Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Recent Developments on Brexit: Statements
Since the Brexit referendum result became clear almost three years ago, Sinn Féin's position has been crystal clear. The Government and European Union had to be guided and underpinned by the very obvious fact that people in the North voted to stay in the European Union.
It is very difficult to have an honest conversation about the North with some parties in this House - Fine Gael sometimes but especially Fianna Fáil - because of the political opportunism, point-scoring, the lack of genuine analysis, and no real clue as to where Northern nationalists and politics in the North stand or the real reason there is no Assembly. Deputy Micheál Martin was quite correct to say it is a scandal that there is no Assembly but he does not point the finger at the party that is pro-Brexit and that walked away from a deal negotiated with the help of the Irish Government last year. He has an opportunity to put his very peculiar brand of Northern politics to the electorate if there is a general election in Britain. He can, of course, stand on a platform of swearing an oath of allegiance to a foreign queen and stand on a mandate of taking seats in Westminster, regarding it as the political vehicle to deliver in the interests of Ireland. Best of luck to him and his sister party. We cannot even say they merged; it was more of a partnership. Best of luck to the Deputy and his candidates in the election. I have no doubt the people of the North and the nationalist people will again put their faith in Sinn Féin because they know Westminster is not the place to deliver on Irish interests. They look with amusement and horror at what is happening in Westminster and the fact that politicians there do not act in the interest of people in Ireland. They do not regard nationalists taking their seats in Westminster as doing anything for the people who live on the island of Ireland.
Our approach always has been to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland, that the rights of citizens and others in the North and South are fully protected, and that the Good Friday Agreement is upheld in all its parts. The withdrawal agreement that has been negotiated between the European Union and the British Government – we would say very carefully and at times very painfully – could not be described as a perfect deal. I said earlier in the week that there is no good Brexit deal because Brexit has such disastrous consequences for Ireland. The backstop is the only viable vehicle by which we can protect the interests of this State.
It is interesting – we had this discussion this morning – that the British Government, in its flawed and impractical customs and tariff regime proposals, at least acknowledged the North is unique and that there needs to be special solutions for Ireland. Again, however, it goes back to the fantasy politics that will not work in regard to the Border, stating it will not impose any border, tariffs or checks and place the responsibility and blame back on the EU and Irish Government. That is exactly what is happening. Everybody can see that. While the British Government does this, it is ignoring the backstop and what was already agreed in good faith with it based on its red lines and what it sought.
It should be borne in mind that the people in the North are not without a voice politically. There was a cross-party consensus involving Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Green Party and Alliance Party whose representatives met the British Government on several occasions. They met the European negotiators on several occasions. Nobody in Britain or Europe was unwise to the fact that there was a majority vote in the North and a majority elected to the last Assembly who are against Brexit and who did represent the people of the North and the island of Ireland.
There is a need to ensure this State is Brexit ready and that we protect the economy. The Irish economy, as the Tánaiste knows, is uniquely exposed to any Brexit shock or turbulence. That will happen in whatever form Brexit takes. Even the softest of Brexits will have an economic impact on this State. Even now, because of all the uncertainty, there are some sectors of the Irish economy that are suffering because of the currency fluctuations. That is a reality and the Tánaiste knows the sectors of the economy that are most exposed. In whatever form Brexit takes, more practical solutions need to be put on the table.
The Tánaiste is right to say we passed the omnibus Bill collectively in this House. In the Seanad, there was support from all Opposition parties to ensure it was passed as quickly as possible. The Tánaiste will know we do not believe that is anywhere near enough or will be enough to ensure, if there is a hard Brexit, businesses, the agrifood sector and exporters will be properly supported.
I am heartened by the Tánaiste's response today that the State would, if necessary, consider borrowing or dipping into the rainy day fund and that, while it might not establish a Brexit stabilisation fund, as many have advocated, it will seek to resource Departments to ensure they can put in place more tangible solutions. That is a welcome statement but it needs to be spelled out. The Opposition needs to hear exactly what the Government is proposing, as do businesses, farmers and exporters because they do not want to hear promises that may or may not materialise. They need to know what exactly the Government is thinking.
Equally, there is a responsibility on the European Union. Everybody accepts, welcomes and commends the position of the European Union in protecting Irish interests in relation to the backstop. However, it had good reason to do that because it was also in its interests. It is in our economic interest that Europe steps up to the plate by supporting vulnerable sectors of the economy that will be exposed. The EU consistently states it will step in and support sectors where there is market distortion. It does so by easing state aid rules and providing financial supports and packages. It needs to do this for Ireland. The EU cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach in terms of providing economic solutions for Brexit that extend right across the European Union. The economic shock or turbulence the Irish economy will feel if there is a hard crash will be unique and will differ from what is felt in Hungary, Poland and various other parts of Europe. That is obvious and demonstrates that we need a bespoke solution from the European Union. This morning, the Tánaiste hinted that the EU was considering supporting the Government's request for the easing of state aid rules and would look favourably at financial supports for the agrifood sector and farmers, among others. Again, however, we have not seen action.
The Opposition has been very reasonable in supporting the Government throughout the Brexit process. The Government must also work with the Opposition, however. When we say we need to see what the Government is planning in terms of additional supports, there is a responsibility on it to inform the Oireachtas and all the stakeholders of what these supports will be. While I welcome the Tánaiste's statement today that he is considering these issues and that there may be more investment and more scope through borrowing and using the rainy day fund to invest and protect various sectors of the economy, we have not seen the colour of that money yet, nor have we seen what exactly the Government is considering.
In protecting the economy we must also ensure that we invest in infrastructure and increase capital spending. Although we have increased capital spending in recent years, for the past ten years capital expenditure here has been among the lowest in the European Union. We need to invest in ports, public transport, broadband and various parts of the economy to support infrastructural development and ensure we remain competitive. That is the best way to protect the economy against any economic shock that will come from Brexit.
I am sure the Tánaiste is aware of all the economic analysis and data, both from Government and non-Government sources, which show that there will be a hit to the bottom line of GDP, GNI* or whatever we call it these days if there is a hard crash or even a soft Brexit. The harder the Brexit, the harsher will be the economic impact on the State, but there will be an impact. I appeal to the Tánaiste to make sure we do everything possible to support the economy.
There will be more votes in the House of Commons this evening. It is possible, if not inevitable, that MPs in Westminster will vote to take a hard crash off the table, but any such vote will not binding and we could still find ourselves in a hard crash scenario by accident. We cannot control what is happening in British politics; that is a matter for the Tory Party, the British Labour Party and others. We can, however, do our best to support Ireland and the economy. The Opposition has done its best in supporting the Government and it is time the Government listened to the Opposition when we say not enough is being done to support certain sectors of the economy. It must step up to the plate with the European Union to ensure we protect Irish interests.