Dáil debates

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Brexit Contingency Action Plan: Statements

 

10:20 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

Brexit represents a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. I think this House understands that well. Three months since the European Council extended the Brexit deadline to 31 October, we still do not know how or under what conditions the United Kingdom, UK, will leave the European Union, EU. It is hard for any of us to believe that the British Government and Parliament would allow the UK to leave without a deal. Such a decision would have profound political and economic implications for the UK, including, most significantly, Northern Ireland, as well as for Ireland and the EU. Given events in London, a no-deal Brexit on 31 October is an ever more significant risk that the Government takes extremely seriously. No deal means the UK will fall outside the Single Market and the customs union, with no trade or co-operation arrangements in place with the EU and no transition period. It will be impossible for the UK to maintain the current seamless arrangements with the EU across the full range of sectors from justice and security co-operation to transport connectivity, trade flows and supply chains. This has significant implications for us, as the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, set out in the summer economic statement, and would cause lower growth, increased unemployment, and an impact on our exporting sectors, including agrifood, indigenous manufacturing and tourism.

Extensive measures were put in place for a no-deal Brexit in advance of the 29 March and 12 April deadlines. The extra time to the end of October is an opportunity to strengthen, refine and refresh those preparations where appropriate, which is exactly what we are doing. No-deal Brexit preparations continue to have the highest priority across Departments.

The Brexit contingency action plan the Government laid before the Oireachtas on Tuesday reflects this extensive work, both on a whole-of-Government and at an EU level, and sets out the steps to be taken between now and 31 October. It follows on from the Government contingency action plan, that was published in December and updated on 30 January. The action plan does not seek to pull its punches but lays out clearly the work done and the significant risks to Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. To be clear, we cannot fully mitigate against the impacts of a no-deal Brexit. The action plan shows that while extensive work has taken place to be prepared, the impact of a no-deal Brexit would still be profound. This is an exercise in damage limitation and Brexit will still pose serious challenges to many sectors and areas of economic, political and social life. It is only by Government and Opposition parties, business and citizens working together nationally, along with EU partners, that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the impacts of a no-deal Brexit and ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for the changes it will bring.

The action plan lays out the substantial work done in advance of the 29 March and 12 April Brexit dates. This includes passage of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019, signed into law by the President on 17 March. I thank the House again for the co-operation and support in ensuring this critical legislation was put in place in a timely fashion. We have put in place sufficient infrastructure to manage the necessary checks and controls on east-west trade at our ports and airports. This has seen some 400 additional Revenue staff, nearly 190 staff from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and almost 60 additional HSE staff trained and already in place. The high level memorandum of understanding on the common travel area that I signed with David Lidington on 8 May protects the right of Irish and British citizens to travel freely, and to move to live, work and study, and access healthcare and social benefits in our two countries.

In the time left until 31 October, the action plan emphasises in particular the need for exposed businesses to be prepared. While a no-deal Brexit was averted in March and April, citizens and businesses cannot assume that the same will happen in October. This would be a dangerous assumption. The need for preparations is more pressing than ever. Government Brexit communications will, therefore, include a call to action to businesses operating in exposed sectors to take the necessary steps to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, including an intensified engagement programme by Revenue. We will continue to provide further additional infrastructure at ports and airports to enhance our capacity to manage the necessary checks and controls on goods coming from the UK as smoothly as possible. I thank Dublin Port and Revenue for the work that they have done there, and indeed the teams that have worked so well in Rosslare. Dublin Airport will also be ready and I thank it.

We will continue work with the EU, the UK and partners on securing a landbridge connection through the United Kingdom. To meet our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, we are also advancing work on access to Erasmus+ programmes and the European health insurance card. Prudent economic planning and building the resilience of the economy have been a key part of our preparations, with the provision of supports to help businesses and other affected sectors to prepare. This will continue as we prepare for budget 2020, including making provision for targeted funding for the sectors most affected in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

In dealing with Brexit, we do not stand alone, and it is important to re-emphasise that message. We are working in close co-operation with our EU partners. Work at EU level has been set out in five European Commission communications, the latest of which was published on 12 June, as well more than 90 Brexit preparedness notices. Prior to the 29 March deadline, the Union adopted 18 primary legislative measures on a unilateral temporary basis to mitigate the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit. A number of these are in key areas for Ireland, including air connectivity and road haulage access, as well as maintaining PEACE and INTERREG funding. The Commission is committed to supporting Ireland in addressing the specific challenges of Irish businesses and we will continue our engagement with member states and the Commission on key outstanding issues, including on potential supports for Ireland and affected sectors.

The risks of a no-deal Brexit are most acute with regard to its possible impact on Northern Ireland, North-South relations and the Good Friday Agreement. A no-deal Brexit risks significantly undermining wider community relations and political stability in Northern Ireland with potential related security concerns. The impact of tariffs, of the customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements and associated checks necessary to preserve Ireland's full participation in the Single Market and customs union would impact significantly on the all-island economy. I have made that very clear this week. There would be additional costs and disruption for businesses throughout the island, particularly in Northern Ireland. This is why the commitment of the Government throughout the Brexit process to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland remains the highest priority. Those objectives were delivered by the withdrawal agreement. With the backstop, it remains the only solution currently on the table that delivers the outcomes that everybody, including the UK, wanted to achieve. It is very important that we in Ireland remain clear and consistent on the need for the backstop, which has come under sustained attack during the Conservative party leadership contest.

We can continue to rely on the solidarity and unity of our EU partners on this issue. In the absence of the withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. The Government is working closely with the European Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of protecting the Single Market, and Ireland’s place in it, and avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure. This work is looking at necessary checks to preserve Ireland’s full participation in the Single Market and customs union, but any arrangement will be clearly sub-optimal to the impact of the backstop should that ever be needed in the context of Brexit.

The Government’s overall objectives have been consistent from the start. We have worked to minimise the impact on trade and the economy, protect the peace process, including avoiding a hard border, protect the all-island economy, maintain the common travel area and reinforce our commitment to, and participation in, the EU in the future. These continue to guide our approach in any Brexit scenario, as is mapped out in the action plan. A no-deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels. Addressing those challenges requires difficult and significant choices of a practical, strategic and political nature. It is only by the Government, business and citizens working together, as well as with our partners in the EU, that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the severe impacts of a no-deal Brexit and ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for all it may bring.

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