Tuesday, 16 January 2018
European Council: Statements
I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister of State and everyone in the House a happy new year. As there was no time to do so on the Order of Business, I did not sympathise on the sad passing of Dolores O'Riordan, the famous singer. She was an excellent ambassador for Ireland throughout the EU and, indeed, all over the world. She is a huge loss, not only to her own young children, her family and those in the music industry, but also to us and to her many admirers all over the world.
I am happy to speak on these statements. It can be taken as a given that, for the foreseeable future there will be only one topic dominating our engagement with the European Council and that, of course, is Brexit. The agreement reached in December on the first phase of the negotiations is to the credit of the Government. I have no hesitation in commending the work of the Irish team who worked so hard to get to that point, and I will always give credit where it is due. Up to that point, the entire process was marked by a chaotic and messy approach whereby both the UK and the EU sides seemed to be working in complete opposition to each other - they were like two horses on a plough that were pulling in different directions. This created very real fears in this country that the process would generate considerable long-term damage in terms of addressing the need for certainty.
I accept that it has not been easy trying to balance our clear national interests with maintaining respect for the delicate nature of the Good Friday Agreement, for example. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, made some very blunt statements in that regard and I think he was fully justified in being so candid at the time. It always amazes me when others, particularly those within the EU, seemed totally surprised that the Irish negotiating team would come out fighting for our national interests. What do they expect us to do? Are they so used to us asking "How high?" when they say "Jump" that they think we would kowtow to them altogether? I would remind them we are a sovereign country. We should not abandon diplomacy but we should certainly not pretend that this process will be anything other than brutal. I encourage the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and others to be absolutely up-front in their view that we will always put the interests of the Irish people first, as is our duty.
I note from the report on the phase one agreement that both parties, the EU and the UK, have reached agreement in principle across the following three areas under consideration in the first phase of negotiations: protecting the rights of Union citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the Union; the framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland; and the financial settlement. I also note that progress was made in achieving agreement on aspects of other separation issues under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Where have we heard that before? It is certainly the crux of the matter.
While progress is being made, there is still the potential for the whole thing to descend into another sorry spectacle. All it would take is for the ever-increasing political instability in the UK to get to the stage where the more hardline elements of the Leave campaign gain a stronger hold over the Conservative Party. All of that is outside our control, however. For now, the only responsible approach is to support the Government, where possible, and try to make the existing agreement as legally binding as we can, particularly with respect to the Border issue and the status of Northern Ireland. As Professor Cormac Lucey has noted:
Ireland’s economic priority is that the UK’s exit from the EU is as soft as possible. It is not in our interests for the UK to exit the single market. It would suit Ireland much better if, outside the EU, the UK opted for similar arrangements to those of Switzerland and Norway, both of which are inside the single market. It is clearly up to the UK to decide what it wants. Yet it is of vital national interest that we and the EU encourage as soft a Brexit as possible.
I too compliment Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, the Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs, Deputy Haughey and all the other members on the work they have done. It has been a very trying time and has not been easy. Deputy Healy-Rae met all the EU ambassadors and even brought some of them to Kerry, and he gave them a good outline of what is happening here in Ireland.
I see the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is wiggling his pen. I thought he might be a little easier on the draw in this new year period. I am only starting and am going at a nice slow pace. I am not really over time, as such.