I am aware of the report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Civil Service to which the Deputy refers and which my officials are examining it in detail.
The report makes clear that micro and small enterprises in Northern Ireland will be the most adversely affected in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit, with the agrifood sector especially vulnerable. This scenario would also have the gravest consequences for cross border trade which is so significant to the Northern Ireland economy and thus for the all-island economy, the protection of which is a major priority for this Government.
This latest report’s findings are sobering and very much in line with other such reports and indeed with the letter from the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to political parties there in April. Despite the considerable amount of mitigation work that has been undertaken to date across Departments in Northern Ireland, there are considerable and unavoidable risks to the local economy that cannot be mitigated. The report makes clear that there is limited room for manoeuvre for businesses and government in a no deal context.
I have repeatedly discussed my concerns around the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland with my British counterparts. I maintain frequent contact with UK Ministers. Over the course of the last several months, I have met with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley; and David Lidington, the UK Minister of the Cabinet Office.
I can assure the Deputy that the imperative of avoiding a no deal scenario will continue to inform the Government’s approach. From the outset, I have highlighted the risks which Brexit poses for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. I have repeatedly stated that a no deal Brexit is in no one’s interests, least of all for the people of Northern Ireland who will be most affected.
The Government remains firmly convinced that the Withdrawal Agreement remains the only way to ensure an orderly UK withdrawal, in a manner that protects the Single Market and the hard-won gains of the Good Friday Agreement. The backstop is the only viable solution on the table that avoids physical infrastructure and related checks and controls, preserves the all-island economy and fully protects the Good Friday Agreement, as well the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland’s place in it.
There should be no illusions in the UK that a change in political circumstances will convince the EU to make changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. It cannot be opened or renegotiated. The European Council has made this consistently clear.
It is now more important than ever that all sides in the UK assume their responsibilities and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, which provides much-needed legal certainty.
Let me be clear, however, that the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process does not disappear in a no deal scenario. We and the EU will insist that the issue of the border and protecting the Good Friday Agreement will need to be resolved as a condition for opening wider negotiations on the EU’s future relationship with the UK.
In the case of a no deal scenario, we will continue to work with the Commission on the shared twin objectives of protecting the integrity of the single market and Ireland’s place in it, and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.