Engagement with Mr. Eamon Gilmore

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Eamon Gilmore, former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. We are delighted to hear from him on this most important issue facing Ireland.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I again welcome Mr. Gilmore and ask him to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Eamon Gilmore

I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation to address them. I have been following the committee's proceedings and applaud the important work it is doing on this issue which is of critical importance to Ireland, as well as the wider European Union.

Brexit is a tragedy for Europe and Ireland and eventually will be for the United Kingdom. The European Union is the world's most successful peace process. It has brought together in co-operation European nations which slaughtered one another's peoples in the world wars of the 20th century. It has united around its core principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights countries which had been until recently ruled by suppression and the denial of freedom. It has created the biggest single market on the planet. It offers the hope of fresh opportunity to neighbouring states. It donates more than half of all the development and humanitarian aid in the world. It has given global leadership on the issue of climate change.

For all of its shortcomings and it has many, the European Union is one of the greatest forces for good in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. None of the challenges facing the European Union today - conflicts in neighbourhoods, migration, globalisation and demography - would be better addressed by the 28 member states acting separately rather than collectively. In Ireland, we know this better than most. We know that how our economy and living standards have improved since Ireland's accession to the EEC; how the European Union helped us to develop our infrastructure; how it encouraged us to improve environmental standards, consumer protection, working conditions and rights for women; how it supported the Northern Ireland peace process; and how it has enabled our Irish identity to thrive in a European context. Now, for the first time in its 60-year history, the European Union is being put into reverse. One of its largest and most influential member states, our nearest neighbour, has decided to leave, but the European Union will survive its departure. The danger that other member states might follow the United Kingdom to the exit has, for the time being at least, been halted by the recent elections in the Netherlands and, last Sunday, France. However, without the United Kingdom, it will be a lesser European Union and that is the first negative consequence for Ireland. As a small country, we need a strong, united European Union to provide the main market for our export-led economy, stability for our shared currency, the euro, and the political union to amplify our voice and influence in the world.

The departure of the United Kingdom will, I fear, also change the European Union. Ever since it joined, with Ireland and Denmark, in 1973, the United Kingdom has been a champion for the Single Market which it now wants to leave. It promoted enlargement to include the very countries the peoples of which Brexit is now designed to exclude. Throughout its 40-plus years of membership, the United Kingdom has been a consistent advocate for the open society values on which EU membership is based. The United Kingdom's departure from the European table will weaken the defence of these values at a time when so-called "illiberal democracy" is on the rise in some member states. Earlier this year I had the privilege of teaching at the Central European University in Budapest, which is now threatened with closure by the Government of Hungary. This is the first time there has been such an attack on academic freedom in a member state of the European Union. I hope the departure of the United Kingdom and the consequential weakening of the European Union and its values will not embolden those political forces which place little worth on freedom of thought and expression.

Many hope the United Kingdom may yet somehow change its mind about departure. The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has suggested the option of the United Kingdom remaining in the absence of a withdrawal agreement should be kept on the table. I agree.

I agree, too, with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has promoted the idea of a second vote. However, I think both scenarios are highly unlikely. Any prospect that the decision to leave might be reversed has been rendered almost impossible by the political support at Westminster for an extreme interpretation of the referendum decision.

I am surprised, especially given the closeness of the referendum result, that there is so little political challenge to the assumption that Brexit now means the hardest Brexit possible. Many of those who voted to leave believed - and were led to believe - that they were voting for a future relationship between the UK and EU akin to that of the EU and Norway. For all the talk of respecting the will of the people, it is not convincing to interpret last June's vote as a mandate to leave the Single Market and the customs union, nor as a mark of support for the prospect of crashing out altogether should the negotiations go badly for Prime Minister May.

I do not understand or agree with the way in which the current leadership of the British Labour Party and the remainers within the Conservative Party have folded into such a consensus on the defining issue in contemporary British politics. The people of the UK, whose decision last June has led to the triggering of Article 50, ought at least to be given the final say on the outcome of the negotiations in a final referendum. Had the result gone the other way, and by such a slim margin, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Farage and his collaborators would not already be seeking a re-run.

It is of course possible that the political climate may change in the UK, maybe in response to the realities of the withdrawal negotiations and their consequences or perhaps if the general election on 8 June gives the Prime Minister more time and flexibility. The working assumption for Ireland must, however, be that the UK’s withdrawal is going ahead and that we have to address the implications for this State and this island. It is a significant achievement for Irish diplomacy that the Irish dimension of Brexit has already won acknowledgement and prioritisation, both in the UK’s statement of principles and in the EU negotiating guidelines, which were agreed by the European Council on 29 April. Throughout Europe, not only in governmental and diplomatic circles but also among the wider public, there is an understanding that Ireland requires special consideration and that issues such as the land Border, the peace process, the common travel area and trade must be central to the eventual separation settlement.

I congratulate all those whose efforts have secured a pre-negotiation position for Ireland expressed in very strong language, which I believe has the potential to go beyond areas already in public discussion. At the heart of all this is the Good Friday Agreement, which is primarily about Northern Ireland, but which is also an international agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland on the totality of the relationships between our two countries. One of those relationships is our common membership of the European Union. The Good Friday Agreement, in several of its parts, makes specific provision for discussion and some management of EU-related matters, for example in the British-Irish Council, at the North-South Ministerial Council and in bilateral discussions. Matters within the purview of the North-South Ministerial Council, including agriculture, environment and transport, the cross-Border bodies on food safety, trade, and the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, were all chosen on the assumption that both the UK and Ireland would continue to be members of the EU and that the shared EU regulations and policies would facilitate increased cross-Border co-operation. The Good Friday Agreement, the foundation on which relations between Ireland and the UK are built, clearly assumed continued membership of the EU by both countries. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has fundamental implications for that agreement which are deeper than obvious issues such as a possible hard Border.

In her letter to President Donald Tusk, Prime Minister May acknowledged this by referring to “the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland” and her commitment “to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement” as being among the UK’s principles for the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. This is very welcome. The EU guidelines of 29 April go even further, stating:

The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.

I found it interesting that the phraseology used today by Monsieur Barnier in his address to the Houses of the Oireachtas echoed that reference to the Good Friday Agreement. He did not use the phrase "in all its parts" but used instead "in its several dimensions". This clearly recognises that the Good Friday Agreement is broader and has further implications for the UK-EU negotiations than just the obvious issue of a hard Border. What all of this means is that “the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland” or “the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland”, whichever formula is preferred, is not just one more item for the withdrawal negotiations, but instead has the potential to shape and influence the very nature of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The UK has to find a way of reconciling its exit from the EU with its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and the EU has effectively confirmed that this is how it will approach the negotiations. It is possible to envisage how that could be achieved in the context of a softer Brexit, but it is difficult to see how the Good Friday Agreement "in all its parts" can remain intact if the UK is out of the Single Market and the customs union. We may hear a lot more about the phrase “in all its parts” as these negotiations proceed. The institutional and constitutional arrangements made under the Good Friday Agreement are described in the agreement itself as interlocking and interdependent. They are not open to be unpicked to facilitate a hard withdrawal agreement. In my opinion, therefore, the UK's commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and its wish for an absolute exit from the EU, including from the Single Market and the customs union, are not compatible. If the UK is to continue to uphold its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, it will have to change its tack and opt for a softer exit from the European Union.

It is deeply disappointing that at the very time the UK, through its Government and Parliament, was formulating its negotiating position on Brexit, the Northern Ireland Assembly had fallen silent. There is still no restored Executive, and consequently North-South Ministerial Council meetings are not taking place. The opportunity for Northern Ireland’s leaders to shape the nature of Brexit has, therefore, perhaps been partially lost. I hope that the Executive can be restored before much longer. The issues at stake for the whole island because of Brexit are surely greater than the differences which apparently are preventing the two largest parties from reaching an accommodation.

Those issues which are of impact for the whole island include the economic consequences of Brexit. In that context, I recommend to the committee an excellent document recently published by the Labour Party, entitled Our Island, Our Europe, Our Future, which make a number of specific recommendations to allow Ireland flexibility in responding to post-Brexit challenges. These include the modification of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact and fiscal rules, the establishment of a Brexit trade adjustment fund, the development of new EU markets, and the inclusion of a new Irish protocol to the EU treaties.

It is already clear that the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement will not be easy, not least because it has never been done before. The outcome will have to be approved by the Council and passed by the European Parliament. It will also have to be ratified by each of the remaining 27 member states of the EU. Ratification will inevitably raise the question of a referendum in Ireland. Irrespective of the legal advice which will be available to the Government, it is almost certain that some Irish citizen will seek a determination in the courts. There is a good case for the Government and the Oireachtas to decide now, at the beginning of the negotiations, that a referendum will be held on ratification of the withdrawal agreement. An early political decision to hold such a referendum would strengthen the hand of the Irish Government in the negotiation phase, and would help to keep the Irish dimension at the centre of the talks.

Finally, as the committee has asked me here in my capacity as a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I wish to refer briefly to the foreign policy and security dimensions of Brexit, which have received very little attention to date.

Following its withdrawal from the EU, the UK will no longer be a party to the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy. The UK has made a significant contribution to the foreign, security and defence policies and actions of the EU since it joined in 1973. The position on such issues taken by the UK was often similar to Ireland’s position. The departure of the UK therefore removes an ally on many important external issues.

Its departure will probably also result in its increasingly concentrating on involvement with NATO and with its North American friends. Most EU member states are also members of NATO and there is a risk that the locus of European decision making and action on foreign policy, security and defence will shift from the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU, at which Ireland is represented, to a military alliance to which we do not belong.

To counter this, Ireland will need to become more engaged on these European issues and be prepared to perform even more actively in areas such as peace work, development, humanitarian aid and the promotion of the soft power approach of EU foreign policy. It is welcome that the UK has said it wishes to continue to co-operate with the EU in these areas. However, this is an area of our EU engagement on which there is a need for greater discussion by the Oireachtas.

I thank members for their invitation and their attention.

I thank Mr. Gilmore for his thoughtful and detailed presentation. It is appreciated by all committee members and will play a very important part in our work.

Trade was a very important aspect of Mr. Gilmore's former portfolio. Where will Ireland have future trade opportunities around the world? How can it channel its membership of the EU to pass possible future trade deals with countries such as Japan, other countries in south east Asia or the southern and central American regions in which Mr. Gilmore has developed an even keener interest through his most recent work?

One of this committee's first engagements was with the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. I asked his views on the possibility of the State being required to hold a referendum. I am still trying to decipher what his response was. With all due respect, that is probably quite typical of him.

I thank Mr. Gilmore for his very thoughtful contribution. There was much interesting information and many suggestions in it. He brings much experience in that regard. I wish him continued success as EU special envoy to Colombia. It is extremely important work which he is enjoying immensely.

A referendum is likely to be required on any final agreement that may emerge from the negotiations. To our cost, cases are taken to the courts, as citizens are entitled to do, and the Government is forced into a referendum on a treaty change or a change that is considered to be a treaty change. For many reasons, there is something to be said politically for the Government to make the case for a referendum and the Oireachtas to decide to if it should be held. It is welcome that Mr. Gilmore put that on the agenda and spoke very coherently about why that should be the case.

The alacrity with which those on the remain side in the UK, in particular the UK Labour Party, have folded the tent and decided to allow Theresa May and others a free run to argue for a likely hard Brexit is very alarming. When the reality of what the UK will face hits home, it will inevitably open up ground for further consideration of the prospect of a referendum on a final agreement. I hope that clear-minded people in the UK will continue to consider that option and to campaign and advocate for it because this match is not over by a long shot and when reality hits home, the prospect of a final referendum on a withdrawal agreement, or whatever emerges from the process, will hover into view. It will remain on the agenda but it beggars belief that it is not being given more consideration.

Mr. Michel Barnier, chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom, said earlier today to the Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann sitting in joint committee that we have to speak the truth. The departure of the UK from the EU will have consequences. Customs controls are part of EU border management. To a point, he was stating the obvious. For example, Mr. Gilmore is well aware of concerns in my constituency about a possible return to a hard Border, physical customs posts and all the disruption that would entail. While Brexit will have general trade implications, the Border counties in particular are exposed. The reintroduction of Border and customs posts would raise the spectre of a very painful past for people in Border communities North and South. What would the optimum arrangement be for Ireland in the context of trade and ameliorating some of the worst effects of the prospective reintroduction of customs controls? How can we ensure minimal disruption for the continuation of the trade and free trade that we currently enjoy, notwithstanding that there will be customs controls of one form or another post-Brexit?

I thank Senator Nash. I welcome Deputy Noel Rock to the Gallery. He is very welcome to the Upper House.

I join with the Chairman and Senator Nash in welcoming Mr. Gilmore to the Chamber. I thank him for his attendance and for his paper which will be of much use to members. His contribution is informed by his wealth of experience as former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and former Tánaiste. His very valuable insight is appreciated. His paper is interesting and challenging. It is a very good document which gives members much to ponder and will form a core section of our final report.

Does Mr. Gilmore think that the commonplace optimism, which I share, that we will achieve and maintain the common travel area and the free movement of people is grounded? Will we achieve that? In his paper, he acknowledges previous successful diplomatic efforts and the success of Irish diplomacy in this sphere. The issue of the free movement of people was noted in Mr. Barnier's remarks today and all the statements and pre-negotiation team documents. Does Mr. Gilmore think we will achieve it? The issue is critical to the area that Senator Nash and I represent and come from because it is estimated that approximately 30,000 journeys take place across the Border every day for trade, work, schools, hospitals, for kinship and so on. That is especially so in Senator Nash's area between Newry and Dundalk, where 3,000 trips are made per day. That is a critical point. I also refer to travel from east to west such as travel to London. That was discussed this morning in the context of air travel.

The free movement of goods is also critical. The former Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, gave evidence to this committee that the UK would need an increase of 20% in trade with the Commonwealth to replace 5% of its free trade with the EU, bearing in mind that the Commonwealth is already trading with Europe and has its own trading arrangements. I am not aware of the source of the figures but they were part of Mr. Ahern's submission.

All things considered, is Mr. Gilmore hopeful that in the end a free trade arrangement will be achieved? In other words, would Mr. Gilmore be hopeful that we could ultimately avoid tariffs and customs specifically? How hopeful is Mr. Gilmore that that would be the ultimate result, and what does he think personally we will or will not achieve?

The corollary of that is from Mr. Gilmore's party's own documents, which is an interesting concept of the Brexit trade adjustment fund. The ideal would be that we have no customs or tariffs, but in the event of us not fully succeeding there, how does Mr. Gilmore see the trade adjustment fund correcting the problem? The margins in a lot of our agricultural goods and services, specifically in beef and milk, are so small that any diminution in their value would render those exports almost unviable. Apart from factory farming, much of the ordinary small farming would become totally unviable. Much of the mushroom industry has already been affected, so how would Mr. Gilmore see the fund working? The critical thing is who would finance and administer the fund. Does Mr. Gilmore see the fund being financed in general from Europe? If we could achieve something on that level it would have great implications for this country.

I wish Mr. Gilmore well in his relatively new international role, but given his domestic political experience he knows only too well that most of the jobs in my area are related to agriculture and food processing. If that sector were to be further threatened those jobs would go and would be very difficult to replace. It is therefore of critical importance that something is done for that area.

I would be grateful if Mr. Gilmore could address the movement of people, in the sense of whether or not he feels our optimism is grounded, and also the question of trade and tariffs. I greatly appreciate Mr. Gilmore's presence here and look forward to his responses.

I also want to welcome Mr. Gilmore here today and thank him for his comprehensive report. I have a couple of brief questions. I would like to hear a little bit more of Mr. Gilmore's thinking behind the idea of a referendum. While not opposing it, just to play devil's advocate, there is an agreement so what would happen if we said we had to have a referendum here? Once the election was lost in the UK, the Irish economy started losing ground the next morning due to insecurity in money markets and the falling value of sterling. If the markets perceived that this agreement is bad and we had to have a referendum which would take a minimum of six months, would it not possibly be detrimental for our economy to make a commitment for a referendum on the agreed outcome? It would push the boat out a bit further and leave our entire economy, including cross-Border trade, wide open. I am not opposing Mr. Gilmore's idea but I am asking him to elaborate on it. I would like to hear the pros and cons.

I would also like to hear Mr. Gilmore's personal opinion, as an eminent former politician and member of the Labour Party, on the whys and why nots of Theresa May calling the general election when she did. What role can Mr. Gilmore's sister party in the UK play? We all know where they are at the moment, but what role can they play from the British perspective on Brexit, which may or may not be advantageous for us in future? If Mr. Gilmore was a member of the British Labour Party where would he take it in the context of the full Brexit scenario?

I thank Mr. Gilmore for being here today. I am sure there are many other things he could be doing apart from sitting here, but we feel that his experience on the international stage is vital. I will deal first and foremost with the referendum issue, if I may. I firmly believe that Britain, a country that fought in two world wars, will not back down even if they realise that their current course of action is to their detriment.

We are seeing the stiff upper lip from all sides over there now, so unless there is a Damascus moment I cannot see them changing. When I hear of the prospect for a referendum in Ireland I shudder. I am not anti-democratic, but I think we have learned down through the years that referendums in this country are rarely, if ever, about the subject. I would be interested to hear Mr. Gilmore's views on that.

Is there a way that we can accept any agreement negotiated on our behalf by Mr. Barnier and his team without going back to the people? How does Mr. Gilmore think that would rest with those who are currently in power or in opposition in the Oireachtas? When I hear the word referendum I really have to brace myself because Mr. Gilmore knows as well as I do the problems we have had with referendums down through the years in this country.

As regards the issue of security, I also have a fear that there would be a drift towards the NATO side of things rather than the Council on Foreign Affairs. As an eminent person in foreign affairs himself, Mr. Gilmore has drawn attention to that, so it is clearly something he feels strongly about. There are particular security arrangements between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Does Mr. Gilmore see those security arrangements being under threat in the event of Britain being isolated - for want of a better word - as a result of a hard Brexit? A soft Brexit may bring many advantages for all sides, but a hard one will force people into their respective corners. I wonder what Mr. Gilmore thinks that will do to security.

Mr. Gilmore mentioned the Good Friday Agreement and he was heavily involved in North-South politics during his time as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs. There is a possibility for leverage in negotiations or, at least, discussions between Britain and Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement process, including the North-South ministerial bodies. While we cannot have bilateral negotiations, we can certainly inform the negotiations through discussions under the umbrella of the Good Friday Agreement. I may be wrong but I would be interested in Mr. Gilmore's view of that.

I have a concern that the Good Friday Agreement may finish up as a football on the pitch when push comes to shove between the EU and the UK. The Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct to us here in Ireland, but it is not quite that sacrosanct in eastern Europe and places like that. Does Mr. Gilmore see the agreement as a leverage tool for us in discussions, and perhaps turning out to be a leverage tool for both negotiating sides when it comes to trying to iron out some of the more difficult things?

We do not have a Border per se in this country now, or at least there is no manned Border. None of us hopes a hard Brexit will happen and all sides seem to be committed to the notion of free travel back and forth. In the event of a hard Brexit, however, the reorganisation of the Defence Forces in 2013 has more or less moved all our troops south of a line from Dublin to Galway. We have very few troops left in Donegal or Dundalk, and none at all in Cavan and Monaghan. The same applies to the customs and excise service.

Would Mr. Gilmore agree that over time there has been an erosion or loss of corporate knowledge in the management of the Border? Should we now be war-gaming - although that may be a poor choice of words - or preparing for the likelihood of a hard Brexit? We could always pull back from it later, but should we now revisit the question of Border management to prepare in the event of things going wrong?

Senator Craughwell reverted to a former life there briefly. We might leave war-gaming out of this democratic institution. I now call Senator Black.

I thank Mr. Gilmore for attending the committee today. I really appreciate the amount of work he has put into the presentation, which was clear and precise. My father came from Rathlin Island which is off the north Antrim coast.

I have very clear memories of going through the Border as a child. It was traumatic to see army men with guns and I would always ask why they were there. It was very hard to understand and I would be devastated to see them return. I go back and forth to Rathlin all the time and I will be going tonight. What does Mr. Gilmore think the chances are of a hard Border?

Most people in the North want to remain in the EU. What are Mr. Gilmore's thoughts on that? It would be great if the North could remain in the EU because that is what they voted for. Does Mr. Gilmore think the economy would benefit from a united Ireland? Would it be a positive thing and might it happen?

Mr. Gilmore said we needed to engage more on European issues such as defence and he mentioned peace work, humanitarian aid and the promotion of soft power in EU policy. In the Italian Senate two and a half years ago, Ms Mogherini spoke about closing down Operation Mare Nostrum and said we needed to stop picking up refugees in the Mediterranean as it only encouraged them to come. When a vessel not fit for the open seas overturned and 800 people were drowned, however, causing a public outcry, the EU changed its position. Many hundreds had died silently, however, not in the public gaze, and the EU has no interest in humanitarian aid. More provocatively and dangerously, Ms Mogherini said she aimed to ensure the EU replaced the US on our own borders and that the EU would be able to intervene as the US had on our borders. Mr. Gilmore will have seen the US intervention on Europe's borders and in the Middle East, which has had disastrous consequences. Such an aim, by the head of European foreign policy, is not one to which we should subscribe. I am concerned that Mr. Gilmore is saying we need to abandon neutrality in light of the UK departure. We disagree with the EU in many areas and agree in others but the drift towards militarisation is of huge concern. Operation Mare Nostrum was not pursued from humanitarian concerns but public pressure.

In respect of the Good Friday Agreement, the Taoiseach has spoken of the need for unifying Ireland and has said the EU needs to prepare for a united Ireland. There have been statements and press coverage since January and, following a meeting of heads of Government, it was announced that it would be provided for in the same way as German reunification was provided for. What does Mr. Gilmore believe the Government should be doing on this issue? Members of the Ulster Defence Regiment have contacted me and others to ask me what will happen. While this is the main aim of most political parties in the State under Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, Brexit now makes the economic argument. There are data on how farmers who receive EU peace funding will be affected, and the people in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in the EU will be directly affected by a result which they had no control over. Without an assembly they will not have a say over what happens in the future. What should we do about this? I have read a lot about the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland from 1967 to 1970 and one author pointed out that not one single civil servant in the Irish Government was engaged in the issue of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. That was to our detriment. Instead of engaging on the civil rights issues with Britain we entirely ignored it, hoping that nothing would happen, but we all know the consequences of this lack of policy in the area. When former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment are asking questions the Government needs to have some form of policy on the longer-term issue.

There is quite a range of comments and questions so I ask Mr. Gilmore to respond.

Mr. Eamon Gilmore

If I am not sufficiently brief, please remind me. The Chairman asked whether there would be opportunities for trade. One of the big rules in trade is that one should do the most trade with one's nearest neighbours. Mr. Bertie Ahern said that to replace 5% of trade with the EU the UK would have to make up 20% of trade with the Commonwealth. I do not have a figure for the amount we would have to make up in trade with the rest of the world to make up for what we might lose in trade with the UK, but I think it would be quite substantial. The global opportunities for us lie probably more in the area of investment than trade and the fact that Ireland will be the sole English-speaking member state of the European Union will be an attraction for investment. The further one goes from this Continent, the more people see Europe as Europe, rather than its individual states. Very often they do not make a distinction between who is in or out of the European Union until they have to make a decision based on whether to invest in a state with 60 million people or one with access to a market of 500 million. There will be advantages for us in this area.

Senators Nash and Craughwell asked about another referendum in the UK, but I do not think there will be one. They have made their bed in this respect and I do not see any political movement to hold another referendum. The situation may change but it is not the case at the moment. Another question was on the prospect of a referendum here. We might not be the only country to ratify by referendum and the Netherlands held a referendum on the association agreement with Ukraine. I can foresee a situation where the legal advice to the Government would be that, on balance, a referendum was not required but I can also see that option being challenged in the courts and we do not know what the outcome of that would be. The Crotty judgment did not turn on the Single European Act itself but on the implications of the Single European Act for foreign policy. There is probably no bigger implication for Irish foreign policy than Brexit, particularly in respect of Northern Ireland, and it greatly outweighs other changes to European treaties on which we have held referenda. The decision to hold a referendum might be required by a decision of the Supreme Court after the withdrawal agreement is concluded and an attempt made to ratify it.

I am simply raising the question that if that is the scenario we are facing into, might it not be better now to make a conscious political decision to say that when the final agreement is made we will have a referendum on it and to have the advantage that would give in strengthening the hand of Government in the negotiation process and at keeping the Irish dimension at the centre of attention? It is something that requires some discussion and consideration and it may well be something on which members may wish to reflect before they make a report. I hope that answers Senator Paul Daly's question. Nobody wants a prolonged period of uncertainty. That is not in anybody's interest but none of us can predict what the courts may decide, nor can we predict what other states might decide. We have seen already that the Netherlands has a trade stake in this. We saw what happened in Belgium in respect of the Canadian free trade agreement. Events can happen in other states that may influence it as well.

Senator Nash asked about the optimum arrangement in respect of a hard Border. This may also address some of the points raised by Senator Black. Were the United Kingdom to leave the Single Market and the customs union, there would have to be customs control but it might not necessarily be on the island. If we look at the politics of this in the UK, this is largely an English-driven agenda. It would not be necessarily a big deal not to have a customs Border between the two parts of Ireland - Northern Ireland has a population of less than 2 million - but what I can envisage is that the hard border is on the neighbouring island. It is when one crosses the water that one would have a customs border, as we did during the period of the Troubles, for example. When one was travelling through UK airports one went into a channel for passengers from Ireland where they checked one's passport to see who one was and so on. They could do the same in respect of goods traffic. Border checks do not have to take place on the actual physical Border. They can take place when a boat docks in Stranraer, Liverpool or Holyhead or when goods are being transported through the island of the UK. That is probably a more likely scenario.

There is probably a Northern Ireland dimension that needs to be considered here, particularly by people in Northern Ireland who consider themselves British and part of that whole arrangement, in that they may well be faced with a form of control getting on and off the island of Britain that might not be called a Border in respect of the actual transportation between, say, Belfast and Glasgow but in reality could be. That is probably the more likely scenario that in effect would avoid a hard Border on the island. None of us want to go back to that. I remember the time spent going through Aughnacloy to Donegal, for example, at different times. That is probably the more likely scenario.

Senator O'Reilly asked if I believed we will achieve the common travel area. I do. The common travel area predated our membership of the European Union. We need to think about what we mean by the common travel area. I travelled to London yesterday on a flight from Dublin. I got off in London City Airport. I walked right through the airport. There was no check of passports; the common travel area. I came back to Dublin this morning and joined the queue to have my passport checked. On this side of the water we need to give some thought as to what we mean by the common travel area. We cannot claim that we have a common travel area if we insist on checking the passports of people travelling from the UK when they are not doing the same on the other side.

I am not as confident, however, in respect of the free trade arrangement. The reality is that if the UK leaves the Single Market or the customs union, we are part of the common European Union trade market arrangement. Because of the unique relationship between Ireland and Britain, as it is called in the documentation, that trade issue will have to be addressed. The likely situation is that we will be expected to be part of the EU 27 common arrangement with the UK but that will give rise to particular disadvantages for Irish business in respect of its trade with the UK. That is where the idea of the Brexit trade adjustment fund would kick in. As for how it would operate, the EU operates many different types of funds of this kind to address particular problems that arise in the trading relationship and free movement and to address particular issues of disadvantage. There is no reason a fund of this kind could not exist where it could not be measured by reference to the historic pattern of trade between the two islands and measured also in respect of the levels of tariffs that are applied. It would be then an issue for different industries or sectors to respond to it.

Senator Craughwell asked about the Good Friday Agreement. As I said earlier, it is not possible to reconcile a hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement. I cannot see how the UK can fulfil its commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and have a hard Brexit. If we consider the practical issues, for example, the agriculture sector, the work InterTrade Ireland does and areas where there is at least some level of cross-Border activity, it is all based on the presumption that the rules are common and that the Common Agricultural Policy applies both North and South. If we have a situation where, for example, farmers in this part of Ireland are in receipt of some form of EU transfers or supports, farmers in Northern Ireland will not benefit from that. Will Westminster replace that in some way? What is the common issue on the agenda for North-South Ministerial Council meetings? The same applies to other areas such as fisheries and so on where a common policy applies. The removal of the UK from the EU removes those areas of common discussion and common policy which render cross-Border issues less relevant.

On the issue of a united Ireland raised by Senator Black, I would like to see a united Ireland. I believe I share that aspiration probably with most people in this country. We have to deal with that issue with a great deal of care. It cannot be simply dealt with by way of having a Border poll or a head count. The reality is that many people on this island identify themselves as British, and that British identity will need to be protected and guaranteed within a united Ireland context. We have to talk about what that means in terms of the likely institutions that might be established in a united Ireland situation. We also have to examine areas where there is harmonisation. That discussion should take place. We need to talk about how that would work in practice. In particular, we need to talk with people on the island who do not share that aspiration because it needs to be an agreed situation.

I was going great until Senator Mark Daly spoke; everybody was agreeing with everybody. I disagree with Senator Daly on several issues. I disagree with his representation of Federica Mogherini. She is doing an outstanding job as the European Union's High Representative on foreign policy. If the Senator checks her record over her period in office, it has been outstanding and, I might add, exhausting.

Reference was made to humanitarian aid. I do not agree with the suggestion the European Union is not doing enough. It is the greatest contributor of humanitarian aid in the world. In particular, it is the greatest contributor of humanitarian aid in dealing with the crisis in Syria.

I never said we should abandon our neutrality and reject the suggestion I did. What I am saying is that if we want to maintain our policy of neutrality and want it to mean something, we need to ensure the foreign policy of the European Union is made at the Foreign Affairs Council rather than NATO. My fear stems from the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. It is already a major part of NATO where proceedings will become far more the focus of its foreign policy agenda rather than the European Union. Given that the majority of other member states of the European Union are also members of NATO, there is a danger European policy-making in respect of the Common Foreign and Security Policy will shift even more towards NATO than is the case. That would not be in our interests because we are not a member. We are a member of the Foreign Affairs Council.

Let us consider the issues that have to be addressed. Probably the greatest issue in Europe in this area is the relationship with Russia. It is critical that this relationship and the associated policy be addressed at the Foreign Affairs Council. It is vital that the place where decisions are made on the relationship of the European Union with neighbouring countries, including in respect of issues in the Middle East and Africa, is the Foreign Affairs Council where Ireland has punched above its weight in the making of foreign policy, peacekeeping activity, the provision of development assistance and so on. It is probably fair to say there has been a reluctance to engage on security and defence issues. Again, this is due to our position on neutrality, but we will have to be more active in policy-making. This is not about abandoning our neutrality or becoming part of a military alliance. However, in the context of the making of security and defence policy, we will have to take a more active interest in and engage on the matter. If we do not ensure these decisions are made where the neutral countries are present – Ireland is not the only neutral country – the reality is that the centre of gravity on these issues will shift further down the road to NATO headquarters.

My sincere thanks to Mr. Gilmore, not only for his opening address but also for his detailed responses. A considerable number of questions were put to him. We put him through the wringer somewhat, but I think he answered them in detail. He gave fact-based answers that will play an important part in the report we will write. He is always welcome to come back if he thinks of something that he left out or if he wishes to write and engage.

The select committee went into private session at 3.35 p.m. and adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 18 May 2017.