Thursday, 11 July 2019
Brexit Contingency Action Plan: Statements
This is the umpteenth time we have had statements on Brexit in this House. The reality is that we are no clearer about what is likely to happen and significant uncertainty remains. There are several possibilities. Obviously, the withdrawal agreement is still on the table but it is very hard to see how the numbers in the House of Commons can change with regard to that. If a vote was put on a no-deal Brexit, one would have to say that it would not be carried by the House of Commons. There could well be a general election in which case I presume there would be an extension or there may be an extension for some other reason. Whatever about those possibilities, we are at the point where the likelihood of a crash-out is increasingly becoming a reality. The unthinkable scenario we said could not happen, that Britain could not possibly crash out and that it could not possibly be that foolish, might come about. We are now clutching at straws and are hoping that if Boris Johnson does end up becoming Prime Minister, his volatility might work to our advantage insofar as he might switch his position. This cannot be ruled out entirely given his past record of changing horses or changing direction for no apparent reason. It is shocking that so much of our economic, political and security welfare is dependent on the Rule Britannia brigade within the Conservative party which in turn is being dictated to by an extreme right-wing nationalist in Nigel Farage. That is the reality. That is what is dictating the pace in respect of all of this. To a large extent, our welfare is in their hands, which is a frightening thought.
Going back to the time Michel Barnier addressed this House, the issues have not changed. At that point, he said he was confident that all the non-trade issues like the movement of people and services could be dealt with. In fairness, they have been dealt with pretty comprehensively. All of the issues relating to entitlements, education, health and passports have been addressed and it would seem that they have been put to bed. However, the question remains about what we do about a situation where our Border with Northern Ireland becomes an EU border and Northern Ireland becomes a third country. What do we do about the movement of goods? I accept that the Government is in a bind about this and that the Tánaiste cannot discuss the details of the implications of that for lots of strategic reasons but we are three months away from what is looking increasingly like a crash-out Brexit and we have no idea how the Border will operate.
So much of our economic and social standing and our standing in terms of jobs is dependent on the agrifood industry. The Irish agrifood industry has a very strong reputation. That is a reputation that is underpinned by the strict rules and regulations that apply within the European Union. It is also dictated by a very high level of confidence in Irish products, be they food products or in terms of the traceability of our livestock and food products. That confidence will not continue to be maintained by other member states and indeed countries outside the EU unless we can protect the integrity of the Single Market. That is the enormous bind Ireland finds itself in. We like to think things in the Border region can continue or potentially continue as they are but the reality is that if we are to protect our agrifood trade, that cannot be the case.
There already are indications of that from other countries, which are saying they need assurances that there will be no question of breaches of standards or lack of traceability regarding any of our goods. We must be able to provide an assurance of that but how do we do that if we have a long Border that is not policed and if there are no checks? People have talked about the possibility of having checks off-site away from the Border and having a zone around the Border but I cannot see how that can operate. Perhaps somebody has worked out the logistics of that and perhaps the detail has been worked out in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Foreign Affairs and Trade but I cannot understand how that can work. I would like assurances that it is possible to maintain the integrity of our agrifood industry, while also being able to retain the integrity of the Single Market but it is very hard to see that without a hard border.
Whatever way issues along the Border are addressed, whether there is an economic zone or whether it is an actual hard border, the cost will be very significant, not just immediately but on an ongoing basis into the future. I do not know whether that has been costed by anybody here but the likelihood is that the costs involved will be significant. Given that our Border will become an EU border, the moral responsibility is on the EU to fund that. We may well want to be the people taking responsibility for that given that it is within our country but the costs need to be met by the EU and I have not heard anybody from Government providing that kind of reassurance and telling us what the estimated costs might be. Again, I appreciate that it is very difficult for the Government to go there but that is the reality and we need an assurance that these substantial costs will be met by the EU.
The other point concerns the implications of all of this for peace on the island and the Good Friday Agreement. We know that, regrettably, it seems that many in the Conservative Party have little regard for the extreme difficulties being caused between North and South on this island. We know they have little knowledge of the complexities and intricacies of operating in any kind of free trade manner across a border like our Border. We know there is very little appreciation of the implications of a hard border or the severe restrictions on trade that will inevitably result from a crash-out. That is the context in which we are operating. Of course, it is not helped by the fact that there is an absence of political structures in the North. This has been a key factor in recent years. If there had been an assembly in the North with which we could have dealt and that could have beat the drum for the future of Northern Ireland and spoken about the implications of a no-deal Brexit for Northern Ireland, that would have been hugely helpful but, unfortunately, we have not heard the voice of the citizens in Northern Ireland, which is regrettable. All parties involved must take responsibility for that. There is no question but that Northern Ireland will be the biggest loser in a crash-out Brexit. There are significant implications for trade, jobs, the economy generally and the political stability of Northern Ireland. How will we maintain the levels of North-South agreement that are provided for in the Good Friday Agreement? I would also like to hear whether there is potential for legal action under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in respect of the proposed action by the UK Government.
There are significant questions, but it looks like Brussels is holding firm. Even if it does on the backstop, we still should be in a position where we know what will happen in three months' time, given the increasing likelihood that there will be a no-deal Brexit.