I propose to take Questions Nos. 38 and 41 together.
Avoiding the return of a hard border on this island is a Government priority in all circumstances. This is why the backstop continues to be a critical component of the withdrawal agreement, unless and until an alternative is found. Ratifying the withdrawal agreement remains the only viable solution on the table that avoids any physical infrastructure and related checks or controls, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement, safeguards North-South co-operation, and preserves the all-island economy, as well the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland’s continuing place in it. No one has yet come up with any alternatives aimed at avoiding a hard border that match what is safeguarded by the backstop.
Given the current political uncertainty in London, there is a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. We continue our work with the European Commission to address the shared twin objectives of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protecting the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it. I can assure the Deputy I am absolutely conscious of the Good Friday Agreement and its spirit and the challenge that we face.
However, a no-deal Brexit will unavoidably mean far-reaching change in North-South trade on the island of Ireland which will certainly no longer be as frictionless. Tariffs would apply and the impact of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements and associated checks necessary to protect Ireland's place in the Single Market would be significant to the operation of the all-island economy. We continue to work closely with the Commission to minimise the negative consequences of no deal but any arrangement would clearly be sub-optimal to the backstop which is why we are such strong advocates for that approach based on regulatory alignment.
It is also important to remember that even in a no deal scenario, certain key aspects of life will not change. The common travel area will remain in place, so British and Irish citizens will still be able to travel freely between our two islands to live, work, study and access healthcare, welfare, housing and the labour market as though they were citizens of both.
However, the Deputy asked directly where we were with the European Commission regarding the detail of what can be agreed with the European Commission in the context of a no-deal Brexit, with the twin objectives I outlined earlier. That process has not concluded yet. Our team met the European Commission last week. They are meeting the Commission again this week and we are now talking directly about how we can minimise the disruption to the all-island economy while ensuring that the Republic of Ireland does not get taken out of the EU Single Market by default by not doing anything or not doing enough, while at the same time recognising that we have to protect North-South co-operation, the Good Friday Agreement and its structures and the benefits of all-island trade as best we can. If the British Government decides to trigger a no deal by refusing to compromise or to live up to the commitments it has already made in the past, and if a British Parliament allows that to happen, we face very difficult choices. However, the priorities will be as I outlined, protecting an all-island economy on the one hand because it is a reinforcer of peace and, at the same time, ensuring that Ireland is not taken out of the Single Market by default against its will. However, that will involve difficult choices and a very open discussion in this Chamber in terms of how and why we have made those choices. I hope I will get the support of colleagues in our attempts to get that fragile balance right should it come to it.