With 31 days to Brexit it is extremely disappointing and worrying that we find ourselves in this situation having to pass emergency legislation to try and minimise the damage to our country and our citizens because of the U.K. government’s failure to ratify the withdrawal treaty which they negotiated and helped to craft. We are but onlookers to this entire mess, something which we did not ask for or create but which nevertheless impacts on us heavily.
As an Oireachtas I believe we have shown incredible political maturity in uniting to navigate Brexit together and ensuring we do all we can to buffer and protect Ireland’s interests. We have at times disagreed with government’s approach to the Brexit process, in particular the disintegration in Anglo/Irish relations, and we remain dissatisfied with the level of preparedness in the country for a potential no-deal Brexit.
Notwithstanding this Fianna Fail has given government the space and the latitude to deal with Brexit in the national interest despite the posturing of others in this house. When you compare and contrast the political situation here in Ireland to that in the U.K., you are comparing stability with chaos. The stable political situation here in Ireland has allowed us as an Oireachtas to have to a mature and responsible approach to Brexit and work to protect our economy, our people, our farmers and our business community.
I am proud of the role my party and my party leader have played in ensuring that much needed stability our country needs right now, particularly in light of the cheap political stunt Sinn Fein tried to pull last week when they attempted to plunge the country into a general election. What Sinn Fein want is to develop the same chaos here that they have created in the North, playing right into the hands of the hardline Brexiteers and attempting to mirror the chaos in London, thankfully they were unsuccessful.
Tánaiste there are only 11 Dáil sitting days until the 29th March 2019. The time is tight to get this mammoth legislation through the House but I and my colleagues in Fianna Fáil will do all that we can to facilitate the timely passage of this Bill.
We are however disappointed that this Bill was only published last Friday and the opposition has been given insufficient time to properly scrutinise this Bill. Given the good will that exists from my party to assist the government in getting the legislation through and despite numerous requests from myself to see the legislation sooner this request was not facilitated and the reasons given not acceptable. It is in all of our interests to ensure that this Bill is as robust as it can possibly be and it is our opinion that greater time should have been given to this crucial piece of legislation.
The Bill was published on Friday and in before the house today, four days later and by government’s own admission it is a substantial piece of legislation so the time provided to opposition to scrutinise the Bill, effectively a weekend, is wholly inadequate and simply unnecessary to create this situation. It is no secret that other countries including France and the Netherlands published their Brexit legislation a number of months ago and we seem to be on the back foot in terms of contingency planning for a no deal Brexit.
Given that we are the country most exposed to the impact of Brexit we should really be out front in terms of our preparations for a no deal Brexit, not at the back of the queue and lagging behind trying to catch up.
All of us in this House are hoping that this emergency legislation will not be required and that either a deal can be reached or there is an extension to the Article 50 process. It appears likely an extension will be sought and granted given how little time is left but it is not a guarantee it will be sought. We do not know what length of extension will be sought in the event there is a request from the U.K. but an extension, while preferable to a crash out, is not without impact. The continued uncertainty is having a negative impact on sterling prices, business and farming so this is not an ideal situation by any means. The business community is crying out for some degree of certainty they can plan and make investments but a picture is being painted that so much is on hold as we wait to see what happens.
The situation is extremely fluid at present; yesterday Theresa May said she would delay the next meaningful vote on Brexit until 12 March – only 17 days out from Brexit D Day; yesterday evening Donald Tusk called on the UK to ask for an extension and then the Labour leader Jeremey Corbyn said that he would support a second Brexit referendum if Parliament rejects Labour’s Brexit proposals. Today in the Daily Mail newspaper 3 Conservative Ministers wrote an article saying they will support an amendment tomorrow to take no deal off the table and extend article 50 if there is no agreement by March 13. The situation is changing by the day, if not the hour at times, and all the while the clock ticks down until the 29th March.
To say something positive about the U.K. political situation, I can see that some MPs across all parties genuinely want to find a solution and understand and sympathise with the Irish situation and I want to put on the record that I am grateful for those moderate voices in the British parliament who appreciate their responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement and also understand that there is an onus on the U.K. when pursuing it’s Brexit policy that it doesn’t hurt or damage other member states in the process.
Whilst we all hope that those in charge of the Brexit process in the UK see sense and realise that leaving without a deal would be an act of great self-harm nothing can or should be assumed at this point. We only need to look back to December 2017 when we were told that commitments given on the border were ‘bullet-proof’ and ‘cast-iron’ to see how wrong assumptions and premature celebrations can be. It is my strong belief that the actions and comments of our Taoiseach in December 2017, following the joint statement that gave birth to the infamous ‘backstop’, where protocol 49. ‘the backstop’ was touted as a big political win by the Irish government over the U.K. The language used by the Taoiseach made the backstop toxic to British MPs and soured relations between the U.K. and Ireland and we have been dealing with the consequences of that mistake ever since.
I am therefore glad that this legislation has finally being published and the Government are at last not assuming an orderly Brexit and that all will be alright on the night.
Whilst Brexit is not of Ireland’s making we are unfortunately central to it. The UK is our nearest neighbour; traditionally our largest trading partner and our countries are bound together by our often difficult past and tied to each other’s future because of the Common Travel Area and as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Both Ireland and the U.K. joined the European Union together in 1973 and the relationship between our two islands has been shaped and governed by European Union membership ever since. We took for granted the structures that were put in place by the EU that provided for regular interaction between the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister of the day and the various Ministers across both islands. We have become accustomed to the EU way of doing business and the U.K. leaving the EU will fundamentally change how our islands interact and work together.
We now have to find another mechanism by which our two governments and countries can maintain our relationship and continue to work together. Fianna Fail has proposed a Nordic style council of minister and believe that no time should be wasted post Brexit to put this new structure in place. Given how strained relations have become due to the Brexit process we will have work to do to mend those relations and indeed strengthen them.
In the event of a no deal Brexit this bill will address some of the most fundamental issues and will in as much as feasibly possible try maintain the status quo. The bill spans a number of different government departments and over the course of the debate my party’s various spokespersons will address each of their areas of competence covered by the Bill.
We welcome that reciprocal health arrangements will be maintained, this was of particular concern to patients living around the border who may have been precluded from accessing their geographically closest hospital for treatment; we welcome that an agreement has been reached that formalises the pre-existing Common Travel Area social protection arrangements in a legally binding agreement which was signed on February 1st; We welcome that this bill ensures that cross border bus services will be maintained to ensure connectivity across communities; we welcome the provisions relating to electricity supply licences to facilitate the continuing operation of the Single Electricity Market; we welcome the measures that strengthen Enterprise Ireland’s capacity to support client companies through investment, loans and RD&I grants in order to mitigate the harmful effects that Brexit may have on exposed and vulnerable enterprises, this flexibility is much needed and will remove some of the barriers and red tape companies can face in getting credit; we welcome also the provisions relating to third level institutions and the maintenance of the current arrangements with the U.K. to facilitate students from both islands continuing to study across both islands with their qualifications being recognized.
While these measures are welcome we must be very clear in this House and more importantly with the public that this Bill is emergency legislation and it will not fully protect Ireland and our economy in the event of a no deal Brexit. There will be an immediate disruption to financial markets; a fall in sterling would harm our competitiveness and several sectors will be particularly exposed and will immediately need significantly more support and assistance than the Government has offered to date. Whilst over the longer term we would see a reduction in economic growth and a reduction in the level of output.
According to Department of Finance projections a disorderly Brexit would result in a substantial slowdown in GDP growth to 2.7% in 2019, from an estimated 4.2% in Budget 2019, and the modest surplus projected for 2020 would instead become a deficit; over a 10 year period the level of Irish output could be reduced by approximately 6% and employment would increase more slowly and the unemployment rate could rise by 2% which translates to between 40,000-50,000 job losses which would in turn impact on the public finances. To put it mildly there is no good news in Brexit.
Certain sectors are particularly exposed to Brexit. Our agri-food industry for example could be decimated in a no deal Brexit as it is particularly reliant on the UK market. In 2017 agri-food exports to the UK were valued at approximately €5.2 billon. 48% of our beef exports go to the United Kingdom; 21% of our dairy exports, including 46% of cheddar cheese exports and almost 100% in the case of mushrooms. There are up to 300,000 people employed both directly and indirectly in this sector and the grim reality is that a no deal Brexit would result in job losses in this sector and there is very little in this Bill to prevent this.
Last week there were reports that in a no deal scenario the UK would open its market to South American beef. This would be nothing short of a catastrophe for our beef industry and it would have a devastating effect on farmers the length and breadth of this country. If this comes to pass and Irish beef is forced to compete in the UK market against cheaper imports from other countries, jobs, many of which are in rural Ireland, will be lost. It was really concerning to read reports last week from the U.K. that some British politicians were seeking to exploit this concern from Ireland around our beef market in the hope we would compromise on the ‘backstop’, it was disappointing to see tactics of this nature emerge and I hope they have been put to bed. It is wise to remember that there will come a time when Brexit is behind us and we have to be able to trust and work with each other.
In response to this the Tánaiste said last week that the European Commission will support and protect a sector to ensure that it survives. Whilst warm words are all well and good this industry cannot wait for the asteroid to hit; they need assistance now and a concrete guarantee that resources, financial and otherwise, will be immediately available to safeguard this industry. I have consistently asked the government to provide details to the farming sector around what financial aid package will be available on March 30th should the worst happen. We need to ensure also that whatever aid is made available that it goes direct to the producer and that the farmer is not at the back of the queue.
Moreover, we cannot lose sight of the fact that whatever the outcome of Brexit, orderly or disorderly, it will ultimately result in change, and whilst the magnitude of this change is as of yet undefined, industries, businesses and SMEs will need additional supports in the short, medium and long term to help them adapt to a new trading environment which sees the UK outside of the EU and considered a third country.
Whilst the measures in this Bill in relation to Enterprise Ireland are welcome we need more detail on how the Government plans to support businesses and industries in the weeks, months and years ahead. There has been far to much of a wait and see approach from government, now is the time for specifics.
Fianna Fáil has from the outset of the referendum result called on the Government to prepare for all Brexit scenarios. Time and time again we asked the Government to publish their contingency plans and to be prepared for what is one of the gravest threats we have ever faced.
At times when the Government didn’t like our line of questioning they accused us of playing politics with Brexit, but that was neither the truth nor fair. We were and are simply trying to protect our country and our interests. It is no secret that whilst we have broadly supported the Government’s negotiating stance we have been critical of their domestic preparedness and I make no apology for that. As the main opposition party spokesperson it is my job to ask the difficult questions and to hold government to account. Government has been far to quick to accuse opposition of acting against the countries interests when we simply ask legitimate questions of government policy and strategy.
Only yesterday Minister Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, together with Minister Paschal Donohoe TD, Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, launched the first in a series of Customs Training Workshops, which are being delivered for the Government by the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) across the country. This in my opinion exemplifies the tardiness with which the Government has approached their domestic preparations for Brexit. Why are these workshops only being launched now with just over 30 days to go until the 29th March? Why did the Government not act sooner? These are legitimate questions and the Government should not shy away from answering them.
Throughout this entire Brexit process the issue of the border has loomed large over the debate.
The possible reintroduction of a border on this island is causing serious anxiety across border communities and the issue remains unresolved. Whilst there is a Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the EU and the UK negotiation teams and within that agreement there ia a solution to the border, namely the backstop, this remains one of the key barriers to getting the deal ratified in the U.K. parliament and the U.K. is seeking to change the backstop or drop it from the agreement altogether. If the deal is not ratified then we do not have a backstop and we remain without a solution to the Irish border issue. I listen and take head when the head of the PSNI warns that reinstatement of any border infrastructure on this island would run a serious risk of a return to violence.
I sincerely hope that British politicians listen to this warning too. A border is not just a barrier to trade, it represents partition and harks back to a dark past on this island that we want to leave in the past. Fianna Fáil like everyone in this House will not accept a reintroduction of a border on this island but we are concerned about what happens in a no deal scenario.
This Bill does not address this issue and we have no clarity on how the Government intend to protect the single market and the Union’s Customs Code in the event of a no deal Brexit. We’ve been told that difficult conversations will have to be had but what does that mean in practice? The Tánaiste, when pushed on the issue, went as far as to say there might be checks in the sea somewhere but that doesn’t exactly provide any clarity. I have asked the question directly more than once, has any contingency planning been done by government for a hard border and I have been told no. I have to take this answer in good faith and accept this to be the case. However I do not think it is credible to suggest that no conversations have taken place whatsoever around what might happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is accepted that if the U.K. crashes out and becomes a third country, there will have to be checks somewhere on goods coming in from the U.K. but we have yet to see anything from government on how they plan to deal with this.
While Minister Ross is clearly in the dark on this issue I have to assume that at the very least the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have had this conversation. I would be concerned by any suggestion that we might have checks imposed on Irish goods entering the EU mainland through France or elsewhere because we might be seen a as back door to a third country and won’t permit checks here. This would effectively remove the benefits of the single market from Irish exporters and we do not want to see this happening. So I sincerely hope that the government and the huge team of experienced civil servants working on this have a plan in place if we need it.
This omnibus Bill is only one element of our preparations for Brexit but it is an important piece of the puzzle and will go some ways towards ensuring we maintain the status quo in key areas in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The fact we have set aside essentially all parliamentary time by agreement of the house to get this legislation passed show the commitment of TDs to doing all we can to protect our country and get the legislation through.
There is no doubt that Ireland is in a vulnerable and precarious position and we need to up our game in terms of preparations, it is clear we can no longer afford to have all our eggs in the basket of getting a deal over the line. I want to assure our citizens that Fianna Fail will do whatever needs to be done in the national interest to help our country navigate Brexit.