Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
Before I dive into Brexit preparedness, I am aware that this is the last chance I have to address the Dáil before the break. I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, personally for your courtesy, the Oireachtas staff and, particularly, the staff of the convention centre who have been so hospitable in what are extremely trying circumstances and to wish everyone the best for the coming season.
One area, not necessarily at the microlevel but at the political level, which deserves sincere attention is the future of the Anglo-Irish relationship. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is the right person to lead this. Regardless of what we may feel about Brexit or our complicated history, there is no disputing the fact that the United Kingdom will remain our closest geographical neighbour, a neighbour with which we have many deep economic, social, cultural, historical and familial ties. Come 1 January, we have to re-establish that relationship on a new and good footing, accepting the UK has made its democratic, although regrettable, decision to leave the EU. Ireland, of all the EU 27, has the unique opportunity to play a special role in that regard.
In order to do that, we must continue and double down on our efforts in embracing the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. There is a huge political impetus on all Members to work towards the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. At Government level, we need to increase engagement, probably for the short term, in terms of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and, crucially, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. These are key institutions where we can reset the relationship and move forward in a positive manner, one that would be of great benefit, not just this State, but our friends across the water.
Regardless of some comments, they will always be our friends, if not our family. That is something we need to learn. The five years of the Brexit process have been trying and have brought out some of the worst, not just in British politicians but particularly Irish politicians. Our frustration with Brexit should never morph into some sort of anti-British sentiment. Such a step would be hugely regrettable. I have no doubt the majority, if not every, Deputy and Senator will be committed to a new prosperous and warm relationship.
It was in that context that I was cheered to see the meeting today between the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and Naomi Long, the North's Minister of Justice, as they discussed the new security relationships that will be needed on a North-South basis in the post-Brexit era. The continuing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is absolutely vital. The energy taken by both commissioners about the new relationship from 1 January will be important. It drills down to the importance of that security relationship, North-South, east-west and between the EU and the UK.
We need to have that preparation and not take for granted those tools on which we rely in the existing structures of the European Union to work with our British friends when it comes to not just tackling the dissident threat, which still remains severe in the north of this island, but also organised crime and wider terrorism across the European Union. We cannot pretend that criminals recognise borders and simply stop their drug peddling or whatever when they reach Fermanagh. They do not recognise borders. That is the same when they transfer money or use crypto currencies. The security mechanisms and the preparedness needed by the agencies of this State, particularly An Garda Síochána, are important.
Many Deputies have touched on the specifics of preparedness. I joined the Brexit stakeholders forum, chaired by the Minister, just over two and a half years ago. The sheer array of stakeholders brought to those regular meetings in Iveagh House, and we were able to meet in person at the time, really showed and underlined how Brexit jeopardises and underpins every aspect of Irish life, not just economic life but social, cultural and environmental life as well. There is a huge merit to maintaining the stakeholders' forum after the transition period to make sure we implement the tools of a Brexit agreement that comes out in the next couple of days, and I will come to that in a second. It is a huge credit not just to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, but also their predecessors, Deputies Flanagan and McEntee, and, most importantly, their officials and how they have worked across Departments and sectors through this period to ensure the State is as best prepared as possible for the cliff edge, or possibly less of a cliff edge, that will come on 1 January.
There is no such thing as a good Brexit for everyone, and I have said this a million times, be it Ireland, the UK or the EU. Drastic change is coming regardless of whether a deal is secured in the coming days. We look quite warmly at the supports that have already been rolled out by the Government and the previous Government, with the support of all sides of the House. We look at the supports and the important role they have played and we see how they were actioned when the Covid pandemic kicked into gear. We saw it in supply change management and medicines provision. We ensured that unlike other jurisdictions, the shelves did not go empty in March when the restrictions came through to fight the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
We also look at the budgetary measures and the fact the previous two budgets passed by the House were designed on a no-deal Brexit footing. We are so grateful for the original rainy day fund that has been released by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, in recent months. Equally, we look at the €3.4 billion Brexit and Covid contingency in the budget and the important role it will play, and the importance at European level of the Brexit adjustment fund of €5 billion.
Going into the new year, deal or no deal, the new great challenge for the Minister and the Minister of State will be to work with European colleagues to identify sectoral deficiencies. They will come regardless of what has been done because Brexit will simply impact. It was Deputy Cian O'Callaghan who went through the huge growth in customs declarations that will come. They will impact trade. Logistics difficulties are simply going to be posed and they are beyond our control. The land bridge was so eloquently detailed by Deputy Howlin, not just in this forum but yesterday morning at the European affairs committee. These are huge challenges that will affect our trade.
If we look at the slightly wider Brexit preparedness and how it should shape certain aspects of Government policy, not just in the coming weeks and months but in the coming years, it is about the importance of market diversification, much of which was begun when the Minister was at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which was also Deputy Brendan Smith's former stomping ground. We look at the markets for Irish food producers and the growth of Irish exports to China in the beef industry, the growth of Irish drinks exports to Canada and the growth of Irish pork exports to South Korea. All of these are key areas that are highly exposed by the difficulties Brexit will pose one way or the other.
We have to realise the full potential not just of these existing trade deals but also potential new European trade deals, such as the recent one concluded with Vietnam and potential future deals with Malaysia, Indonesia and, hopefully, Australia and New Zealand. Also crucial is the European Single Market. If one looks at the breakdown by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, of trade figures for the calendar year of 2020 and if one bears in mind that when we joined the EEC in 1973, 55% of our exports went to Great Britain, one sees that more than 40% of our exports go to the rest of the continental Single Market. This shows how important it is to this country and how much potential is still there. While we may be very proud of our exports to individual member states, such as Belgium, Germany or France, there is still huge potential in central, eastern and southern Europe that needs to be realised. It requires in the Department of Foreign Affairs the continuing emphasis on preparing our diplomatic missions.
It is wonderful we have maintained all our embassies throughout the Union, as well as opening additional offices in Frankfurt and Lyon but we need to see additional economic chanceries from the Department opened in other second cities, such as Milan in Italy and Barcelona in Spain. We have seen great progress in the reopening of our consulate in Cardiff and I look forward to the opening of the consulate in the so-called northern powerhouse in due course. It is a huge personal achievement that I know is very close to the Minister on so many levels.
Looking at all of this preparedness I wonder, as we come into these final few days and hours of the Brexit negotiations, how important a deal is, not just to this country but to the United Kingdom and the wider European Union. It is not too far-fetched to say that as one goes further east beyond London, the importance dips down a bit. That is sheer economic exposure. A deal absolutely can be secured in the coming days and I commend Michel Barnier and the entire task force, as well as Lord Frost. That might sound a little bit odd for me to say but the effort Lord Frost and Michel Barnier have made in recent weeks and months will stand the course of time, if we can see a deal secured in the coming days that can be ratified not just by the House of Commons but by the European Parliament.
When we are talking about trade deals and the importance of this trade deal and the importance of a level playing field in governance, we look at other trade deals. I have mentioned the potential markets that our beef farmers or our dairy farmers or sheep farmers will need to look at in the coming years. We need to realise that trade deals are absolutely at the centre of the post-Brexit and post-Covid recovery for this country. The House has to take responsibility for this and to stop picking and choosing and inventing reasons not to get behind European negotiated trade deals. They have been good for Ireland before and they will continue to be good and it is about time we put Ireland front and centre as the EU's premier exporting and trading nation.