Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Questions (4, 5)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department working on Brexit preparedness. [43186/19]

View answer

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department working on Brexit preparedness. [44317/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. Within my Department, staff across several divisions contribute to the work on Brexit preparedness.

Brexit is an important part of the work of the international, EU and Northern Ireland division in my Department, which has 27 members of staff. The division is headed by a second Secretary General, who also acts as the Irish Sherpa for EU business, including Brexit issues. The division assists me in my role as a member of the European Council and in respect of Government consideration of Brexit issues, including negotiations, and also on Northern Ireland affairs and British-Irish relations.

The economic division of my Department also contributes to the overall work on Brexit, to ensure the economy is well placed to avail of future opportunities and meet threats, including Brexit.

My Department also has a dedicated Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit which comprises nine staff headed by a principal officer. This unit works closely with officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to co-ordinate the whole-of-Government effort on planning, programme management and communications on Brexit preparedness. The unit assists a Secretaries General group, which oversees ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning, and an assistant secretaries group on no-deal Brexit planning.

The recent agreement between the EU and UK negotiating teams on a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future relationship is very welcome. This averted the risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October by extending the deadline to 31 January. However, if the agreement is ratified before then the UK can exit earlier. The package is now subject to ratification by the British Parliament and the European Parliament, so there is still some way to go until we have absolute certainty that there will be an orderly UK withdrawal. We are firmly of the view that this opportunity should be grasped and a deal concluded that will ensure an orderly withdrawal can take place.

While the threat of no-deal Brexit has receded, it has not gone away completely. The Government must maintain a state of readiness in its preparations should the threat re-emerge in the period ahead. Even with the best possible agreement, it is still the case that the UK is leaving the EU and this will bring change. It is important that Ireland is ready for that change, for our citizens and our businesses. We will continue our preparations for all scenarios.

There have been two false starts, and, thankfully, they were false starts, for a British exit. They were 31 March and 31 October. If the Taoiseach were to be honest with the House, he would tell us that we were not prepared on either occasion. A month before the 31 October deadline, we learned that we had to rely on temporary facilities in Rosslare Europort, for example, because permanent facilities will not be available there until 2021 at the earliest. Likewise, we saw the dry run of Operation Purge in Dublin Port. Should there be a queue of traffic going into the port, it is intended that the traffic will be brought into the port around a roundabout and sent back up to the motorway to park at service stations. That is not rational or proper planning.

I wish to make two points. First, I hope we are still preparing to ensure that there are proper facilities in place in the event of a hard Brexit, which is not off the agenda. The Taoiseach said as much in his reply. As regards Rosslare Europort, can he give details of the proposed visit of an Irish delegation to meet French Government officials and officials from Le Havre on connecting the two ports? That would be very welcome. We should have vessels on standby to ensure we have such connectivity in the event of any disruption of the landbridge.

Second, we are not out of the woods in respect of the potential horrendous damage Brexit could do. It is not impossible that there will be a Nigel Farage-Boris Johnson government in place by Christmas. If that were the case, there is no guarantee that the negotiated settlement is the one that will be put to the British Parliament. It may well be the Nigel Farage view of a WTO agreement, in other words, no agreement or negotiation on a long-term, tariff-free trade arrangement with the European Union. I am interested to hear the Taoiseach's view on that. As I pointed out on the previous occasion we engaged on this, while the deal that was negotiated with Boris Johnson safeguards the essential Border issues, it is a much more detrimental deal for Ireland than the one that was done with Mrs. Theresa May in terms of long-term trade. It moves Britain away from the alignment that Mrs. May wanted. The difficult issues that will face us in the negotiations are either a Johnson government coming to power and reneging on the deal by the end of January or, even if the deal was ratified by the end of December, getting a trade deal that moves Britain further away from the alignment that allows seamless trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Everybody appreciates the hard work the Taoiseach and his team have put into Brexit, particularly the work of the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and his Department. That said, there is serious fear in Dublin about the gridlock that will occur on the M50 and in the Port Tunnel. Currently, 10,000 lorries and 15,000 cars use the tunnel each day. A number of suggestions have been made, such as parking at the big Dublin Airport car parks and parking on the hard shoulder on both sides of the tunnel. Let us consider the experience on the M50 at peak hours in the mornings and evenings. It is so congested that most people try to avoid it like the plague. It is like a slow-moving car park. There are endless small collisions and bumps between cars simply because people are stop-start driving. In bad wet weather such as we have had recently, it is a nightmare.

We discussed a potential resolution for this previously. I acknowledge that much work has been done in Dublin Port, but why are Rosslare, Waterford and Cork not being prepared to take all the south of Ireland traffic? If that could be done, it would remove significant pressure from Dublin and free up space at Dublin Port in respect of Northern Ireland hauliers who might want to use the port in the context of it being European in the future. I realise that this is expensive. It is absolutely crazy. We must also have direct shipping to France and Spain. That can be done from Cork and Rosslare. The Taoiseach said previously that he does not believe the demand exists for it, but has he had an opportunity to review what the reality will be in the event of the UK going out of alignment in a serious way and the potential problems in ports such as Calais with traffic crossing over and back between the UK and the Continent?

Given that the withdrawal Bill has yet to go through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, neither we or the Government can be complacent in respect of how the State prepares for 31 January. The acuity is still present. We know from a series of reports that businesses are still not as prepared as they should be, even though the first deadline was last March. There are ongoing issues in that regard. Now we are facing the third deadline on 31 January. It is interesting that consumer confidence is still impacted by this uncertainty. As I said earlier, even if the withdrawal Bill is passed, it will have a negative impact on the Irish economy because Boris Johnson wants to take Britain out of the customs union and the Single Market. Europe has confirmed this to us. The EU is concerned that he wishes to change the dynamic in the relationship between the UK and Europe in terms of achieving-----

Being a competitor on low standards.

That is correct.

That is the fear among Commissioners in Brussels. Notwithstanding what Mr. Johnson is saying about the political declaration, he wants to have his cake and eat it yet again if he gets elected.

Despite all of the Brexit awareness campaigns and so on, approximately 58,000 businesses still do not have an EORI number. That is very worrying indeed. The latest AIB Brexit sentiment index found that, despite deep concerns about Brexit, 41% of SMEs in the Republic and 53% of SMEs in Northern Ireland still have not done any planning for it. Some 30% of exporting and importing companies are not taking mitigating actions to address possible Brexit challenges, according to information we have received by way of reply to parliamentary questions. It is important that we make the point that, irrespective of the type of agreement that emerges, Britain leaving the European Union will result in damage to Ireland. It is worrying that many people are not prepared and do not seem to be apprised of the damaging impact that Brexit, in whatever form it takes, will have on exports and, potentially, on services.

It is extraordinary that the services sector has not been examined at all, particularly in respect of regulatory frameworks, regulatory alignments and the clear impulse of the Tory Party to have regulations that are different from those of Europe in certain sectors and which would not be as onerous.

Our beef exports to the UK alone are worth €1.2 billion. That is huge. Some 49% of our total beef exports by value go to the UK. We know that the beef farmers were in extreme difficulty before any of this. The uncertainty of Brexit is not good for the future of the beef industry. Will the Taoiseach outline any short-term plans the Government has to ease the plight of beef farmers? Will he comment on the overall points we have made with regard to preparations?

I will be brief. Regardless of what happens in respect of Brexit, whether there is a deal or not, we all agree that it will have an impact on our economy, as Deputy Micheál Martin has said. The severity of that impact will obviously depend on the type of deal, should a deal actually be agreed. Regardless of whether there is a deal, the impact on our economy needs to be addressed. I believe the Taoiseach said that there are 24 staff working on Brexit preparedness. I may have misheard that but I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong.

In their pre-budget submissions, IBEC and ICTU highlighted the economic issues, how they will have to be dealt with post Brexit and how we will have to change how we do business. How far advanced are the practical plans in respect of tariffs, customs union issues and so on and also in respect of supports to be given to businesses? As Deputy Micheál Martin said, many businesses are not prepared for this. I do not know the reason. Perhaps people are too fixated on what is happening in the House of Commons or perhaps they are under the impression that, if we get a deal, everything will be okay and we will not have to worry. The reality, however, is that even the best Brexit deal we can secure will negatively impact on our economy. We need to be prepared for that.

We were prepared for a no-deal Brexit in March and in October, or were at least as prepared as we possibly could be. We will continue our preparations for a no-deal outcome in case we end up facing into that scenario again on 31 January. I have said it before but I want to say it again - being prepared for a no-deal outcome does not mean that there will be no disruption. It does not mean that it will be a case of business as usual. No matter how prepared we are, there will be disruption to our ports and transport infrastructure and to other places in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

With regard to the Rosslare-Le Havre route, I do not have any particular knowledge of that contact but I am glad to hear it happened. The more links we can have between Irish ports and those in mainland Europe, the better. With regard to Rosslare and shipping lines in general, the assessment of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is that there is sufficient unused capacity on existing shipping lines between Ireland and mainland Europe. That was the Department's assessment. The reason it was decided to opt for temporary facilities in Rosslare was that it would be quicker and less costly. We still hope that we will not need permanent facilities or hard infrastructure in Rosslare because it is our ambition to negotiate a quota-free and tariff-free future relationship between the EU, including Ireland, and the UK. Dublin is quite different because the port already receives ships from outside the EU. A different case was made in that respect.

Deputy Burton made a very good point about increasing capacity at other ports so that they could relieve the pressure on Dublin should it come under a lot of pressure as a consequence of Brexit, or even to provide a competitor to Dublin. I believe in competition. I like competition between State-owned enterprises. I would like to see those ports develop in any event. There are, in fact, very significant development plans for the Port of Cork. I am not sure if they are under way yet as there is a legal dispute in that regard, but a very significant upgrade of the port is planned. This is included in Project Ireland 2040. An improvement in the road connection between Ringaskiddy and the city and motorway network is also crucial. The same applies in respect of Shannon Foynes Port. Only a week or two ago, we approved the progression of the Adare bypass and the Shannon Foynes road connection to the planning stage. There are significant developments ongoing in respect of Shannon Foynes. We are going to see better infrastructure in the ports at Foynes, Cork, Waterford and Rosslare in addition to better road connections which will allow them to compete with Dublin for business. That will be a very good thing whether Brexit occurs or not.

Deputy Howlin is correct in his assessment. We are not yet out of the woods with regard to a no-deal Brexit. If the UK election goes one way, the withdrawal agreement will be ratified and we will avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 January. There is a risk that it could go another way, as Deputy Howlin mentioned. In that case, we could find that the withdrawal agreement cannot be ratified. We cannot rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on 31 January. Even if the agreement is ratified, another potential cliff edge arises at the end of 2020, although the transition phase can be extended. As I said earlier, however, it is all to play for.

There is no such thing as a good Brexit. There are upsides and downsides but the downsides very much outweigh the upsides. That is why Brexit is a bad thing. In all scenarios there will be reduced growth and employment growth but this does not mean recession and it does not necessarily mean higher unemployment. It is all to play for and if I have the privilege of leading the country in negotiations on the future trading relationship, my aim will be to achieve tariff-free and quota-free trade with the UK with a level playing field and the minimum number of checks so that the opportunities lost to the Irish economy can be minimised.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.