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Brexit Issues

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 27 January 2022

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Questions (9, 13, 42, 53, 57, 73)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

9. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on the work in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. [57216/21]

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Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

13. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the engagement he has had with European Union officials and directly with UK officials regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, which is helping to avoid barriers on the island of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3627/22]

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Seán Haughey

Question:

42. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of negotiations between the UK and the European Union in relation to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol; his views on whether these negotiations should be concluded as soon as possible given that assembly elections will take place in Northern Ireland in May 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3710/22]

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Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

53. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the situation in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3762/22]

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Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

57. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the discussions between the European Union and the UK on the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3700/22]

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Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

73. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will provide an update on his engagements in relation to the Irish protocol. [58663/21]

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Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

All across the House accept Brexit is a disaster. The Irish protocol was a necessary mitigation. Every apparent one step forward is two steps back. We are dealing with cul-de-sac unionism and any threats it makes. The Minister has already spoken about the unhelpful commentary from Boris Johnson, even if some of that may be diversionary. We have heard from Maroš Šefčovič that discussions with Liz Truss may be more cordial but they may not be going where they need to. There are also issues around getting state aid and the European Court of Justice, ECJ, back on the agenda.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 13, 42, 53, 57 and 73 together.

Throughout the course of last year, the European Commission undertook extensive outreach to political leaders, businesses, civil society and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. This process culminated on 13 October 2021 with the presentation of a comprehensive package of proposals aimed at providing a credible and durable solution to the genuine issues on the ground in Northern Ireland. The package makes proposals around issues of customs checks and sanitary and phytosanitary issues designed to facilitate the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It also sets out proposals around strengthening Northern Irish involvement in the governance of the protocol.

On 17 December 2021, the Commission followed up its October package with new legislative proposals that ensure the continued long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that further support supply lines in Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. These proposals are under discussion in the Council and the European Parliament.

The Commission package is a generous one. It respects the fine balance at the heart of the protocol: protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, while at the same time protecting EU consumers and the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. The proposals form the basis of the Commission’s discussions with the UK Government, an approach that has the strong support of all member states, confirmed again this week.

The Taoiseach and I, along with other Ministers, regularly discuss the protocol in contacts with UK counterparts, our EU partners, stakeholders across Northern Ireland and key figures in the US Administration and Congress. I had a video call with the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, on 13 October on a range of issues, including Brexit and the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland. Following her taking responsibility for Brexit policy issues in December 2021, we spoke by phone on 21 December and met in person in London on 6 January for about four hours. During these engagements, I emphasised that Ireland and the EU remain fully committed to providing certainty and stability for people and business in Northern Ireland. I noted the protocol is the joint EU–UK solution to mitigate against the disruption Brexit causes for citizens and businesses on the island of Ireland and it can work if we allow it to.

I also speak regularly to Maroš Šefčovič. Most recently, we met in Brussels earlier this week on 24 January, shortly after his latest meeting with UK Foreign Secretary. I reiterated to him Ireland’s strong support for his approach.

The positive tone from the Foreign Secretary, Ms Truss, is welcome, as is her stated determination to find a solution.

The decision to have a meeting of the joint committee next month along with a continuation of intensified technical talks is a positive development. However, following the package of measures put forward by the European Commission, we need to see the UK Government demonstrate meaningfully its willingness to come to a deal on the key issues.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. We all thought there might have been change when Liz Truss came into the role. I had an opportunity in Strasbourg to talk to Maroš Šefčovič about this. In fairness, I did not intend ever to talk about what he said but it is all in the public domain. I refer to the suggestion of more cordial relations. The fact is Liz Truss has put the ECJ, state aid and some of the issues people thought were sorted back on the agenda. We do not know what the outworkings are going to be in relation to where Boris Johnson finds himself at this time. The leadership of the Tories and where Liz Truss stands relative to that could be impacted. We all hope for the best. In fairness to Maroš Šefčovič, he said he stays at the table and that is the important thing. We need to ensure solidarity is maintained because this is about ensuring there is no return to any hardening of any border in Ireland.

In view of the fact of the difficult and frustrating talks there have been between Maroš Šefčovič and Liz Truss, as reported by Vice-President Šefčovič himself, the perfect storm in the UK Parliament and Government, and the DUP banging its Orange drum once again as we approach elections in the North, will the Minister report on the engagement he has had with European and UK officials regarding the Northern Ireland protocol that is helping avoid barriers on the island of Ireland?

The Minister mentioned he met British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, on 6 January. Did he notice a change in tone or attitude by the UK side on these negotiations? Would he agree these negotiations must be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible given the proximity of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May and the political issue the protocol has become?

The UK is now also dealing with the situation in Ukraine. I assume that is a very big issue for the UK, as indeed it is for everybody else. Does the Minister think the UK has an incentive to get this issue off the table because there are much bigger issues to be dealt with worldwide from its point of view?

As time goes on it becomes apparent the problems associated with the protocol are more to do with politics than policy. I refer to the politics internally between the UK and the EU on the one hand and then separately, the politics in Northern Ireland. It is to be hoped Brexit is a becoming less of a political issue in the UK, especially in Great Britain. If that is so, much of the tension will go out of the talks about the protocol. However, in respect of Northern Ireland, it obviously remains a very strong political issue represented by different views on different, polarised sides of that society. Will the Minister consider trying to reach out to the business community in Northern Ireland? When we look at what the protocol is doing for Northern Ireland on an objective and practical basis, we see it is improving its business capacity. It gives it a great opportunity to access the EU market and the UK market. I therefore ask that the Minister speak to business people there.

First, I am speaking to businesses in Northern Ireland. We speak to them regularly, through online forums or when we have an opportunity to meet directly with businesses in Northern Ireland. Other colleagues do the same.

On my meetings with the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, I know her reasonably well from previous portfolios we would have been working on together. When I was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, she was my counterpart in the UK. She is a very able minister. She has held many portfolios. She is someone who has a reputation for being a dealmaker and a can-do minister and she is now bringing that energy to this portfolio. We met in early January and spoke at length about the need for an agreement. I think she wants to find an agreement. Certainly, the European side does as well.

The issues around the protocol have been dragging on for far too long. They are contributing to a very polarised atmosphere in Northern Ireland, which is both unwelcome and unhelpful in the build-up to elections in May. Therefore, we all have an obligation to try to settle the outstanding issues. The point I made very clearly, to Liz Truss and publicly, is the EU is not in the space of renegotiating the protocol and writing a new one. However, it is in the space of trying to offer the maximum flexibility possible in terms of how the existing agreement, which is international law, can be implemented in a way that works for everybody. That is what Vice-President Šefčovič and his team have been trying to do with their proposals before Christmas, which were very substantial proposals in the effort to reduce checks on goods coming from GB into Northern Ireland and remaining there in sense of being purchased and consumed there. It is the belief of the EU that, by co-operation, we could reduce checks on those products from a sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, perspective by up to 80% and could halve the checks burden linked to customs. The EU has said it would like that to be the basis now for further discussion with respect to how that could be achieved.

I do not want to give an indication to the House that these issues will be easily resolved. There is still a big gap between both sides. Even though the conversations have been much more personal and warmer in many ways with Liz Truss now in charge on the British side, the issues themselves, in the sense of actual solutions on the table, are still very difficult. She certainly has not softened the UK Government's position on the key issues, even though there is much more personal engagement now in an effort to try to find a way forward.

As a final point, time is important here. We should be slow to be setting cliff-edge timelines and so on but elections are on the way. Between now and the end of February there is a key window to try to find a combination and agreement all sides could accept.

Time is very important. Deputy Ó Murchú has one minute.

Time is very important and I accept we have that window. I welcome the clarity and the reiteration this is not for renegotiation. That is the difficulty. It is to be hoped Liz Truss is there as a dealmaker and other factors will not impact on that.

I accept that sometimes with these questions we are asking the Minister to look into a crystal ball, which I assume he does not have. I also reiterate some of what Deputy O'Callaghan said about both the Minister and Maroš Šefčovič having said that, in dealing with stakeholders, business owners, farmers and other such people in the North, they see and recognise the benefits of the Irish protocol at this time but that political unionism is in a different place. We all know politics in Britain is in an utterly dysfunctional place at this time. We just need to hold the line. We need to get a deal. It is better it happens sooner but we need to ensure there is a deal and that it is the Irish protocol.

It seems to me the moderate opinion in both Britain and Ireland is outmanoeuvred by the extreme views in the Tory Party and its view on Brexit. The traditional relationship that was there all along between Britain and Ireland is seriously affected by this. That notwithstanding, given the links between the civil servants, the professional administrators in the UK and the business community, they need to show the benefits in a stronger way. I accept and acknowledge businesses in the North clearly and absolutely acknowledge the benefit they have in working directly with and exporting and importing directly to and from the EU. However, there is no acknowledgement from the unionists, certainly not from the DUP, on that issue. I am concerned the outcome of all this will be extreme views in the ballot box and the moderate middle ground in the North, which was growing and which we very much support, could well be sundered by the continuing difficulties between the UK Government and the EU.

I reiterate what Deputy Shanahan asked about earlier on and Deputy Jim O'Callaghan mentioned about the benefits of the Northern Ireland protocol.

As Deputies have said, an extra effort is needed. I know the Minister, the Department and various organisations are doing a lot, but we need to stress continually the benefits of the protocol for Northern Ireland business. The Democratic Unionist Party threat to pull down the Northern Ireland institutions is still there as well. We have all this factoring into the negotiations so I again stress it is important that these talks are concluded as soon as possible.

We need to look at the politics of this in which people in this House have great expertise. If the relationship between the UK Government and the EU is resolved, that will end the dispute and internal politics in Northern Ireland. The reason politics in Northern Ireland is being fuelled by the row in respect of the protocol is that messages are being given that the protocol will change. The British Government is sending out messages that we can change the agreement we entered into and the protocol has to be ditched. If Liz Truss turns around, however, says that the UK has got a new deal with the European Union and has provided some clarification in respect of the protocol but is bound by the original agreement, that will then provide no further room for the internal politics of Northern Ireland to keep going on about trying to remove the protocol. They are both dependent upon each other. That is an important message the Minister needs to bring to Foreign Secretary Truss, which is to let her know that if she, on behalf of the UK Government, says issues have been resolved, it will take the legs out of internal politics in Northern Ireland on the issue.

I agree with the comments that have been made by all sides in the House. This is an issue that needs to be resolved politically. It is helpful, by the way, that the Brexit negotiations are now back in the Foreign Office because Foreign Secretary Truss is very much aware of the broader issues. We also spoke at length about Russia-Ukraine, for example, at that meeting on 6 January. She is very conscious of the need for the EU and the UK to build a strong new relationship on global and European matters, in addition to the fact that outstanding issues and trust issues have also been impacted by protocol issues being unresolved, which impacts on the overall relationship in a way that is not helpful.

There is a bigger picture here. We need to find a way of ensuring the British Government and the EU find accommodation of each other on this issue. Ireland has to ensure that its interests are protected in that; we are doing that very actively. In addition, as I said earlier and as Deputy O'Dowd referenced, the polarising impact of this issue not being resolved is driving an electorate to perhaps have more hard line or extreme views than they otherwise might have, which is something that is also not welcome. We have an obligation to work on this to try to find solutions. Certainly, between now and the end of February, we will very actively be trying to do that.

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