1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met with the First Minister of Scotland recently. [43259/19]
Vol. 988 No. 7
1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met with the First Minister of Scotland recently. [43259/19]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met the First Minister of Scotland recently. [45494/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
I last met First Minister Sturgeon at the British-Irish Council in Manchester on 28 June. We subsequently spoke by phone on 7 August regarding political developments in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and also Brexit developments. Prior to that, I met the First Minister over lunch in Farmleigh on Monday, 27 May last. We discussed mutual challenges and considered how best to maintain and further develop the strong bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland. We also discussed the latest political developments in the wake of the recent European Parliament and local elections, as well as Brexit developments. We acknowledged the strength of bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland and committed to working to maintain and deepen them.
The Tánaiste and the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Ms Fiona Hyslop, have just announced a joint review of bilateral relations for the next five years. The joint review will cover government-to-government work and will also look beyond government to the areas of business and economy, community and diaspora, academic and research links, culture, and rural, coastal and island communities. We want to learn from the best in each country and empower those who can bring our relationship to a new level. I look forward to greeting First Minister Sturgeon again at the British-Irish Council meeting, which I will host in Dublin next week.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. First Minister Sturgeon has always been clear that, since Scotland voted 62% to remain within the European Union, she and her party are determined to do everything possible to maintain that position. I refer in particular to ensuring that Scotland remains within the customs union and Single Market. The First Minister has also spoken repeatedly about the serious implications for Scotland if Northern Ireland were to stay in the Single Market and Scotland did not. She has also spoken about the close ties between our countries.
It is also interesting that the Scottish National Party, SNP, gained three Members of the European Parliament, MEPs, with a Remain stance when so many Brexiteers were elected in England. A general election is on the way in the UK and the Government cannot take sides, although there have been leaks that the Government is hoping that a Tory victory emerges. We should keep in mind that many forces contesting the UK election are supportive of Remain. Have there been bilateral meetings between officials from each Government? Notwithstanding the review that has just been announced, will additional staff be deployed to the Consulate General of Ireland in Scotland?
Regarding the Brexit situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's agreement is a harsher one for the Republic of Ireland than was Prime Minister May's proposition. That aspect has not been given the profile or discussion it merits and it is potentially very serious for us down the road in respect of Britain staying out of the customs union and Single Market. That seems to be where Prime Minister Johnson wants to go. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the British Labour Party and others, however, want to stay in the customs union, or as close as possible to it, and within the Single Market. The impact of this UK election will be critical to Ireland, as will the volatility at the end of January and what may happen as a result of the election.
We cannot comment on the various strategies but maintaining a seamless common travel area is still very important in the years ahead, as are reciprocal rights in health, education and social protection. I welcome the review that has been announced. At this stage, however, we probably need to increase the resources we devote to enhancing the relationship between Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. I also believe that the Taoiseach is supportive of Prime Minister Johnson's idea of building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the First Minister and-or Prime Minister Johnson about this proposal? Is this a serious suggestion or was it just one of these top of the hat comments that the Taoiseach is capable of articulating now and again?
The Taoiseach stated earlier that he was wary of commentary because an election is under way in the United Kingdom. We need some reflection here, however. During the election campaign already under way, the First Minister of Scotland has indicated that it will remain an important priority for her to have a second independence referendum for Scotland. There is real potential that might form part of the next programme for government in the United Kingdom, if the SNP is supporting the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, or some combination of such parties, in a future British Government.
We have to think about our future as well. I listened very carefully to the Taoiseach's answer to a previous question regarding the future structure of the island of Ireland. More than two years ago, I raised the idea that in calm times - and not now in the midst of an election in the next four weeks - we need to start scoping out the prospect of some mechanism for a revisitation of the New Ireland Forum or a Citizens' Assembly. The Taoiseach ruled that out as if it was one issue in a queue of issues. I do not think that this is simply one issue in a queue of ten issues. The future of the island of Ireland, how we envisage that and how we make it an acceptable home for all of the people on the island of Ireland is something that we need to scope out now. We must not leave it until we are faced with a Border poll for which there has not been proper preparation. If any lessons are to be learned from Brexit, it is that if we are to make any definitive constitutional decisions, an enormous amount of advance preparation needs to be done. The Taoiseach speculated previously that there was some merit in having a Citizens' Assembly on this matter. We should at least sit down, as leaders of the political parties in this Dáil, to think and discuss out loud among ourselves how these issues might be addressed in the coming months and years.
In a similar vein, the Taoiseach may be aware that there was a massive rally in Glasgow last Saturday. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding Scottish independence and supporting a call for a second referendum. Contrary to some of the political commentary we hear when Deputies on this side of the Chamber ask for similar debates on Irish unity, the sky has not fallen in over in Scotland. Now is time to start a conversation here. The upcoming general election in the UK is being used by supporters of Scottish independence as a platform to campaign for independence. That is not being done in just an abstract way. Independence is being viewed in the context of new opportunities that Scotland may enjoy in the new political landscape following Brexit. We are not yet 100% sure what shape that will take. We do not know what is going to happen in the next couple of months concerning the delay. I echo Deputy Howlin's call. We need to start having this conversation. That conversation is already happening and it is longer an issue of green and orange.
This is about respecting all cultures and traditions within the island, doing what is best for us as an island, and not doing what is best for one culture or tradition over another. We are all in this together and we all need to move forward. We cannot be afraid to have that debate. The sooner we have those types of debates and the sooner we are more open and transparent about where this country is going, the better. As an Irish republican, I want to see a united Ireland. There are other people on this island who do not wish to see that but that does not mean that we should shy away from having those conversations. It is critical we have those conversations. I urge the Taoiseach to start having those conversations with us because, as with many political issues in recent years, the public is way ahead of where this institution is in relation to those debates, and rather than us giving leadership, we will end up being behind the curve regarding the people's wishes. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on that.
I thank the Deputies. I reassure them that the Government will not take sides in the UK general election. While individual parties might support other individual parties, as a Government, we certainly will not have any role or involvement in the UK election.
If there is a conservative win, I would expect the withdrawal agreement to be ratified quickly, allowing us to move swiftly on to talks about the future relationship. Everything is still to play for in terms of the future relationship, particularly because of the joint political declaration talks about tariff-free, quota-free trade between the UK and the rest of the EU, including Ireland, with a level playing field, and that is precisely what I want us to achieve. If there is a different government, a remain-leaning government comprising Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP, which wants to reopen the issue of a customs union, we would be happy to talk to them about that and, indeed, would welcome it. I only hope that whatever happens, it is a clear result because what we had for the past couple of years was a finely balanced hung parliament that ultimately could not approve anything.
We have that here too.
I only hope that the result is clear.
In terms of our representation in Scotland, we have a consulate, not an embassy, in Edinburgh and we can certainly give consideration to additional staff there. We have just reopened the Cardiff consulate and I am glad that we were able to do that. We are also examining the possibility of opening a new consulate in the north of England, perhaps in Liverpool or Manchester, because we are aware that we need to think ahead to what the future relationship will look like after the UK leaves the EU and how we can continue to maintain strong relations with our nearest neighbour. Part of that might involve expanding our presence in the north of England as well as deepening our presence in the existing consulates, and seeing if we can use the mechanisms within the Good Friday Agreement, such as the British-Irish Council and the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, as vehicles through which we can have deeper bilateral contacts with the UK Government and with the devolved administrations on the islands.
Regarding the idea of a bridge between Ireland and Scotland, it is something I spoke about with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson. He specifically raised it with me when we met on the Wirral. I have not spoken about it with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, but I may have the chance to mention it to her next week. Frankly, I do not know if it is feasible. I am aware of the issues that pertain, in particular, to Beaufort's Dyke, but it should not be dismissed or ruled out of hand. Some people dismissed the idea of building a tunnel under the channel between France and England as science fiction. In fact, it was science fiction for a period of time but it is, of course, now a reality. I am aware of 100 km long bridges being built in China, the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and the bridges in Louisiana, which Members will have seen. Certainly, the distance is doable in engineering terms. Whether the depth is, I do not know.
The Taoiseach will be aware that the British Prime Minister has form in bridges.
It is not something that should be-----
We have a few roads to complete here in our own network first.
There certainly is. By the way, I am not suggesting we would pay for it.
We need one in Kerry.
I can assure Deputy Howlin of that. If it comes to any cross-Border projects, our priorities, of course, are the A5-N2 to help us to connect better-----
The Taoiseach is indulging the British Prime Minister.
-----to Derry and Donegal, and - something I would be very enthusiastic about doing - upgrading the train line from Belfast to Dublin and then on to Cork and Limerick Junction. We made a Cabinet decision the other day to go ahead with a feasibility study of high-speed rail between Belfast and Dublin, and then Dublin, Limerick Junction and Cork, looking at either the possibility of a new-build high-speed rail-----
Rosslare Europort wants one too.
-----or upgrading the existing infrastructure to a higher speed. Those projects would be a much higher priority on my agenda than a bridge between Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland.
To clarify what I stated earlier, I did not rule out a citizens' assembly on the future constitutional arrangements in Ireland but I remarked that there is a pipeline of citizens' assemblies under way-----
They all are not of equal merit.
-----and we only have the capacity to do one at a time. The one on gender equality, which is of great merit, is about to start. That will run for approximately six months. After that, we will have the one on local government in Dublin.
We need to get on and work the Good Friday Agreement.
There are a number of suggestions about other citizens' assemblies that also have merit. There is a suggestion to have one on education. There is a suggestion that we have one on disability. There are lots of suggestions that have merit for a future citizens' assembly and they should not be dismissed.
Regarding this particular proposal, I would only say that the timing is important. There are elections under way in the United Kingdom and north of the Border and we need to be sensitive about that. Brexit is also unresolved. I am keen that we do not constitutionalise the issue of Brexit. There are many unionists north of the Border who feel that the withdrawal agreement undermines the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. I reassure them that that is not the case and that Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of the UK unless and until such time as the majority of people there decide otherwise in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, and I would not like to do anything that might cause people not to trust us on that. We need to be careful in our guardianship of the agreement. As somebody I admire immensely who Members will know, Ms Pat Hume, the wife of Mr. John Hume, always says, the Good Friday Agreement is the long-term solution. It is not an interim solution. We need to have regard to the fact that if people start to talk and consider and entertain the idea that the agreement might be replaced by something else, those who do not like it at all may misuse that opportunity to undermine the agreement.
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in the Government Information Service, GIS; and the communications budget for 2019. [43185/19]
There are 15 staff currently employed in the GIS.
Responsibilities of the service include the running of the Government press office and the delivery of Government-wide communications reform.
In line with the recommendations from a review conducted in 2018, the Department has reverted to the GIS model, with a smaller budget, fewer staff and a more limited role.
In further alignment with the review, changes have been made across Departments, which preserve valuable and necessary reforms to ensure value for money, professionalisation and modernisation of Government communications in general.
The communications budget for GIS is sourced from the administration budget of my Department. The yearly outlay will depend on factors such as whether there are any significant inward State visits or whether events, for example, the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, require additional communication expenditure. Public information campaigns are now largely funded by the relevant line Department and are not funded centrally by my Department.
I noted the Taoiseach's Twitter post a few days ago questioning whether Fianna Fáil has any policies and where have they all gone. The video the Taoiseach issued implied that Fianna Fáil policies are now few and far between. It reminded me of the type of American-style attack advertisements that are now too frequent. It raises a serious point - the influence of social media and how it is used by politicians in the State, and particularly the rising influence of the far right and external forces in elections. We need strong and enforceable legislation on ongoing political advertising of any sort to ensure our democracy is neither for sale or open to external interference. We have long talked about the requirement to put a statutory electoral commission in place. When will we have that? Many of us thought that we would be in a general election here by now.
It is certainly likely that there will be a general election within the next six months. Everybody in this House would want a level playing field for that election. I have two direct questions for the Taoiseach. When does he envisage that the electoral commission will be established on a statutory basis in order to allow it to be the determiner of fair play in future elections? How will he ensure that external influences will not impact on our electoral system in the forthcoming election?
I concur with Deputy Howlin. The failure to progress the electoral commission, which was agreed as part of our Dáil reform programme at the commencement of this Oireachtas, and had been agreed in a previous Government programme dating back to 2012 - and even before that - is extraordinary because it is key to ensuring that we safeguard our democracy, political and election campaigns and referenda. We need a comprehensive statutory based electoral commission to make sure our elections are run properly, effectively and professionally. That goes from registers to the social media impact.
It is important that the role of the Civil Service is never politicised. That has been one of the great strengths of this country since the foundation of the State. The introduction of the strategic communications unit tried to change that and, thankfully, through pressure from the Oireachtas, the position was reversed.
Has the financial allocation to the GIS changed during the past three years? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the work of the GIS is impartial? Can he outline the reporting relationships within the GIS? Is there a close working relationship between his political staff and staff of the service? Have any external public relations firms advised the GIS on any aspect of its work? Is it involved in promoting Government campaigns such as the Be Winter Ready campaign? Do the same staff manage the MerrionStreet.ie website? The Taoiseach might answer those specific questions as it is important we be vigilant in this regard.
I certainly support Deputy Howlin in the context of what he said about the impact of social media, political advertising on social media platforms and the external forces impacting on elections. It is extraordinary that a report on Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum is being withheld. That shows what is going on out there. I am not sure if there is any clear articulation, clarification or a substantive report into what is happening in Ireland in terms of utilisation of social media by external bodies that may want to influence the direction of policy within the country.
The Taoiseach said that the role of the GIS is to provide a 24-7 service to the media on topics of public interest. He emphasised that this requirement stems from a need to ensure transparency and clarity for all citizens around what the Government is doing. He also stated that the central objective of these channels of communication is to report the work of Government objectively. What mechanisms are in place to ensure that transparency and objectivity is achieved? In practical terms, how does the GIS measure those objectives? What reporting mechanisms are in place for senior civil servants? Does it include a periodic review process? An issue that is becoming more prevalent is that of fact checkers, who have become very popular in the communications sphere. Is this a process the GIS includes in its work? If not, is it something the Taoiseach would consider would be included? Has the Government ever employed an independent organisation to review the work and the organisational goals of the GIS?
An extraordinary number of women have stood down from running for elective office in the UK because of what has happened to them in terms of trolling and threats via social media. The Taoiseach has a lot of expertise and an interest in social media. He also has the GIS in his Department, which is uniquely well placed to have an oversight of what is happening in terms of people being threatened. We had the appalling attack recently on Deputy Martin Kenny, whose car was set alight in a very dangerous way outside his house, but I understand he got a tremendous amount of abuse on social media also.
We want everybody to be able to participate in elections. The trolls will not put me off running for election. I am sure they will not put off Deputy Lisa Chambers. However, we have just witnessed unprecedented numbers of women in a very robust UK Parliament opting not to run for election again. I acknowledge that it is not just women who are affected. Could the Taoiseach have conversations with parties or other Members to see if we can limit this particular evil?
I call the Taoiseach to respond. I will try to ensure that there will be 15 minutes for the next question.
All parties in this House have shown themselves to be very capable and very adept at attacking their political opponents in any way they can on occasion. There is an advertisement up at the moment from a political party which states that I am against democracy and which compares me to Kim Jong-il. I do not get precious about these things so I hope other people do not either. If one is willing to give it out, one should also be willing to take it.
Which party put that up?
Solidarity-People Before Profit.
Legislation relating to the electoral commission is being worked on at present. We expect to have the heads of a Bill next year. We are working on other legislation that will come in before that. That was approved in principle by Government just this week. That legislation will require transparency when it comes to political advertising online. As we all know now, if somebody puts up a poster on a public lamp post to advertise themselves or a public meeting, it is necessary to state on that who printed it and who is responsible for it. That is not the case online at the moment so we want to pass legislation that requires any online political advertising to be identifiable as to who commissioned it and where it came from. That will be an important step forward and one that will be widely welcomed in the House.
I am satisfied that the GIS is impartial. In my experience, civil servants are very careful about that and not crossing the line between working for the Department and the Government into the political sphere where they are working for a politician or a party. I am very respectful of that division. It is the case that all my staff have close working relationships with the civil servants in the Department. That is as it should be.
In terms of the Be Winter Ready campaign, I honestly do not know if the GIS is involved in that. I believe it is run by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, but I may be incorrect. I tend not to get directly involved in any of these communication issues for reasons I think people will understand.
I reiterate that neither the GIS nor the Department of the Taoiseach have any role in respect of my social media accounts. MerrionStreet.ie is a Government account but the ones under my name are mine. Civil servants and the GIS do not have any role in that at all.
I share Deputy Burton's concerns about the number of women and men, but particularly women, who are leaving politics in the UK because they believe the climate has become toxic. This is not just a social media issue, it is much more than that. Much of it is related to Brexit but perhaps not just that. I do not believe we have had that experience yet in this country but it is increasingly difficult to get people to run for election-----
-----and agree to be candidates. People who might consider being candidates look at the social media of politicians of all parties, read the comments people make about them and ask themselves if they really want to let themselves in for that. That is a problem we face. How we deal with that while still protecting freedom of expression and freedom of speech, which I am committed to, is a real challenge.
Total expenditure on social media and digital advertising by my Department in 2019 was €1,355.46. That was the public information campaign in March around the budget measures that took effect then.
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department working on Brexit preparedness. [43186/19]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department working on Brexit preparedness. [44317/19]
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.