Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
We are rapidly approaching the midnight hour that will mark the introduction of Brexit. The closer we get to that moment, the more I am reminded of the work of the historian Professor Christopher Clark, who described the great powers of Europe in the fateful summer of 1914 as sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff as the Continent obliviously inched towards the ensuing catastrophe. In the present, we are witnessing the re-emergence of a toxic form of English nationalism, the emotional expression of which appears to have supplanted any form of sound political judgment. The Financial Timesrecently expressed a concern that the Tories have no post-Brexit strategy. They have lived with the prospect of Brexit for years with little or no thought of the consequences. This comes as no surprise to us in Ireland.
If Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been successful in anything, it is the shading of the term "national sovereignty" with a pejorative hue. Having seeded the Tory Party amid a cacophony of jingoism in what would have been the traditional Labour heartland by appealing to the worst excesses of English nationalism, the Tories and Mr. Johnson are not inclined to surrender this electoral support. In Trump-like fashion, they will instead feed the worst, most xenophobic and most triumphalistic demands and expectations of that base.
The decision by Prime Minister Johnson that four naval vessels would be detailed to defend British fishing interests is an outrageous act of aggression, particularly in the midst of the ongoing negotiations. It is a throwback to 19th century British gunboat diplomacy, but that day is long gone. Thanks to our allies in Europe and America, Tory Britain is no longer able to impose that state of affairs on Ireland. Even in the event of a failure to secure a deal on fishing now, we can be optimistic that the soon-to-be-established government of an independent Scotland would be much more amenable even before its re-entry to the EU. Another reason to be wary is that this act of maritime aggression is a sleight of hand by Prime Minister Johnson that is designed to distract English nationalists from potential concessions that might have to be made in the ongoing negotiations.
As the Financial Timeshas expressed, there is a fear that the post-Brexit environment has the potential to turn very ugly very quickly. The level of anti-European and, in particular, anti-French sentiment being expressed throughout public discourse on Brexit in England must be a matter of grave concern to all Europeans. There exists a real fear that this could create flashpoints and even physical confrontations. As much as, if not more than, most countries, Ireland is well aware of the cost that accrues from the failure of politics. The European project is primarily about peaceful co-operation. It cannot and must not be allowed to be undermined by the domestic political ambitions of a discredited leader who, unfettered, would drive his country into penury, undermine the international rule of law and sacrifice our peace process on the altar of his own desire for power.
Conflicting reports on the negotiations continue to oscillate between deal and no-deal scenarios. This evening, Mr. Michael Gove stated that there was a less than 50:50 chance of a deal. As a nation, we have placed our trust in the capacity of the EU negotiators to represent Ireland's interests in the continuing talks. Along with fellow member states and the President-elect of the United States, these negotiators have been steadfast in their support for the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish protocol, forcing the British to back down and remove the offending elements from the UK Internal Market Bill.
While we have little, if any, control over the actions of the British Government and the impact of its apparent laissez-faireapproach to preparations for Brexit, I regret to report that the same approach appears to have seeped through to this side of the Irish Sea, as stated at an Oireachtas committee meeting yesterday. It is the sole responsibility of the Irish Government to ensure this country is as prepared as possible for the challenges that Brexit will bring, deal or no deal. Yesterday, the Oireachtas received a warning from the road haulage industry that the anticipated disruption and obstruction that would arise as a consequence of new customs and import controls at points of entry to Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit would have catastrophic consequences and the potential to bring the industry to a standstill. Reports suggest that we are facing into a period of unprecedented disruption in the movement of goods. The Government should prepare a contingency plan for State-supported shipping routes in order to provide routes that may not be commercially viable or provided by private shipping companies.
With half of all goods leaving Dublin Port heading to Holyhead, reports of the lack of preparedness in Wales are concerning. In the last week, the House of Commons Welsh affairs select committee has expressed huge concerns over the absolute lack of preparedness at Welsh ports. With barely more than two weeks to Brexit, decisions are still awaited over the placement of inland border control facilities away from Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke.
The fact that the Government proposal to deal with delays and traffic jams at Irish ports caused by the increase in checks at British ports includes stacking up to 750 lorries at motorway service stops, roads and emergency lorry parks is concerning. With estimated delays of at least up to two days at Dover, our ability to manage the rolling impact here in Ireland is absolutely critical.
While in Britain the reviews that have been carried out on traffic and customs management systems have revealed huge gaps in the level of preparedness, in Ireland we have not yet carried out a Government sponsored independent review of the full working effectiveness of our preparedness levels. We cannot afford to adopt an approach that will see us muddling through under the direction of the free market. That simply will not happen. It is time for leadership. The necessary adjustments that have taken place today have been on the back of the collegiate approach between shipping companies and the transport industry in the absence of Government assistance. By introducing extra ferries, along with other measures, they are attempting to ensure that come January, along with other issues, we will not have the food shortages the Government warns us about but is happy to abdicate its responsibility to the free market. Not only are we, as a country, not prepared, we are to suffer the spirit of Trevelyan in another moment of historical national crisis.
The opportunity still exists, however, for the Government to get around the table in the days ahead and work with all the stakeholders, such as the hauliers, ferry companies and others to examine in detail some of the proposals they have and what additional measures need to be introduced to ensure our ports are prepared for Brexit.