Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 January 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Implications for Good Friday Agreement of UK Referendum Result: Discusssion (Resumed)
The joint committee is continuing its consideration of the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions. I am pleased to welcome Mr. Declan Fearon, Mr. John Sheridan and Mr. Bernard Boyle, the representatives of Border Communities Against Brexit. Mr. Fearon will make the opening address. Both he and his colleagues will respond to questions.
I remind members, guests and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones, iPhones and BlackBerrys are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when left in silent mode, with the recording equipment in committee rooms. I also ask them to refrain from switching phones on and off as that can also interfere with the sound equipment for several minutes at a time.
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 or body outside the Houses, 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 directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome our guests and ask Mr. Fearon to make his opening address.
Mr. Declan Fearon:
I thank the joint committee for its kind invitation to address it. I apologise that one of our members, Mr. Damian McGinty, the author of our statement, could not make it. I am spokesperson for the group. I live, work and have my business approximately two miles from the Border. I have been there for about 40 years. I am accompanied by Mr. Bernard Boyle who runs an accountancy business in the village of Forkhill near the Border in south Armagh and Mr. John Sheridan who comes from a farming background. He is a farmer in south-west Fermanagh.
Border Communities Against Brexit came about because of the real concern that the voices of people living in the Border region were not being listened to when it came to the implications of Brexit. Ours is a broad, cross-community and a non-party political group. We invite everybody who shares our concerns to join us in building an effective campaign. We have come together to ensure the North's democratically expressed wish, expressed by 56% of its people, to remain within the European Union is respected. We wish to ensure the views of local communities will be heard when the big decisions affecting their future are taken in London, Dublin and Brussels. The prospect of a new European frontier stretching from Dundalk to Derry, some 300 miles, is not acceptable to those of us living and working in Border areas, North and South.
Our day of action in October was a huge success. There was a huge groundswell of public support, with thousands attending our co-ordinated rallies. It also demonstrated to everybody how unworkable a hard border would be. We met Ministers at the North-South Ministerial Council and attended the all-island civic dialogue in Kilmainham. We take the opportunity to thank all of the political parties we have met and the Office of the Taoiseach for their support so far. We are due to meet the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Dunlop.
We intend to travel to Europe to meet EU decision makers to make them fully aware of the implications of Brexit for the North, especially for the Border communities.
If Brexit proceeds under the current constitutional arrangements, the Border dividing Ireland will become an external border of the EU, possibly classified by the Union as a third country. There is no reassurance for us in hearing both the British and Irish Governments state publicly that they do not wish to see the reintroduction of Border controls and customs posts and the closure of hundreds of Border roads. This may not be up to them alone to determine. Like me, many committee members will probably recall what it was like when there were customs post here. We remember the time of lengthy delays and traffic backlogs crossing the Border. Every other external border of the EU has physical and economic controls. Why should we believe that the Border dividing Ireland would be any different?
The current arrangements for Europe managing its external eastern border are the responsibility of Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency. Frontex supports, co-ordinates and develops European border management in line with EU treaties, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as other international obligations.Frontex seeks to ensure the co-ordination of the actions of the member states in the implementation of measures, thereby contributing to an efficient, high and uniform level of control on persons and of surveillance of the external borders of the member states. Frontex is responsible for the implementation of the hard border that exists on the EU's eastern front. All small roads are closed and people are forced through large designated checkpoints. In Ireland, there are approximately 270 roads that traverse the Border and in the past, approximately 17 of those were designated as official Border crossings. In Slovakia, there are three crossings at Ubla, Vyšné Nemecké and Záhony. These are large-scale crossing with six to eight lanes where passports, visas, vehicles and their contents are checked. Currently, if one lives more than 50 miles from the European border, one must apply a week in advance to gain entry. Anyone living within 50 miles can apply for a yearly pass.
Frontex states that migration is the main issue but it also deals with matters such as the smuggling of excise goods, stolen vehicles and human trafficking. Unfortunately, we know too well of the damaging effect of smuggling and the rise of criminality in our Border areas. Add to that the fact that Britain could have different tariffs on excise goods such as cigarettes and fuel, as well as the forced closure of hundreds of Border roads, and one can foresee a huge rise in resentment caused by a new physical frontier. Apart from the very damaging economic effects on business, a hard Border would also be a disaster for the 30,000 workers who cross the Border daily, the tens of thousands who visit family and friends as well as the tens of thousands who travel for sporting fixtures and holidays, both North and South, on a regular basis.
At a broader political level, a hard Border is potentially much more disastrous. The EU's financial assistance to thousands of community groups involved in peace building and its fantastic support in developing the economy through infrastructural developments such as motorways, train links and telecommunications and supporting businesses to set up and create jobs, has utterly transformed the North of this island in the past 25 years. No one has been left out or excluded. The total financial assistance from the EU co-funded programmes in the North from 2014 to 2020 is €3.5 billion, while in the period from 2007 to 2013 the total was €3.4 billion. The £2.3 billion of EU financial support to the rural community and farmers in the North of Ireland from 2014 to 2020 is another example of the enormity of the EU's assistance to the North.
The UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner with more than €1.2 billion of goods and services, directly supporting 400,000 jobs on both islands and even more among suppliers and surrounding communities, traded between us every week. The Good Friday Agreement has given all an equal identity whether one wishes to belong to the Unionist tradition or the Irish one. The safeguards in the EU Charter of Human Rights are enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement. We are greatly concerned about the effect of a hard Border on the impression of Irish identity in the North and particularly in the Border areas. Currently, it is very difficult to find the actual Border, with free travel and free movement of goods and services. People can just freely go where they want, whenever they want but that could be taken away.
It is also very important that no border exists for those who see themselves as living in Ireland. When we consider that 56% of voters in the North voted to remain in the European Union, the North’s population is being dragged out of the EU against our will and the opinion of 441,000 people who voted to remain is not being respected. We are being totally disenfranchised.
It could be argued that many will view Brexit as a re-partition of Ireland, with hard physical infrastructure. There is at least one generation of people who do not remember the Troubles and at least two generations who do not remember a physical Border. The potential exists for creating a divided Ireland, which will give way to alienation among Border communities and the growth of resentment and frustration as they perceive that their Irishness has been greatly diminished or taken away. The committee will no doubt need to examine the effects we have outlined, as well as the many EU safeguards built into legalisation and the removal of the safeguards enshrined in the EU charter of human rights within the Good Friday Agreement.
We ask the committee to examine in detail the framework within which Frontex operates and the current arrangements on the European Union's eastern border. It should also consider sending a fact-finding delegation to visit that border. Will the committee undertake to find out how the Irish Government will get involved in the Brexit negotiations to ensure Ireland is allowed to trade and operate as it does currently? Does it believe the Irish Government has sufficient resources and infrastructure in Europe to deal with Brexit? Does it know if the Government has talked to its European colleagues to inform them of our unique position and gain support for it?
We need European prime ministers, governments and Commissioners to hear a very clear and strong message on the necessity for the North to stay within the European Union. Does the committee know if the Irish Government has dawn up a framework in order that this can occur. The Government is pivotal in articulating the rights and needs of Border communities and the North's population?
However, possibly the biggest question for this committee is what will be the effects of restricting the movement of people, damaging an entire community economically and disenfranchising it politically? People will feel resentment and alienation as their hard won rights and safeguards are stripped away. This will create an incentive to smuggle and enter criminality when we already have, on the fringes, groups which are ready and willing to use people’s emotions and difficult economic conditions to create division and seek a return to our past.
Mr. Mickey Brady:
I thank Mr. Fearon, Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Kelly for their presentation. As someone who represents a Border constituency, Brexit is a major issue. One of the issues discussed is the common travel area. As I have stated at previous meetings, this appears to be a red herring because it will not directly impact on people who live in Border areas, for example, someone who lives in Newry and travels to Dundalk to work. The impact will be on business, commerce and agriculture.
In my constituency of Newry-Armagh, approximately £200 million was invested in rural development between 2007 and 2014. A brand new, state-of-the-art centre was built in Cullaville with local council and European money. For every £100 received by small farmers in the constituency, approximately £87 is European money. I note in this regard that Mr. Kelly comes from a farming background. Is there a belief among farmers that the British Government will replace this money? If Brexit will have any financial benefits for Britain, they will be felt in the south-east of England. Newry-Armagh and Fermanagh-South Tyrone will certainly not benefit. This is a real danger. People in my constituency, especially farmers, are asking who will replace European Union money. Farmers are having a difficult enough time as matters stand.
My constituency has very strong community infrastructure.
That is directly under threat because a lot of the money comes from European Union funding, etc., with the Peace I, II and III and INTERREG. What happens all of that? Have the witnesses any particular thoughts or comments on that? We could go on all day about the adverse effects of Brexit. There may be some positive results but they are not obvious or evident at this point in time. If one listened on Sunday to Prime Minister Theresa May in her first interview about this, the British have no plan A, B or C. They are totally at sea as to how Brexit may or may not be implemented, even in terms of a timescale. It seems to be very much up in the air.
Mr. John Sheridan:
The farming community where I come from, and in the region, would have no belief in it at all. Before the referendum was held we were told that those moneys would maybe even be enhanced over and above what we already get in direct payments and through rural development. That has not happened and now, after the referendum, the rhetoric is that the guarantee by the British Government will be until 2020. We know that the EU is paying until 2019 so, in other words, that guarantee lasts for only one year and even that guarantee is suspect about the rural development end of it.
What is worse is that it is already happening in the North currently and we are seeing the erosion of EU moneys to farmers. I speak in particular about the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme which has had a business case for the last 40 years through what we remember as the old hill cow and sheep subsidies. That changed into the less favoured areas compensatory allowance, LFACA and then to the ANC scheme which gave some £25 million per year. Last year the disadvantaged area scheme was taken out of that and it ended up with an area of around 380,000 hectares, claimed by some 15,000 claimants for £20 million. This year in spring, around March, will see the end of ANC and in 2018 a payment of 40% of that will be paid. That is it. That scheme will be over.
The environmental schemes, which have not been paid, are all off now. At one time 50% of the land area in the North was under the environmental scheme with up to £48 million in funds going in to it. In recent years that would surely have averaged around £30 million or £35 million. That is not available now. There is new scheme to be announced in February but for part of it - for the larger and wider groupings who will apply - even though one can apply in February, the contracts will not be signed until January 2018 and then a full year will need to pass before a farmer can even apply for payment. We are going to be at least into mid-2019 before any environmental payments come in. Those environmental payments were specifically in Natura 2000 sites - designated areas such as areas of special scientific interest, ASSIs and special areas of conservation, SACs. That rural development money was there as compensation for what a farmer had to do to stand his or her land up to environmental farming standards, and now it is not there. Those standards are EU designations and some of them are local government or Westminster Government designations.
Some £50 million is currently being taken out from the disadvantaged areas of the North. I can provide details on the figures involved. Let alone Westminster, it is also happening in Stormont at the present time. Many of these areas are on the hinterlands of Border areas in more remote and extensive farming areas. It is terrible and it is not only happening in this community. At the Oxford farming conference, Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said she was going to have a bonfire of red-tape. The farmers attending in the audience were asked if they believed it. Almost nobody put up their hands, or 99%. No-one believed it. We all know that the EU legislation is going to be cut and pasted. Clearly no-one believes it here either.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell:
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for coming here today. I think we all agree with the case Border Communities against Brexit has outlined. It is very clear that the North wants to stay in the European Union and for many of us that would be our choice. If, however, we are dragged out of it, what is the thrust of the delegation's argument? Does it feel we should re-run the referendum or should we be resisting the Brexit process? I see this being dragged out for a long time. Does the group feel we should fight or how much value does it see in fighting to minimise the withdrawal process?
Mr. Declan Fearon:
There are two fronts, one of which is to make the European decision makers aware of what this Border means to the community who live along it. For people who live further south or north, it is not an overly big deal but for those who live in the Border corridor, and I am sure there are many here today who do, there are huge implications. Linked to that is the massive change there has been in those areas since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a different place and we want that to continue. I am not so sure that people, and the decision makers in Europe, are as aware of that as they should be and especially after the events of recent days, it will be largely down to the Irish Government to make this point in Europe. I know it is a member of the 27 but it is very important that it get across the views of the people who live there and what it will mean to them and the fact that what is happening in Stormont at the moment is not going to help any of our people get these points across. I do not think they will be strongly made in Westminster. It is up to the Irish Government and the members of this committee to bring that to the decision makers in the Government and say this is what can happen.
At the Kilmainham event I explained to someone how bad this can get. Commissioner Hogan last week presented what is probably the default position, that the roads are closed again. I think back to a Saturday morning 35 years ago when they started to blow up the road alongside our house. That went on all day until there were 22 craters in it. That road was closed for over 30 years or more. In many cases our hinterland is defined by the parish. Of the parish I come from, Dromintee in South Armagh, 80% is in the North and 20% is in the South. I can well remember people coming to mass in the local chapel having to park their cars on the other side and walk or climb across the barriers to walk 500 yards to mass and cross again. Are we going back to that? Nobody has convinced us that we are not. The more I hear about a hard Border, especially now that Commissioner Hogan has said it, I wonder if that is the legacy we will leave our grandchildren. We have to stop this. I listened to Vince Cable yesterday talking about an all-Ireland economy. We have to push this argument because the alternative is unthinkable.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell:
If Mr. Fearon or I were in Brussels tomorrow morning or this afternoon and got to some of those people, my experience is that the first thing they would ask is what we want them to do. I am as enthusiastic as Mr. Fearon about opposing Brexit and undoing as best we can the damage it will do to Border communities, but the dilemma is that we must have a practical proposal they can work on. In the fluidity and vagueness that exists, unless there is a clear cut proposal, we cannot challenge or question it.
The British situation at the moment is bedlam and confusion. While everybody is saying they do not want a hard Border, the common-sense consensus is that free movement of people cannot be controlled without some sort of controls, and controls mean some sort of hardness in the Border. The same applies to customs, the Single Market and so on. If Mr. Fearon or I were sitting in Commissioner Hogan's office, what suggestions would Mr. Fearon like us to put forward? I do not come here as a Member of the Dáil. I come here from the North. What suggestions does he think we should put forward to alleviate-----
Mr. Declan Fearon:
The important issue and the No. 1 issue is that the island of Ireland should be treated as one economic entity. That is the point from which we all must start. The reason we are highlighting the point of how difficult any other solution would be is to make people realise that this is the only solution. It is the starting point at which we all must arrive. As I said, I listened to Vince Cable on the radio yesterday morning, and he was more or less saying verbatim some of what we have been saying here and giving the reasoning behind it. We must get to the point at which people agree that this is the only solution. Any other attempt to create a hard Border, with all the consequences we have outlined, would be disastrous. Getting the European Union decision-makers to sit up and understand this is the first step.
Mr. John Sheridan:
Yes. Part of the reason for what Dr. McDonnell has outlined is, first, that because of the Troubles of the past, Border people are inclined to keep their heads down and mind their own business. I will not say they are subservient in any way, but there is a certain joie de vivreand survive-----
Mr. John Sheridan:
Yes, caution. There is no doubt but that there is mental turmoil along the Border because a huge number of families are joined at the hip. Whereas one area of the North may have been rather a cold place, there was a warmer reception in the hinterland along the Border where they lived and in the South, and many marriages and many farms are spread across both sides of the Border. There is a voice there not being heard yet. If Article 50 is ever triggered - its triggering in March is a rush job to bounce people into it - we will not lose that big voice in Westminster. To look at the Westminster seats yesterday when James Brokenshire was announcing what was happening in Stormont, not very many people were there to listen. They did not seem very-----
Mr. John Sheridan:
That is understood, but there is more strength through the Good Friday Agreement committee. There is a responsibility through the committee. Theresa May speaks as if she will be sitting around a table with 27 other member states when Article 50 is triggered. Well, I am sorry, but my understanding of it is she will be either miles away or sitting in another room and whoever is chosen to be a spokesperson will come to and fro to her. There is a huge weight on the Irish Government's shoulders and on the committee's shoulders. Dr. McDonnell mentioned caution. We are called remoaners. To an extent, that is intimidation. Surely to God, 56% of us are entitled to say what we feel. It is a blank sheet. It has not happened before. Why can agriculture and other business not remain under the European domain? I am just speaking for agriculture. Everybody else can speak for themselves to an extent, but I do not see why there cannot be an island of Ireland economically and some political understanding on the rest. That is not necessarily looking for a united Ireland but, by heavens, it is looking for common sense and trade within Europe as it is at the moment. The consequences of reestablishing a hard Border and dividing Ireland once again will make a wasteland of the North, create a vacuum and suck in all sorts of bad issues we never want to see again.
We have had enough.
Mr. Fearon stated at the outset that he wishes to ensure the views of his group are taken into account. I assure him that I am listening to what he and his colleagues are saying. The same issues are raised with me every day by people in my constituency and elsewhere. Several members of this committee, including myself, attended the protest organised by Border Communities Against Brexit in early October. Will the delegates comment on the proposal put forward recently through the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs that the key decision makers, who ultimately will decide the shape of Brexit, should be invited to the region to see at first hand the disastrous impact any type of Brexit, hard or soft, will have on the all-Ireland economy? The Taoiseach gave a clear indication earlier this year that he would have the next meeting of the all-island civic dialogue forum in Newry, which would give people an opportunity to have further input. We await the announcement in this regard with bated breath. Will the witnesses comment on that proposal? It is only when one gets down and dirty with this business that one can comprehend the impact on the all-island economy if things do not stay the same.
I have often observed at these meetings that for many years we, North and South, have turned our backs to each other. It is interesting that Mr. Boyle is from almost a neighbouring parish to mine but we do not know each other. I am old enough to remember the Border the delegates have described. I have said on numerous occasions in this committee and in the Dáil that many people seem to have forgotten that a hard Border existed for many years after our membership of the EU. The cross-Border concession roads are still there and the witnesses may remember the blue and white signposts that indicated one was approaching an unapproved crossing. There are 38 such crossings in Louth and nobody would wish to return to the situation we had before. I am particularly taken by the references in the witnesses' submission to Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, and the point that there should be strong oversight of how any Border crossings are implemented. Apparently, all the modern technology will make things run smoothly in a post-Brexit situation. I am not confident that will be the case.
The big decisions on all of this will be made by the EU. Do the witnesses agree that Britain, if it is intent on leaving the Union, should commit to providing the same level of funding for all the existing programmes and pro rataincreases based on the cost of living? That will be necessary to ensure the programmes can continue in the long term and the economy can continue to operate on an all-Ireland basis.
Mr. Bernard Boyle:
Like the Deputy, I am old enough to remember the time when there road closures and a hard Border, and the time before that, too. As Mr. Brady said, all the adverse consequences of Brexit have been well rehearsed. Border Communities Against Brexit has a particular concern, namely, the impact on communities on both sides of the Border, from Derry around to Dundalk. We have already experienced the negative effects of having a hard Border, a situation that persisted until what seems relatively recently in my lifetime. We know all of the negative effects on our region of Britain's departure from the EU. We know there many are connections along the Border corridor, on either side, including inter-family connections and inter-business connections. All of those connections will be negatively affected by Brexit and by a hard Border. The reason we are bringing our concerns to this committee is because it is charged with dealing with issues to do with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
It was set up to bring communities together and encourage them to work together. The imposition of a hard border would be a direct contradiction because it would divide communities, families and social groups, north and south of the Border. It would be divisive. As to its effects, in the statement Mr. Fearon referred to the committee travelling on a fact-finding mission to eastern Europe. Deputy Declan Breathnach spoke about visiting Border areas to obtain information. A fact-finding mission was undertaken to the Estonian border and other eastern European borders to see how they affected business, trade and local communities and assess the negative social effects which could easily be transferred if there was to be a hard border here. Currently, the Border is seamless and invisible. A visit to Border areas at this time would be less effective than a visit by committee members to eastern Europea to see the effects felt there and projecting what would happen if there was to be a hard Border here.
I thank the delegates for their presentation which I read in advance. I want to raise a few questions, one of which they partially answered concerning the situation in eastern Europe. We have to face up to the possibility that there may be a hard Brexit. We should not put our heads in the sand and say it will not happen, despite all of the efforts we intend to make. Do the delegates see the rationale behind having a border such as the one they describe in their presentation - in Slovakia - as opposed to having every crossing open, given the economic effects, including smuggling, etc? When I first read their presentation, I thought they were advocating having a Frontex-type border. It was not until they developed the point that I understood what they had in mind.
My second question relates to the provision of EU funding for the agriculture sector. I chair a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly committee on the economic effects of Brexit. When we were in Stormont last year, we met representatives of the farming organisations, among other groups. I have to say that on that day there was no clarity or understanding of where the €187 million required - the figure I have in my head - for single farm payments would come from post-Brexit and there was no concern among the representatives present that they would not receive it. I am, however, hearing a completely different message from the delegates, one which resonates with me more in terms of what I believe will happen. They might clarify the reason we are receiving one message from one representative group involved in the discussions and another from them.
Mr. Declan Fearon:
I will answer the Senator's first question and then let Mr. Sheridan talk about the agricultural end of the matter.
I hope there was no confusion about the inclusion in our submission of the reference to the Frontex document. What we are looking at in that regard on some eastern European borders is exactly what we do not want to see here. To go back to Dr. McDonnell's point, the bottom line for our committee and anybody opposed to the imposition of a hard border is that the Border should no longer run along the 300 mile stretch from Derry to Dundalk. People on all sides of the community have to face up to the fact that it would be impossible to reimpose such an arrangement. It would have to be imposed at the ports and airports of Ireland. The Border would have to be shifted in that way. I know that would have political connotations and would frighten people in the Unionist community, but they would be interrupted in their day-to-day lives as badly as Nationalists.
It is not a green and orange issue up there. That Border cannot be reimposed as a land border here in Ireland. It will certainly have to be at the ports and the airports. As I say, if we gave the impression that the type of border we want is what Frontex has imposed in other areas of Europe, certainly not, it is the opposite to that.
Mr. John Sheridan:
I reiterate what Mr. Fearon said here. It would be more to highlight the futility of trying to have a hard border and advocating to those who say that one can have a border, that it can work electronically and that there are other border crossings through eastern Europe and its neighbours that work, that they do not and that it is not working, and that is more of a geographical split between two countries. The Border in Ireland, as Mr. Bernard Boyle stated, is an invisible split in virtually every case. We would be on the other end of it highlighting how ridiculous a hard border would be. However, we are not unaware of the realities. We ourselves feel that a hard border is coming and coming fast.
We were asked about agriculture. It was remiss of me when I was speaking to the committee not to say that in agriculture, we would get 3% through the Barnett formula. Over and above the Barnett formula, agriculture in the North of Ireland gets 10% because it was an intensive and hardworking sector. Between 2000 to 2002, they created a large pool of funding which left a high payment to each farmer. In fact, if we were to go by the Barnett formula, we would lose 7% of the funding coming in already. That money coming in involves 1 million ha in the North getting €329 per hectare. Approximately €330 million is what comes into the North.
Mr. John Sheridan:
Those are the figures. It may have been contraried - in a meeting the committee had - between what comes in as direct payment under Pillar 1 and what comes in other payments under Pillar 2 with rural development payments. That could be contraried there and I dare say that is what happened.
The committee must understand that the Ulster Farmers Union, with the greatest of respect to it, is not the only farming community lobby organisation in the North. There is also the National Beef Association, the National Sheep Association, the severely disadvantaged areas, SDA, group and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association, NIAPA. There is a voice not being heard. I said this in Monaghan as well and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, picked up on it and stated exactly what Senator Landy stated that such was not the voice that they were hearing.
In fairness to the UFU, I must say it makes its decisions through its executive and it has 14 or 16 committees which feed into it. Whereas it is certainly seen to work in so far as it can across all religious persuasions and walks of life, it would be perhaps perceived to be pro-Unionist. There is a caution - this caution in the North - that one is in one's lobby group, one does not want to fall out with the government of the day and one exercises extreme care.
Most significantly, to answer the question, the Ulster Farmers Union is a part of the NFU. There is an NFU in England, Scotland and Wales and the UFU in Northern Ireland - four sister groups. The NFU adopted a position against Brexit. The UFU sat on the fence. It did not lead and did not take a position one way or another. It held one conference to which the previous president of the NFU, Sir Peter Kendall, was asked.
Sir Peter Kendall missed his flight to the North that night for the conference. Owen Paterson did not miss his flight, however, and I dare say they were booked on the same flight. Owen Paterson was completely in favour of Brexit and he was a former Minister of State for Northern Ireland. He was also an agricultural spokesman for the Tory Party in Europe. He stood up and guaranteed at least the same funding for agriculture as previous for the North and said it would perhaps be even more. He said they would get rid of the rules and red tape. He commented three or four times on the three-crop rule. If one is in Europe and one is going through large fields, one can see some fields to the horizon and the tractors in them look like toys, so it is not too hard having a three-crop regulation there. It does not work on small family farms in Ireland, however. That is what the Ulster Farmers Union did for Brexit, so perhaps that goes some way to explain why a voice is not being heard.
I welcome Mr. Fearon, Mr. Boyle and Mr. Sheridan. During one of the first Dáil debates we had after the UK referendum decision, I strongly advocated to the Taoiseach that we needed to hear the voice of civic society. It is important that the debate would not be dominated solely by people in politics or public administration. I welcome, therefore, the initiative taken by the Border Communities Against Brexit, BCAB, group. I was one of those who participated in the day of action at Aghalane Bridge on the Cavan-Fermanagh border. I represent Cavan-Monaghan in Dáil Éireann. I attended that rally along with elected Fianna Fáil party colleagues from the area, including Senator Diarmuid Wilson, Councillor John Paul Feeley and Councillor Seán Smith. I have to say, however, that I was disappointed with the small turnout. The public at large must be convinced of the import of this debate and the serious challenges facing the entire island. The BCAB group's work in that regard is very important, as is our own.
Mr. Fearon mentioned that he has met the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Dunlop. This implies that he is not meeting the Secretary of State, but I hope I am wrong in that. It would be deplorable if he were not meeting the Secretary of State, given that the representative group covers a large geographical area. I learned from his introduction that he represents different sectors in society also. I gather from Mr. Sheridan that he is not a member of the Ulster Farmers Union. I welcome his comments which are particularly important. Mr. Sheridan said that the Border was invisible, while Mr. Fearon said it was difficult to find. Thank God it is. I grew up on the Border - Mr. Sheridan knows where I am from - with permanent vehicle checkpoints and all that type of thing. As under-age GAA players, we were stopped from going to play matches in Fermanagh or wherever. My own area runs all along the Cavan-Fermanagh part of the Border. A stranger visiting the area would know they were in a different county only when they saw the GAA county colours in summertime during the championship.
It is important to put on record the fact that our island has been transformed since the Good Friday Agreement was signed originally and then endorsed by all the people on this island. There has been major progress. As an opposition Deputy, I would argue that, unfortunately, we have not maximised the potential of the agreement. In fairness to successive administrations South and North, we have underestimated the huge progress in developing business and commerce on a cross-Border basis. If restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services arise from Brexit, we will then see impediments in the way of further progress required on this island, as well as the jobs we need in Border communities.
With regard to agricultural payments, people are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think the Brits will make good the shortfall in the single farm payment or the rural development plans because they will not. One can be certain of that. As a person with experience at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council over a number of years, I know that successive Irish Governments always supported the Northern Ireland Ministers for Agriculture in what they were seeking in support of their farmers. Successive British Ministers for agriculture, whether from the Labour or Tory tradition, were always against the Common Agricultural Policy. That is the unfortunate reality. The shortfall that will arise when Britain leaves the EU, which Northern farmers will lose, will not be made up by the British Government. It is very good for the National Farmers Union in Britain with its hundreds and hundreds of acres per member. It is a different community of farmers entirely from that in the small agricultural holdings in Fermanagh, Cavan, Armagh, Tyrone or Donegal. That is the reality. Our farmers need those compensatory payments. Unfortunately, our farming organisations, North or South, never emphasise enough that the payments that come from Europe are compensatory payments because of the restrictions on production on farmers. That message has never been got across adequately to the taxpayers at large with regard to the good food that is produced.
We have multinational Irish companies today that started as small creameries or beef slaughtering plants which now have a huge presence on all of our island. Lakeland Dairies, which started off in my native county of Cavan, was predominantly a Cavan-Monaghan north midlands enterprise and is a huge player now in Northern Ireland because it merged with another dairy business. Similarly, the former Town of Monaghan Co-op is now LacPatrick. Those dairy processors have sites both sides of the Border. Raw material travels south and north to be processed, finalised and made into a food product. I fear the difficulties that will arise as a result of different regulatory standards that may be in place with regard to the free movement of raw materials and finished product because whether there is a soft or hard Border, if there are impediments to trade there are costs. Those costs will go back to the primary producer because our processors will be less competitive in trying to sell their final product. I fear all of those particular aspects of Brexit. It is alright for Mr. Paterson to talk about the change in the red tape and all of that but not all of the red tape is incorrect because our farmers work to very high standards. That is why today I am speaking for our own State. We can sell food and drink products to 161 countries throughout the world because those markets and those people with purchasing power for multiples know that our farmers and processors work to very high, demanding and exacting standards. That is why we have a great footprint throughout the world, whether for products from Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland. That is not to say that some of the bureaucracy could not be gotten rid of. Many of the requirements and provisions that are in place are for the good of the consumer and the producer as well.
I wish the witnesses well in their work. As a representative of the two southern Ulster counties, I have to say there is huge work ahead of all of us to ensure that people on the ground know the huge challenges and obstacles that may be ahead of us as a result of Brexit.
I will try to be brief. I thank the witnesses for coming here today. I read their submission before they came and had an idea they were going to open up an entire can of worms. They have thrown the elephant into the middle of the room. Their presentation is about the relationship with the Twenty-six Counties in the South and the relationship with the UK. That is really what it is about. The Good Friday Agreement is a tripartite agreement. There are three sides to that agreement - the UK, Ireland and Europe. I agree with the witnesses' belief that there is only one solution here, which is an economic entity that is the island of Ireland.
I am not so sure I would go along with the notion of border controls at airports and things like that, which would be a very political issue. As a civic society group, the Border Communities Against Brexit has really put it up to the entire European Community and to the UK today. The group has now tested our relationship with the 26 because they have to understand the uniqueness of this island. They have to understand what they are putting at risk.
The last two paragraphs of the group's presentation are stark and scary. I also remember what it was like to arrive at the Border and the long delays. I also saw the roads that were blasted to hell in order to stop people crossing them. We cannot go back to that. The day after the Brexit referendum was passed, I wrote an article about the re-imposition of a border and people told me I was mad. However, 26 other partners are included with us. Based on meetings I have attended in Bratislava and Brussels, I would say that a fair portion of them are not too sympathetic to the UK and its problems. A lot of lip service is being paid to the unique problem of Ireland. I am not so sure that anybody really understands what this will do this island and I am really concerned about that.
We have already discussed the money going to farmers in the North of Ireland. I am interested in the movements of agricultural product across the Border. I know it is 1 million gallons of milk a day. I do not know how many tonnes of beef, lamb and bacon cross over and back, and the economic impact of that. I know people move across the Border to work in all sorts of occupations. My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, spoke about raw materials and finished product. It is so ingrained that it is hard to find out. On medevac, we now have two helicopter units in the North of Ireland. Where will that sit in the new situation? There is also the movement of students coming back and forth across the Border.
The bottom line is that the witnesses have told us today that our two economies are so interlinked and so constantly dependent on one another, there can be no divide. There can be no border, soft, hard or anything else. I feel afraid that they are talking about an "Irexit" where Ireland will have no choice, because of how closely interlinked the two economies are, but to follow the Brits. That would really worry me. I would be interested in the witnesses' views on that. I thank them for their presentation.
Mr. John Sheridan:
I completely concur with both the members. I have met the representatives of five businesses in south-west Fermanagh: Tracey Concrete; Encirc, formerly Quinn Glass; Corry's, a large hardware distributor; McVitty's, a large haulage group; and Balcas, an Enniskillen timber company. Apart from cattle and sheep that cross for processing, farmers travel from North to South and back all the time. Farmers travel from the North, through the South, back into the North and back into the South. A farmer living in Armagh who wants to visit a mart in the west will travel through Monaghan, into south-west Fermanagh, cross over at Blacklion and go down to Manorhamilton or Dowra. It is ridiculous stuff, but that is what happens, which is good and indicates a thriving economy.
I am a member of the UFU.
Mr. John Sheridan:
I chaired its hill farming committee twice for six years. I am also a member of every other farming organisation that I mentioned, including a new Southern organisation, the INHFA, because I have a passion for hill farming and less favoured areas.
The committee members referred to people and produce. If they send us the questions, we will answer them all. Succinctly, some 350,000 sheep a year, that is, almost 1,000 sheep a day, are moved out of the North and into the South for processing. The tariff on sheepmeat is 50% so, if there was a hard Border and we had to sell the North's sheep into Europe, we would be at 50% of a disadvantage on price. On beef, the tariff is 65%. Even if we could afford that tariff, and even if we could get our livestock into southern Ireland, does anyone think for one minute that French farmers would like to see product coming out of the UK, as the North would be labelled? There is not a snowball's hope in hell of that. This is the situation we are in. We will answer those questions, no problem, but a hell of a lot of beef travels both North and South.
It was interesting, and insulting for the communities, that when the food processing and food manufacturing industries are so strong on this island, not a word was heard from them before the referendum. What caution is that? Why was that? Why were they not speaking up? It is unbelievable. The committee is quite right. The whole cost will come down to the primary producer, the farmer, and he cannot afford it. There is no flesh there to stick it out.
In 2008 the geopark in County Fermanagh became the first international UNESCO-recognised geopark in the world. It created £17 million each year from 2012 to 2015, inclusive, or approximately €20 million per year. It is a cross-Border geopark that depends on European funding. Who is going to fund that geopark now? It is a fantastic flagship for Fermanagh and compares with any national park in the South, and it is only one of a number of things there.
I was asked about farming and I will give the figures succinctly. At present, North and South, an average farm is 40 hectares in area with 20 suckler cows and 100 sheep. Based on those figures, because of the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the genetics scheme, the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme and a sheep grazing headage subsidy scheme, a farmer in the South is at present €20,000 better off than his counterpart in the North, leaving out the single farm payment. This is due to those payments being made through a good rural development fund. Britain always looked for this but it had the lowest rural development fund in all of Europe because it did not want to pay it. The committee members are quite right that the taxpayer does not realise why we are being paid for what we produce. Unfortunately, national and local governments are inclined to gold-plate the rules that come from Europe, but Europe is blamed for creating them in the first place.
Mr. Declan Fearon:
First, I totally agree with the point made about people on the ground not being aware of how bad this can get. It is up to groups like our own to make people aware of just how bad this can get. I have spoken to many people at home who, for example, think they cannot close the roads again. Yes, they can and, yes, they probably will. I agree it is very important that people realise exactly how bad this can get.
Second, we have asked the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, for a meeting and, unfortunately, he has handed us on to his substitute, Lord Dunlop. We would like the Secretary of State to hear the very direct concerns of the people who live along the Border and to bring those to Westminster.
Mr. Bernard Boyle:
We have all spoken about the adverse affects of a hard Border and I think we all agree on those adverse affects and their degree.
It is also worth pointing out and remembering that quite a number of people along the Border are actually rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a hard frontier. In the 1950s and 1960s, a certain amount of smuggling was carried out along the Border. Such activity involved housewives with sugar and butter and things like that. I do not condone smuggling and what happened at that time was relatively harmless. We see the way smuggling has developed and evolved over the years to where it is now highly organised. It does nothing for the economy of the Border areas. It benefits a number of organisations or families and the money does not trickle down to the rest of the economy so it does not help at all. There is anecdotal evidence to the effect that the people to whom I refer voted for Brexit because it was in their interests to do so. What is in their interests is not in ours. That was another adverse effect of the vote.
There are three other people indicating - Deputy O'Dowd, Mr. Mark Durkan and Mr. Francie Molloy. We will have to finish it there because we have another group coming in. We will come back to the witnesses before we wrap up.
I will be brief. It has been very enlightening to listen to the witnesses. It is extremely important that the clarity of their thoughts and the facts they are giving us are in the public domain. They will certainly influence my thinking. The message I am getting and what I really understand is how important this matter is and how adversely it will impact on their lives and ours. The difficulty is finding the political solution to the problem. The latter is our job; not that of the witnesses. There must be stability in the North and there has to be an Administration that is seeking to reach a consensus and that meet the witnesses face to face and listen to their views. It does not make sense to be going into this dark night, which Brexit is, if there is not an Administration in the North and if there is not consensus. We are members of different bodies and we are parties to the Good Friday Agreement. Some of us are members of the North-South Interparliamentary Association and some of us are members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I return to Dr. McDonnell's point. Where is the plan? We have not really come up with a good enough answer to that yet. Part of the answer lies in an economic agreement between the North and South on which we can build on through people who are not in this Chamber and who have never attended here, but who attend meetings of other bodies. Unless we reach that stage, we will not succeed in having the least impactful Brexit. We are facing the alternative.
We must be able to reach out to the other people in our communities, particularly in the North, who do not participate in this debate. If their voice is not heard here, our voice will not be heard where their voices are strong. Their voice is the strongest. It is not a matter for us or the witnesses. They are the guarantors of the current British Government. Their votes are hugely impactful on its policy, so we need them more than we ever needed them to step forward with the same argument as the witnesses are making. I found it very useful and informative and I would like to be involved, if possible, in any future meetings or events that the witnesses intend to hold along the Border. I would be very happy to attend.
Mr. Mark Durkan:
One of the statements made was to the effect that there is no reassurance in hearing the British and Irish Governments say they do not wish to see the introduction of a hard Border. One of my concerns has been that ever since the Brexit outcome, the British Government and, to some extent, the Irish Government have fallen into the trap, as far as we are concerned, of talking about the management of Brexit as only being about offering assurances that there will not be a return to a hard Border and pledging there will be consultation and engagement with the Executive in the North and that as long as those two messages are given, there is nothing else to worry about, whereas I believe Brexit poses much more fundamental threats than those Mr. Fearon touched on.
It is particularly damaging and threatening to the standing of the Good Friday Agreement in the longer term, including to many of its cross-Border operations and a lot of the facilities for better co-operation and co-ordination across the Border, all of which will be lost. Those benefits are not just confined to the Border areas. Some of them stretch wider than that, but many of them are felt particularly and are appreciated in the Border areas and that would be lost.
Mr. Fearon made the point that some of these points are not made in Westminster. Many of them are made in Westminster but they are not well taken there because they are coming from just a few of us. There seems to be an attitude on the part of the Brexiteers that no matter what serious uncertainty is raised, smug certitude is the answer, which leads to all these platitudes about there being no hard Border or anything else. Mr. McDonnell, MP, is struggling with this issue as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I am stuck on the Exiting the European Union Committee, which dealing with Brexit itself. We have a phalanx of the Brexiteers there. There will be a report from that committee at the weekend in which it will indicate that it will hear evidence in Derry on 23 February. That is the plan currently. Maybe political events will mean that calendar will have to change.
It is important that the sort of points made to this committee would be conveyed and reflected to that broader select committee as well. I would suggest to Mr. Fearon that he change how he is putting some of the points across because of the habit that they have of turning the question around and throwing it away from themselves. If any presentation he made to that committee was as heavily focused on Frontex and those other fears Mr. Fearon has mentioned, they would say that neither he nor they want that, that they would not cause such things to occur after Brexit, but rather that the EU would, and that those concerns should be addressed to it. They have their ways of washing their hands of these matters. We saw that whole syndrome immediately after the referendum - a big boy did it and then he ran away. They tried to clear themselves after doing the damage, which they did not realise they were going to do, but now of course the smugness has come in.
I also hope that in any articulation at that level, including in Mr. Fearon's meetings with Lord Dunlop, that he can emphasise, just as he has done here in the exchange, the Good Friday Agreement itself, both the benefits and how they are under threat of erosion in the future. These people will just try to offer assurances that the Border question is not about them, and then one will find the meeting broadly at an end. I agree with colleagues that in terms of dealing with the Government, one needs more than just dealing with Lord Dunlop. Remember that he is also Minister for Scotland and is, therefore, programmed to say that he cannot do anything special in one part of the United Kingdom and that if he does anything too special in Northern Ireland then it creates a precedent for Scotland. He is absolutely neurotic in avoiding any such thing. It is a matter of putting the message across when one gets to those particular key audiences.
I really appreciate the strength of what Mr. Fearon has said on a number of points today, particularly his blunt point that a lot of the people who are giving assurances about there being no return to a hard Border are not in a position to guarantee that. They get away with the platitude, however, and that is part of the problem and part of the frustration that we have. He is also absolutely correct in thinking that there is not a crock of gold at the end of the Brexit rainbow, which other people seem to think is there, as far as foreign payments and such matters are concerned. It is hugely important that in his conversations with Westminster, when they take place, and with the UK Government, that while he puts his points strongly in regard to the Frontex issues and his particular concerns about the hard Border, that he does not confine it to those areas alone, because the threat here is not just what style of Border controls may be introduced.
The threat here is not just what profile of border controls there might be. The threat is ending up with incipient border-ism. Once one part of the island is in the EU, operating to EU standards and directives, and another part is operating under different ones, then somebody makes it their job to enforce and exaggerate those differences, resulting in creeping tit-for-tat border-ism even when people claim to respect the Good Friday Agreement fully.
After all, we had a bit of border-ism introduced in recent years with the haulage levy. We were told that was not breaching anything but was just something that had to be done. It was not being imposed to force the Border, but it was not possible to make a difference in Northern Ireland just because of our Border situation or because of the Good Friday Agreement. Saying that we see no difference in Northern Ireland leads to that kind of border-ism. The Minister who introduced that borderist measure is now the UK immigration Minister and is giving us the same assurances that he will not do anything to interfere with the Border or whatever, but he actually brought the Border back in haulage terms in a way that it had not existed for a number of years. It shows how much this can happen incrementally and almost accidentally, but nobody can arrest it when it starts.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
I thank the witnesses for the presentation, which puts a focus on how Brexit will affect every aspect of life. The main thing is the respect there needs to be for the 56% who voted to remain.
I have concerns about border controls. It cannot be an inland Border on those 320 miles. It must be at ports and airports because we would be asking the Irish Government to police and patrol on behalf of the British Government and it would also be restricting those European citizens within the European Union area. As Mr. Durkan pointed out, that would be picked upon and someone would see it as a good idea for the Irish Government to look after the ports and borders. We need to tease that out.
Do we have any understanding of why Unionist farmers might have voted to leave despite all the advice the British Government would not follow the gravy train they had previously? Is there any indication of a change of attitude among them on that aspect? I have not found it in talking to farmers. They still seem to be very confident that the British Government will pay out the same amount of money, which nobody else believes.
We need to look for solutions. I know it is political and that is not the witnesses' field. There seems to be reluctance to look at the solution. For all of Ireland to remain within the European Union requires an all-Ireland solution. Politics has to come into it regardless of how much we try to avoid it. It is unlikely that either Britain or the European Union would allow the North to remain in some sort of isolation, and Britain has already indicated it will not. We need to look at what the realistic possibilities are. People are concerned about the sensitivities of the Brits. However, they are not concerned about the sensitivities of our situation. The Irish Government has a responsibility to look after all its citizens. We, in the North, are part of its citizenry and also need to be looked after within that. As long as all of Ireland wants to remain within the European Union, that also needs to be respected.
Mr. Declan Fearon:
I thank members of the committee for inviting us. I hope some of what we have been talking about has been informative to people who may not have thought about these points previously.
I take the point made by Mr. Mark Durkan, MP, emphasising that if we push the hard Border issue, it will allow the British Government to say it is not it that is doing it but the EU. However, our group is specifically a Border communities group, and the big issue for us is the reinforcement of the hard Border. It is difficult not to say it as it is. I think, having listened to many of the comments today, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. This committee has an open door which enables us to vent our feelings and those of people who live along the Border. We would ask that the Irish Government take every opportunity in its deliberations with EU to show it exactly what a hard Border would mean to communities. I think that is a very good point, and the sooner that is done the better. We will certainly be available to meet any delegation visiting the Border area and to discuss what this change will mean. I thank the committee and, as I said, we are open to contact from anybody who wants to contact us in the future, if we can be of any help in the making of these points.
Mr. John Sheridan:
Deputy O'Dowd mentioned Irexit earlier on. Europe has to be conscious of the word "Irexit". We do not have to be subservient to Westminster or Whitehall, nor do we necessarily have to be subservient to those running the EU. They must understand we are in a difficult place. There is an onus on them to act responsibly, as there is on politicians in this country. I know many Unionists who wanted to remain. This goes back to the caution and dominance, again, of Irish politics in the North. Everything gets politicised. Brexit is becoming politicised, and that is very unfortunate, and damning for local communities, especially Border communities. Every one of us is living in communities along the Border. I have to make a passionate plea that Brexit is not politicised. There has to be some responsibility. We have watched the city of Aleppo disappear in months. People on the ground are passionate and do not want to be walked over. They want their voices heard, and papering over the cracks does nothing for local communities.
I suppose everything becomes orange and green, so if people believe they are born under a certain flag, then that is how they should vote, be it on Brexit or something else. They will shoot themselves in the foot because of blind faith, which is terrible. We have got to rise above that. Numerous people have said to me that they have never seen the two communities so polarised, and this after 20 years of peace. There is a responsibility on the leaders from every political party on this Ireland to act responsibly and to listen to the people on the ground, otherwise we are on a slow road to hell.
Sincere thanks for coming in, for the presentations and for the issues raised with and the questions posed to us because they are issues we will consider. Brexit is one of the main issues for us as a committee. There are other issues as well with regard to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, but particularly between now and March, we will focus Brexit, and we will continue to do so after that. Again, I thank the witnesses for the issues they raised. I am sure they will follow the work of the committee and that we will be in contact again. I know some people wanted to speak at the end but unfortunately time is against us. We will suspend briefly before our second session.
We are now moving into the second session which is a discussion with representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance. We are joined by Ms Tanya Ward, chief executive officer of the Children's Rights Alliance, and Ms Saoirse Brady, the legal and policy adviser. I thank them both for being so patient and I also thank them for being with us today. I invite them to give their opening statements, following which we will have a question and answer session.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I thank the committee for the invitation to speak here today. The Children’s Rights Alliance is a national movement for children with more than 100 member organisations. It is our goal to promote the rights of children in our laws, policies and services. For us, Brexit poses profound implications for the future of the European Union and for peace and stability on the island of Ireland. In particular, Brexit raises serious issues for, and poses threats to, children and young people.
We have been working closely on the implications of Brexit with our colleagues in Northern Ireland, including the Children’s Law Centre. We have also been working on this issue with our colleagues on the National Advisory Council for Children and Young People, comprising the National Youth Council of Ireland, the ISPCC, Barnardos, Early Childhood Ireland and Scouting Ireland. As members of the joint committee will know, the last is an all-island organisation.
The EU's structured dialogue, a group of young people that is consulted on EU matters, has also been working on these issues. It is deeply concerned about the implications of Brexit for the future of Ireland, including its children and young people.
We want to focus on five key areas, the first of which concerns the status of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Good Friday Agreement. The committee will be aware that membership of the EU permeates the Good Friday Agreement. It is a pre-existing condition for peace on the island of Ireland. One of the important building blocks for peace on the island of Ireland, and particularly in Northern Ireland, is the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR. It was passed in 1948 following the Second World War and is the main human rights treaty for the Council of Europe. It is fundamental to the institutional and policing changes that have occurred in Northern Ireland. It is one of the core threads of the agreement.
One of the reasons that human rights abuses by the state occurred in Northern Ireland was because there was no instrument to hold the state accountable for things like internment, inhuman and degrading treatment, and the non-prosecution of non-state actors for human rights abuses. The ECHR and the fact the British Government agreed to adopt the Human Rights Act was an assurance for all of us on the island of Ireland that we would never go back and that this would never recur.
Another important aspect of the Good Friday Agreement is the requirement to have equivalent human rights protections North and South. That has led to a lot of positive developments for both parts of the island. We now have an Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in the Republic, as well as a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, and an equality body also. The Irish Government gave further effect to the ECHR through the European Convention on Human Rights Act in 2003. Ireland was one of the last countries in the Council of Europe to do so. The positive benefits of the Good Friday Agreement, including human rights and equality guarantees, can be seen.
It is important for politicians North and South to ensure the ECHR can in no way become a casualty of Brexit. While she was British Home Secretary, Theresa May called for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
It is of grave concern to us, particularly when one looks at the Good Friday Agreement, that this is a possibility. The negotiators, the Government, and politicians in Northern Ireland must come to the forefront in stating that this is a non-negotiable item. The European Convention on Human Rights cannot become a casualty. The other issues we wanted to raise were in the area of child poverty. I want to bring my colleague, Ms Saoirse Brady, in to cover that.
Ms Saoirse Brady:
Child poverty is a priority area for the Children's Rights Alliance. We have done a lot of work on it. We believe that child poverty rates, both North and South, could be seriously impacted by Brexit. We know that with Brexit, Northern Ireland will not receive additional social inclusion moneys from the European Union, nor will it receive further peace funding. We know that the Brexit result has already caused some economic uncertainty, and we would be greatly concerned about any further impact of austerity on children on both sides of the Border.
In the last recession, children, both North and South, bore the brunt of it and of austerity measures. We know that a quarter of children in the North live in poverty, while almost 12% live in poverty in the South, even though in the South we have some of the highest social welfare payment rates in the OECD. We believe there is not enough investment in prevention, in early intervention and in free, accessible and equitable public services in the South. That is one of the reasons for continued high poverty rates for children. The EU recommendation, Investing in Children, outlines a roadmap for lifting children out of poverty. The Government is currently putting in place a whole-of-Government approach to tackling child poverty. They have a child poverty target to lift 97,000 children out of consistent poverty.
What will happen to that if the economy suffers? While the Good Friday Agreement does not specifically mention poverty anywhere in its text, it reaffirms both Governments' commitments to upholding economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. However, one of the most important socio-economic rights is the right to an adequate standard of living. That addresses important issues like food poverty, housing and material deprivation. We believe that any British-Irish agreement resulting from Brexit must include a focus on tackling child poverty both North and South and that this is a key human rights issues and should set out clear indicators and actions for reducing child poverty on both sides of the Border.
I am also going to talk about citizenship and cross-Border legal rights and entitlements of children before passing back to my colleague, Ms Ward. The Good Friday Agreement means that people born in the North have the right to identify as Irish, British, or both. This right to dual citizenship will not be impacted by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland. That is built into the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Clearly, this means that our citizens in the North cannot be robbed of their Irish citizenship, nor their EU citizenship by extension. It is critical that the negotiations between the Irish, British and EU Governments recognise the special status of the North in this regard, and the fact that the Good Friday Agreement protects this important right.
The common travel area and EU free movement rights have ensured that Irish children living in the UK and British children living in Ireland have generally been able to access services on an equal footing. We would be concerned that a hard Brexit will impact on the rights and entitlements of hundreds of thousands of children in both jurisdictions. We are also concerned about the implications for specific groups of children, for example, children who travel North and South to avail of medical services, and Traveller children who move with their families between the two jurisdictions. What implications will Brexit have for them? The answer, of course, is to preserve the common travel area, and to ensure the rights of children and young people are protected in both the North and South. A British-Irish agreement should include a specific obligation to preserve the common travel area and protect the rights of Irish and British citizens in both countries.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I want to bring the discussion back to some of the key areas in regard to children, including child protection, child care law, and family law matters that are relevant in the context of Brexit. Those present are well aware that the EU has developed many different legal mechanisms and instruments governing aspects of children's lives. In the area of child protection, one of the most important instruments is the EU directive on child sex abuse and exploitation. That provides obligations, measures and protocols, whereby countries have to work together to deal with crimes that might be committed against the child where there might be some transnational element.
If someone views images of child abuse somewhere in England and, when the police investigate, it turns out that the material was generated in the Republic of Ireland, there are mechanisms and protocols in place because of EU law to allow the Irish Government to get that information and to use it to investigate, prosecute and potentially take a child into care. These are some of the real-life scenarios that are covered by EU law at the moment.
Another key area is where, for example, an unaccompanied refugee child arrives in Dublin and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, discovers the child has family members somewhere in the United Kingdom. EU law governs the transfer of that child to that jurisdiction if it is in his or her best interest to go to that location with that family member. Another key area is that of child abduction. Let us say two parents in the Republic of Ireland are in dispute and one of them travels to the UK with a child without permission. An instrument called Brussels II is relied upon by the courts to bring that child back to the country.
The committee can understand there are many different ways in which our child protection systems interact and that it is necessary they interact. That is the general drive of EU law and policy in this area at the moment. Many of these key concerns involve a transnational element. We believe painstaking work needs to go into identifying each and every scenario where a child or a family might be exposed because EU law is dealing with this matter. There should be no loopholes for predators to travel from one country to another to abuse a child and there should be no loopholes impacting on the investigation and prosecution of these important types of crime. Child trafficking is a real and present issue that we are all dealing with throughout the EU. We cannot have any gaps in the law.
The most pragmatic recommendation in this area is for us to seek a soft Brexit where the UK remains in all the key legal agreements such as the common child protection system and the child care system. This is in the best interests of children and young people. I recommend this knowing that Theresa May in the media only this week has confirmed that is not going to happen, but that is what would be best for children and young people, namely, for the UK to remain in a common child protection and child care system. In the event that this does not happen, we need to make sure those areas identified are included in a bilateral British-Irish agreement to ensure there are no loopholes. We recommend that the State considers asking Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, who is our special rapporteur on child protection, to investigate this. As it happens, he is an expert on EU law and on Brussels. We think this could be very important in regard to informing the development of the negotiations.
We believe all five jurisdictions - Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England - need to work more closely together on the implications of Brexit for children and young people. At the very least, we must be consulting children and young people in all jurisdictions and making sure their voice is heard by the negotiators and governments in all jurisdictions, as well as by the EU, which also has to hear what children and young people have to say in this area.
On that point, the committee will be aware the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is holding her own consultation with young people on 30 January. This needs to be followed up with leadership by politicians. We need them to fight for children and young people in the negotiations, which will be incredibly important because they cannot become a casualty of the negotiations. We also need leadership from our independent human rights institutions. In the Republic, that will be the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Ombudsman for Children and in the North, that will be the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Commissioner for Children and Young People. We need the independent institutions throughout the UK to stand together to fight the withdrawal or repeal of the Human Rights Act and to defend the Good Friday Agreement. We in the Children's Rights Alliance need to work more closely with our colleagues in all five jurisdictions and throughout the EU to make sure we deliver the best possible deal for children and young people as a result of Brexit.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation.
The more presentations on Brexit we hear, the more I am very struck by Roy Keane's adage, "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail." There is no doubt about the lack of preparation for what we are all going through. Many issues are out of our hands. We would all like a soft Brexit. I do not think anybody would disagree with what Ms Brady said about the common travel area. Northern Ireland being a special case and the Good Friday Agreement are the biggest cards to play.
I have a few questions. Who is listening to what the Children's Rights Alliance is saying that can make a difference in the context of what it is saying and that can make what it is saying happen? Ms Ward talked about working with people in Scotland, England and Wales. The Children's Rights Alliance must talk to people in Europe. What alliances or groups is it talking to in Europe? They are the people who will be at the table when it comes to negotiations on a soft Brexit or hard Brexit.
My next question concerns what Ms Ward said about Theresa May's recent announcement. As a result of what Ms May stated, I think we will be relying more on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Is the Children's Rights Alliance considering, from a legal point of view, where this might make up for the shortfalls we could see come down the line in the context of the work it is doing?
Ms Tanya Ward:
We are only developing our position. Like everyone else, we are trying to get to grips with what the implications of Brexit are. We have met with our colleagues on the National Advisory Council for Children and Young People. This body was established by the Government to advise it on the implementation of our national children's strategy, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. We are the leaders in the children and youth charities and we are coming together to identify what the issues are and to communicate to Government and different bodies with an interest in this area what they need to achieve. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been very active. She has been in contact with all of us asking for advice. The Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, to his credit, gave us a platform at the all-Ireland dialogue to raise these issues. We are one of the only human rights groups that had that position. We think that our politicians care about what happens to children but the reality is that some of the things they will have to seek will be difficult.
Regarding the European Convention on Human Rights, the stated position of the Prime Minister is to get out of the Human Rights Act. How will that be managed? As I said, it is a thread of the Good Friday agreement. It is non-negotiable. I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan that the Good Friday agreement is one of the best playing cards in this regard.
One organisation with which we link is Eurochild, which is a European membership-based organisation. We need to go to our counterparts in other countries and meet them at different fora to explain what we need to achieve for children and young people and what will make a difference. Of course, we will need to take account of what they need from us because children and young people from their jurisdictions are living throughout the United Kingdom, so they will want to see some guarantees for those children as well. More broadly, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has a major role to play. An Irishman, Michael O'Flaherty, leads that agency. We should rely on the agency to educate us on the implications, particularly in the very minute eye of law. Much work must be done by many lawyers to work out what the gaps are. That is incredibly important as well.
Does Ms Brady wish to add anything else?
Ms Saoirse Brady:
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It does not have effect in domestic law. We are starting to see more and more parts of the convention incorporated into domestic legislation - for example, the best interest principle, the right of the child to be heard, which is a key provision, and non-discrimination rights for children. However, we would like to see this in more domestic legislation on both sides of the Border. The Scottish Government was very keen to try to incorporate some of the principles of the convention into domestic law, but that did not happen. It has incorporated certain elements of it, but if we are going to look to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we must consider ways to promote it and ensure it is legally enforceable here as well. We report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as well as other UN committees. The Children's Rights Alliance lead on that process here in the South. We have a lot of contact with our colleagues in the North - for example, the Children's Law Centre.
We can feed into that committee. We know that it makes recommendations. We need politicians and policy makers to take on board those recommendations and to come up with ways to progress them, including by way of legislation and also through implementation of the national policy framework, Better Outcomes, Better Futures. The Children's Rights Alliance is represented on the national advisory council for children and young people and as such it has a key role to play in this area. There is also a role for the UN convention but we need to strengthen our stance on it.
Ms Tanya Ward:
The EU structured dialogue group, which is consulted on EU matters affecting young people, is concerned about the economic implications of Brexit and child poverty. We are calling on negotiators - politicians - to push for measures to address child poverty and to ensure that this issue is central in the negotiations. We understand that this will be difficult because the UK Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, and her predecessor, David Cameron, have tried to dismantle child poverty policies in the United Kingdom but we believe it is absolutely essential to the protection of children and people throughout the island of Ireland.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. It is great to see a civil society group take such an interest in this issue. I am not too sure whether Brexit is a hard or a soft exit will make much of a difference to what is actually going to happen. I was a little concerned about the reference in the submission to there being an over-emphasis on working with the UK, or with the English in particular, but the witnesses have allayed some of my fears in that regard. For me, the real work has to be done with our 26 partner countries. We must first convince them of the problems that we face as a result of Brexit. Whatever happens afterwards with the UK is another matter entirely. I note that the Children's Rights Alliance is calling for a bilateral agreement. The European Union has said that there will be no bilateral agreement, which is a matter of huge concern to me.
As I said, I welcome that the Children's Rights Alliance has chosen to meet with us today. Has it taken steps to meet sister organisations in the European Union, and MEPs from the North and South of Ireland in particular, to lobby members of the European Commission? It will be important that sister organisations in our 26 partner countries lobby their governments on behalf of the group, although whether they will be willing to do so is another matter. I would be interested in hearing a response to those few questions.
Ms Tanya Ward:
Our starting point was to link with organisations in Northern Ireland. We tried to work out what the implications will be on an all-island basis. We have been linking with colleagues in the five nations, particularly Wales and England. I understand that academics are to come together to commission research in this area and to investigate it. We also propose to ask our European based body, Eurochild, to bring all of the relevant groups together in the context of Brexit and its implications because many of them do not know what Brexit means. We ran a consultation of the Children's Rights Alliance in late October. Many members said that while they are concerned about Brexit, they do not understand what it means. They need someone to educate them on what areas of law and policy will be affected. This will trigger them to respond.
A lot of work needs to be done on educating people about Brexit because what it actually means is not clear. I recently spoke at an event in Belfast at which I explained what Brexit means. Colleagues from Wales who attended that event were astounded at what I had to say because none of this dialogue is happening in Wales. Our politicians are too afraid to talk about what it means because they know it is unpopular to be against Brexit. One of the real problems in the United Kingdom is that politicians who lost the referendum are finding it difficult to stand up for children and young people. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to know what we need for children and young people and that we then need to convince our counterparts throughout the European Union in terms of that need and get them to lobby and advocate on our behalf. We also need to know what they need for children and young people, although we can foresee that will most likely be free movement rights for children and young people travelling to the United Kingdom.
They will all be concerned about child protection and the lack of an integrated child protection system. It is something on which we can work together.
Mr. Mickey Brady:
I should declare an interest immediately because Saoirse Brady is my daughter.
I thank the delegates for the presentation. As individuals and a party, we are interested in all 32 counties, not just the Twenty-six Counties and the Six Counties. Child poverty is a big issue in the North and the South. In my constituency of Newry and Armagh a report was produced seven years ago by a child poverty action group which showed that 39% of children in the constituency were living below what was considered to be the poverty level. It is, therefore, a huge issue.
The target of 97,000 was mentioned. It is interesting that when Mr. Tony Blair became British Prime Minister, both he and Mr. Gordon Brown set the target that child poverty would be eradicated in Britain by 2010. That did not happen. It was then decided that it should be eradicated by 2020. That is, however, highly unlikely to happen, given who is now in charge. In fact, it will probably never happen if they continue in power.
There is another point at a purely practical level for somebody like me, whose background is in giving advice on welfare rights. I constantly deal with cases involving tax credits and have raised this matter previously. There are many cross-Border workers who live in towns like Newry and work in places such as Dundalk, Dublin and Drogheda. The point in having tax credits, including child tax credits, is to supplement low incomes. In the North - certainly in my constituency - we live in a low wage economy. Most of the profits made in shopping centres and so forth go back to Britain; very little stays in the local economy, aside from what is paid to those on the minimum wage which is now the living wage. The living wage has affected children. When the British Government announced the introduction of the living wage of £7.80, housing benefit for those on low incomes was reduced because their income had gone up slightly; therefore, this nonsense about improving people's standard of living must be addressed also. One of my issues with tax credits, including child tax credits, is that such cases have become extremely complex because there are two jurisdictions involved. I have been contacted by people with from two to five children who have not received benefits for six to 12 weeks and sometimes longer. This has a direct impact on their children. If Brexit takes place, of whatever type, these cases will surely become even more complex.
The other issue is that the European Convention on Human Rights is a central plank of the Good Friday Agreement. Our purpose here is to oversee implementation of the Agreement. If we see issues, they must be addressed. Obviously, there are ongoing cases in the Six Counties, including that of the hooded men which is being referred back to the European Court. There has been some misinformation or a misunderstanding of the roles of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice. One of them may still apply, even if the British pull out, while the other will not. It is important that people know that there will still be somewhere they will be able to go.
It is very important that we address child poverty issues. Regardless of what administration is in place in the North and the South, benefit issues are administrative issues that can be addressed very quickly. I have been dealing with such issues for a long time. The tax credits system is a total shambles. The first thing the British did was close an office in Belfast. As a result, people in the North must deal with offices in Preston, Glasgow, Liverpool, Blackpool or Cornwall. One is going around the houses all the time. That is something about which the delegates could inquire because it is purely an administrative issue which could be dealt with. It is adding to the level of child poverty and diminishing children's quality of life.
Ms Saoirse Brady:
Certainly, we have raised the issues affecting children on both sides of the Border. We see them impacting, in particular, on Traveller children and children in families where one parent works on the Northern side of the Border and the other works in the South. Recently, there was the announcement of an affordable child care scheme in the South. What will happen with it?
That is going to be quite complex in the context of how those conditions are developed as well. What will happen, for example, to someone who lives in Fermanagh, works in Monaghan and wants to drop a child off to a child care facility near his or her workplace because it is more convenient? There are many questions in that context and we have raised them.
We have been doing a great deal of work in this area. We co-convene a child poverty subgroup with the Department of Social Protection in the Republic under the auspices of the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy framework. We meet with that Department and other Departments and take the opportunity to raise some of these issues. It is something about which we are concerned. Welfare criteria, whether those applied by the Department of Social Protection or the Department of Communities in the North, are complex and people require better information and better support in order to understand them. People accessing the right social security is a fundamental human rights issue.
We have not yet achieved a living wage. Great research has been carried out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and this shows the different costs for parents of children of different ages. That needs to be taken into account. What we have seen with regard to social security benefits for lone parents and their children, in particular, is that they have been particularly badly impacted upon by the recession and the changes to social welfare eligibility criteria. That has impacted on child poverty rates and we would be particularly interested in raising that as an issue. I imagine that the same is true in the North as well.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I want to respond to the question on the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. The judicial oversight body for EU law is the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Cases that could be taken to that court relate to the implementation of EU law. The European Court of Human Rights was founded following the agreement of the European Convention on Human Rights. That court relates to the Council of Europe and the aforementioned convention. The Council of Europe is a pan-European organisation that includes all countries in Europe including EU member states. All European countries are members of the Council of Europe, including Russia, for example. In the context of Brexit, I can guarantee that the UK will not seek a deal whereby the European Court of Justice would have an oversight role so the European Court of Human Rights will become far more important. It will be the only supranational judicial body to which people will have recourse in the event of their human rights being abused in some way by the State. It will be more important in the context of Brexit.
Mr. Mickey Brady:
Could I just make one point about European Union legislation? Back in the early 1980s when I started in the advice sector, child benefit in the South was less than in the North. People who lived in the North and worked in the South had to claim their child benefit where they worked, as is the case with sick benefit and so forth. Through the law centre we took a case and, by means of European Union legislation, we were able to equalise those benefits. That has changed now because child benefit in the South - fortunately and for good reason - is now higher than in the North. European Union legislation has been effective in improving the standard of living for families and children in the past. That case was specifically related to children.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I want to clarify my point on the European Court of Human Rights. There are other supranational courts but they are very particular courts like the International Criminal Court that would deal, for example, with war crimes. In terms of the general civil rights of individuals, the European Court of Human Rights is the most important body for us in Europe.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I do not see how else we are going to work out these issues if we do not secure a bilateral, British-Irish agreement. There is a view that we cannot do this, that the only agreement that can be reached will be between the European Union and the UK and that we must wait and see what happens.
If that is the only show in town, we will have to adapt our strategy and work with whatever agreement is put in place. However, it is clear that there are many different areas in which children and young people are impacted by transnational issues. We have to find some form of legal instrument to deal with those issues because we cannot leave those children exposed.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell:
In the earlier presentation, Ms Brady referred to medical services, the EU directive on child sex abuse, unaccompanied refugee children and child abduction. At this early stage, is there any evidence of a direct threat to current arrangements? While I am aware that these arrangements may be destabilised by Brexit, is there any suggestion that the arrangement between Belfast and Dublin on congenital paediatric surgery and congenital heart defects would be threatened by it?
Ms Tanya Ward:
There is no evidence to suggest that there are any issues at present in respect of these matters. Even if Article 50 is triggered, this law will be in place for the two-year period. However, two years is a very tight deadline to get this right. We should, therefore, have a clear sense now of what will be the issues for children and young people in order that we can plot out and strategise about how to resolve those issues in the negotiations that may happen between different jurisdictions and the European Union.
There are approximately 8,000 EU directives and legislation applicable to the United Kingdom and many of these relate to child protection and child welfare. These are part of the UK's legal system and it would take 40 years to unwind them. The UK will try to unwind some of them. Issues arise with regard to child abduction and so forth. One of the key child protection issues the witnesses raised is the EU arrest warrant, which applies to both jurisdictions. Following Brexit, the EU arrest warrant will no longer apply to Northern Ireland, which means such cases would have to be addressed under an extradition agreement between Ireland the United Kingdom. Given that we do not have such an agreement with the UK, legislation on this matter may have to be introduced, depending on the final agreement reached on Brexit.
On the final recommendation and the special rapporteur, does the Children's Rights Alliance want the committee to seek to have a special rapporteur investigate the implications of Brexit?
Ms Tanya Ward:
We voiced that recommendation to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and it would be of great assistance if others were to support it. I agree with the Senator on the European arrest warrant. The UK has nothing to gain by not being part of the European arrest warrant agreement because these warrants make it easier to move suspects to another EU country than was the case under our pre-existing extradition law because the former eliminated one of the principles of extradition law, namely, that one could not remove someone from a jurisdiction where the offence that is the subject of the extradition request from another country is not a crime. For example, it was not possible to remove a person from the UK to Ireland to be charged with a crime if that offence was not a crime in the UK. The European arrest warrant removed this provision. There has been some media criticism of the European arrest warrant on the grounds that it makes it easier to remove a person to another country.
This is one area where there is an exposure because we do not want people who are suspected of crimes committed against children to be able to hide behind the fact that there is no law to hold them accountable for what they have done. This is one of many areas where the United Kingdom is extremely exposed because it will not have a system to remove suspects from its jurisdiction to jurisdictions in the European Union and member states will not have a mechanism to have suspects transferred from the UK to be tried.
Yes. First, I thank the witnesses for their excellent presentation at the all-Ireland dialogue and particularly the document they presented to the committee today. It is a great template for us around the four issues that have been highlighted. It will be useful as information for the committee, and other committees, in how we have to promote what the Children's Rights Alliance is about. I have two specific and very simple questions. Looking at the alliance and the grouping, I counted some 115 organisations. We know that much of their funding streams would have been from the EU, or they would have been partially funded by it. Could the witnesses comment on the impact on these organisations with regard to the stream of social inclusion money? My second query is about other funding streams. I know money is not what it is all about but, at the end of the day, it makes the world go around. The committee has had a presentation from the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB. It indicated clearly, and letters I have received from various departments in the UK indicate, that the EU will fund programmes up to 2020. The SEUPB commented here that it was exploring non-EU funding streams to countries outside the EU that were being funded by the EU. Has the Children's Rights Alliance explored any of those options or does it see any merit in looking at what other templates might be available in order to ensure that social inclusion moneys continue for the good work being done by these organisations?
Ms Tanya Ward:
It is an area where I wonder if we could argue the special case for Northern Ireland and if it could be part of that special case. The EU moneys have been very important to empowering and enabling organisations working North and South to continue working together to bring down the barriers and to deal with the fear and prejudice. It will be incredibly important, if we have a British-Irish agreement, that this is part of it. We did not have time today to go into the implications for children and young people living in the Border counties. There are some 50,000 children living in the Border counties and their lives play out over the Border. What will Brexit mean for them and the organisations, civil society groups and youth organisations that work together to support them?
There is some possibility and scope to look at funding arrangements. The Good Friday Agreement and the special case of Northern Ireland are probably our best cards in that regard. It has already caused some concern. When we were involved in some EU grants with Northern Ireland partners, there was concern after the Brexit referendum result and questions over what it would mean, for example, if we get the funding, would the funding agreement go ahead? There is also concern in the sector that some of the groups may move south to avail of EU funding and the impact this may have on the community and voluntary sector and on the public. It is not a concern I share, but this is some of the dialogue and discussion that is ongoing in our sector currently and it is something that we need to explore. It is of particular concern to the all-island organisations such as Scouting Ireland, the members of which work together all the time for children and young people. I believe it will impact on those organisations.
Ms Saoirse Brady:
From a very pragmatic point of view, organisations in the South often work with organisation in the North because much of the EU funding would be joint funding. We have a common law system. I have been involved in EU projects where we would deliberately have a partner from the South, a partner in London and then one from another EU member state. That may be a civil law jurisdiction because we have a lot of commonalities and we understand the way the law works in the same way. We would also have many similar systems. Pragmatically, it will be problematic for some of our member organisations who seek joint EU funding for very important upcoming projects.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
I thank the witnesses very much for their presentations. It raises many different issues that politicians and people who deal with legislation need to look at to make sure they are protected. Reference was made to people who live in the North and work in the South andvice versa.
One of the problems for people from the South working in the North and whose childminder operates in the South is that the British tax authorities refuse to recognise that situation and to pay out on the vouchers for those individuals. This makes matters very difficult for people who are obliged to crisscross the Border because they are left out of pocket and this increases child poverty and raises the issue of working mothers. Has the Children's Rights Alliance had any experience of that problem or is there any solution in respect of it?
Ms Saoirse Brady:
I do not have direct experience but I am aware that the issue arose. As far as I know, Law Centre NI took a case on cross-Border childminding. I could send on the reference to that if I have it. That issue will continue to arise. Habitual residence has come into play for welfare payments on both sides of the Border. Having tests on where people live versus where they work always poses a problem and that will not be eliminated if we have any kind of Brexit.
Ms Tanya Ward:
We have a recommendation around the common travel area and trying to ensure children enjoy the same rights and entitlements in both jurisdictions. If we do not secure something like that for people from Belfast who work in Dublin, they will not be able to avail of child benefit as they can at the moment because the United Kingdom is a third country. All of these things need to be untangled. We have tried to come up with some global solutions to capture all of those situations. The common travel area seems to be a useful tool to make sure all children and families can be protected.
I welcome the Children's Rights Alliance's presentation. It contains excellent material and raises very important issues in respect of the rights of the most vulnerable group in society. I and some of my colleagues on this committee have raised the issue of funding cross-Border projects with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, and with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. At that time there was concern about the British commitment to fund projects up to 2020. Subsequently, the British Chancellor gave a commitment that the funding is secure and the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, assured us at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting in November that the funding is safe and ring-fenced. My colleague, Deputy Breathnach, and I attended a meeting of the North-South Interparliamentary Association at Stormont and afterward we met Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who was strongly of the view that the funding is secure. Deputy Breathnach and I then raised the matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. Given the doubts about the availability of funding in the next few years, I told him that some community groups would not put a great effort into preparing applications when funding might not be available. We all know that a lot of preparatory work is involved for voluntary and statutory organisations before drawing down EU funding. Before Christmas, the Minister told me to let him know if any groups had concerns about the security of the funding they expected, or hoped, to draw down after the processing of applications and said he would try to assist as much as possible. If there are projects it would be useful to bring them to our attention and we could raise them directly with the Minister. I commend the Children's Rights Alliance on its work. The issues the witnesses raised are of great importance to all of us.
Mr. Mark Durkan:
I welcome several of the issues the witnesses have touched on, not least that it has made a point of going to the fundamental question of the durability of the European Convention on Human Rights, via the Human Rights Act 1998, as far as the North is concerned.
That issue is being underplayed in the debate on this island around Brexit because people do not realise that the agenda of many of those who are pushing Brexit at UK level does not stop there but seeks also to achieve the disposal of the Human Rights Act. Such a development potentially has implications for the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. The great repeal Bill that is being discussed in Westminster is basically a great download and save Bill, which notionally will take all existing EU law and put it in UK law. The problem, of course, is that all those laws can thereafter be deleted at will. If, at the same time this is happening, we have a debate that moves towards the abolition of the Human Rights Act, we are facing a situation whereby people will insist that the UK Parliament should receive those competencies transferred from Europe, even though many of them, under our devolution settlement and under the Good Friday Agreement, are properly devolved. There is a risk that efforts will be made to keep those competencies in some type of holding pattern in Westminster so that when devolution does take place, after the Human Rights Act has been removed, the rights benchmarks attaching to these things have already been interfered with. If those key, rights-sensitive areas of devolution are only properly devolved after the rights have already been diminished, they cannot be topped up again in the North without cross-community support. If they devolve straight away on transfer from Europe, however, they cannot be diluted except where there is cross-community support to do so.
This is probably taking us into a more political space than we might want to be, but it is a key issue. It is not a wee, pedantic point of preciousness about where or when devolution begins. Rights can be lost within that gap. In fact, we could well be faced with a very serious mind-the-gap situation in respect of children's rights and all rights. This is not the paper point some people might seek to make it as to where devolution transfers and what rights standards apply at that time. The issue is that once we find ourselves outside the sort of social policy Wi-Fi that comes from being in a commons rights understanding, that is when we are set to lose. Many years ago, when I was Deputy First Minister and we were drawing up the legislation to establish the Commissioner for Children and Young People in the North, the then British Secretary of State intervened because some of the proposed powers of the commissioner would apply to children in detention, which came under the Northern Ireland Office. The Secretary of State told us we could not have the term "best interests of the child" in the legislation. There followed a whole rigmarole as to whether we should be referring to welfare, rights or best interests. We were eventually successful in including all three but the point is that when one is outside that ambit of being able to say "This is the standard we are in and we want to stay with this benchmark", then, at a policy level, the people who are advocating the highest standard of rights will be in a weaker position. That is where context is important in considering these matters.
In regard to some of the cross-Border issues, a lot of the good work that was done in Border areas, such as in the area of family and child services, including for Traveller families, was taken forward under the auspices of Co-operation and Working Together, CAWT, which was EU funded. I am not sure the two Administrations would have sorted out many of the issues that were sorted out or improved were it not for that type of funding from Europe. Now all that funding is potentially lost for the future and that is where we face the real loss. We must challenge the complacency on these issues, the idea that what we have now will always be there and everything will just carry on steadily. That sort of progress does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability. It needs systems, structures and a context, and it needs funding.
Reference was made to the situation of cross-Border workers and benefits for children and so on.
When tax credits were first introduced as a progressive measure by a Labour Government across the water, under the rules, child allowance that was paid in the South counted as part of the means test in the United Kingdom and the North. That was only changed when I got the Paymaster General to reverse it and give money back to people. That came about because nobody had properly thought about it. We are in a situation now where, post-Brexit, the EU-derived rule that child benefit or allowance is paid according to where the person works will go. That issue arose when David Cameron got his Brussels deal. When I asked both him and George Osborne in the House of Commons if child benefit would not have to be paid to EU workers and what that meant in respect of cross-Border workers in Northern Ireland, they did not know. They had not thought about it and said nobody had raised it until I asked the question. There are aspects of that which could work out well for some families and children, depending on the way that rule falls, but it must be taken in hand to ensure we do not end up with many inadvertent outcomes that cause problems nobody intended to cause . However, it will be very difficult for anybody to properly solve this matter in a coherent, rights-based way.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I will make a final comment. I welcome what Mr. Durkan said. It is hugely encouraging because the joint committee has a fundamental role to ensure that the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, is not down played in the context of Brexit. We are surprised that more attention has not been brought to it because it is so fundamental. It is a key aspect of the Good Friday Agreement. If we pull that thread, what other thread do we pull?
I used to work for the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and my colleagues, who would have campaigned around the Good Friday Agreement, would say that those human rights aspects, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, were very important to give people faith that the peace process was durable and would work - "durable" was the word they used. People could lose faith in the peace process if we deviate in any way from the ECHR.
Another issue of concern is that we could have political instability with Brexit. We do not know the implications of it. That instability could happen in Northern Ireland, and it is precisely at that-----
Ms Tanya Ward:
It is precisely when there is political instability that human rights matter most because they control excessive state actions. Those are the pressure points at which states make mistakes and interfere with people's rights. That is something we need to consider when we think about the ECHR and its fundamental role in protecting peace on the island of Ireland.
Ms Saoirse Brady:
I would add to that in terms of devolution and the ECHR. There is a role here for the national human rights institutions. For example, the Scottish Human Rights Commission has raised the issue of repealing the Human Rights Act and what that means in terms of the Scotland Act. I assume there is a similar provision setting up the commission in the North. The members of this committee, looking at the Good Friday Agreement, should be talking to the national human rights institutions such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human rights Commission. It could be a good step for the committee members to meet with both those bodies to see what they can do in strengthening their hand to keep the ECHR.
On the child protection and child abduction proposal, with the agreement of the committee we will write to the Minister in support of the proposal. We will also look for a copy of that report and follow it up from there. I thank the witnesses for attending and for their presentation. The issue is very important and it is often overlooked or forgotten. The children are our next generation. They will be the ones dealing with the fallout from Brexit for a lot longer so it was good to have the witnesses before the committee. I thank all the members for their co-operation. particularly as we had a longer than normal meeting. We will go into private session now and then adjourn until Thursday, 26 January.