Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas as ucht an cuireadh a bheith leis an gcoiste tráthnóna chun ráiteas a dhéanamh faoin reachtaíocht maidir leis an mBreatimeacht. Táim anseo ar mo shon féin agus ar son an Aire sinsearach, Teachta Madigan.
A no-deal Brexit would be highly disruptive and would have profound political, economic and legal implications, most seriously for the UK, but also for Ireland and the rest of the EU. In light of the ongoing political uncertainties in the UK and the Brexit deadline of 29 March, the Government agreed in December of last year to give greater immediate priority to preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
As part of our Brexit contingency action plan, on 24 January the Government published the general scheme of the omnibus Bill. While the ratification of the withdrawal agreement is still the Government’s preferred outcome, this publication is part of a series of measures that the Government is taking, both nationally and in conjunction with the EU, in preparation for the possibility that the UK fails to agree a deal for its departure from the European Union on 29 March. The omnibus Bill covers the issues in primary legislation that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This Bill focuses on protecting our citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors. It also contains a stand-alone provision to facilitate the transition period as provided for in the withdrawal agreement. Given the emergency nature of this legislation, the Government took the decision that progressing this through the Houses as an omnibus Bill is the most sensible way to ensure that we have the necessary legislation enacted before 29 March.
A number of measures across the general scheme, in particular in the areas of healthcare, transport, education and energy, will support North-South co-operation arrangements. This co-operation brings tangible benefits to the daily lives of people in the Border region and contributes to economic opportunity and development. It is also a very practical outworking of the peace process, which allows for the normalisation of relationships between people across the island to mutual benefit. Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017, the North-South Ministerial Council has been unable to meet and bring the Government and Northern Ireland Executive together to oversee ongoing North-South work and further develop co-operation, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. This is a most serious absence, and particularly so at a time when the council should be continuing the work it commenced in 2016 to deal with the challenges of the UK's exit from the European Union. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of activity ongoing under the formal institutional areas of co-operation by the North-South implementation bodies and in other areas. The Government has consistently affirmed our unwavering commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and our determination, as a co-guarantor, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions, including the North-South Ministerial Council.
As the members may be aware, the Department has not identified any legislative measures for inclusion in the Bill itself. However, both the Department and those bodies under its aegis are subject to the challenges posed by Brexit and will, in the event of a no-deal scenario, benefit from the practical measures contained in the Bill. In the meantime, the Department continues to participate in the Government’s preparations for Brexit, which are being co-ordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Contingency planning is under way in respect of all aspects of the Department’s remit. The two North-South bodies, Waterways Ireland and An Foras Teanga, are particularly impacted by Brexit and I am especially pleased to note the agreement with the UK in relation to the retention of the common travel area which will benefit cross-Border workers in both jurisdictions.
The Minister, Deputy Madigan, speaking last month at the Equity Ireland and UK conference in Belfast, emphasised the importance placed by the Government on the contribution of culture and creativity to our overall social and economic well-being. While recognising the challenges posed by Brexit, the Minister highlighted the role of the Creative Ireland programme, launched at the end of 2016, and the culture component of Global Ireland - Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025, published in May last year, in ensuring that artists and other creative workers are properly supported to allow them to continue to operate in the cultural sector on a self-sustaining basis.
Our key message remains that regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process, we remain committed to engaging through culture across the island of Ireland with our friends in the United Kingdom, partners in the European Union and globally.
Support by state bodies, North and South, for culture and creativity provides a significant boost to the sector. The Arts Council, An Comhairle Ealaíon, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland support arts practitioners to engage in North-South touring and jointly fund all-Ireland arts organisations and other arts organisations engaged in co-production, co-presentation and co-operation between the two jurisdictions. The Department also has an important role in environmental regulation and the preservation of our built and natural heritage. Officials continue to engage with colleagues in other Departments and at EU level to ensure the necessary provisions are in place to address any issues arising from the emergence of regulatory divergences after Brexit.
Údarás na Gaeltachta has also undertaken a number of initiatives or measures to safeguard its exposed client companies from a no-deal Brexit. These include the introduction of the Bí Réidh scheme, which is similar to the Be Prepared scheme being operated by Enterprise Ireland. In addition, Údarás client companies continue to be updated on the other State support available by way of the Brexit loan scheme being provided by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.
I trust that this brief overview will have provided some reassurance to the committee in respect of the extent of Brexit contingency preparations under way across the Department. I also assure the committee that I would be more than happy to bring concerns to the attention of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, or to my colleagues in the Government as appropriate. I thank members for their interest in the matter and I will try to address any particular concerns that members may wish to raise.