Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (38, 41)

Seán Crowe

Question:

38. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of his discussions with the European Commission in the event of a no-deal Brexit; if he has discussed the introduction of a border in Ireland with the European Commission; and the status of his contingency plans in the event of a no-deal Brexit. [37659/19]

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Lisa Chambers

Question:

41. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of plans in relation to the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit, including the discussions with the European Commission on same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37675/19]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

There is a real and serious possibility that we could be facing a no-deal crash-out Brexit on 31 October, in just six weeks' time. Brexit is one of the greatest threats and challenges we have faced in a generation. My biggest concern is of the possibility of the hardening of the Border on this island. This is completely unacceptable. Can the Tanáiste provide us with an update on his negotiations with the European Commission on this issue? Can he clarify what checks he is discussing with the Commission, where they will be located, and what their purpose will be?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 38 and 41 together.

Avoiding the return of a hard border on this island is a Government priority in all circumstances. This is why the backstop continues to be a critical component of the withdrawal agreement, unless and until an alternative is found. Ratifying the withdrawal agreement remains the only viable solution on the table that avoids any physical infrastructure and related checks or controls, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement, safeguards North-South co-operation, and preserves the all-island economy, as well the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland’s continuing place in it. No one has yet come up with any alternatives aimed at avoiding a hard border that match what is safeguarded by the backstop.

Given the current political uncertainty in London, there is a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. We continue our work with the European Commission to address the shared twin objectives of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protecting the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it. I can assure the Deputy I am absolutely conscious of the Good Friday Agreement and its spirit and the challenge that we face.

However, a no-deal Brexit will unavoidably mean far-reaching change in North-South trade on the island of Ireland which will certainly no longer be as frictionless. Tariffs would apply and the impact of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements and associated checks necessary to protect Ireland's place in the Single Market would be significant to the operation of the all-island economy. We continue to work closely with the Commission to minimise the negative consequences of no deal but any arrangement would clearly be sub-optimal to the backstop which is why we are such strong advocates for that approach based on regulatory alignment.

It is also important to remember that even in a no deal scenario, certain key aspects of life will not change. The common travel area will remain in place, so British and Irish citizens will still be able to travel freely between our two islands to live, work, study and access healthcare, welfare, housing and the labour market as though they were citizens of both.

However, the Deputy asked directly where we were with the European Commission regarding the detail of what can be agreed with the European Commission in the context of a no-deal Brexit, with the twin objectives I outlined earlier. That process has not concluded yet. Our team met the European Commission last week. They are meeting the Commission again this week and we are now talking directly about how we can minimise the disruption to the all-island economy while ensuring that the Republic of Ireland does not get taken out of the EU Single Market by default by not doing anything or not doing enough, while at the same time recognising that we have to protect North-South co-operation, the Good Friday Agreement and its structures and the benefits of all-island trade as best we can. If the British Government decides to trigger a no deal by refusing to compromise or to live up to the commitments it has already made in the past, and if a British Parliament allows that to happen, we face very difficult choices. However, the priorities will be as I outlined, protecting an all-island economy on the one hand because it is a reinforcer of peace and, at the same time, ensuring that Ireland is not taken out of the Single Market by default against its will. However, that will involve difficult choices and a very open discussion in this Chamber in terms of how and why we have made those choices. I hope I will get the support of colleagues in our attempts to get that fragile balance right should it come to it.

I fully understand the importance of the backstop. It remains the bottom line in terms of the very minimum that is needed to protect our economic interests and avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland. As 31 October approaches and pressure mounts, we ask that the Government does not blink in the face of Tory intransigence and the recklessness of Boris Johnson's Government but we also need to be clear there can be no return to a hard Border. There is consensus in the House on that. There can be no more division on the island. As for the idea of having customs checks, there is concern about a return to customs checks at the Border.

The Tánaiste mentioned the Good Friday Agreement: it is the Irish people's agreement and an international agreement passed by huge majorities. We understand the importance the European Commission places on protecting the Single Market but that cannot come at any cost or at the cost of the Good Friday Agreement.

Our job is not to negotiate the imposition of a Border on the island of Ireland. We need to agree on that. That should not be our job with respect to the European Commission. It is our job to work with our European partners at all costs to prevent this disastrous scenario emerging for the future of peace on this island.

I have a few questions. The Irish people will not accept any return to or a hardening of the Border on the island of Ireland as a result of that but does the European Commission and our European partners get that?

The Deputy will have another opportunity to ask a further supplementary.

I call the Tánaiste to respond to the first supplementary.

Does Deputy Chambers wish to ask a supplementary?

The first supplementaries should be separate and I will combine the second supplementaries.

I would like to make a few points. First, and I said this earlier, Ireland will not support any deal that involves us acquiescing to the reintroduction of Border infrastructure on the island. That cannot be the compromise that gets the deal across the line because essentially what we would be doing is moving away from regulatory alignment as the way of solving this problem towards trying to manage Border infrastructure and trying to limit the damage as best we can. We have an approach to solve this problem, albeit on a temporary basis but for as long as necessary until other solutions emerge. It is called the backstop. It can be UK-wide or it can be Northern Ireland-specific – we do not mind. That commits to ensuring there is a level playing field and common rules on both sides of Border on this island to ensure we do not have to put checks in place again, whether they be on the Border or anywhere else for that matter. That was the commitment in terms of the approach back in December 2017. It was also the commitment in the withdrawal agreement that got supported. We want to try to find a way of ensuring that commitment is followed through on. If the British Government wants to replace the backstop, it must replace it with something that does the same job. That is our position. Our position in a no-deal scenario is that we will need to put temporary emergency solutions in place that protect our place in the Single Market while we continue to negotiate and advocate for more comprehensive solutions.

I wish to raise a particular question that has been coming up time and again, particularly in the past six months. It is understandable and reasonable that Opposition parties, businesses, farmers and citizens are asking the Government in the event of a no-deal Brexit what will happen on 1 November. I listened to Joe Healy of the IFA being interviewed this morning from the National Ploughing Championships in Carlow. He was asked the same question, namely, did he or his members know what type of situation farmers will face on 1 November. His frank answer was that they did not and that they have been asking for that clarity. Therefore, that question is not coming from only inside this House.

There was commentary from Government in the past few weeks, first, an admission that checks would have to happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit but there has been no further detail. I appreciate we have had conversations about this and it is an uncomfortable topic for the Government. However, with respect to commentary from the Taoiseach that checks would happen away from the Border, near the Border, some at the ports and some at the point of arrival, with just over six weeks to go, it is reasonable to ask the question what is plan B in the event that a deal is not passed. We all hope and share the Tánaiste’s optimism that a deal can be done. Of course, it can be done, but the default position remains a no deal. The line and message consistently coming from Brussels is that the most likely outcome still remains a no-deal Brexit.

I read with considerable concern this morning that at the Cabinet meeting today the Tánaiste was directing Ministers in other Departments to prepare their no-deal plan for the first 24 hours, basically for 1 November.

That was reported in the newspapers today. If that is not the case I am sure the Tánaiste will clarify that.

I will clarify it.

If that is the case I would have expected that to have been done before this morning.

These are very fair questions and questions we need to answered. Let me explain what happened here. We made a conscious decision with the European Commission that we would not finalise what would essentially be an emergency management plan in a no-deal scenario in terms of facilitating trade on this island if Northern Ireland is outside the customs union, the Single Market and the European Union and the rest of the island is very much in it and wanting to protect its place in it. For good reason when it became obvious a number of months ago that there would be an extension, the European Commission and our team agreed we would pick this up again over the summer because these are unpalatable and politically controversial issues. The idea that we would publish a plan months out, when there is a good chance we could avoid a no deal, and create all the damage, friction and anxiety that would come from plans like this does not seem to make much sense to me. We have had an honest conversation over the summer with the Commission. It is now moving into detailed discussions in terms of what is the bare minimum we need to do to limit disruption to protect Ireland’s place in the Single Market in a no-deal scenario. We will explain to people how we think that will work once we have the agreement with the Commission. It would have been crazy to have done this months ago and to have all the politics around this issue focus on it, and some people trying to latch on to it as an alternative arrangement that may be somehow okay, which it clearly is not. It is significantly sub-optimal to a regulatory alignment approach that prevents the need for Border infrastructure at all. I can assure the Deputy we will be upfront about it once we get an agreement with the Commission around what we need to do and the timelines for that because both of those things are important and we will share it with Opposition Members when we can.