Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union díospóireacht -
Thursday, 27 Apr 2017

Engagement with former Minister, Mr. Dermot Ahern

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Dermot Ahern to present to us this afternoon. There is no need for an introduction but in the context of this afternoon's discussion, we are keen to hear from him how the current issues facing us have informed his opinion based on his experiences during his time as a Deputy representing a Border constituency as well as his more than 14 years as a Minister and his considerable involvement at that time at EU Council level. We had a very good informal discussion outside the committee room. We value his understanding of the situation and any observation he may bring to the committee.

Before we begin I will read the notice on privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence relating to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

With all of that out of the way, I ask Mr. Ahern to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Dermot Ahern

I thank the Chairman and the members for their kind invitation to me to say a few words on an issue that will affect our country for many years to come. The Chairman mentioned the Defamation Act 2009. I was the one who sponsored that legislation and I remember many long sessions in one of the committee rooms in Leinster House going through the legislation line by line on Committee and Report Stages. Therefore, to a certain extent, I am back in the corridors where I spent such a long time. I am delighted at least to give some of my thoughts on an issue which will affect this country for a considerable period ahead. I will keep my words focused on a number of issues and then I will take questions from the members.

As the Chairman said, I was a Border Deputy for more than 24 years. I live virtually within a stone's throw of the Border, some ten miles from it, and that area within which I live was the focus of most of my political career.

The foundation of the Irish peace process has been based on the three main relationships within these two islands. First is the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland, then the North-South focus, and finally the east-west axis. The great improvements we and I, as a person from a Border county, have witnessed during recent decades have been derived from our concentration on those three aspects. The various efforts over the years, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement, were all based on this three-way focus. Complimenting all those initiatives was the fact that both the UK and Ireland were equal members at the European Union table. The Brexit decision has potentially reversed, or, at the very least, slowed down the improvement in our dealings, within and across these two islands. Now, we must pick up the pieces from this decision which was not of our making and which was taken without much regard for the implications for this island.

As someone who attended European Council of Ministers meetings virtually every week for more than 14 years, I am acutely aware of the challenging negotiation road ahead, not only in the run-up to the UK leaving the Union but also thereafter. With the UK leaving, I can foresee huge difficulties. We will lose our main allies into the future in negotiations within the EU. Across every specialty with which I dealt, whether it was social welfare and pensions, communications, energy, marine, foreign affairs or justice, we generally had an incredibly close common interest with our neighbouring island. In future, it will be necessary for us to cultivate new alliances, and we have tried to cultivate those in the years since we became a member of the Union, but none of these will be as close to us as our erstwhile UK colleagues were.

By its nature, the European Union is a compromise. When I attended my first Council of Ministers meeting in 1997, there were 15 members around the table. By the time I left in 2011, there were 27, and that number has increased in the meantime to 28. Getting an agreement on a negotiating stance among so many member states with different and differing national priorities will be extremely difficult, and that is even before the negotiations start with the UK. I welcome some of the reports in today's newspapers on the conclusions for next Saturday and I hope that continues. I congratulate everyone involved, if that is to be the case.

For me, there is a danger that we will be caught in the crossfire between the UK and the wider European Union. Despite all the assurances from both sides, we as a sovereign nation must maintain our absolute right to decide what is best for our own people. While I fully appreciate that we must rely on the negotiating skills of the various European institutions, which we hope will keep our national interests in mind, we should continue to articulate strongly the very particular circumstances that affect us on this island. We should insist that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. I was long enough around the corridors of Brussels to know that, ultimately, when the hard bargaining comes down to the wire, the interests of individual member states, especially the smaller ones, can be conveniently glossed over if the ultimate price of an overall agreement is in sight. It can end up being everyone for themselves, and this is where Ireland could lose out hugely unless we adopt a constant hard bargaining stance from the very start.

Given that Ireland is deemed to be in what are called exceptional circumstances, we should ensure that we can continue bilateral discussions with the UK, which the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, recently referred to as "the strong sharing of information" between our two nations. This should be undertaken especially regarding the micro issues which will not necessarily be dealt with in any overall agreement. While I have no doubt our embassy in London is doing its level best to highlight issues with our UK neighbours, I do not get the sense that we are, on a sector-by-sector basis, at least at this time, discussing with them the practical effects on us of their decision. We need to ramp this up in the next few months, despite the fact the situation unfortunately has been complicated even further by the calling of a snap general election by the British Government and, consequently, that no devolved government is present or will be present in Northern Ireland for a good few months ahead. We can validly conduct these bilateral talks under the umbrella of the Good Friday Agreement.

For me, one of the critical issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement architecture which needs to be dealt with on a bilateral basis with the UK as soon as possible is that of the future of the cross-Border bodies, particularly the Special EU Programmes Body. As we know, these were put in place under the Good Friday Agreement and one of the obvious quid pro quos in that regard was the deletion - following a referendum of our people - of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. These are very important cross-Border bodies and they have particular issues in light of the fact that Brexit is to happen. Equally, Brexit clearly will have adverse implications for the ability of the North-South Ministerial Council to discuss EU matters, as is provided for under the Good Friday Agreement.

Spokespersons for the European Commission have stated that creative and effective solutions can be found to ease our difficulties, and I welcome that. The practical reality is that, as an island, the Irish Sea could well become the de facto Border. Given that it seems to be accepted that the common travel area regime is to apply, surely some creative and effective solution can be arrived at in that respect. However, I am of the view that customs clearance would be a much more difficult issue with which to deal. New technology, which was not present when we had customs checks at the Border in bygone years, can probably help with the movement of large consignments North and South, but what happens to individual citizens travelling normally across the Border daily, as they do in large numbers? How can a new post-Brexit customs regime deal with that particular aspect? Unless some practical arrangement can be arrived at in this respect, I foresee the smuggling of the past resurrecting its ugly head. One favourable aspect of our joint EU membership has been a significant reduction, particularly in the past number of years, in the possible avenues for cross-Border smuggling. Alas, Brexit may change all this back to the bad old days. The British Brexit Minister, David Davis, referred recently to the possibility, although he said it was a suggestion from one of the lead negotiators in the EU, of joint customs checks taking place on either side of the Border, in a similar way to the arrangement which apparently obtains between Sweden and Norway. Given our recent history on the island, I am particularly surprised that anyone could even countenance such a solution as being workable.

The Border areas in Ireland will be most affected within the EU. While the focus of the EU and Irish negotiators will be on the overall impact nationally, unless some special attention is paid to those areas immediately contiguous to the Border, those communities, whether from an economic, cultural or societal point of view, will lose out. For example, one aspect, which may not be dealt with specifically in an overall agreement, may be the issue of mobile phone roaming charges. Members may say that this is an insignificant issue. It is not insignificant for people who live on the Border, as I know. From 15 June this year, there is due to be, in effect, free mobile phone roaming across the EU. However, for those of us living and doing business in Border areas, there will be a significant additional financial imposition as our phones roam between North and South, unless some special bilateral arrangement can be arrived at in this regard. As I said, as the crow flies my house is about ten miles from the Border. When mobile phones were introduced in the late 1980s, my phone used to roam depending on the room of the house I was in. If I went into the kitchen I was welcomed to the UK service and when I went into my sitting room I was welcomed to the Republic of Ireland service. On Clogherhead pier, which, even though it looks directly out over the Mourne Mountains, is approximately 25 miles from the Border, one is welcomed to the UK service. If some special arrangement is not made regarding the issue of mobile phone roaming charges across the Border, we will be in a very difficult position and face an additional financial burden, particularly people who do business on a day-to-day basis in that general area.

What will be the position of the many hundreds of cross-Border workers who live and work on either side of the Border? Will their pension and social welfare rights, as laid down by EU directives, be preserved? When I was in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was involved in the setting up of the cross-Border bodies and I remember the huge difficulties we had regarding wages and pension rights. When we were setting up InterTradeIreland, which is based in Newry, there were quite a number of people from the South working in that body and I recall there were significant differing levels of income and pension entitlements between staff who were sitting side by side in that particular location. It caused the ramping up of those bodies to be slowed because of the difficulty in that respect but there are many other cross-Border issues which need to be specifically dealt with. For most of my earlier career as a backbencher, time and again my constituency was the focus in terms of people who were to be extradited to Northern Ireland being physically dragged across the Border between gardaí and members of the RUC at the time. This gave rise to huge upheaval and unrest in the area. The European arrest warrant set all of that at naught. What will happen in that regard?

How will cross-Border health co-operation, which has been very good in recent years, continue? With regard to tourism, unfortunately, during the Troubles there was always a sort of divide regarding tourism. Thankfully, that is much better but what effect will Brexit have on the initiatives that are taking place across the Border between North and South on a micro rather than an overall level?

Television Without Frontiers allows free transmission of television programmes across frontiers. Will the position in this regard be affected in Border areas?

Fisheries is a huge issue, and specifically in terms of Carlingford Lough in my constituency and Lough Swilly, to name but two. Some of the best prawn fishing areas in the world are along the coast off north Louth and south Down. What will happen to the prawn fisheries in that respect? I do not see anything being talked about in that respect. Perhaps something is being done behind the scenes; I do not know.

There has been a recognition of the special Border area difficulties, both internationally and from the EU. For the past number of decades, the International Fund for Ireland, which, if my memory serves me correctly, started in 1986, and the various EU PEACE funds, have helped the six Northern and six Southern Border counties. I believe that a continuation of the special EU funds should apply to these areas, especially during any transitional period for the implementation of Brexit. I read in today's media some reference to the possibility that this might happen. I would like to see more of the detail of that and whether it would apply to the six Northern counties as well as the six Southern Border counties. This might be a long shot but perhaps consideration could be given to some relaxation of the state aid rules for Border areas.

Over the years, in all my discussions privately with Unionist representatives, I have always maintained that while we may not agree on the political and constitutional issues pertaining on the island we should always proceed with dealing with the practical sectors on an all-island basis. For instance, it makes absolutely no sense that an island as small as ours should have two distinct electricity networks. I was in the Department responsible for energy when that initiative started, which I believe was finalised after I left in 2007. Thankfully, we now have an all-island electricity market but I read in recent media reports that there is a report questioning the effect of Brexit on the all-island electricity regime. Where stands that and many other such cross-Border initiatives as a result of Brexit?

Undoubtedly, a good deal of preparatory work has already been carried out by our diplomatic officials and Government. Interest groups also have focused on their own particular spheres. However, the general public needs to get some direction as to how likely they will be affected. It will be said that it is far too early to go into specifics but I believe the Government should prepare a national plan outlining the macro and micro issues it believes will need to be focused upon in any future discussions with the United Kingdom and the EU. I fear that too much focus may be made on some of the more headline issues to the detriment of practical issues which affect ordinary people in their daily lives, particularly people living in the Border areas. There will be many unknown unknowns cropping up over the next few months and years.

These are things we have not even thought about but which must be added to any national plan that is put in place. The general public should be able to interact with a specific Government-sponsored website on the issue.

It was no coincidence that we joined the EU at the same time as the UK. Indeed, we stayed out of Schengen because it suited our relationship with the UK. There were a lot of issues on which we found common cause around the EU table with our neighbours. It was in our own self-interest to go in at that time in step with the United Kingdom. Now that it is leaving, we need to strongly articulate our national interest in these negotiations. One way or the other, the result will be a political compromise. As such, it will be necessary for our political leaders to keep our particular difficulties at the top of the EU agenda.

I thank Mr. Ahern for that thoughtful and detailed address which is greatly appreciated by all members of the committee. We will go straight to questions with Senator Victor Boyhan having indicated first.

I thank Mr. Ahern. It is good to hear his comprehensive perspective as someone who lives close to the Border and has represented the people in the Border region and as someone with vast ministerial experience. I told the previous speaker, Mr. John Bruton, about meeting an Ulster farmer who talked to me about the Crown. He said he was more loyal to the crown, as in the monetary denomination, than the one worn by Her Majesty. The analogy he was making was a simple one. His point was that economics can divide or unite us. Money can divide or unite us. That is becoming a big focus now on the island of Ireland and rightly so.

While there are inevitabilities about Brexit, it is great to see Mr. Ahern's emphasis, which was very different to that of the previous speaker. Mr. Ahern seems to realise to a greater extent the realities of it. While Mr. Bruton talked about the possibility of revocation and Britain changing its mind, that is a long way away. While the Government has to be prepared for what is going on, I am more interested in the emphasis Mr. Ahern placed on Northern Ireland and, I presume, the protection of the peace process and all of that. That is a very important part of Brexit for the island of Ireland as are the difficulties around all of that. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland will change if Britain brings the United Kingdom out of the EU. How will that impact on the Anglo-Irish Agreement? From his experience, what does Mr. Ahern see? I see that as a major constitutional change to the position of Northern Ireland. What is the potential impact for the people? Mr. Ahern referred to the importance of the North-South dimension but now we have the east-west dimension in all of this. That is a good thing as long as there is dialogue. Mr. Bruton touched earlier on a really good point. He said there was a united Europe but in the case of the United Kingdom, there is the position of Scotland. We know what the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland is. They both voted to remain within the EU. I would be interested in Mr. Ahern's comments on that. Of the four countries in the UK, two are for and two are against.

Referring to Northern Ireland, Mr. Ahern said he believed the continuation of the special EU funds should apply, especially during any transitional period. While that is important, what are the practicalities and the reality of that happening? Of course, I agree on all of that and on the relaxing of state aid rules in the Border counties. In his experience, what does Mr. Ahern think is the reality? As someone with huge ministerial experience, what would be his red line in negotiations? As he is not part of the negotiations, that may be an unfair question to ask him. What are the red line issues, however, from the point of view of the EU negotiating with the UK or, for that matter, the Irish Government negotiating on our special interests?

Mr. Ahern is very welcome. I appreciate his contribution in which his many years of ministerial experience within the European project was very evident. His on-the-ground knowledge as someone who lives so close to the Border also came across strongly. As much as we have studied Brexit, he has been able to identify through personal experience things which have not been mentioned in the previous meetings I have been at. Simple things like roaming charges are examples of the many things that will come up as the thing progresses and which nobody can predict.

From 23 June, the day after the vote was taken, people started to suffer consequences immediately in Border areas and in specific industries, in particular the mushroom industry, which exports across the Border and across the sea to England, where it is tied into sterling contracts. They will continue to suffer as long as the negotiations continue. There is a great deal of prediction about hard and soft Brexit and what the outcome may be, but what is guaranteed is that while this is all going on there will be an air of instability and currency fluctuation. Predictions left, right and centre will influence Mr. Ahern's area. As someone who lives in the Border area, how should we be directing that? What changes to state aid rules should we seek and what supports should be available from the EU in the immediate here and now rather than post-Brexit for situations like this? I am a regular visitor to Dundalk through my passion for horse racing. When one is there on a Friday night, every second accent one hears is a Northern Irish one. As such, how is the tourism industry going to be affected given the fluctuations in sterling and so on?

As someone who has been out there for so long negotiating, what is Mr. Ahern's opinion of the following? When David Cameron went to the EU to get a package to put to the English people, was the EU too hard? Did the EU not think the English would follow through on this? If it got a second bite of the cherry in the current situation with the English having voted for Brexit, might the EU provide a bit more flexibility so that the referendum could be revisited? I am interested in Mr. Ahern's views as someone who lives on the Border, wearing both the political and the local caps.

I thank Mr. Ahern for coming before the committee. His experience of dealing with the EU on various issues made him realise much sooner than some of our Westminster colleagues the consequences for them of leaving. The effects of Brexit will get worse as time goes by.

Mr. Ahern's idea of a national plan on a micro and macro level is one at which all Departments should look. That is something that is lacking. We have had many statements about the effects and what we would like to see on a macro level, but we have not had a detailed analysis down to the nuts and bolts of roaming charges. There will be a cost to business in future if something is not done about that. These should all be policy positions and they should be lined out by each Department as the issues we need to address in Brexit. We do not have that. We have been told by many EU representatives that they want solutions from us and that if we do not provide them, they will have to come up with their own. We have a very limited window in which to set out those solutions.

Mr. Ahern referred to the funding programmes for Northern Ireland and we have suggested in our report on Brexit and the future of Ireland to the Good Friday Agreement committee that in the absence of an agreement, the British Government should continue to pay for all the EU programmes which are in place as well as for those which are to come in future. In essence, they broke it so they have to fix it. It should not be for the people of Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU to bear the brunt of a decision made by Wales and England.

The Taoiseach has said since the MacGill Summer School last year that the EU needs to prepare for a united Ireland. What should we be doing as a country to prepare for that along with those preparations for Brexit which Mr. Ahern outlined in his presentation?

Like other speakers, I welcome Mr. Dermot Ahern. We spent a long time around the same table dealing with many of the problems we face here today in a different context.

Two things occur to me. I do not know whether Mr. Ahern had the opportunity to see the contribution of his namesake, Mr. Bertie Ahern, to this committee recently. The latter suggested that, in addition to a common travel area, we should consider a common trading area recognising the special status of Northern Ireland. It occurs to me, and the point has been made by a number of contributors in this process, that if there is to be a new customs regime between the UK and the EU of a hard kind, it would probably make more sense to have it between the island of Ireland as a whole and Great Britain rather than along the Border. It appears that there is a very strong case to be made for regarding Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular as a special economic area. Senator Mark Daly mentioned that when Germany was divided, East German-West German relations were regarded as being inside rather than outside the Community under EU law up to the time of German reunification. There is a real opportunity for Ireland to come up with an imaginative and flexible approach to propose to our EU partners for agreement with the British. I think Northern Ireland will be extremely marginalised within the UK by the Brexit experience. The post-industrial base of Northern Ireland has been in decline, which has had a very significant effect on Protestant Unionist working-class people. Protestant Unionist farmers in Northern Ireland will now find themselves on the wrong side of a revised CAP regime if Tory instincts for cheap food policies are advanced. The fact that Northern Ireland's agriculture and milk production are so heavily integrated into Southern production is yet another reason we should take on board the idea of regarding Northern Ireland as a special exception to the normal incidences of being inside or outside the EU. I would be interested in hearing Mr. Ahern's view about the possibility of special economic rules for Ireland and whether he thinks the Irish Government should be coming up with these now, putting them on the table and making them part of the 27 states' negotiating agenda.

I welcome Mr. Ahern and thank him for his presentation. Obviously, we are all very appreciative of his attendance here because he has particular knowledge nationally, internationally and locally and has highlighted many of the practical local issues people will face on a day-to-day basis. These issues must be dealt with. One thing nobody wants to see return to the Border area is smuggling and criminality. How might this be dealt with? I am not putting Mr. Ahern on the spot but does he have ideas about how this could be dealt with?

I am also interested in the fact that Mr. Ahern mentioned many other areas like tourism and health. Health is in the news this week with the announcement that funding for the new national paediatric hospital has received the go-ahead by the Government. It was very important to me and, I am sure, to others like Mr. Ahern that we had representation from Northern Ireland on both the development board and the board itself so that it would be an all-Ireland hospital. How does Mr. Ahern feel it might impact on that?

Mr. Ahern alluded to pension rights and social welfare rights. The arrangements we have historically with the UK ensure that its citizens who fall ill here and need to see their GP are covered under our medical card scheme and vice versa. Obviously, this will need to be addressed and looked at.

I think Senator Paul Daly mentioned giving more to the UK during the negotiations and whether the EU has done that. I come at it from the other side and, following Mr. John Bruton's contribution, wonder whether the UK will come to take a different view as the realisation dawns of the full impact of this decision to leave with all the consequences for the day-to-day lives of people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as the complications for business, employment and their exchange rate. What is Mr. Ahern's view on this?

I will finish on a positive note because although it is important that we highlight all the problems and challenges, we also need to look for all the opportunities. In the context of his local knowledge of the Border area and international experience, could Mr. Ahern tell us where opportunities we can exploit might lie?

In respect of North-South co-operation and the Good Friday Agreement, I agree with Mr. Ahern that there are huge opportunities for those British-Irish Council ministerial meetings to explore and deal with many of the problems. I welcome his idea that we should have an interactive website so that the ordinary man and woman on the street can highlight the issues as they see them and reduce the number of unknown unknowns. This is a very good idea that should be taken on board.

I thank colleagues for all those contributions and questions.

Mr. Dermot Ahern

I thank the Senators for their questions. Senator Boyhan raised the issue of two for and two against in the UK. I cannot really say. To be honest, I do not think views expressed by me in that respect will change anything. It is what it is. Some Senators asked whether there would be a rethink. I do not think we can even proceed on the basis that we are hoping that the voters will be given an opportunity to rethink. We just have to continue on the basis that this is going to happen. There will be adverse implications for all of us, including north, south and east.

In respect of red line issues, I do not think we should be adamant about anything, particularly when we are negotiating within a bloc of 27 states. What I would say is that we should be very strong and put Ireland first in any of our negotiations. I will not go as far as to say that we should reserve our position, although that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the situation where we are clearly going to be the worst affected across the EU. We must accept the bona fides of the people with whom we want to continue to be members of the EU. If there is any red line issue relating to the negotiations, it must be any adverse implications for the Good Friday Agreement. At the beginning of my presentation, I spoke about the three-way relationships. I always used to say that the Good Friday Agreement is only as good as the paper it is written on. What is really important is the type of relationships built up between people North and South from an economic and societal perspective. I said to a Senator over a cup of coffee earlier that one of the most embarrassing meetings I had when I was a Minister was when a group of clearly Unionist businesspeople came to me in this complex to talk about energy and the need for an all-island electricity market. They were decrying the fact that things were not happening quickly enough and they were coming to me to lobby to make sure the Irish Government did its damnedest to promote that. This is why in any discussions with Unionist politicians, particularly the DUP, I would tell them that we were never going to agree on the issue of the Border and the constitutional issue, and the Good Friday Agreement in effect parks that anyway, but that we should get on with the all-island aspect - all-island, not all-Ireland - across all the sectors. One finds common cause with these people.

At the end of the day, they are representatives who are responding to their communities. They want issues sorted out at a micro level. As I stated in respect of electricity, it makes no sense that we had two separate grids on the island of Ireland. It makes no sense that on the island of Ireland we have separate telecommunications. These were the specialties I was involved with, other than some of the more high-profile ones in the Department of Foreign Affairs and so on. It went right through into those Ministries, particularly in the Department of Foreign Affairs. I maintain that right across, whether it was health, tourism, education, telecommunications or energy, there is so much commonality between us that we should get on with pooling our resources.

Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, there is Brexit. Whoever devised it - reference was made to Mr. Cameron going over to Brussels and not getting a good deal and all of that - I cannot say because I was not around at that time. The former Minister, Senator McDowell, may well confirm this but when I went to Brussels, I very rarely came across a British representative of any political party who was favourable to Europe. There were a few exceptions. Tony Blair was extremely European in his outlook but I would be hard pressed to name others - maybe Douglas Alexander, I remember. Indeed, Theresa May was my opposite number when I was in the then Department of Justice and Law Reform and I cannot remember ever having a conversation with her about the EU. Generally speaking, I cannot remember the UK representatives whom I met when I went to the UK, when they came here or when I went to the EU ever being enthusiastic about the EU project. It was always, "We are paying in more than we are getting out." In my earlier years, when I was a member of the then British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, it used to really grate when some of the membership, who were very friendly to us, used to come and say, "Oh, we are coming over to see how our roads are getting on, how you are developing our roads with our money." They were decrying the fact that we were a net beneficiary and they were a net contributor, while forgetting about the original aspect of the European project, which was to bring peace and to stop countries fighting on the fields of Europe. While dealing with it across a table, there was a transfer of funds to bring all the nations up. Thankfully, we are now a net contributor, as are many of what were net beneficiaries. From that point of view, the British people were fed on decades of negativity and by putting something to a referendum in that respect, in my view, the result was always going to be negative. I would not be optimistic that this matter will be turned around quickly and I believe we have to get on with it and put our best foot forward in the negotiations, both within the European Union and with the United Kingdom.

Senator Paul Daly mentioned the currency fluctuations. Those of us from the Border areas have dealt with those over the years. They have been an added difficulty for us. People will get on with their lives and will deal with whatever is thrown up. Despite the difficulties, one will not stop the transfer of people, whether they come for the horse racing in the fine horse racing stadium that we have in Dundalk or for something else. The Senator is correct in that at least 50% of the patrons there every week are from the North. They are great betters and they bet with sterling. Those traditions will continue.

As I said, what I try to focus on - one could get bogged down in the macro issues of the European institutions - and what we need to be aware of are the micro issues, in that these are the issues that ultimately will affect ordinary people in their daily and business lives and small businesses on the island, North and South.

Senator Mark Daly referred to the aspect of a united Ireland. The issues are too complex to even visualise that but I think we need to make some provision for the possible entry at some stage of the North into the European Union similar to the way in which it was done in Germany. I do not give in to this issue of a Border poll, even though I would love to see it successful. It is far too early for that, to a certain extent. I was telling Senator Daly that, not my maiden speech in Leinster House in 1987 but in my second speech as a young backbencher, I spoke on the issue of the Troubles at that time and I referred to the fact that there is a body of opinion which says that, eventually, the Catholics will outbreed the Protestants, and I had occasion to look back on that speech, find it - in fact, in the archives of Leinster House - and look at it. I decried the whole issue of 50% plus one, which is now enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, that is, basically, when 50% plus one of the population in Northern Ireland wants a united Ireland that will happen. I stated in that speech that long before that will happen, we must have an accommodation and an understanding with the Unionist tradition on this island because we cannot force them by dint of numbers into a united Ireland. That is why, in all of my political career, I focused on all-island initiatives in order to show those people who do not necessarily agree with the issue of a Northern Ireland that it is necessary we live on this island. As John Hume said, it is not uniting the territories of Ireland; it is uniting the people who live on the territories of Ireland. I very much subscribe to that.

Senator McDowell referred to the issue of a common trading area and a customs regime. I was first elected in 1987. The day of my second election, in June 1989, was a lovely day and I tried to get out to some of the polling booths to see how things were going close to the Border. I could not get out of the town of Dundalk. There was at least a five- or six-mile tailback of lorries and cars stuck at the Border, backing up right into the town of Dundalk. I had to give up. I could not visit the polling booths on election day out at the Border. Literally overnight, particularly with the passing of the Single European Act subsequently, or in and around that time, those checkpoints disappeared. Much more than the military installations that were across the Border which caused obvious difficulty to people traversing the Border, the customs regime was debilitating to the economic development of our area. I would love to see the European Union agreeing to some sort of special arrangement, a special economic area within the island of Ireland, to deal with our difficulties. I am not particularly sure, given my experience, that the EU would allow something like that, but I would say we should ask for it. I would not be particularly hopeful. One will find that there is some other area in Europe which has a similar problem and it will want similar arrangements, and of course once one gets into that at a negotiation with 27 around the table one is back to square one. That is not to say that we should not continue asking for that if there are examples such as East Germany in that respect. Without being overly cynical about it, I have seen circumstances - we all have seen one of the most high-profile circumstances - where the strength of a small nation within the European Union was evident. I am a supporter of the European Union but my support for it has been somewhat dented in the last number of years.

When we voted "No" in a referendum on a treaty, we were told to be good little boys and girls and vote again whereas when the French and Dutch voted "No", the reaction was that they were founding members of the European Union, so what was wrong? They were not told to go back and vote again on the same thing. That is why I have some cynicism about the negotiation sphere in Europe and the difficulty we have as a nation in putting our best foot forward in regard to having our position clearly articulated as a key priority of the EU. There are reports everything will be pretty good in the conclusions next Saturday, and I hope that will be the case. Ultimately, I hope that will be the case also in the final hard negotiations.

I was involved in negotiations on the marine in Brussels which went on for 48 hours. We got no sleep and I understood how at the very end of negotiations people would give in to anything because they were so tired. In 2005, when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had to console the Cypriot Minister, a man in his 70s, who was in tears after he, as representative of his country, was, in effect, forced, because he was the only one holding up the agreement, to agree to accession talks on the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union. There was so much pressure on that poor man. He told me he did not want to go home because he would have to face his people but, ultimately, he had to agree. That is why I say that at negotiation level, we need to be very strong and to insist that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

On smuggling, some people might say I am overstating the issue because smuggling has gone on despite the North and the UK being in the European Union but the avenues for smuggling have been substantially reduced. However, they have not been obliterated because when there is criminality, people will always look for new outlets. Once there is a border of some sort, in particular a customs border, I fear we will be back to the bad old days of smuggling and it will give new avenues to criminals to exploit.

Senator Reilly referred to the area of health, which is close to my heart. For many years we have spoken about cross-Border health initiatives. Some have worked and others have not but I believe Brexit will slow down those initiatives and make it more difficult for people on the ground. That is not only in health but in every area, especially in tourism.

Will opportunities come from this? Yes, there will be opportunities. Recently, a company from Craigavon announced it had set up in Dundalk. It wants an EU presence. That is great but it is robbing Peter to pay Paul within this island, and I do not think that is good. I understand its decision and we will be cheering in Dundalk when the jobs are there but those jobs are not going to Northern Ireland, which, as Senator McDowell mentioned, has a less robust economy that is much more reliant on the UK crown, which was referred to earlier. I think I have answered all the questions.

Mr. Ahern has covered them in great detail. It is wonderful to be able to draw on Mr. Ahern's many years of experience and personal knowledge of the Border. I thank him for making his submission. It is vitally important to our ongoing work. This committee will only meet for another six weeks. It will not be meeting for too long. Again, I thank Mr. Ahern.

Sitting suspended at 12.55 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.