Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Developments at European Union Level: Commissioner Mairead McGuinness

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank Ms McGuinness for her presentation and her presence, albeit virtually. I hope she gets home in the coming weeks, if feasible and work allows among everything else.

I want to go back to a couple of the answers and questions from the first session with Deputy Calleary to tease out a couple of issues further. The first relates to the next steps of the protocol. Ms McGuinness rightly referred to the worrying unilateral actions taken by the British Government. A couple of weeks ago, the grace period was extended and a bit of hope - I hope it was not false hope - was brought back that we might be able to get a workable solution in the medium term. That hope is fading rapidly due to the actions of the British Government and, more important, the statements by their key implementer, Lord Frost, in his joint opinion piece in The Irish Times and various responses he has given to questions in the House of Lords and at committee meetings.

My major concern is there will be further unilateral action by the United Kingdom. If that is the case, what preparations have been made by the European Commission? Commissioner Šefovi, who appeared before this committee, has made references to the scope for further legal action and retaliatory measures. Will Ms McGuinness elaborate on that suite of options? None of us wants them to be needed but we need to be frank that there is a worrying mindset and attitude among certain members of the British Government.

It goes to the protocol and the outworkings of it on this island. We are, thankfully, starting to see in the past week a few people be more vocal about the upsides and possibilities of the protocol. Much credit must go to the SDLP MLA for Belfast South, Matthew O'Toole, who has been consistent in talking about the opportunities provided for Northern Ireland and the whole island by the protocol. We are starting to see that from business leaders and other non-political actors in Northern Ireland.

I hope we have seen some of the political rhetoric around the protocol dampened down because it was getting to a dangerous stage and being used and abused by certain political actors. Any sign of flexibility from the European Commission was being jumped on and we saw all manner of accusations made against the European Commission and the Irish Government which were false, bogus and unnecessary. What role can the European Commission play?

It was welcome to see Commissioner Šefovi appear before the executive committee in Stormont and to see continued outreach by the European Commission and by Ms McGuinness, as the Commissioner who knows Northern Ireland best. It was her near neighbour, once upon a time. Many people asked how we retain a Northern Irish voice in the European decision-making process and how, in Ireland and working in partnership with Ms McGuinness, her colleagues and wider European figures, we play a substantive role in Northern Ireland and make sure the people of Northern Ireland feel their voices are being heard and they have an element of influence.

I move on to a wider Brexit point. Deputy Calleary focused on financial services and the ongoing negotiations. We are grateful for Ms McGuinness' previous appearance before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, which I sit on. We went around the houses on the issue at that time. It is about looking at the growth opportunities in financial services post Brexit, particularly for member states like Ireland, related to an exodus from Great Britain or people looking to diversify. We have seen it in other member states. What initiatives are being taken, primarily by Ms McGuinness in her brief, to develop the financial services sector across the European Union post Brexit and to seize every opportunity? We have said many times there is no such thing as a good Brexit but we have to take every opportunity. There is one for growth in financial services for all EU member states post Brexit. Within that sector, opportunities will be provided for citizens.

Ms McGuinness spoke before of the joint EU approach to things like mortgage provision, health insurance and motor insurance, and of how we can use Brexit as a catalyst to develop that. How do we tailor the supports provided by the Brexit adjustment fund, of which Ireland is the largest benefactor of all member states? We do not just look at sectors that are most negatively impacted by Brexit, such as agrifood exports into Great Britain. We must also use that fund with the recovery and resilience package to take every opportunity. We have seen through this troubling pandemic period that there are opportunities for certain sectors and workers in them, especially in Ireland. We have shown a commendable level of resilience in society as a whole. We have to encourage such resilience.

It goes back to the salient point that underlines everything that we are all talking about today that it is easy to criticise the EU but we do not recognise enough when the EU is playing such an important part. With the Brexit adjustment fund, that is key. I would be grateful to hear the Commissioner's opinion on those points.


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