Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Recent Developments on Brexit: Statements
I am glad the amendment has just been passed in the House of Commons, despite the vote being so tight, because it provides clarity and there is less chance of a no-deal, crash-out Brexit at the end of the month. There is still real concern as it still gives no real clarity on the ultimate solution to this major crisis being experienced by the UK political system.
I have a couple of questions. If the Minister of State cannot reply this evening, a written response will suffice. One of the amendments that went through the House of Commons at the end of February was the Alberto Costa amendment, which proposed that the sections of the withdrawal agreement relating to citizens' rights would, in a sense, be protected and taken out in the event of a lack of agreement. This has been agreed by the House of Commons but it would have to be agreed by the EU side. I know the European Union said in the days following the passing of the amendment that it would not agree to negotiate "mini-deals" as it would imply that negotiations around the withdrawal agreement had failed. I do not know if we are yet at that stage, and it depends on to whom one might speak, but we are fairly close to it with respect to the current withdrawal agreement. I am interested to know the position of the Department or the Government - or that of the European Union if the Government is aware of it - if, in the worst-case scenario, there was no agreement at the end of any extension. In such a no-deal, crash-out Brexit, would we be willing to accept the recommendations in the Costa amendment, which make sense, if we were to try to minimise damage? It would affect approximately 4.5 million people in the UK and the European Union. It is a technical question but I am keen to get a response on it from the Government. A written reply will suffice if the Minister of State cannot answer this evening.
Reading the body language yesterday, it seemed that people were looking to get a withdrawal agreement concluded. There was a sense from those in the Tory Party who have been fighting for a hard Brexit at every stage that if the Attorney General had given evidence to the House of Commons that the legal mechanism agreed the previous night could have had a real effect, the withdrawal agreement might well have gone through. It is important to recognise this because such an observation should govern our approach. We can do very little except prepare as best we can for the event that even at the end of any extension period there would be a no-deal crash-out Brexit or for any new agreement that may be formed. We should maintain open lines of communication, particularly north of the Border.
As a party with a base in the North, we are supporting the backstop, North and South, because it provides real protection to our people. We do not agree with the DUP's assessment of the backstop but we should talk to its representatives. I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that one of the first elements we should speak about now, as we have mentioned for quite some time, is the urgent need to re-establish the institutions in the North. Again, they would be a protection against what happens next. It is not right for us to say at this stage that we will wait until this all washes out and then we can come to reintroducing the institutions. Now more than ever we must have them and in a way that re-establishes a space where we can again have trust. I reiterate that call as one of the things we can do.
The ball is really to be played in the House of Commons. Will it be able to cross the divide? It seems there is a possible majority in the House of Commons for a deal allowing membership of the customs union in some form, and in agreeing that, the issue of the Irish backstop would become irrelevant. It is a core dividing issue and will influence whether there is a hard or soft Brexit. The European Greens have sought a second referendum but could this be done in the timelines that could be made available with any possible extension? I do not know. We should support that possibility if it arises.
Our role is really to prepare and maintain good relations and co-operation, as we have seen here. That has been beneficial. We must respond to developments as they occur in the United Kingdom in the same way we have done with certain calmness. That word has been used much in the past while but it serves us best.