Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
I will begin by saying that Brexit was never our project and never our doing in this country. It has, however, dominated our discourse for four years now. It is the Christmas season and that is my motivation in warmly and sincerely congratulating the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his team on the way the Brexit negotiations have been handled and for keeping all of us and all the stakeholders well informed over the last number of years. I also compliment Michel Barnier, a man I first met many years ago when we were both environment ministers. He has an in-depth knowledge of Ireland and the thorny issues with which he has been grappling.
One of the things we have learned from the last four years, and it has been an almost entirely negative period, is the value of solidarity within the European Union. Many people who advocated for Brexit in the United Kingdom did not believe the solidarity would be maintained between the 27 EU member states. I heard it from the beginning from the most senior people in government and from senior business people that at the end of the day it would not be Michel Barnier who would be calling the shots but that BMW, Audi and the big companies would be on the phone to Angela Merkel, who would give instructions to Michel Barnier. They have been quite shocked that the German people and all European peoples value the movement towards integration and solidarity that the European Union project has crystallised. If there is anything positive that we can say has emerged from Brexit, this is one such thing.
We are reasonably well-prepared. The Brexit omnibus Acts that have been enacted, involving 12 or more Departments, with each one minutely identifying measures and trying, as far as possible, to mitigate the harm of Brexit by making preparations. From the outset, the Northern Ireland protocol has been placed as an issue to be achieved before we could move on to anything else. This was an approach uniformly supported by everybody in this House, whatever others have said in recent days. It has always been the clear understanding of all of us that this had to be achieved. Many thought it would be impossible and the final outcome, the work of Maroš Šefcovic and Michael Gove in finalising matters this week, is to be applauded and I am delighted that has been put to bed.
After all my positive words on the Brexit omnibus Acts, the maintenance of the common travel area and the rights of Irish citizens and Northern Ireland citizens to continue to access EU programmes, there is one area in which I have been critical of the Government for the last two years. I have been banging a drum on connectivity because I said from the start that this would be the first test. Other things will unfold over time and we will learn that there are things we have not planned for because we could not have foreseen them. Connectivity is one matter we could have foreseen and I have been fearful for the last two years of disruptions to the land bridge that we are so dependent on, with 150,000 trucks using it. I have been on to the Department of Transport, I have raised this multiple times in this House and I have spoken to the Irish Maritime Development Office. It produced a report, under pressure, and I have to say that I categorise that report as complacent because it was basically a watch-and-wait strategy.
I listened earlier to the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, welcome the direct connectivity that has been announced with DFDS in my constituency. There will be six weekly sailings, which is important, and I have worked with DFDS for six months to get that. It was not a proactive reach-out, however. We have been so thorough on every other issue but there has been no analysis to examine the total volume of trade that we can better serve with direct connectivity as opposed to the land bridge, and to see if we can talk to companies to ensure that is provided. There is significant additional connectivity now, such as the six sailings by DFDS per week from 2 January that I mentioned. Stena Line has added two more sailings, there are other sailings to be added and Irish Ferries is maintaining its direct services. Even the full capacity that is planned for next year, significantly increased and all as it is, will not in any way compensate for a full disruption. The information I am hearing from England about the chaos that could ensue at ports is quite frightening. There is still a prospect of mitigating that damage of inaccessibility and disconnectivity that is there.
The plans for Dublin Port, including stacking lorries up the M50 and using it as a parking system, and using the Dublin Port Tunnel almost as a roundabout in and out, are worrying. I do not want to end on a discordant note but that is the one real concern I have had for more than two years and the one eventuality we have not adequately prepared for. Other than that, the solidarity and common purpose we have exuded in this House on this issue are an example of how we can achieve things by working together. I have been extraordinarily proud of the efforts of all of our public servants across all Departments, particularly in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Their skills and expertise have served this country magnificently in recent years.