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.