Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Recent Developments on Brexit: Statements
Micheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
The announcement this morning of the tariff regime which the UK will implement if there is no deal is a dramatic demonstration that fears of Brexit’s damage are entirely justified. Many Irish businesses, particularly farmers and food producers, have been suffering from the impact of Brexit since the value of sterling dropped immediately after the referendum result. They have been struggling with lost competitiveness and are looking at a future in which their largest market may become all but inaccessible to them. They are now faced with proposals which are as damaging as they are incoherent and which might become operative in little more than two weeks. The tariff schedules and border arrangements published by the British Government are not a serious plan for the future; they are another confirmation of the rank dishonesty and fanaticism of the elites who secured a narrow Leave majority in 2016.
The promises of the Brexiteers and Vote Leave campaign ring particularly hollow now. The campaign was defined by a massive cynicism and a refusal to provide any serious detail about how it was going to deliver Brexit. A particularly infamous statement published in the manifesto of the Vote Leave campaigners declared: “Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop - we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.” To this, one can, of course, add the assurances given regarding the Single Market, the customs union, the Border not being an issue and assorted other empty claims.
It was interesting to watch the reaction of British industry, business, farmers and others interviewed on the BBC and other UK media today to the tariff schedules and to note that their frustration and anger is similar to that felt in this country. Obviously, the concerns of Irish farmers in regard to the tariffs are shared by many in the United Kingdom. Many of those representative organisations and individuals consider what was announced this morning relating to British industry and farming interests to be a doomsday scenario.
As ever, the issue remains that no matter how angry we are about the behaviour of the British euro-haters, we must manage the situation in order to limit the damage to all parts of our island. It is not enough to hope for something to turn up; rather, we must move from words to action and from planning to genuine implementation. The parties and Deputies of this House, including many Fine Gael Deputies, who agitated for a general election at this very moment need to consider how much worse would be Ireland’s position if Fianna Fáil had listened to their advice and pulled down the Government. Fianna Fáil's position since it first raised the issue of preparedness for Brexit four years ago is that this is an issue which goes beyond party politics and demands real urgency and innovation. We were the first party to speak out on the dangers of Brexit and have been the most consistent in pushing for action. Although we have serious issues with key elements of the Government’s approach over the past year and a half in particular, and there is no doubt that it has avoided the normal level of critical scrutiny, we have repeatedly used our connections in Europe to promote a message of a united approach. We wish to acknowledge the continued robust solidarity of our European allies during this depressing and challenging process. There is no doubt that their position remains that Ireland has the final say on matters relating to Ireland within broad and generous boundaries.
We should also acknowledge the wonderful and passionate advocacy of Sylvia Hermon on behalf of Northern Ireland. She stands alone among its MPs in representing the majority of opinion there. Equally, we should be grateful for the manner in which the Scottish National Party raises the Good Friday Agreement prominently in every Brexit debate. There is no doubt that the full blame for this increasingly dangerous shambles lies with the now dominant wing of the Tory Party. However, opportunities to limit damage have been missed because of the complete breakdown of relations between Dublin and London and between Dublin and political unionism.
In the coming weeks, Ireland is likely to face two major decisions, namely, the length and nature of any extension of Article 50, and specific responses to the immediate impact of a no-deal situation at the end of this month or at some point this year. In regard to an extension of the Article 50 process, of course, we should support an extension with or without a definitive path of progress being set out by Britain. No one is ready for a no-deal Brexit - not Ireland, not Britain and not the European Union, which currently has a fragile economy and other major concerns. There are many plans which countries hope will work, but no one is confident that they are ready. For example, in our case, Dublin Port has customs posts ready but does not have enough customs officials to staff them. We should support any reasonable proposal for extending the Article 50 process even if the only purpose that served would be to finalise no-deal preparations. Obviously, we hope that the House of Commons will come up with an agreed policy and, even more obviously, a reversal of Brexit would be very welcome, but we must assume the worst and use every available day to prepare.
It also may be that in the coming days the British Government will attempt to resurrect the current deal through looking for some further change. Certainly, Prime Minister May's comments today suggest that this is her intention. If this is the case, we need to hear clearly from our Government what is going on and what proposals are being made. If there is an extension of Article 50, then there is no issue more important than trying to get the Northern Executive and Assembly re-established. During two years where Northern Ireland desperately needed a voice, it has been left without one. Two parties have stood in the way of the anti-Brexit majority being able to set the agenda. The House will be aware that the British Government indicated and confirmed this afternoon that it is considering imposing direct rule if there is a no deal. This would be a dramatic and maybe even fatal undermining of the Good Friday Agreement. It would be unacceptable to all in this House. If the Assembly and Executive were in place, it would be prevented.
If there is more time, that time has to be used to give back Northern Ireland its voice in this fundamental debate about its future. It has been a scandal that the Executive and Assembly were collapsed at such a critical time for this island, particularly Northern Ireland, because Brexit is a huge challenge to so many in the North and across the island. It is incomprehensible that there is no Executive and Assembly. It should never have been collapsed.
With regard to urgent actions, we need two things from the Government. We need full transparency on its analysis and proposals and we need a commitment to inform people immediately of what new aid and packages will be available to them, and when. We want the Government to publish exact details of the current levels of Brexit preparedness and exposure. The figures have not been updated for more than a year and are absolutely fundamental to evaluating what needs to be done. What is the current assessment of the impact, not just of no-deal tariffs and checks but also, and more important, the decline of sterling?
We know already that the entire agrifood industry, which is the mainstay of indigenous industry and the only major employer in large parts of the country, is facing dramatic damage. It is really not enough to say there are conversations this week in Brussels. We need to know exactly what is being proposed, how it will operate and the impact it will have.
On the Border, we have heard for months that nothing is being planned but that there will be difficult discussions. What is to be proposed in these difficult discussions? Have we any idea? Have we had discussions with Brussels concerning what will happen on the Border on 29 March if there is no deal? The UK proposals on the Border are transparently not sustainable or credible. They further illustrate the folly of Brexit and the absence of any blueprint for it. The time for careful generalities is over, we need hard facts. I do not know whether the Tánaiste heard Michael Lux, customs expert, state today on News at One that the EU will place obligations on Ireland to protect the customs union and single market in the event of do deal on 29 March. We have not really had a straightforward discussion about Ireland's responsibilities other than that everyone will have to get around the table again and start another year's discussion, as we have had for the past two years.
Fianna Fáil called for this debate because we believe it would be completely unacceptable for Dáil Éireann to be silent on Brexit during this critical fortnight. By the time the recess is completed, the European Council will have responded to whatever emerges from the chaos in London, and Ireland potentially faces many serious decisions. For two months, we have been seeking specific information about the exact level of preparedness of Irish businesses and this information has not been provided. We have repeatedly asked for specific details on what is planned for a no-deal scenario and this information has been withheld. Last week, the Taoiseach made the claim that Ireland is not only ready but also that we are actually the most Brexit-ready country in the EU. If this is the case, there is a lot of information that the Tánaiste should be in a position to publish immediately, and what we should be hearing today are the details of when and how no-deal aid will be distributed. Because of our initiative on extending the confidence and supply arrangement, the Government and Dáil have the time and space to focus on limiting the damage of Brexit. The only way this time can be used effectively is to be fully open and honest with the people. The Government should provide the hard information and let us get on with it.