Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 April 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Possible Exit of UK from European Union: Discussion (Resumed)
Apologies have been received from Deputy Seán Crowe. We expect a vote will be called in the Dáil imminently and will suspend if it is called. I remind members and witnesses to ensure their mobile phones are switched off as they cause interference with the broadcasting equipment.
Today, the committee will conclude its series of meetings examining critical issues facing Ireland in the event the United Kingdom withdraws from membership of the European Union. A referendum on this question has been promised by the current UK Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, if he is returned to power following next month's general election. This committee took the decision to examine this issue in view of the potential impact on this country and on the many Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom and on the many UK citizens living in Ireland. Our discussion today will focus on Lisbon treaty protocols and geopolitical and regional issues. We are delighted to have with us today the expert witness, Professor Jennifer Todd, from the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin.
Professor Todd is very welcome to our meeting and we look forward to hearing her views.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are requested to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with today's proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
We are not talking about the merits of whether a referendum on the United Kingdom's exit from the EU should take place in another sovereign nation, but about the impact such a withdrawal would have on our nation.
Professor Jennifer Todd:
I thank the committee. I have circulated a document and will talk briefly. A British exit of the EU would be very serious. I will focus on two issues. If a British exit threatens the openness of the Border and the functioning of the North-South institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, it will affect North-South trade, the funding of cross-Border projects and peace and stability in the North. Peace and stability in the North are based on the Good Friday Agreement, one pillar of which is North-South relations. It is dangerous to erode any of the pillars of the Good Friday Agreement because it would encourage those with an interest in pulling back on it, either loyalists or dissident republicans, to do so. BrExit would remove the purpose of the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB and the North-South bodies established under it, and could undermine the goal and functioning of other North-South bodies.
Peace and stability are also based on the opening up of the Border. The Border is no longer so important in daily life on either side of it and this is part of the root of the relative Nationalist satisfaction in the North. This would change with BrExit due to the implementation of customs etc. BrExit would encourage sovereigntism in the UK and among Unionists. The withdrawal of funding for cross-Border projects would undermine very positive small projects that contribute to peace and reconciliation. There is a need to compensate for potential losses both by negotiating stronger North-South links to the EU for funding purposes, representation and cross-learning, for example, from the Nordic Council. There is a need to proactively put this on the agenda partly because BrExit would be very dangerous and partly because it is only positive to create a momentum of better North-South relations, to reinvigorate the Good Friday process and strengthen peace and stability in the event of the many possible future shocks, BrExit or others.
Thank you. Many of us are concerned about the issue. I was previously chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and saw the great work done by the cross-Border institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement, such as InterTradeIreland, Waterways Ireland and Foras na Gaeilge. Professor Todd's written submission referred to the deepening levels of engagement between the two parts of the island in other areas, and many of us are members of the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association that was established a few years ago and whereby Members of the Stormont Assembly meet in plenary session with Members of the Dáil and Seanad. In the forthcoming plenary session, we will discuss the issue Professor Todd raised of improved health links. There are doctors in the North who specialise in deep brain injury and we will discuss how we can ensure people in the South can benefit from this. Here in the South, we are very good at treating congenital heart disease and we are trying to find ways people in the North can get improved access to southern services. Anything that impacts on this relationship is of deep concern to us, as is the Border issue.
The Border issue has been pointed out to us in the past in some of the discussions we have had with other witnesses. From what we are being told, the reasons the UK wants to withdraw converge around two areas, first, the loss of sovereignty to Europe, which a cohort of people feel is a very important issue that merits a BrExit. Second, there is a cohort of people who are less concerned about sovereignty but more concerned about the impact of immigration into the UK. There are two very distinct groups of people on both sides. If Ireland were to remain in the EU and the UK were to leave, a person from Madrid or Paris who wanted to go to the UK could come to Dublin using his or her passport, without a visa, and then travel by bus or train across the Border into the UK without showing his or her passport. If a motivation for the UK to withdraw from the EU is monitoring, limiting and controlling immigration, how would we play our part in it? What would Ireland be asked to do to ensure access of other EU citizens to the North of Ireland was controlled?
I often look at Northern Ireland with heart palpitations and, simplistically, see it as a terrible, divided, sectarian statelet. It is probably the most sectarian society in Europe. I do not know whether recruitment to the police force and civil service is still done on the basis of religion in the balancing act between Roman Catholic and Protestant. I thank Professor Todd for her paper, which has added an additional dimension to how I view Northern Ireland. She has drawn out some amazing potential contradictions. For example, her report stated that a recent survey showed that more Nationalist voters are prepared to stay in Northern Ireland than move to a united Ireland, yet the participants in the referendum would be the Democratic Unionist Party, not Sinn Féin. Has Professor Todd read into the mindset of politicians in Northern Ireland regarding their views? One presupposes the DUP members are prepared to sell their souls, or political muscle, to the British Labour Party or the Conservative Party. Sinn Féin wants a united Ireland but will not participate in the decision-making process in England because its members do not take their seats.
Although we have debated the issue of the British exit for some time, there are still many questions. We are collectively in a state of desperation that the Tories would consider pulling out of Europe in the short term. We will know soon after the British general election.
Professor Todd's paper explains it would have devastating consequences, including the reinstatement of border control and the alienation of nationalists because they feel more corralled into the North. What does she think Northern Irish politicians think about a British exit?
I welcome Professor Todd and thank her for her paper. She points out a number of things that we have expressed concerns about previously. First, and most important, if it proceeded as indicated and if Britain were to leave the Union, we would have a diminution of North-South contacts and, at very best, obstacles would appear in the contacts that have already been set up, such as Waterways Ireland, the language body and the various crossover points and areas of co-operation that have become commonplace, with discussions on a regular basis both at parliamentary and institutional level. That is something we do not want in either in a North-South context or in an Ireland-Britain context. While it has been said to us in the past that Ireland and Britain can arrange to have an ongoing satisfactory relationship because we had that before and we had an Anglo-Irish trade agreement and so on back in the old days, we tend to forget that we are no longer in the old days. Time has moved on and there are new challenges. In the modern era there are different challenges altogether, which require a degree of co-operation to which we have now become accustomed. After the difficult years of the crisis in Northern Ireland, politics has again emerged and is seen to take centre stage. Many of us remember the criticism that politics had failed in Northern Ireland. Of course, it had, and it was replaced by something else. People now see new obstacles presenting themselves through the fora that have already been put in place, the points of contact that have become commonplace and on which both sides now rely to a great extent.
As a result of those new obstacles, how does Professor Todd feel we can counteract those negative aspects in the worst-case scenario? I do not accept that we should pretend it is not going to happen. It is like Murphy's law: if these things can happen, they do happen. Alongside the things I have often said before and which we have discussed here before, there is a tendency across Europe at present, which is very unnerving, to feel that Europe has failed and that the European concept is not what it was thought to be. It was much better than any concept that went before it and it has shown over the last 50 years that it was better, is better and will continue to be better if it is nurtured and allowed to continue.
What institutions can replace the potential exit of Britain? How do we get over the obstacles that will appear - the border obstacles, for example, the logistics of the new entity and the entities involved in relations between Ireland and Britain, between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain together and the rest of the European Union? Do not let us forget that European history will tell us there is a tendency to go back to where we were. That has always been a fault in Europe. Whenever Europe went back to where it was, it was a catastrophe. There is a danger that kind of thing could happen again. Unfortunately, I see that kind of outcome if the current tangent towards the undermining of Europe from within continues.
I thank Professor Todd for the paper she presented. A report was published recently which discussed the knock-on economic effect on Ireland of a British exit from the EU. We are now talking about a lot of ifs, as the UK may decide to do certain things rather than actually leaving, and may go down a road of reduced involvement. Is there not then a reason for us now to start looking at the alternatives as regards, for instance, access to the European market, which has 500 million people? This is why I do not understand the recent economic report, which indicated we would lose out more than the UK would. If one takes the UK out of it, it goes down to 440 million or 430 million. Do we now need to start looking for alternatives and figuring out how we can benefit, presuming that England does water down its involvement in Europe? The economic report clearly indicates that Ireland has a great deal to lose as a result of the UK exit. What do we need to do to start planning for that, or is it the case that we should hold off and do nothing at all?
I thank Professor Todd for her paper. As the Chair and other members have said, we have met with a number of people around this issue. Views have varied, not so much on the question of whether BrExit would be a good thing for Ireland and Northern Irish relations, but more in terms of what could, should, might or might not be done, whether there is any point doing anything and whether this might be a storm in a teacup and will not happen at all. My impression, from the professor's paper, is that she is unequivocal that this is not the approach that should be taken and that we should presume we must protect our position, depending on a potential British exit, or as Senator Burke has said, something that does not quite amount to an exit, but is the next best thing to it. I could be wrong, but of all the contributors I have heard, Professor Todd is the most unequivocal in saying that we need to act. As she put it, top-level British-Irish planning for different eventualities has proven imaginative and productive in the past. Perhaps more went on behind the scenes than we knew back in the day. Could Professor Todd develop her thoughts more around the type of top-level planning in which we should be engaging?
My second point relates to the Nordic model. Professor Todd makes the point that the Irish Government could negotiate a special position for North-South endeavours with the British Government within the EU, even in the event of a BrExit. She mentions the Nordic model as an example of how that might be done. That involves a scenario where members of the EU are involved in an agreement with non-members, which has been negotiated to remove obstacles to freedom of movement across Nordic states. We would have to make the agreement with the EU generally to reach a separate arrangement for ourselves and the UK, which would depend on overall EU agreement. Since the Nordic agreement was negotiated, the union has been significantly enlarged and now comprises 28 countries. Is a special deal for us a realistic possibility? Does Professor Todd think the UK would be interested in facilitating us in getting a special deal, or is this more of an issue for us than for them? I ask that because, as the Chair has mentioned, the issue of immigration is a particular concern in the UK. How would such a model work out in such a way as to ease the concerns of those in the UK who regard that as the most important issue on the agenda?
I appreciate that because this is of huge interest to me as a member of this committee, with its national brief, and as a Deputy for a Border constituency. I agree with the latter point made by Senator Hayden - in other words, I agree with Professor Todd that we should be preparing for all eventualities in a diplomatic and effective manner. I would be concerned that all the cross-Border co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement would be at risk. Quality of life, day-to-day operational concerns, Border controls, customs and passport checks would be of concern to my area. Interaction between North and South would be a significant issue for people in my area were Britain to withdraw.
The work of the Special European Union Projects Body, the SEUPB, which Professor Todd referenced in her paper, is very important. I was happily involved with Castle Saunderson, the all-Ireland scouting facility, right the way through. It is a wonderful facility. We now have the development and the extension of the Ulster Canal. That is all through the SEUPB and it is very important to the area.
Were Britain to withdraw from the EU, it would affect social life, economic life and quality of life and it would have huge implications for the entire Border region and the rest of the country. I appreciate the opportunity to speak now because I have to speak in the Dáil after the vote on the health Bill. I would like Professor Todd to respond to my concerns about life along the Border as my constituents would like to hear her response.
I apologise for the suspension of the meeting for the vote in the Dáil but the timing of when votes are called is outside our control. We look forward to hearing some answers from Professor Todd to the questions asked.
Professor Jennifer Todd:
I thank members very much for their excellent questions. I am not sure if I can answer all of them in the way members expect. In terms of immigrants, incomers and freedom of movement across the border, it is the case that immigration is a major concern in the UK. That is something I have thought about but on which I do not have clear answers, except that the Nordic Council set up in 2014 a freedom of movement body which is certainly one that we should look at fairly closely in the event of BrExit. The Nordic Council is one year or two years ahead in terms of thinking about how to organise movement between, for example, Finland and Iceland or Norway and Sweden.
As Senator Hayden said, there are big differences between the Nordic Council and any British-Irish situation, not least because of the imbalance of size and power between Britain and Ireland as opposed to the Nordic countries, but on the other hand the cross-learning is something we can very productively do. I will go through the questions and then perhaps come back to some of the issues.
On Northern Ireland politicians and what they are thinking about all of this, my sense is that they are not thinking about it. I was at a conference in the North not that long ago where the general perspective was that nobody in the North is talking about the issue.
They are not preparing. Maybe they are and they are not telling anyone, but my sense is that there has been less discussion in the North than in the South about it even though it will have a major impact on the North.
While Northern Ireland is stable, it is unstably stable. It is a Nationalist-Unionist dualism. The Good Friday Agreement has achieved a great deal, but the system is still fragile, as we have seen in the past two or three years. As a way of dealing with that fragility, addressing North-South relations constructively and strengthening them within the sovereignty restraints of the Good Friday Agreement can only be positive.
I will revert to a number of the other questions in a moment, but I was asked whether there was any point in doing something or whether I would argue more for proactivity than other witnesses. In terms of North-South relations, it is always important to be proactive. I am not an economist, so I am much less certain about proactivity in terms of the cost to the State of BrExit and the ensuing economic policies. In the context of North-South relations, however, it is clear that the cost to this State of instability in the North would be very high, and proportionately higher than it would be to Britain. The North is one of this State's vital interests. Therefore, we must be proactive in our North-South relations.
As to what could replace North-South or British-Irish institutions in the event of BrExit, how to compensate for North-South contacts and how to counteract this within the UK, what I have tried to outline in my paper is that Northern Ireland has been constitutionally anomalous within the UK since at least 1985 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, although one could argue that it has been so for even longer. It is understood as such within the UK. Therefore, British Governments are likely to be more open to negotiating flexible relationships between North and South than they might be between Finchley and Dublin. This is something that successive Irish Governments negotiated throughout the 1990s. It could be pushed further, as both the Conservatives and Labour would be open to it in principle. As to what those relationships should be, Mr. Garret FitzGerald commented at one point in the 1980s to the effect that the South could represent Northern farmers at the EU. That remains more a thinking statement than a policy suggestion. However, there are common interests in the farming community and an openness, albeit at the edges, within Britain to negotiating. For the British state, peace and stability in the North are worth considerable amounts of expenditure and creativity. It is worth considering what creative negotiations can take place on North-South issues, including those relating to the EU, between Britain and Ireland. This should be done at the highest possible level because that is what is required, but other discussions can take place in organisations such as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and so on. We must start airing the possibility of more innovative relationships in the event of BrExit, but also more generally.
As to what the replacement institutions following BrExit could be, walking backwards in Europe would be a catastrophe, but it would also be a catastrophe if we walked backwards in respect of conflicts. Since 1945, most settlements across the world have failed. Most conflicts do not even end in settlement, but in victory or defeat. We must be particularly careful, as walking backwards on one matter can lead to a more generalised walking backwards.
I was asked whether the State could benefit from BrExit. From the 1950s and 1960s onwards, the State has skilfully balanced relationships with Britain, Europe and the US. If BrExit happens, that is presumably what the State will continue doing. As to how we might benefit from BrExit in terms of our access to the European market, Northern Ireland's access to that market is something about which we cannot do much with Britain, but about which we can do a great deal with the North. We should be thinking along those lines. This does not answer the large questions about the cost to this State of BrExit, but one of the points I was trying to make was that the cost to us and the British of going backwards on the Northern Ireland settlements would be high. As this must be avoided, it is a negotiating point.
As to whether there is any point in us doing anything, the answer is "Yes" in respect of North-South relations and enlivening the Good Friday, peace or settlement process. The metaphor used in the 1990s was of having to keep the momentum going, as otherwise one would fall off the bicycle. In some respects, the momentum has slowed a great deal in recent years. It must resume. It will only slow further if BrExit happens.
We should consider the Nordic model carefully and ask experts to discuss how it might be used. It cannot simply be plonked down and applied uncritically, but it can be discussed.
How to negotiate in respect of immigrants remains a difficult issue, and one for which I do not have a simple answer. Freedom of movement is important. If immigrants are being stopped at the Border, so is everyone else. Border constituencies have benefited from the Good Friday Agreement and the easing of Border controls and customs checking. I have undertaken a great deal of research into everyday life in Border areas. In 2004, people in the Louth area, for example, were still quite distrustful of themselves or of North-South relations.
By 2014, a sense of openness had developed. Everybody to whom we spoke was very positive about that sense of openness. For the first time in their lives the Border did not matter and they were able to speak to people to whom they had never before spoken as they were seen as political opponents. People were very positive about this. Places like Castle Saunderson, the Ulster Canal, the Cavan County Museum and small community groups in the North benefitted from Special European Union Programmes Body, SEUPB, funding. Small community groups, small museums and so on have a cumulative affect on relationships across the Border and on sectarian relationships. These are areas in which there could be a fall-off in terms of EU funding if Britain exits the EU.
Professor Todd stated that not only communities in the South but communities in the North will lose out if Britain exits the EU and that this is not a matter on which politicians in the North have engaged to date. The likelihood is that in three weeks' time the main Unionist Party, the DUP, will win a significant number of the seats available for Northern Ireland, and if the Conservative and Unionist parties require the support of another party to form a new Government, with David Cameron retained as Prime Minister, the DUP may be asked to provide that support. If such a scenario emerges, how much thought would be given by the DUP to the effect of the withdrawal on their communities? Does Professor Todd believe that would form part of the DUP's thinking in advance of doing a coalition deal?
I appreciate that Professor Todd is not a politician, but she did not respond to my question on attitudes in the North. One could be angered by the fact that they are more concerned about extracting more from the British Exchequer for their budget than they are about the critical issues we in the South are addressing. It reinforces my attitude to Northern Ireland politics that, for example, Scotland is able to engage in the debate about the role of Britain in Europe and its role as a result of the referendum.
I would like to expand on the dynamic referred to by the Chairman. The DUP is pro-British and pro-establishment, but is it pro-Europe? Sinn Féin will not take up its seats, yet its members profess that their number one aim in life is to create a united Ireland. We know for a fact that Sinn Féin are eurosceptics. Unless we can see into the minds of Sinn Féin and the DUP we will never get a handle on what direction they as a statelet wish to go. It worries me, given that this is our last meeting on this issue, that we have not engaged with forces across the Border on the issues we are addressing, the consequences of which we are very worried about. Is there any way we can bring to the attention of the Assembly in Northern Ireland that we have been addressing this issue now for many months while they have just sat around in their little cocoon?
I wonder if John Donne foresaw what was going to happen in the future when he wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...
What could he have been thinking about?
Professor Jennifer Todd:
I think that the DUP and Sinn Féin have an interest in maintaining agreement and co-operation, because if they do not they will be outflanked, on the one hand by the Traditional Unionist Voice and on the other by the dissidents. They have to maintain co-operation. On the other hand, they are in a situation of having to also please their constituents. Most constituents are not yet thinking in terms of the EU and so neither are the DUP and Sinn Féin. In regard to whether the DUP will enter into coalition with the Conservatives before they consider the consequences, the answer is "Yes, probably; almost certainly." The consequences will become clear but not immediately.
I thank Professor Todd for her contribution and her excellent paper. Perhaps during private session we can discuss further with her how we might engage with some of our Northern counterparts.
This is the committee's final meeting on this issue. We expect to publish a draft report for approval by the committee in about six weeks' time, which will be after the British elections. Witnesses will be circulated with a copy of that report.