Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Seanad Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union
Engagement on Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union
We will proceed with our engagement with the Cabinet Secretary, Michael Russell, who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Russell to the committee and I thank him for joining us. He and I have engaged a number of times over the past four years on the Brexit issue. Brexit has been one of those once-in-a-generation issues that has taxed both of our countries. Scotland and Ireland have shared many concerns and many challenges throughout the Brexit process and he and I have discussed this at length on different occasions. On behalf of the committee, I extend a céad míle fáilte and much gratitude to him for making himself available today to make a statement to the committee and to give the Scottish perspective on Brexit as we approach the end point. We might then take questions from the committee and have a back-and-forth. We are, of course, more than happy to take questions from Mr. Russell on any issue he might want to raise with the committee. I invite him to make his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Russell:
Móran taing gu dearbh. As the Chairman said, we have spent some time talking about this over the past four years. She describes Brexit as a generational event and it seems to have taken a generation to get nowhere. I am pleased to join the committee today. I am sad it is not in person as I always enjoy my regular visits to Ireland, which I have done all my life, and I look forward to being able to visit again as soon as it is possible and safe to do so. The work the committee is doing is of great importance and I look forward to reading its report in due course.
Let me start by stating two facts, one of which will be known to the committee and one of which may not be. The first fact is that Brexit is not something that Scotland voted for. The Scottish Government profoundly regrets the outcome of the vote in 2016 in which Scotland voted decisively to remain a part of the EU, and that remains the position in Scotland and, of course, of the Scottish Government. Neither can we simply vote to choose independence and to re-enter the EU. The constitutional settlement under which we live requires a vote in the House of Commons, as well as in the Scottish Parliament, for a referendum. It was never intended that this would be a political blockage but the current UK Government has made it one, and is resisting granting any such vote in the House of Commons. We are, therefore, in something of a limbo but I do not intend that Scotland should be in that for very much longer, and in my portfolio I handle constitutional affairs, as well as external affairs and Europe.
I entirely agree that the disaster of no deal must be avoided and the crippling uncertainty we are experiencing needs to come to an end. Negotiations are well past even the 59th minute of the 11th hour. However, even if a deal is secured, the UK Government approach means it will be a very basic deal, what I call a low deal. There is a problem in the language used to describe these things because “deal”, as it is used by Boris Johnson, seems to indicate there will be something to look forward to in it. Whatever happens, businesses will face significant changes in the way they function from 1 January. There will be disruption, there will be difficulty with some supplies, there will be dislocation in law enforcement and legal affairs and there will be problems for almost every sector of Scottish life in every community.
We have repeatedly urged the UK Government not to put Scotland or the UK through this in the midst of a pandemic but the UK Government has ignored that, as it has ignored much else. Taking the option of an extension to the transition, which was available up to the end of June, would have been not just the sensible thing to do, but the humane thing to do. What has been done is reckless.
In our interconnected world, it has never been more important not just to communicate, but to uphold the values that we share. That means the Scottish Government is determined to maintain our close connections, our values-based connections, with our EU neighbours, with whom we have clear and close political, social and economic relationships, as we have across these islands. Scotland will continue to be an outward-looking, progressive, internationalist country.
Our relationship with Ireland is particularly important. We are cousins and I am delighted to see this relationship develop even further thanks to the work of the Scottish Government office in Dublin and the Irish Consulate General in Edinburgh. We continue to work on bringing those relationships closer, and we are working with a view to the implementation of new procedures in that relationship. I also want to want to reinforce the Scottish Government's unconditional support for the Good Friday Agreement. We are committed to preserving peace on the island of Ireland, and any comparisons we make with Northern Ireland in the Brexit process are done in that spirit.
Whatever the outcome of negotiations, we have had to work very hard to prepare for what will take place on 1 January. As a result, we are doing significant work on mitigation activities.
It is still not entirely clear, for example, what will happen at Cairnryan, and what will happen in terms of goods moving across to Northern Ireland and through Northern Ireland into Ireland and the EU. There will be increased checks no matter what happens. Institutionally, Scotland's voice in these matters has been ignored. I have been a member of the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) for the past four and a half years. I am the only person who has remained on it for the entire process. During that time, the committee was charged first of all by the UK Government - it is a joint committee of the UK, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales - with approving the Article 50 letter and then having oversight of the negotiations, but neither of those things has happened. We did not see the Article 50 letter until it was sent and, in terms of oversight, we have consistently been ignored. Now, the Internal Market Bill, which is about to finish its passage through the House of Commons, will further damage the devolution settlement. The way in which the UK will seek to foist bad trade deals on the other nations of these islands is utterly unacceptable. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senate did not recommend consent, but there is a mechanism by which we can be overruled and we have been overruled.
Let me state what I believe is the bottom line in all of this. We believe Scotland is in the process of transitioning to independence. This process has been accelerated by Brexit but it is not caused by it. It is a process that has been going on for more than 100 years. All the recent opinion polls show a majority in Scotland for that, but given the nature of the UK constitution, that it is not an easy journey. We will attempt to mitigate the effects of Brexit. We will plan to work our way through those effects next year. We will have to acknowledge the reality of that situation, but we will also continue to plan and work for a time when we can re-enter the EU. I look forward to working very closely with Ireland in that process and to joining Ireland within the European Union, where small independent countries can flourish. It is a great tragedy what has happened with Brexit for the UK, but it cannot be allowed to define the future of Scotland and it will not be allowed to define it.
I thank Mr. Russell very much for his opening statement. He mentioned the Scottish Government Office in Dublin. I thank him for reminding me. I want to extend my thanks to that office as well. It has been very good in facilitating this engagement. It has worked with me on many occasions. It is a great office.
Mr. Russell mentioned Ireland's special relationship with Scotland. I note that there is an Ireland-Scotland joint bilateral review currently under way between both Governments. That is a positive step in the future development of the relationship between both countries. I will open the meeting to the floor and take some questions. We can go back and forth. Mr. Russell is with us until 5.30 p.m. so we will work to that timeframe.
I thank Mr. Russell for his presentation. I will ask three short questions. Fisheries is obviously one of the big sticking points and it is a critical industry in Scotland. How does he believe the fisheries issue can be resolved satisfactorily?
There has long been close co-operation between Irish higher education institutions and Scottish higher education institutions. There obviously will be challenges, in particular in the research space, but there will be also opportunities. How does Mr. Russell believe that can best develop?
How does he believe the Oireachtas can develop closer links with the Scottish Parliament in a post-Brexit scenario?
Mr. Michael Russell:
I thank Senator Byrne for those questions which I will take in reverse order. On the relationship issue, it is important that the Scottish Parliament and the Oireachtas are in communication. This is one of the ways in which we can do it. We can give evidence to committees, but we can also make sure that committees, for example, can sit in joint session and can also undertake investigations and can meet each other in circumstances in which there can be meaningful dialogue in this connection. We do that with a range of bodies and I would like to see that happening here. Senator Byrne and the committee members are very welcome to visit Scotland and we hope they will do so when it is possible.
I am a former education secretary in the Scottish Government. I very much appreciate the work that is done between higher and further education institutions in the two countries. We have been very happy to welcome Irish students. There are difficulties in going ahead with that on the terms that we have been able to do so, given Brexit. What we were doing was based on our opportunities under European law, but we will continue to encourage work between the institutions. It is difficult for Scottish institutions and their research basis. I also have a live involvement with Glasgow University. Their access to European funding will be substantially diminished and may be cut off altogether. It is not clear yet whether there will be continuing involvement with European programmes such Horizon, Horizon 2020 and their successors. That is one of the problems. If it will not be within that setting, then we will clearly not only be cut out from funding but from the wider interchange of ideas which is part of the research experience. There are five Scottish universities among the top 200 universities, in a nation of 5 million people, so we are "a nation of the mind", so to speak. Just as Edinburgh is defined as the "capital of the mind", we are "a nation of the mind" and it will be very distressing for us, for example, not to be able to lead projects which we have led up until now. Most, if not all, Scottish institutions have been renewing and cementing their relationships with institutions across Ireland and that will need to continue. I think it will continue. Opportunities will be sought for joint academic and research activity.
On fisheries, we have taken a very clear view that we are not the negotiating party. Much as we have been tempted to give our view on every detail of the negotiations, we have not done so. We feel it is best that the negotiation takes place without a constant commentary from us. As we wish to re-enter the EU, we clearly are conscious of the shortcomings of the Common Fisheries Policy for Scottish fishing communities. We are also conscious of the fact that fishing in Scotland is not a homogenous industry. I represent 23 inhabited islands on the west coast of Scotland and their inshore fishing is a very different industry from that, for example, of the major fleet in the north east. Interestingly, fishing boats and enterprises from the area will be able to choose to land in Northern Ireland if they are able to do so after 1 January because they may be able to sell directly into the EU, which would not be possible if they landed in Scotland. There will be a problem for processing and another problem will be selling the goods. One can catch as much as one wants, but if one cannot sell it to people then one does not have a business. People in my area are involved in selling seafood, which is very problematic. Many of the catches here are sent directly to Spain and that transportation is very quick, but if there is any delay or hold-up then there is a problem. If one sells live langoustines to restaurants in Paris and they are sitting on a motorway in Kent for seven days then, by definition, they are no longer alive. There are problems to be dealt with in that regard. I will not give a preference in terms of the negotiations, other than that the negotiations must be clear to all parties and must make sure the Scottish fishing industry is viable.
I thank Mr. Russell. It is good to see him again, even if it is just virtually on this occasion. I look forward to seeing him at our next plenary, wherever that might be.
I will make a couple of points and then I will ask a question. It is heartening and uplifting to engage with someone who is a Cabinet secretary with responsibility for constitutional affairs. My experience in this institution is that when one mentions constitutional affairs and a change in them, it gives rise to gasps and sometimes a wee bit of outrage. It is positive to hear that the Scottish experience is putting forward that.
It is also encouraging that Mr. Russell mentioned support for Scotland's return to the EU. The North has an opportunity to return to the European institutions. That is provided for in the democratically endorsed Good Friday Agreement, a route for which I am sure many in Scotland would give their right arm, but that is something we should look to and laud given the democratic endorsement for it in this State.
In terms of preparing and planning for constitutional change, will Mr. Russell give us his view on how important he believes that to be in terms of properly planning, informing, engaging and having dialogue on any constitutional change? Some of it is very sensible in the course of the Brexit dialogue and the trauma that has been inflicted on both Scotland and the North of Ireland, both of which voted to remain in the EU. I say that within the context of the Scottish experience, which is not entirely separate from its campaign for independence, and in terms of the work of this committee, and understanding the importance of preparing and planning for future constitutional change within the context of providing against the shock, negativity and harm caused to us both by an unwanted Brexit
Anything I say is clearly within the context of Scottish constitutional politics. I would not dare to assume that I would come into constitutional politics elsewhere. All constitutional politics are different. I have been the cabinet secretary with responsibility for the constitution over a period of time. Indeed, ten years ago I had responsibility for the constitution of the Scottish Government. That remains a constant. As we have been debating the constitution in Scotland for well over 100 years, this is not a particular shock to us. There was an old joke in the 1970s, when devolution was first fully on the agenda, that the only difference between devolution and evolution was that devolution took longer. In Scotland, we are quite used to spending time considering these matters.
We fully understand the need for the arrangements that have been made for Northern Ireland and absolutely support them. However, it makes us reflect upon a truism, which is that Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit and has been treated in a special way. Wales voted, regrettably and narrowly, for Brexit and has had Brexit. England voted for Brexit and has had Brexit. Scotland is the only country that voted for something and has had nothing. Scotland did not vote for Brexit and yet is being forced into that situation. That was not necessary. It was perfectly possible to envisage a different way forward. We published a series of papers, starting in December 2016, called Scotland's Place in Europe and put forward a range of options and compromises, which fell on deaf ears. The process of Brexit is one in which there has been a steady rightward movement of the UK Government and that Government has been less and less willing to compromise or to listen to any other voices. The tragedy of Brexit is that if there had been a discussion about everybody getting something in 2016, we would not be in the extraordinary, damaging and chaotic mess in which we now find ourselves.
All I can say on the wider constitutional issue is that Scotland is quite clear that we need to move on. It is clear even to those who do not support independence that the situation needs to be resolved. Any means of doing so has to be an inclusive process. We learned a great deal from the Citizens' Assembly experience in Ireland. Indeed, I visited Ireland to look specifically at that some time ago and went back to Scotland with it. I had responsibility for all constitutional affairs, including that, and we established a Scottish citizens' assembly which is just coming to the end of its initial deliberations, despite the pandemic. It has been a difficult experience for it. We believe in inclusion and that this has to be an inclusive process and we are trying to achieve that. The referendum we had on independence in 2014 was a very positive thing. Some disagree and we learned from that. It was a very positive and energising thing and I want the current process to be the same. Regrettably, we live in a time of polarised politics. Finding a way to avoid that polarisation is very important to us and ensuring that citizens are engaged and informed is a big part of that.
Mr. Russell is very welcome and I thank him for taking time out to be with us this afternoon. He has mentioned the word "tragedy" a number of times in the context of Brexit. Unfortunately, that term cannot be overused when it comes to Brexit. However, we have to move on from where we are. On the future and where we are going, where does Mr. Russell see the future of the UK going forward, as a result of Brexit? Scotland had its own referendum back in 2014 but I just wanted to know how he sees things in the UK progressing. There is some work going on behind the scenes on the relationship between Ireland and Scotland, by both Governments. When does Mr. Russell expect to have a final report on those discussions? What future does he envision between both our islands, bearing in mind that Scotland will be outside the EU? What can we expect in that regard and what limitations are there? Mr. Russell mentioned the Dublin office earlier, as did the Chairman. Where does he see the future of that office progressing regarding that relationship?
Mr. Michael Russell:
It is very important that we invest more in our overseas offices in order to maintain contact at the highest possible level. We are expanding that network and will continue to expand it and the Dublin office will continue to be very important to us. I pay tribute to John Webster, who is listening in to this meeting and who has run that office. I want to make sure we do even more than we have done.
The review of the relationship is ready to be launched. Clearly, the difficulties with Brexit have been a problem in getting that done, along with everything else that is going on. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I have essentially signed off on the outcomes of the review. The process was very productive. We learned a great deal and I was very lucky to spend a bit of time in Galway during the most recent election talking to people and as I already knew, the similarities between my own constituency and what was being done in the west of Ireland were massive. There are whole areas where we can work together and we have identified and laid out those areas, plus the structures we put in place for regular meetings and annual reviews. This is a very productive thing. It is the first time we have done it and I believe it is the first time Ireland has done it. It will give a good structure to ensure our relationship flourishes.
The question of what happens to the UK needs to be divided in two parts. Constitutionally, the UK is in a process of flux but that is not new. It may have accelerated but it is not new and it is certainly not new in terms of the Scottish issue. How the UK relates to the world and places itself in the world will depend very much on the current UK Government and any future UK Government. The current UK Government believes that there is a thing called "global Britain", mistakenly believes that there is some glorious past which can be returned to, and believes that it will become a beacon of free trade and buccaneering activity. I personally think that is misguided, to use the kindest possible word. It does not pay any attention to current reality. The Senator said we should pay attention to reality and we accept that the UK has already left the EU and that the transition period will end on 31 December. The reality I am looking for is a grounded sense of reality about our interdependence. We live in an interdependent world. Scotland will pursue that and I would like to see the UK pursue it. However, I am not persuaded that that will happen. Therefore, we will have to make our arrangements first to say who and what we are and then make our linkages as productive as we can with everybody, but we will not be told what to do. Devolution is a delicate dance around Westminster sovereignty. That dance has to stop and we have to all behave like adults and equals. That is what we are looking to do.
Mr. Russell is very welcome and I thank him for joining us. This is a very interesting exchange. There have been huge bonds between Scotland and Ireland in geographical and cultural terms, and in every sphere, over the years. In that context I am delighted that the Government has initiated a review of our bilateral relations. That review began in 2019 and will hopefully develop. I would be interested in Mr. Russell's response to this. I am not sure of the level of it at the moment but given the cultural links I see great potential to increase the tourism product between Scotland and Ireland, in a post-Brexit context, as part of a bilateral review. There would be great opportunities, particularly in the part of Ireland in which I and a few colleagues here live, north of Athlone and north of the centre of Ireland. There is great potential for further linkages in that area. I would be interested in Mr. Russell's response to that.
In that context, we welcome the Dublin office. A few of the previous speakers addressed the question I was going to raise, which is the degree to which, ironically and paradoxically enough, Brexit has authors and support among very strong unionist people in the UK.
I refer to people who are nationalistic in the context of the UK. Ironically, those people are likely to cause the break-up of the UK. I apologise if the witness has already addressed this issue, because I was slightly late coming in, but what is the timeframe regarding and the level of support for independence in Scotland now? In a post-Brexit context, when is it likely that we might see a referendum which could result in Scottish independence? How quickly might we then see Scotland back in the EU?
In addition, does the witness see trade being slowed and choked up because of the workings of customs processes between the UK and Ireland? Will that situation bring great delays in trade? Turning to the topic of agriculture, what will happen to that sector in the UK now? Is it likely to turn inward and seek to supply the domestic market? Agricultural products from the UK were being exported to Europe. In a post-Brexit situation, if they turn inward, what will be the future for farmers and the agricultural sector in the UK? I thank Mr. Russell.
Mr. Michael Russell:
I thank the Senator for that range of questions. Let me start with the review. I agree that tourism is a key issue. We essentially have to reconsider and reinvent tourism after the pandemic. It will not be the same. The area which I represent is extremely rural and includes islands, and the tourism industry there has been badly affected by the pandemic. It has been a year of three winters. What we need to do is rebuild that industry, but to rebuild it in a sustainable way. I am sure the review will contribute to doing that and that the joint product will be an exciting one.
There are other things in the report, however. There are references to the food and drinks sector, for example, and I will come back to that when we talk about agriculture. The other issues addressed concern energy, cultural exchange, climate change, depopulation and rurality, which I think we can address, and language. Those are all things we need to look at in this context, and they are strands on which we can build and develop. I am sure we are going to do that as a result of the review, which is a very positive thing.
Turning to the issue of trade, I think it is impossible to tell what will happen. The biggest pressure undoubtedly lies in the short straits and some of the English ports. That will be problematic. How much this issue will come up between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and how difficult it will be, will depend on volume, phytosanitary inspections and how much would be waived through in the first six months, which is a worrying thing from my perspective regarding in respect of what that might mean. It is not going to be business as usual, however. Another element concerns how well prepared people are. It is understandable but still concerning that many companies have, inevitably, been focused on Covid-19 rather than Brexit, and therefore the level of preparation may be lower than we would want.
Moving onto the issue of agriculture, a no-deal Brexit will mean that the imposition of tariffs will be very damaging. If we look at Scots and Welsh lamb, for example, a tariff of over 60% would just completely destroy that trade, so there are problems in this area. We have responsibility for setting agricultural support in the Scottish Parliament, and we have indicated that this should be what we think we will be a period of transition and security. We are not, therefore, trying to make enormous changes to agricultural support. The UK Government, however, seems to want to make much more profound changes in agricultural supports. We are, though, much more often supporting people on marginal land. Agricultural support is not homogenous, just as fishing is not homogenous, and that impacts on what we do and how we put forward agricultural support supports.
It also impacts on how we relate the agricultural sector to the food and drinks industries. There has been an enormous growth in those industries in Scotland in the last ten years. We have been in government for 13 years, and one of our priorities when we entered government was to expand the food and drinks industries. We, or more accurately the people of Scotland, have very much succeeded. These industries are vitally important and they will be hit by what is about to happen. As the committee knows, food supply chains are difficult things. It is not necessarily easy to divert local products into local chains, because there are issues with price and sustainability in that process. We are looking at all those aspects, however. I hope the future of agriculture is bright, but it will be difficult and it will be a difficult period for people in that sector.
On the subject of what will happen with the referendum, as I said in my opening remarks, which the Senator may have missed and I am sorry about that, it is not in our gift to simply hold a referendum. If it was, we would have done that by now. It must be agreed between the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons. It was a positive mechanism when the Scotland Act was originally passed in 1998. Alex Salmond and I negotiated that with the then Government of the UK and the Secretary of State for Scotland, the late Donald Dewar. It meant that there was no glass ceiling to devolution, because there was a mechanism through which the people of Scotland could move on.
Reading the debates on that Bill will make it clear that the intention was that the mechanism was to be automatic, so that if the people of Scotland chose to have a referendum they could do so. It has essentially been weaponised by the current UK Government, and its predecessor, to state that there cannot be agreement because it will not allow a referendum to be held. The response of the same people in government in London can be imagined if the EU had told them that they were not allowed to have a referendum on Brexit. The sky would have fallen in, but that is the position we are in. It is an issue we must address and we will address it through the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections in May.
Support for independence has not fluctuated much since the referendum in 2014, where the final result was 54% to 45%, although there was one period in the last ten days before that referendum where the "Yes" vote had been ahead. The last 16 opinion polls in Scotland have now put support for independence ahead of opposition to it, and that is very positive. Like most things in Scotland, however, we will treat that with caution. We have a big set of arguments and debates to be had on this subject, but the first thing we must do is to get that referendum and get the referendum Bill passed. We have already set the franchise and done the technical work in that regard. We now need a short Bill which turns the key on this referendum process and posits the question and the timescale. I have repeatedly said that I hope a referendum could be held reasonably quickly. We have decided and made it clear as a party that we will publish the final part of the referendum Bill before the elections in May. We will put that Bill to the people in the election. If people who endorse it are elected, then we will pass the Bill rapidly and move quickly to a referendum. I can see no reason that should not take place next year. It is certainly desirable to have it soon.
We must also ensure that this matter does not drag out and create insecurity or uncertainty. We want to ensure that this decision is made by the people of Scotland and that we can then move on. After that, there will be a process to be gone through in joining the EU. We have observed the acquis communautairefor nearly 50 years and done many of the things required, but there will be a process and we will have to go through it. It just depends on what it looks like. In the process of accession, of course, the debate and argument and the way we move forward will be different. I hope all of us will approach it in a constructive spirit, if the people in Scotland indicate that that is what they want.
I welcome Mr. Russell and thank him for giving his time to speak to us. Senator O'Reilly has touched on many of the aspects I was going to ask about, but I will raise some issues regarding what Mr. Russell mentioned. We have shared values and history, and we are closely related in many aspects, as evidenced by Mr. Russell's reference to our nations being cousins. Tourism is close to my heart, and Senator O'Reilly has already invited Mr. Russell to Cavan and Monaghan. I extend an invitation to my county of Kildare, with which Mr. Russell is also probably very familiar.
I will expand on some aspects of the sport and tourism links between the two countries, which will arise frequently as we draw closer to the post-Brexit era. Mr. Russell has commented on the tourism aspect. From a sporting perspective, we were drawn in the same rugby group only the other day, for example, and we are obviously going to be closer in this area as well in the coming years. I wanted to touch on the tourism aspect, in particular, because, as Mr. Russell said in his reply to Senator O'Reilly, increasing our contacts in that area will be so important post Covid. I am delighted to hear about the office in Dublin and I think we can replicate that in the bilateral relationships which are being built up. I again thank Mr. Russell for joining us and for his replies on the tourism aspect.
Mr. Michael Russell:
I never refuse invitations, so I am delighted to be invited to Kildare. I shall be there as soon as I possibly can. I agree with Senator Wall on the sporting and tourism links. These are all things which we have and need to build on.
The content of Brexit makes it much more important that we focus on them. We have sometimes been casual about relationships in the past but we now need to be very serious about them. Certainly on our side, we need to be very serious about them because we are being put at a remove of one step. We need to move back from that. Of course, the review is part of the process to make sure we are not put at a remove. It would not happen in tourism or other areas. I am sure it would not happen through the rivalry on the sports pitch, whatever the sport. In this part of Scotland, shinty is bigger than football. I am sure the annual battle will continue with even greater vigour.
Could I reflect on how the industries in Scotland will be prepared for what happens in the next two to three weeks in respect of a Brexit deal? Taking into account the key industries that I always look to, I believe Scotland has an amazing distillery industry. It probably has the world's most renowned distilleries. Over the past ten years, the work done in the food and drink industry in Scotland has been amazing. Particularly where distilleries are concerned, Scotland is way ahead of the rest of the world in so many regards. How prepared are the industries for what will happen in the next few months considering the tariffs and all the extra work associated with exports and regulation that never had to be done before?
There has been commentary in Ireland that Irish companies are of the view that the UK side of the water has not bought into the changes that are going to be very much apparent in the coming months. Is Mr. Russell happy that the Scottish economy is prepared for what is going to happen? Is he happy that the industry is informed such that when the changes come, there will still be an opportunity to engage and trade with the EU?
Mr. Michael Russell:
That is an acute and important question. I am not confident that industry of any nature is fully prepared. That is the experience in the UK as a whole. There are a number of problems. One is the concurrence with Covid, added to the winter pressures and the fact that Covid has dominated companies' thinking, as it must have done over recent months and will continue to do. A lack of preparedness will be an issue.
There are some things that cannot be prepared for. If one does not know what the situation will be, it is impossible to prepare for it. That has been a disincentive. People have thrown up their hands and asked how they can prepare if they do not know what to prepare for. There is a feeling that people have been lulled into a false sense of security over the fact that this is the third approach regarding no deal. It has worked out twice before but people do not realise this time that a deal, while not quite as bad as none, will be pretty bad. Also to be considered is the general recession that will come out of this. The figures in this regard are clear. There will be a hit to the UK economy, including the Scottish economy. Added to the Covid hit, there will be a comparative slowdown, even worse than that across the EU. Therefore, we have big issues to address here.
Let me take the whisky industry as an example. I represent in the Scottish Parliament the second largest number of distilleries. My colleague Mr. Richard Lochhead represents the Spey distilleries. I represent Islay, Jura, Campbeltown and such areas. The whisky industry has seen a boom, of course. It has continued to grow. There are two new distilleries on Islay alone, and a third in planning. There is a very strong view that the whisky industry will grow and expand forever. The demand for whisky will continue, I am sure, but the supply chain is difficult. Bruichladdich Distillery, one of the most imaginative whisky distilleries in Scotland, based on Islay, told me very graphically three years ago that its bottles came from France. How was it to deal with that? The design of a bottle is very important. It was a question of whether people could pick up the slack in the UK. Much glasswork is done in the Czech Republic and some is done in Poland. How does one get the supply chains altered? A lot of work has gone into that, and it probably has happened.
What the whisky industry hopes for is no great interruption to trade. WTO tariffs are not as critical in this case as they are in some others. A continuing willingness to purchase is required. There are competitors but Scotch malt whisky is a unique product. On continued geographical issues, protection of geographical indicators is a problem. It is absolutely clear that the US producers would like to be able to call their products Scotch whisky and Scotch malt whisky, which would be a problem. All these factors have to be addressed.
Why on earth are we doing this? It is the most extraordinary waste of time, effort and money that could have been spent elsewhere. Added to that, Scotland did not vote for Brexit. It is all tragic, as I have already been quoted as saying. It is extremely disturbing.
I thank Mr. Russell for his ongoing interaction with us. He offered to meet us when times are better and when it is possible to travel. That would be really useful.
For a long time, Ireland has positioned itself not with cap in hand but in such a way as to demand that it be regarded as the part of the EU, recognising its geographical isolation. We often talk about being on the periphery of Europe. This is where I see so many connections with Scotland. Scotland is still on the periphery of Europe geographically but it is no longer in the EU. It is also on the periphery of the UK. Ireland is still part of the European Union but we share and will share some very considerable issues that have been addressed by others. It is imperative that we begin without delay to engage in dialogue and put in place an appropriate platform whereby we can share our concerns and try to forge a relationship that looks to solutions, notwithstanding the position that Scotland will have in the UK, for however long that might be. How long Scotland remains in the UK is a matter for itself but there is now an opportunity for us, through our shared history and shared vision for the future, to determine how we can protect our economies to the greatest extent possible. While it is difficult at this remove to know where the synergies might lie, it is important that we begin the process. In my time as a member of this committee, I will be trying to push for a much closer relationship between Scotland and Ireland, albeit in an ad hocway because Scotland will not be part of the EU. Clearly, Ireland does not want to be part of the UK. An essential part of our relationship will involve trying to forge closer links with the UK to the benefit of citizens here, in the Six Counties in the north of our country and in Scotland.
Mr. Michael Russell:
I would be very keen to see that done. I am sure my colleagues would be very keen on it as well. There is enthusiasm for going to these lengths. The review may give us the structures to take forward our co-operation. Parliamentary structures are important, as are informal ones. I encourage all this. We have looked with great envy at the solidarity of the EU 27 and the support they have shown for Ireland. It stands in stark contrast with the position we have found ourselves in. We look at the Irish position with envy because there has been solidarity and an understanding of the Irish perspective. We have not had such treatment in the union of which we are currently part. We hope we will be able to rejoin the EU in a way that would reflect our two states' important common ground. While our countries have more languages than one, they would be two English-speaking countries in a bloc of only three. Malta is the other. That would be very useful. We would have very strong shared interests.
We note the work Ireland has done on an international scale and its having been elected a member of the Security Council. We see that Ireland has just recently signed a treaty we are enthusiastic about, the nuclear weapons treaty.
We see a great correspondence in terms of how we see the world. That can only give both of us strength, provided we are able to exercise it.
I thank Mr. Russell for his engagement. Both countries share many challenges in the Brexit process. Mr. Russell remarked on the solidarity that Ireland has been shown by other EU member states and by the bloc sticking together. We have displayed much gratitude for that and have been heartened to see that solidarity. The relationship with the United Kingdom, however, is still so important for Ireland. While we remain committed members of the European Union and we will be forging different paths for now, we still want to protect that relationship with Scotland and the rest of the UK because they are our closest neighbours.
We have done much preparation at our ports in Ireland. Obviously, we rely on the land bridge quite a lot for imports and exports. That means many of our trucks go through Dover. I know this is a particular concern for Scotland as well, as it is the entry point for many of its goods. We do not have the fullness of information we might like to have about preparations at Dover. Could Mr. Russell shed some light as to how things are shaping up at Dover Port for 1 January? I assume there will be some disruption. Will he give us some picture as to how this might look for the first couple of weeks and months?
We have been quite keen to support business through various grants and loan options. We are supporting our haulage industry and exporters to get registered and to take on the extra responsibilities of the paperwork that will be in place when the new rules and regulations come into existence, whatever they might be. How is Mr. Russell finding supporting Scottish business? What schemes has Scotland got in place from which we could learn? Is there some scheme that has been done very well which we might be able to replicate here?
How is Scotland preparing for the supply of medical supplies and products? Does Mr. Russell envisage any products that might not be on the shelves come mid-January? How is Scotland shaping up in ensuring the continuity in supply of medicines and medical devices for its citizens?
Mr. Michael Russell:
Not only do we understand the importance of the Irish-UK relationship, the Scottish-UK relationship is also important. The rest of the UK is our most significant trading partner. There is a social union. Not only was I born in England but my mother and my grandfather were born there too, meaning there is a strong social union. What is important is putting that relationship on the basis of equality. Without that equality, the relationship cannot be as good as it should be. We recognise that and we are all in the same position on that one.
On Dover, I do not think I know more officially than what the Chairman does. We simply do not get the information we need to have. We are able to glean information, however, and understand it in the context of the two rounds of previous preparations for a no-deal Brexit. The real issues will be how long the delays will be, how long any inspections will take and how long any paperwork will take. The recent exercise in which each lorry was subject to 45 seconds of additional inspection led to a massive queue at Dover. If there was any industrial action of any description or reluctance from European hauliers to come into UK, then we would see substantial disruption. This is why these lorry parks have been established and there will be a system of permits for lorries going in and out of Kent. If any possible weather disruption - that is not impossible in the winter - is added to that, there could be a situation where there could be significant shortages. It would not be hunger but it would be significant shortages. If a person is used to buying an avocado every week, then he or she might not be able to get one. It could be much more serious than that too.
We would expect any such shortages to show up after 1 January. There has been significant stockpiling by supermarkets, suppliers and others. It is hard to do that during the Christmas season when there is a large amount of stock in any case. One just has to put things in places. It is the worst time of year for that because warehousing is at a premium. We would expect, however, that there would be no immediate impact up until 31 December. Then there would be an emerging impact on food supplies and other things going both ways. Food exports, particularly, could be affected with a slowdown in activity.
Some of the problems we have seen in the run-up to Christmas because of stockpiling and additional goods coming in could ease the situation. It is difficult to tell, however. The UK Government itself has admitted that food prices will rise and it anticipates some shortages.
On business support, the UK itself has undertaken information schemes and so have we. We have worked through our banking group, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to make sure that there is availability of information. We have targeted particular key players. Like Ireland, Scotland is a smallish country and we can do that. Those countries we know that are likely to be affected, we will be able to target them. There are many small hauliers, individual drivers and small businesses which may have put off dealing with Brexit or have been badly affected by Covid. We will not know the effect of that until what happens on 31 December and the outcome of the negotiations. There may be a period of grace, which many people have asked for. In that case, it would ease any restrictions happening.
On medical supplies, we are focused on making sure supply is maintained. The National Health Service was established in 1947 as a devolved organisation. Accordingly, we have control of the Scottish National Health Service. We have been working with the UK on category 1 supplies to ensure that all three nations - Scotland, England and Wales - can guarantee priority transport for medicines and medical devices, as well as veterinary medicines.
We have also undertaken our own stockpiling in addition to the UK stockpiling. We are comfortable that we have enough supplies. If I remember correctly from the figures from last week, 88% of the items we have tended to stockpile are there while the other 12% are due to come over either this or next week. We believe that we have done enough to resolve that issue.
There is also the issue of substitutions. The Scottish formulary for prescribing is slightly different from that in England. That is a product of different health services. There has been a requirement for us to do some things differently, which we have. We also stand ready to put in place additional measures. That is why our equivalent to the UK's Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, COBR, the Scottish Government Resilience Room, SGoRR, was stood up ten days ago on a daily basis. That is why our local resilience partnerships are now in operation, a team of senior ministers meets to deal with winter resilience, which are recurrent risk issues, and the smaller group of senior ministers will start daily meetings immediately after Christmas. We are prepared and preparing. We will go on doing so for as long as we can.
We are also dealing with staff in these circumstances who have been on the front line since the start of the Covid pandemic. There has been a considerable strain on them, which is an issue we are concerned about. It will produce an additional burden on all of these people who are helping our society as it is. That is yet another example of the tragedy of this.
Scotland seems to have done a huge amount of preparatory work by the sounds of it and taken similar approaches to those we have taken. I think Scotland is as ready as one could be, given the monumental changes coming down the tracks for both countries.
I thank Mr. Russell for taking the time to speak to the committee and to take questions from members. It is much appreciated. Quite a number of members remarked on what a pity it is that we cannot meet in person. We would very much like to do that. I know Mr. Russell would be of the same view. Certainly, at the earliest opportunity, we would love to have that engagement yet again in person. We will seek to do that in the coming months ahead.
Meanwhile, we will keep in touch behind the scenes and see how we go over the next couple of weeks. I wish the negotiators well on both sides because it is in the interests of citizens across the board to get a deal over the line. I sincerely hope that the impact on Scotland is as minimal as possible.
We look forward to continuing to build relationships between both countries in the months and years ahead. I have no doubt that we will continue to do that. I thank Mr. Russell on behalf of the committee. We will talk to him soon.
I welcome Congressman Neal to this committee. I thank him for making himself available to engage with us. Congressman Neal is chairman of the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and is joining us with the assistance of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Mark Daly, who made the arrangements. I thank the Cathaoirleach. We appreciate the engagement. It is a crucial time for Ireland with the Brexit process. I know that Mr. Neal is acutely aware, as a friend of Ireland, of the implications of Brexit for Ireland with regard to our economy and society, the Good Friday Agreement and peace on this island. I invite Mr. Neal to make an opening statement and then we will open it to the floor to take some questions and have some engagement.
Mr. Richard Neal:
I thank the Chair and Senator Mark Daly, who is an old friend and has been a terrific advocate on Capitol Hill for a long time. I thank members of the committee. I just ended a phone call with members of the Friends of Ireland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis. We had a lengthy conversation with him about Brexit and its ramifications. I should tell the committee by way of introduction that it is a long-standing interest of many of us, myself included, to see the success of the Good Friday Agreement as one of the paramount achievements of American foreign policy. My own interest and involvement began with the hunger strikes in the North more than three decades ago. I remember how difficult that was as it was conveyed to us here in America, with the long-standing friendship and loyalties that we have because of parents and grandparents born on that island. That in some measure is a reflection of how American foreign policy has always manifested itself as a reflection of domestic politics. We have played a strong and sturdy role in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement and as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
I have one important observation, having engaged with numerous British Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State and Members of Parliament. Speaker Pelosi and I met with the Brexiteers on behalf of the Friends of Ireland. It was not one of the more cordial get-togethers that we had. It is important to remember that there were three strands of the Good Friday Agreement. Strand two included Belfast and Dublin, and removing that Border. It has worked beyond all of our imaginations. Government is back up and running in the North. People argue about the more mundane issues of the day. During the more difficult moments, as the Irish protocol was threatened, I raised this issue assertively with Prime Minister May, Members of Parliament and also with the Irish Government. Our argument was asking why we would jeopardise the success of the Good Friday Agreement, given that it brought to an end the longest-standing political dispute in the history of the western world.
The statistics here are most valuable. Some 30 years ago, there were 30,000 British soldiers in the North of Ireland in a geographic area the size of the state of Connecticut. One could not move or go anywhere and one tradition held the other tradition in place. Policing was unfair. Economic opportunity was in many instances almost non-existent. The success that we have witnessed to this day is hardly perfect. We have not come to believe that they have all fallen in love with each other but in the crucible of politics, we think that they have developed a path forward. In the conversation that we have just had with the Secretary of State, we encouraged a reminder of that success and said that there could be no jeopardy by returning to a Border or the threat of a Border.
I think the Border was an invented issue or dispute that was raised in Brexit. In the conversations that I had with the foreign minister, Mr. Raab, when he flew here to see me twice and met with Speaker Pelosi, he made the argument that it was the European Union that was jeopardising a return to the Border. We took a contrary position and said that was not the case. Speaker Pelosi, to her credit, sided with us on this issue. In the recent visit that we had, when I spoke with her and said that I thought there was an active effort being made to discourage us from visiting the Border, she said to me that we are going to the Border. I could not have been any happier. We went to the Border and pointed out the success that we have all had a chance to witness, all of these "it could never happen" moments. We have reminded the Secretary of State, British Prime Ministers and members of the British Government that there can be no jeopardy to the Good Friday Agreement. That visit drew considerable attention across the Republic of Ireland and the North.
I congratulate the committee and Members of the Oireachtas. Political parties in the Republic have been extraordinarily helpful by all seeing this from the same vantage point. There have been efforts in the past to divide Members of the Oireachtas over some of the more nuanced parts of the discussion that have taken place in the North. Members' unwavering support of us has made it considerably less difficult as we offer a plausible path forward. I thank the committee and would be happy to take any questions that members might have. We retain the necessary enthusiasm for seeing through these events.
I thank Mr. Neal. His words come home to us. The support that we have received from the United States over the years, during the peace process and to date, carries much weight and is important to us in Ireland. That vocal support has had a profound and positive impact on the Brexit process to date. Mr. Neal mentioned Speaker Pelosi. Her comments were warmly received across Ireland, including the comment about the potential for a trade deal between the US and the United Kingdom should Brexit go badly. It means a lot to us to have that support from across the water, from Mr. Neal's party and from Congress. I neglected to congratulate Mr. Neal on having President-elect Biden officially elected by the Electoral College. It is a great moment for the USA. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad has extended an invitation to the President to come back to Ireland at the earliest opportunity, and we look forward to that future engagement.
In the context of Mr. Neal's comments on the future trade deal between the United States of America and the United Kingdom, will he comment from the US perspective, to the extent that he can, on what impact a bad Brexit, a no-deal Brexit, or a weak Brexit deal might have on the US and the UK striking that trade deal, and in particular should any harm come to the peace process, and notwithstanding assurances that have been given by the United Kingdom?
Mr. Richard Neal:
As irony would have it, I am sitting in the room where the trade agreement would have to be constructed and ratified by the Committee on Ways and Means. The ways and means committee has broad responsibility for trade, tariffs, security, Medicare, pensions, welfare and management of the public debt. It is a very small working committee. The Office of the United States Trade Representative currently has adopted my position and I have a good working relationship with it. The trade representative's successor, Katherine Tai, is a member of my staff and she understands fully the position we have adopted. I understand that a sovereign decision was rendered by the voters of the United Kingdom, but there is also another part of it that reminds all of us of how precarious those negotiations are, and that is they made this decision. In no way should that decision, as it is finalised hopefully in the next few days, offer any jeopardy to the Good Friday Agreement, or there will not be any bilateral trade agreement entertained by the ways and means committee. President-elect Biden was ceremoniously acknowledged yesterday as the President-elect. We will ratify this on 6 January in the House of Representatives. The President-elect has reinforced that position and he has a long-standing interest in it, as do the Speaker of the House and the chairman of the ways and means committee. We all see this issue the same way: no trade agreement if there is any jeopardy to the Good Friday Agreement.
I thank the Chairman. I also thank the chairman of the ways and means committee, Mr. Neal, for coming before the committee today and being part of this process. Because Congressman Neal's ancestors come from Kerry, we have a great connection. I hope to welcome Mr. Neal back to Kerry very shortly, and of course when he comes with President Biden when he visits Ireland very shortly to address a joint session of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.
It is well known to people in this House and to people in Ireland that Congressman Neal is not just an Irish-American or a friend of Ireland on Saint Patrick's Day. He is a friend of Ireland every day, and has been for decades. Mr. Neal often pointed out that even his own constituents were wondering why he was involved in seeking peace, and he was involved long before the peace process even took root. His constituents questioned Mr. Neal's involvement and he said it was because it was the right thing to do. What Mr. Neal is doing now is obviously vitally important because without Irish-America and without the pressure put on the UK Government to make sure it abides by the Good Friday Agreement and abides by the undertakings it has given in this Brexit process, we would not be in the position we are today where the Border remains open. This is to Mr. Neal's credit.
I thank Congressman Neal for coming before the committee today. His contribution is very important because it is not heard just in this Chamber, it is being heard across the water too. They are listening to what Mr. Neal is saying, and what he is saying is very important for the peace process and for Ireland. I thank him for his time. I also thank Congressman Neal's Chief of Staff, Billy Tranghese, who despite the surname is one of the best friends Ireland has, along with Mr. Neal.
I thank Congressman Neal for his many years of work and support for Ireland and on the peace process. Mr. Neal spoke of how important it is that we work in a cross-party fashion. Equally, as Mr. Neal will be aware, the success of support in the United States of America has been because of working across the aisle with Democrats and Republicans. It has, perhaps, been a little bit challenging with the White House over recent years. It might be unfair to ask a Massachusetts Democrat, but on the importance for us of also working with the Republican Party, where does Mr. Neal believe that party will go with regard to its relationship with Ireland, the UK and the European Union?
My second question is broader. There is an opportunity now, and especially with a Biden Presidency, for the European Union and the United States of America to work more closely on trade issues and in tackling some of those global challenges, including climate change. In this post-Brexit scenario, where does Mr. Neal see the relationship between the United States of America and the European Union developing?
Mr. Richard Neal:
Last week I was one of the speakers at a retirement party for Peter King, a Republican from New York. We were full partners and never had a word of disagreement as it related to the North, and we are also good friends. I like former Congressman Jim Walsh, a Republican from New York. This morning I was on a call with the Secretary of State where Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, could not have been any more aggressive in his questioning of the Secretary of State about the Pat Finucane murder, because that is what it was. We have always tried to keep this bipartisan and bicameral, and I believe we have succeeded in doing such. This is one of the reasons it worked.
The Friends of Ireland, which was founded by Speaker O'Neill, a friend to me, was based upon the idea that what was taking place in the United States of America because of gun running had to be brought to heel. The trade-off for that was there had to be a serious discussion about addressing the inequities that had existed for the nationalist people in the North of Ireland. The plan that was developed, the Friends of Ireland, was to try always to be an honest broker while understanding that one of the traditions might not always see it that way. At the same time, they always got a hearing in the United States of America. They might not have liked the answer but they did get a hearing. Speaker O'Neill's vision in establishing Friends of Ireland was meant to offset the primordial grievances that many of us felt about the North and how human rights had been handled there. He befriended many of the people over the years and came in time to be friends with members of both traditions on that sort of basis. It is our understanding, even to this day, when one hears some of the words from people like Mr. Peter Robinson and some of the comments that have been made by Baroness Paisley and many others, that they are light years away from where these positions may have been adopted 30 years ago, and so I am very encouraged.
On the multilateral trade agreement, the committee might reference a piece I authored in The New York Times just four or five days ago, in which I took the position that a multilateral trade agreement between the United States of America and the European Union would be the best way to address the more aggressive posture that China has adopted around the world. The most important bilateral economic relationship, and perhaps military relationship, in the world is now that which exists between the United States of America and China. Managing that relationship is essential.
One of the best ways to do this is to engage fully and remind people that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, negotiation that I urged former President Obama to juxtapose with the Transition to Practice, TTP, plan, is fully engaged. I have had conversations with President-elect Biden and I believe that he shares my view on this. He has, by and large, been a free trade Senator and a free trade Vice President, and I believe he will take those sensibilities to the White House with him also. It would allow us to address climate change, as the Senator has aptly described, and the intercedence of American democracy in some manner or reflection of the long history we have had in our relationship with the European Union. Engaging that process makes a good deal of sense to me. That is a welcome question.
I appreciate that, Chairman. I will try to respect that by being as brief as I can to allow other colleagues to come in. I congratulate the Chairman, Senator Chambers, who is a friend of Congressman Neal, on taking this great initiative, and I thank her for facilitating and arranging our meeting.
I welcome Congressman Neal and appreciate him talking to us virtually, though we would much prefer to meet him in person.
On behalf of my colleagues, I express our profound gratitude to Congressman Neal and the Friends of Ireland, and specifically to Nancy Pelosi, for publicly and unequivocally saying that the US will not have a bilateral trade deal with the UK if the Good Friday Agreement is in jeopardy in any way. That was an important stance to take, which we greatly appreciate. That solidarity is hugely valuable and I thank everyone for that.
Is there potential for a post-Brexit trade deal between the US and the UK? If so, what are the implications? Pro-Brexiteers have told their constituents that great things will happen when there is a trade deal with the US and a few other countries as it will act as a great panacea.
Mr. Richard Neal:
I thank Senator O'Reilly for his questions. A trade agreement on a bilateral basis, as suggested by the UK, would be negotiated by my committee through the United States trade representative for the committee as she gets ready to be confirmed for the United States Senate. The scheduling of that agreement will take place through me, and it could not come through me without being okayed with the Speaker of the House. She has made it clear that she would not schedule a vote, and I have made it clear I would not schedule what we call a mark-up that would facilitate that agreement. The members of the Oireachtas are all familiar with the term as they mark up legislation. We met some of the most vocal Brexiteers and it is fair to say that we had a pretty vigorous disagreement. The Speaker and I reiterated the position, which we reinforced publicly, that a trade agreement without the support of the Chairman of the US Congressional Committee on Ways and Means and the Speaker of the House is just not something that can happen. The British are aware of that. I was with Speaker Pelosi when we talked to Theresa May who was fully understanding of the position that we took, and to have the President-elect reiterate that position has been very helpful.
Sorry, Congressman Neal, a vote on the Finance Bill, which is important to keep the Government going, has been called in the Chamber so I must leave here to attend, but some of my colleagues will remain. Due to the Congressman's address, a ceasefire was called for the normal voting arrangements, so some Members have paired up to ensure that they are here to hear his address. Senator Joe O'Reilly will remain on in my place, as will other Members. I thank Congressman Neal for addressing us today.
I join in the words of welcome expressed for Congressman Neal and congratulate him on his re-election as Chairman of the US Congressional Committee on Ways and Means. I thank him for all the hard work that he has done over many decades and for his efforts to assist building peace and prosperity in Ireland. I welcome the remarks that he made during an online discussion on Ireland's future. He said that he hopes to see Irish unity, and I do too. I thank him for his continued support and I hope that a united Ireland will be delivered without undue delay.
Congressman Neal has spoken at length that there would be no trade deal, on which the outgoing Congress was very clear, between the UK and the US if the Good Friday Agreement was jeopardised or a hard border was imposed. I do not think there should be any border in Ireland but there certainly should not be a rowing back and imposition of a border as it causes great economic, societal and political harm. I welcome the fact that Congressman Neal has very clearly and directly reaffirmed that commitment here today. As welcome and as positive as our engagement has been, part of the rationale for meeting today was to provide him with a platform to reaffirm and assert the commitment as directly and bluntly as he has done.
I will make two brief observations and then ask Congressman Neal two questions. As he will know, the Good Friday Agreement pertains to issues of more than trade and permeates into all aspects of life on this island. As he probably will have guessed, I hail from the second city of Ireland, which is Belfast. I live in the North but I am a Member of Seanad Éireann that meets in Dublin. Congressman Neal has referred to strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement, which refers to the North-South institutions and arrangements. Crucial in the context of Brexit is the rights agenda. There are 156 cross-Border co-operation schemes. The British Government continues to call for the scrapping of all or parts of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the application of the convention is a core component of the Good Friday Agreement. The convention is hardwired into the agreement. No one knows what type of Brexit we will end up with on 1 January, but we know there will be no good outcome for this island, just varying degrees of harm. Would Congressman Neal be willing to report or audit the application of Brexit against the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements to ensure that all parts of the agreement are protected in advance of a British-US trade deal?
The Cathaoirleach, Senator Daly, has invited Congressman Neal to visit the Seanad in person, and I hope to see him. Is it fitting and timely, health restrictions allowing, for a Congressional delegation to visit Ireland in the new year to see first-hand how Brexit is working out? We look forward to working with the Congressman, not just in the immediate days ahead as we face into Brexit but also beyond that.
Mr. Richard Neal:
Yes, I would be more than happy personally to help to audit the agreement as it was originally reached. We could do that, I think, with great authority after a special envoy is named here. I think that that would be very helpful to the process as well as we engage.
As Cathaoirleach Daly pointed out, my mother's family, the Garveys, hail from Ventry that is located on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. I wish to add that one of my grandmothers was born in Banbridge, County Down. Senator Ó Donnghaile mentioned Belfast. If anybody ever wants to see the success of what the peace dividend has meant then they can take a look at Belfast today. I know that there are always challenges and hurdles but it is amazing to see what has happened to the city. When I visited the city 30 years ago, it was war torn, but today there is a fledgling sense of optimism and new prosperity, much of which can be attached to the success of the Good Friday Agreement. I also think that the announcement about a new investment made by the UK Government promotes the idea of all-Ireland institutions, which we thing are essential. For the better part of decades tourists from across America who had relatives who were from the North never visited because the daily reports of strife in the region kept millions of people from visiting, particularly from visiting the spectacular vista along the coast. All of that is a reminder of a new day. There are now two generations of children who have grown up without knowing the violence and mayhem that confronted people every day in that small geographic area. Men and women of goodwill have helped to forge the path forward.
I appreciate the invitation and my committee are enthusiastic about visiting in the spring or early summer because we want to witness some of the success that our dimension has provided to this process.
I sincerely thank Congressman Neal for the work that he has done for the island of Ireland over a number of decades.
He and others were part of the Irish caucus, which may be better known as Friends of Ireland, and I have had the opportunity to meet many of them on my many visits to the White House and Congress. I was always taken by the extent to which he and others were absolutely in tune with the political discourse that was taking place here and had a clear understanding of what was at stake.
The Congressman probably thought his work was done when he had played such a crucial role, with others, in bringing the peace process around. He did so through working with former President Clinton to forge a major breakthrough by assisting in getting Gerry Adams a visa. That was probably one of the greatest breakthroughs in helping to break down the barriers that existed. I was very taken by a recent interview the Congressman gave to RTÉ in which he compared the time prior to the peace process with the modern era. He gave his experience of two trips across the Border. Many of the younger generation, as well as some others who chose to ignore the situation at the time, fail to understand the significance of the Border or the impact it had on the people who lived along it. The Congressman eloquently described a time prior to the peace process when he and several of his colleagues sought to cross the Border by bus. He spoke about members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC, coming on board the bus and going through the normal process and the impact that had on him and his colleagues. He then spoke about a later time when he saw the culmination of his work and the impact it had on people's lives and how important it was to see that. I think that contribution was really important during the Brexit process because it helped to bring back in a very distinct way the real negative side of the imposition of a hard border, albeit an economic one as envisaged in a hard Brexit. I thank him for his really important work at this crucial time. When he, as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, made that contribution, together with a very strong declaration by Speaker Pelosi, it sent shivers down certain spines. It certainly dismantled an argument that was being proffered by successive UK Prime Ministers that somehow there was a better deal available to the UK - that somehow there was a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, and it was located in Congressman Neal's great country. As the television programme goes, he bust that myth. I thank him for doing that. It took a person of his standing, together with Speaker Pelosi, to undermine that argument. His intervention came at a critical time. I cannot overstate the role he has played in those discussions.
That contribution comes from the wider approach taken by, quite frankly, the bipartisan group that for a long time saw the benefits of a strong Europe and a good relationship between the United States and Europe. Sadly, that has been sullied in the past four years by the incumbent US President. I am very hopeful as a result of the election of President-elect Biden, whom I have met on numerous occasions and who is a friend of Ireland, as Congressman Neal knows well in terms of his relationship with the President-elect. There is an important role to be played in moving away from the America first policy and, as has been done in the past, reaching out not in fear, but in the knowledge of strength of the Congressman's country. That will enable it to be a great superpower again and to forge its link with Europe such that all citizens can benefit from the two blocks working together. That approach would stand in contrast to the policy that has been espoused by the current US President for the past four years, which has involved the notion of putting America first by trampling on the hopes and dreams of others. That is something the Congressman has always sought to address and we are really thankful to him for that.
At the end of that very long monologue, my question is whether the Congressman believes that, with the election of President-elect Biden and the passage from office of President Trump, there is a better chance that Republicans and Democrats will work better or more collectively in a bipartisan way on the big foreign policy issues. I know they have squabbles about budgets and issues domestically, as we do here, but when it comes to important foreign policy, the narrow-minded policy of putting America first, as espoused by President Trump, should be pushed aside. That would allow America to be a great superpower again by enabling it to work collectively and closely with citizens in other blocks to build and to forge links, rather than sowing the seeds of division, which, sadly, we have seen for the past four years.
Mr. Richard Neal:
I thank the Senator for his very important question. Some years ago, Bill Clinton, who is a very dear friend of mine and to whom I spoke just a few weeks ago, summed it up by saying he hoped our advantage in the world would be that we would lead by the power of our example, not the example of our power. I hope we will return to that approach. Joe Biden is a former member of the United States Senate and is a member of its alumni association. He is an institutionalist by nature. American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has largely been bipartisan, with minor exception. America can return to that position in terms of meeting the world and embracing multilateral institutions, including the Paris Agreement. I hope that we will be able to return to the Iran agreement and the World Health Organization. The President-elect has signalled that he intends to do precisely that. That could engage a new day for Republicans and Democrats.
Senator Dooley triggered a memory of the Clinton Administration asking me to defend the decision to issue a visa to Gerry Adams on a late-night British television programme, "Newsnight". I believe the programme is still running. On the request of the President, I appeared on the programme and defended the decision by the Clinton Administration. My staff will confirm that I received more ugly mail over that defence than any other event I have undertaken in my time in public life, which now spans more than four and a half decades. The Senator has reminded me that, sometimes, it is important to take those big risks. I urged Bill Clinton to do it and he did it. I can tell the committee that it created a rumble across Washington and many people disagreed with it at the time, but it paid a significant dividend for all of us because he took that risk and nurtured the relationships that the Senator aptly described.
I congratulate Congressman Neal on all the work he has done and the support he has given to Ireland with regard to Brexit. I also congratulate him on the election of President-elect Biden. All present welcome the fact that he will be the next President of the United States.
On the issue of the US-UK relationship, has damage been caused by recent comments of the soon-to-be ex-President and the British Government? How will that relationship develop under President Biden? Obviously, the UK is still very important to Ireland, even in a post-Brexit environment. How will the UK-US relationship develop under President Biden?
Mr. Richard Neal:
I thank the Senator. We understand fully that many of the antecedents of American democracy come from the UK and Europe.
We value the relationship we have had. It has indeed been an enduring relationship that has existed between the United States and the United Kingdom, and simultaneously, we have understood that there is a broader relationship that also exists between the United States and Europe. I have suggested that I would do that in a public forum, any place and any time that a bilateral trade relationship with the United States and the UK is desirable - it would be good for both sides - but not at the expense of jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement. I think, and I will reiterate what I said earlier, the Border issue was invented. The Border issue never should have reached that vantage point in the discussion and the debate. There is the argument that all sides, Leave and Remain, offered to the people of the UK. In the aftermath of an election, there is always some hand-wringing that takes place, but it has been four-and-a-half years since that referendum passed and I think that it is up to them to get themselves through it, just as they got themselves into it. We do not wish to have anything but a harmonious and good relationship with the UK and, at the same time, no threat to what used to be one of our esteemed foreign policy accomplishments, the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr. Neal is very welcome. I thank him very much for taking time out to be with us here this afternoon. We really welcome his contribution. We thank him personally for the work he has done on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace we enjoy on our island. For someone who was born and lives in a Border county, we more than most are grateful and appreciate every day the change it has brought to our lives and communities. I thank Mr. Neal for his support for the Good Friday Agreement and any potential trade agreements with the UK which he mentioned several times today. He has put the Good Friday Agreement on an elevation that is second to none and for that we are extremely grateful.
I know he looks forward to a new Administration taking office in the USA on 6 January. How will the world, and Ireland, see a change in outlook compared with the previous Administration? An issue close to all members and to the Congressman is that of the undocumented Irish in America. Does he see any developments for all those undocumented who, as we go into Christmas week next week, are thinking of loved ones in Ireland that they cannot visit and would like to be in a position to do so?
Mr. Richard Neal:
That is a terrific question. It is also a foreign policy question. The undocumented Irish live in the shadows, as I reminded people when I received an honorary degree at Ulster University not long ago. It is important to understand that there are Irish immigrants who live in America who can never return home for a funeral, first communion or wedding because if they are undocumented they take the risk of not being able to get back into the country. I will give a vivid example, because anecdotes can be powerful, particularly when they are accurate. I was in Holyoke, Massachusetts, part of my constituency that had a large population from Mayo. Springfield had Kerrymen and Holyoke, which is just ten miles away, had a huge population from Mayo, Bellmullet in particular. A woman asked me if she could have a word. I said, "Sure, go ahead" and she said, "Outside". We walked outside and she told me her father was dying and that she would like to go back for the funeral but the risk was that she would not be able to get back into the country. That is the cruelty of what has happened. We were unable to secure passage for her. Zooming a funeral does not make it. We have a challenge in America over the issue of the undocumented, which some estimate is as high as 11 million people. Here is another corresponding part of the argument. It is important to remember that we need them in America. This is a technical economic issue, but this is what the Ways and Means Committee does, because we do economics. The population was announced today by our census bureau at about 332 million Americans, and our birthrate is at about 1.9 per family which is not keeping pace. In order to support many of our social initiatives, including social security and Medicare, we need these people to continue to contribute and they should be able to do so in the light of day, not in the dark of the shadows. Think of it this way. One of the most enduring and successful initiatives in American history has been social security. When someone turns 62 to 69 years, they join this great entitlement based on their years of work. Another part of the cruelty is that many of these individuals in America use false social security cards. They contribute to the social security system but will never be able to derive the benefit under current circumstances. They do their part. I have had many memorable moments and listened to a lot of great speeches. I like to give a few myself, but I recall one by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at a St. Patrick's Day gathering in the Rayburn Room with President Trump, Speaker Pelosi and myself. We were all trying to figure out how the Taoiseach would handle it. He spoke from the heart about the undocumented Irish in America and normalising their capacity. His speech ended with a magnificent line; he said the millions of Irish who sought refuge in America wanted to make America great, too. It brought a thunderous ovation from those of us who understand that right of passage and how difficult it was. When my family left, they never went back. They never went back for funerals, weddings or wakes and I like to think that is one of the reasons they were so devoted to the printed word, because the letters are extraordinary as they described their situations. They then read the letters of parents they would never see again when they left at 18 or 19 years. I hope and expect that this will be one of the first issues President Biden will take up, but I appreciate the question because there are many of them in my constituency.
I think we all share the hope that is an issue that can be addressed in the coming term. I am from County Mayo. The former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was a county colleague. We are from different parties but we worked together. The people of Mayo will be delighted that the Congressman mentioned them here in the committee this afternoon.
Our meeting is restricted to two hours because of Covid restrictions and a couple of further speakers are offering so I will take two together.
I thank Mr. Neal for addressing the committee today. His words are heartening, as is the relationship he has built up over the years with our Cathaloirleach, Senator Daly.
I have listened closely to Mr. Neal's remarks on the Good Friday Agreement. As a Donegal man who lives north of the North, in a county that is completely cut off by the Border in good times and bad, I am acutely aware of many issues which were addressed in the work of Mr. Neal and his colleagues, through President Clinton's administration, and the good work done by Senator Mitchell during the talks that led up to the Good Friday Agreement.
As a member of the all-party Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, that is the angle I am coming from in my remarks. Although a significant amount of good work has been done with regard to the Good Friday Agreement, there is still a lot of key work needed to ensure it is brought to completion. In saying that, I am referring to the communities on both sides of the Border, to which the Congressman referred earlier, that do not pull together and do not recognise each other's identities or respect what each other stands for. The Government, under the Taoiseach, Deputy Martin, has set up an all-island unit which has taken on a significant amount of work and is trying to start a dialogue to see where the differences are and try to gain traction and respect.
There has been much talk about a united Ireland and all present would love to see it come about, but it is not as simple as having a border poll. One could hold a border poll tomorrow morning and it may be determined by a margin of 1%, but it would have the potential to undo the Good Friday Agreement if the groundwork is not done beforehand.
The Congressman has done great work for Ireland and we really appreciate everything he has done, but there is still a key piece of work on which we will need his help. It will be a little bit similar to the work done on the Good Friday Agreement. We need to reach a point at which we have an honest broker in the room again to break down the barriers that exist and create respect. We need to respect identities and differences of opinion and religion. We need to learn to share this island as one. Until we do that, we will not be able to move forward. There is a significant amount of groundwork to be done. We will be knocking on the Congressman's door again and calling for his help to identify a person to help us along the way in doing that work. I look forward to engaging with him in the years to come.
Mr. Richard Neal:
The Senator referred to geography and I know it was also referenced earlier. In an RTÉ interview I pointed out that while travelling from Donegal to Derry with Tom Foley, the then Speaker of the House, whose family came from Ireland through Boston on their way to the west coast of America, our bus was stopped and searched by British soldiers with night vision gear and heavy armaments. They went up and down the bus. On a later visit with Speaker Pelosi, my phone pinged when I crossed the Border. That is the example the Senator has highlighted. He is onto a very important and prescient point, namely, that we must convince people in the unionist tradition in the North that their identity will always be protected, including in any decision that would be rendered by people across the island as it relates to the future. A significant amount of remarkable work has already taken place. I think the goodwill that has been exhibited by Members of the Senate is convincing unionists through a reasoned discussion that their tradition and history will be acknowledged.
Members of the committee should know that we tried very hard to do that. I know that unionists were probably suspicious of my intentions when I came to Ireland as part of the delegation and met with them, but I pointed out that Thomas Jefferson, the founder of my political party, was at least a nominal Episcopalian, while Andrew Jackson, who perhaps cemented the tradition of the Democratic Party in America, was another individual who did not share my religious background. In time, a growing economy can convince people that the concept of unity without uniformity, which we embrace in America, can triumph. I was very careful through the years to point out that we would never be able to cajole the unionist tradition through a harsh campaign of violence. That would not work.
Now, there is a new day. I refer to the Irish economy, the resilience of people in the Republic and what the State has done in the aftermath of the very difficult years that followed the banking crisis that affected the world. That conversation should ensue. Making sure that a hard border would not be resurrected would be a major part of that conversation. I thank the Senator for his very helpful contribution.
I have been informed that the Congressman will need to take part in votes in the coming minutes. I will ask two final speakers to make very brief remarks and then hand back to the Congressman to close up the session.
The Congressman is very welcome. It is great to have him taking part in the meeting. I thank him for all his hard work on the Good Friday Agreement.
Senator Blaney and I are both Border people. I am from County Louth, which is at the opposite end of the Border to Senator's Blaney's county of Donegal. I remember the Good Friday Agreement being discussed in my school when I was a young girl of 16 years of age. I never thought it could come about. As I sat in that classroom, I thought there was no way they were going to agree. With the oversight and help of America and Europe, agreement was reached and diplomacy won out. It was a great day. It changed my life and it saved the lives of countless people. We will never know how many lives it has saved.
It has not always been the case that Ireland stood with America and Europe on its shoulders or behind it. If one goes back 100 years ago, before this State was even created, Irish representatives went to Paris and asked Woodrow Wilson for a meeting because they wanted Ireland to be recognised. They did not get a meeting. Look at what we, as a country, have done through 100 years of diplomacy and the good relationships we have built up. We now have Europe and America standing tall for us. That is helping us with Brexit negotiations and has helped through all the difficulties we have had in the past couple of years. Much of it is down to proud Irish-Americans standing tall and helping us out. I thank the Congressman in that regard.
To come back to the remarks of Senator Blaney, as a Border person, there is an imaginary line. Some people think it is sort of theoretical or academic but this is about our lives and communities. We do not see a Border. I used to have two different personas: one that I used while shopping in the North and another that I used while shopping in the South. It does not make any difference. It is just reality to us.
My one ask of the Congressman is to support us to ensure that we have a shared island and that we honour our flag - the green, the orange and the peace between them. We must always remember that our flag stands for peace between both traditions. We should stand tall for that. It is to be hoped that through the help of America and Europe we can do so and we can fulfil our shared island and united Ireland vision.
Mr. Richard Neal:
I thank the Senator. One of the issues about which I am very careful and circumspect is my discussion of describing the two traditions. I often hear people refer to there being two communities. I will always point out that it is one community with two traditions. Acknowledging that is extremely important. I think the reinforcement and confidence that Ireland has given us and that we have given it have been really important. People such as the Senator who live in Border communities know first-hand what the situation was like. I made that point to the Brexiteers. Senators are aware who they were and who they are. I asked them whether they remembered what the Border was like 30 years ago. They gave at least a grudging acknowledgement that they recalled what it was really like. It is really important to acknowledge the perseverance and determination of people who live in Border communities and witnessed first-hand the violence of the Troubles.
I thank the Congressman for his time and all the work he and his party have done for this country. We really appreciate it. I am from Dublin, which is not a Border county, but I was born in 1969 and grew up with the Troubles throughout my childhood. I was lucky enough to win a green card in a lottery in the late 1980s and I had the privilege of living in the Congressman's country for eight years.
It was a huge privilege and a great opportunity. I learned and experienced an enormous wealth of things and America will always have a very fond place in my heart. The country's power and stature and the significance of what its influence can achieve should never be underestimated. My siblings subsequently won green cards in the lottery, although none of my family had every been to America when I went. I went to a YMCA and started fresh and I cannot tell Mr. Neal how great a time I had over the eight years.
One of my siblings has borne two American children, but they have chosen to come back here and I think that is a reflection of the crisis that faces America. They are dedicated Americans. They can sing the national anthem and they swear allegiance to the flag. They are very proud. We have a collective challenge on this side of the Atlantic and on the other side of it to reassert the values of democracy and the values Mr Neal has expressed, that is, unity but not uniformity as well as respect. I would like him to share with us how he thinks we can help America achieve that from this side of the Atlantic.
Mr. Richard Neal:
Let me start with the proposition that American democracy is noisy. There is a lot of clutter to democracy. One of the things we cherish is the Bill of Rights and the cornerstone of that is free speech. That means we guarantee a second opinion in the first amendment. The conflict we have all witnessed in America, which has also been embraced by parts of Europe and other parts of the world, is also a reflection of the amplification of conflict through social media. We live in a time of people choosing the media forums that agree with them rather than the opposite and objectivity is becoming a bit more of a challenge. Journalism has increasingly chosen a side as well and it has made our lives a good deal more difficult. Those of us who embrace the institutions understand that the challenges we have now do not come close to America's Civil War. They do not come close to us staring down fascism and Nazism and aggressive military escapades from other parts of the world. I still believe in the lamp Jefferson lit and the Declaration of Independence. While he was not consistent in his own endeavours that related to it, it challenged men and women across the world to embrace the principle of the sturdiness of the individual.
I am sitting maybe 50 ft from where Abraham Lincoln sat in 1865 after the American Civil War, in which he stared down the forces of slavery and rejected the idea that the south could ever leave the union. After 2% of the American people had been killed during that war, he said, "With malice toward none, with charity for all", and welcomed people back to the union. The divisiveness we are all witnessing will be overcome by my faith and our faith in the institutions of American life. The populism that is swelling across the world is, in the end, not well met by the argument that such people have easy answers. Those of us who live in democratic nations know that if the solutions were easy, we would have done them. Our support for our institutions should not be abridged. We should defend them as assertively as we can. I am delighted that Senator Fitzpatrick had such a great experience here and that her relatives can sing the national anthem. That is great.
I thank Mr. Neal. That was a very positive engagement.One can see the shared past and history both countries have and the shared future we will continue to have. So many Irish people have a connection to the United States and vice versa. That connection will last for generations and has done so.
We are coming to the close of our engagement. I extend huge thanks to Mr. Neal and his team from the committee for making himself available for this engagement. I reiterate the weight with which his views and opinions and those of the US Government are taken here and the impact that has on the Brexit process by supporting Ireland to navigate this difficult challenge for our country, which is a real threat to the peace process on the island and the future of this island. We thank Mr. Neal for that support. It has been profound and positive and has definitely assisted us to navigate this challenge. When we get to better times and can meet in person, we look forward to welcoming him to Ireland to have that engagement and him coming here to the Houses of the Oireachtas to meet Members in person. I hope we can do that very soon. We wish Mr. Neal well. He is heading off to vote and we are waiting on some votes here as well. We will let him go, unless he wants to make any closing remarks.