Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
In October, we all welcomed the fact that an agreement between the EU task force and the British Government had been reached. Following a meeting with the Tánaiste, Sinn Féin was satisfied that the agreement ensures there will be no hardening of the Border and that no veto would be given to the DUP. However, the Taoiseach and the Irish Government must be vigilant and it would be wise to take consideration of the manner in which Brexit negotiations have unfolded over the past three and a half years. In the Tories, we are dealing with a party with very little understanding of Ireland, our history or our people. Their approach throughout the recent negotiations is evidence of that fact. We are dealing with a British Prime Minister who once compared the Border on this island with a boundary between boroughs in London. Again, that shows no real understanding of the geography or history of Ireland and the impact of partition and years of conflict on our island.
We know there were agreements previously that were not acted on and some of them were ignored. There have been false dawns before and the British Government, by delays, has whittled away at the progress and goodwill that have been achieved in the peace process. If one were to talk to many communities throughout the North people would talk about the lack of a peace dividend for their community and that is right across the North.
Emboldened by his majority, the British Prime Minister has amended the Brexit withdrawal Bill to insert a legal clause that future trade negotiations must conclude by 31 December 2020. That can happen only if the British Government agrees to a near full-aligned deal with the EU or, on the other hand, a bare bones trade agreement. While remaining optimistic a positive deal can still be struck, it is the responsibility of the Irish Government to prepare for all possibilities.
Caution, vigilance and an unwavering commitment to the protection of Ireland’s interests must be how the Government proceeds in the new year. Ireland will need significant support in the future and the Government needs to push for EU funding in this regard because Brexit will have a hugely negative impact on the island of Ireland and its people.
Nowhere is such a resolute approach more needed than in defending the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish peace process. We must see an end to the sustained and dangerous attacks on the agreement from the British political establishment. Mr. Johnson must receive that message loud and clear from all governments. Both Governments, as co-guarantors, must honour their obligations to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts but it is also the responsibility of the Government to champion the vote in the North. Ireland, North or South, did not consent to Brexit. That reality cannot be forgotten, sidelined or brushed under the carpet. Last Thursday, the people in the North once again used their vote to reject Brexit. That was seen most powerfully in the historic result in north Belfast.
Brexit has changed the political landscape in Ireland, Britain and Europe. The Taoiseach said that the political tectonic plates had shifted in the North. All the old certainties are gone. In the election, voters clearly responded to co-operation between pro-remain, progressive parties. That has demonstrated once again that the majority of people in the North are opposed to being dragged out of the EU, opposed to any hardening of the Border in Ireland and want to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the all-Ireland economy. This election was a defining moment in our politics. It delivered a majority of Irish nationalist and progressive MPs. The Irish Government must pay attention to this.
Sinn Féin wants to see a successful conclusion of the talks established by the two Governments this week and for the political institutions to be restored on a credible and sustainable basis. We need a new kind of politics, a new Assembly and a new Executive, which is underpinned by resources to deliver quality public services. We need an inclusive Executive that brings together parties which are truly committed to delivering good and inclusive governance. After a decade of austerity and underinvestment that has stifled economic growth, public services and communities in the North need adequate financial commitments from the British Government. I also welcome the commitment given by the Tánaiste today that the Irish Government would not be found wanting in this regard. All of this is achievable. It is time for party leaders and both Governments to show their political will to deliver on good Government for all.
This European Council meeting had a significant discussion on climate change. Last week the European Commission launched its vision for a European green deal. It is a compromise document, one that Sinn Féin believes could or should be more ambitious and more radical in its outlook. The Commission at least recognises that the existing targets are not good enough and wants to increase the greenhouse gas emission reduction target from 45% to 55% by 2030.
This is a real problem for the Government as it has consistently failed to achieve even the current modest targets. Last week also saw the publication of the climate change performance index, in which the Irish State went from the worst performer in the EU to the second worst performer in a year. This was spun as a success by the Taoiseach and his Ministers. We are only ahead of Poland, which gets 80% of its energy from coal. The European Commission has called for a review of the framework for energy infrastructure to ensure consistency with the climate neutrality objective. It is hard to see how Fine Gael's love for fracked gas terminals will survive such a review. This is an issue that has received cross-party support. However, the Taoiseach and his Ministers, as is their style, have simply ignored the views of the House and want to make out that fracked gas is somehow climate neutral energy.
The Commission's green deal also calls for a new circular economy action plan, including a "right to repair" and other provisions around reparable rather than obsolete goods; a requirement for the design of all new buildings to be in line with the needs of the circular economy and climate proofing of the building stock; increased and expanded use of rail, including the transport of freight by rail, an area where it will be interesting to see what level of Government investment is prompted; a review of all current tax exemptions for aviation and maritime fuels; improved and expanded public transport, another area which will be interesting to watch; and an increase in the area of land under organic farming in the EU, to be coupled with a farm to fork strategy that will strive to stimulate sustainable food consumption and promote affordable healthy food for all. These are just some of the proposals in the EU's green deal. I believe they are progressive and show real potential.
I also note that there was a discussion on the Africa-EU Partnership. This was primarily focused on migration. The new President of the European Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, promised she would make migration a "core topic" of her Presidency. The EU's current policies have turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard. They have involved pushing refugees back to Libya, where they are tortured and brutalised in so-called detention centres or in slave markets. It has involved throwing money at autocratic leaders and has led to further human rights abuses. This has all been funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. This trust fund should be spent on development and improving socioeconomic conditions. Instead it is leading to increased human rights abuses and is preventing refugees from seeking international protection. In this review of the Africa-EU Partnership Ireland should seek massive reform of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Either the fund's harmful focus on migration should be removed or we should simply stop paying into it.