trade between the UK and the EU is still not fully understood and will not be fully understood until the UK decides to implement permanent measures, whatever they may look like. How the UK manages goods coming into its internal market is a matter for itself, but there are global trade rules that require a certain level of checks in terms of knowledge of what is coming and going, the standards they represent and so on. We saw again at the General Affairs Council this week that Ireland can continue to be assured of strong support across all EU member states for the Commission package and for minimising disruption in Northern Ireland.

I will address some of the specific areas that have been raised by Senators. First, I refer to the medicines package of the Commission. The Commission proposal will ensure the continued long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and will address outstanding supply concerns in the Ireland, Cyprus and Malta markets that have been historically supplied through or by Great Britain. The proposals will change EU rules to ensure the same medicines, including lifesaving and innovative drugs, are available in Northern Ireland at the same time they are available in the rest of the United Kingdom. In short, they provide greater flexibility to pharmaceutical companies in respect of issues of authorisation, processes, location of regulatory functions and where batch testing is carried out. In other words, the concerns that have been repeatedly raised politically that Northern Ireland would not be able to get access to medicines from Great Britain because of the consequences of Brexit are being comprehensively addressed by the European Commission by changing EU law. It is important to state that because the EU has gone a long way to address what is a legitimate concern. Of course, it offered to do so far earlier but, in the end, effectively had to move ahead on its own to solve the problem when it committed to doing so before Christmas.

The next issue is the proposals of the Commission in respect of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, controls. The Commission package published in October offers a simplification of processes for a broad range of retail goods that are for sale to end customers in shops in Northern Ireland. The measures could remove up to 80% of the identity and physical SPS checks for such goods. They would also allow for substantial reductions in paperwork. On customs, the Commission proposes expanding the definition of goods not at risk of entering the EU and thereby reducing required customs processes by approximately half.

To deliver these benefits, the UK would be required to deliver real-time access to relevant UK IT systems to complete and staff border control points and agree to labelling requirements for these goods.

The EU is being very reasonable in this ask. It is saying the UK has to show the EU, through data sharing and labelling, that these goods are staying in Northern Ireland, to be purchased and consumed in Northern Ireland, and, therefore, the EU will not be required to apply the same physical checks required on goods at risk of travelling into the EU across the Border. In order for that to work, the UK has to share the data and that has not been happening. I hope that is one of the things the technical teams will discuss this week in terms of SPS and customs arrangements. As we move through the next few weeks, this is one of the areas where I hope we could find agreement that would dramatically reduce the requirement for physical checks on many products that are staying in Northern Ireland. Many in the unionist community would strongly welcome that, as would many businesses that want to reduce the bureaucracy and potential checks burden of the protocol.

In terms of the democratic deficit issue raised, the EU is proposing an unprecedented role for Northern Ireland's political representatives and stakeholders. Through structured dialogues and greater openness and engagement with the committee structures under the protocol, direct and regular Northern Ireland engagement can become a central part of the protocol's workings, as far as the Commission is concerned, in order to try to deal with some of the issues raised by Senators, in terms of the perceptions of a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland around how EU regulations develop in the future and impact on Northern Ireland. Enhancing Northern Ireland's engagement is not just for the EU to address. The UK Government also has options open to it, and we would encourage it to come forward with proposals.

In terms of ports and trade, there is some data which people may be interested in. Brexit brought about the biggest single change to import controls since the Single Market was created in 1990. Businesses have done a remarkable job adjusting to the new realities. This reflects the flexibility and adaptability of businesses in Ireland, as well as the very effective collaboration between operators and the State players responsible for implementing these changes.

The value of Irish goods exported to Great Britain between January to November 2021 increased by 20% on the same period in 2020, while the value of imports from Great Britain in this period fell by 21%. January to November 2021 saw a 64% increase in imports from Northern Ireland and a 48% increase in exports to Northern Ireland. That shows how effective the protocol has been in protecting the all-island market. Some in the UK seem to suggest that it is somehow a negative thing that the all-island economy seems to be functioning so well, despite trade across the Irish Sea having been disrupted.

When countries make decisions such as Brexit, that changes market structures. We have been trying to protect an all-island economy in the context of a decision that we did not make. The protocol was agreed by the British Government in that context. That element is working well. Those living in Border counties will know that in terms of the fears that have now been allayed.

There are now 65 weekly sailings between Ireland and EU continental ports. One third of all roll-on roll-off traffic now operates on direct routes to ports in the EU, up from 16% in 2019. Rosslare Europort now accounts for 31% of all Republic of Ireland-EU roll-on roll-off traffic, which is more than double its previous share. In 2021, 86% of goods movements were green-routed and permitted to leave ports without any further interaction with customs or other regulatory authorities.

In 2021, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine carried out 90,000 controls on consignments, compared to 4,500 per year in the years leading up to 2021. I suspect that number will continue to increase over time, but we will do things more efficiently as time goes by, businesses get used to those systems and our customs and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine constantly streamline and improve how they operate.

There are space and layout limitations in terms of what can be done in respect of the co-location of authorities at ports. In addition, certain checks, such as animal health or food safety checks, require dedicated infrastructure in their own right. The agencies in the ports are committed to streamlining processes and minimising the movement between facilities for compliant businesses as much as we can, while meeting our obligations under EU law. Further developments in the space can be expected.

At EU level, Ireland is a supporter of the single window programme and plans to be one of the first member states to implement the SPS single window programme. I mentioned the introduction of new UK import controls in 2022, for which we need to prepare. We will understand a lot more as the months go by, but we need to expect the worst in terms of controls and compliance. State agencies have been working hard with businesses to try to make sure that everybody understands what is coming down the tracks.

The recognition of professional qualifications has become an important issue. While the automatic mutual recognition of professional qualifications no longer applies, significant work has been undertaken to ensure that processes are in place for the recognition of the vast majority of UK professional qualifications under national law in Ireland, which allows people to travel and work in both jurisdictions under the common travel area agreements we have put in place. I understand these arrangements are generally working well, although in some cases they may be administratively more complex than the previous EU system.

Although the Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme had initially been introduced on an administrative basis, I wish to assure Senators that placing the scheme on a statutory basis remains a priority. An extensive examination of options to inform the drafting of a general scheme is currently being finalised. In the meantime, the administrative scheme will remain until such time as the statutory scheme is in place. I understand that almost 4,000 reimbursements have been made so far for persons who accessed healthcare in Northern Ireland 2021. Overall, this equates to a reimbursement cost of about €7 million.

I am aware of the Defence Forces issue and the PMAS programme, and the need for us to work with the Defence Forces. I am committed to talking to representative bodies regarding that. I thank Senator Wall for raising this issue. It is not the first time he has done so.

The European Commission adopted new adequacy decisions in June 2021 to facilitate the continued sharing of data between the EU and UK. The data adequacy decisions provides confidence and ensures the appropriate protection and safeguards are in place to facilitate the ongoing exchange of sensitive personal data with the UK. As I was not asked about seed potatoes and other things, I will comment on one or two final things raised by Senators.

Deputy Currie raised the issue of cross-Border workers. It is an issue that impacts on people, and it has been raised with me. I will happily work with the Senator and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on this. We have spoken about it before. This is a tricky issue and it is not easy to solve. We cannot solve it on our own. It will have to involve something the Irish and UK authorities consider together. In terms of where people are resident and working, both or either of those things can potentially determine where they pay their taxes. In the case of people who are employed by someone who pays their taxes in Northern Ireland, while living south of the Border and working North of the Border, their taxes are still being claimed where based on where they are working.

That is what makes it complicated. However, we will examine the matter and see if there is anything we can do.

Understandably, issues were raised about new UK legislation that will require what is called an electronic travel authorisation for entry to the UK, including Northern Ireland. This could be very disruptive on the island of Ireland. My understanding is that the proposal is that anyone entering the UK would be required to register online before doing so and get permission to enter. Someone could enter for up to six months and get a multiple-entry certification. My understanding as of now is that this would apply to non-British and non-Irish nationals who could be travelling from Ireland into Northern Ireland. Therefore, a French, Dutch or German person working in Ireland and going on holidays to the North or whatever would be required to register before doing so. That would be disruptive to the free flow of travel. We have been making that case to the British Government. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, was in London this week meeting the key ministers in this space and raising the issue. I have also raised the issue. The Government will continue to do so because the legislation has not been finalised and implemented yet. To me, it would seem extraordinary that people travelling across the Border from South to North would be required to have a registration or certification to do so. It is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. We will continue to make that case. Of course, it is a matter for the British Government to make decisions on this matter but I hope that we will be able to impress upon it the issues that make sense for both jurisdictions on this island.

I will not comment on what the British Prime Minister said today about the protocol and its implementation apart from stating that it was unhelpful and that the language used was unhelpful. We are working hard to try to build a better relationship and more trust between the European Commission and the British Government. The foreign secretary, Ms Liz Truss, has been working hard to do that and to build a relationship with Commission Vice-President Šefcovic that is based on a trusting relationship that I hope can allow compromises to emerge over time in terms of finding a way to settle on an implementation plan for the protocol on which both sides can agree.

We have been consistent in this space - the protocol is not up for renegotiation. However, the EU has shown extraordinary flexibility in how it is willing to implement that in partnership with the British Government, if the EU has a partner in doing so, which I believe it does. I hope that we will be able to find a way of getting agreement in some or all of the areas sooner rather than later so that this issue does not remain such a polarising influence on politics in Northern Ireland as we head towards elections to the assembly in a few months' time.

I thank the Minister for attending and for his comprehensive reply to Senators. I thank the committee's members, including its Chair, for their work on this important report on what is an important issue for Ireland.

Sitting suspended at 5.04 p.m. and resumed at 5.17 p.m.
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