Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
I thank all the speakers for taking the time to stay late this evening to be part of this debate. It is appreciated. I would like to think that I have always been non-party political when it comes to Brexit, in sharing information, responding to questions, inviting people to stakeholder groups and organising briefings whenever I have been asked for them. There has been great strength in the Irish position in recent years for two reasons. One is that we have had absolute unity in the Irish parliamentary system with regard to what we have been looking for and what we have been trying to protect. We have had extraordinary solidarity from EU partners, from people such as President Macron, who is not trying to grab anything from anybody in the context of Brexit but, like many other EU leaders, has been focused on EU solidarity to try to get an outcome that protects the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
More important, it protects what we have created over decades in the context of a shared common market, a customs union, a political union and an economic union that have raised standards of living and provided opportunities for so many people in Ireland and across a population of more than 450 million people.
I do not propose to read my prepared speech because I want to answer Deputies' questions. The speech refers to Ireland having joined the then EEC with the United Kingdom, which was part of a transformation of this country over time that helped to create the kind of opportunities that are available for Irish people today. This is, in part, due to our membership of the European Union and the extraordinary benefits that has brought, including in the context of a peace process on this island. The European Union has been supportive of that process through very difficult years and continues to be supportive through the challenges of the Brexit process that has been under way for the past four and a half years through difficult negotiation and so on.
As this is the last time I will have the opportunity to do so, I put on record the thanks of the Irish Government and the Irish people to the EU negotiators led by Michel Barnier and Maroš Šefčovič, who was the co-chair along with Michael Gove of the joint committee that has found a way to get agreement on the full implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. From an Irish perspective, this is important in the context of the guarantees that it provides around settling the question and the anxiety referred to earlier by Members, in particular those from Border communities, around the prospect of border infrastructure or checking systems on the Border between North and South. We can now be sure that will not happen in the future. There is a cost to that in the context of the designing of the protocol, which requires some checks on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. This has created a great deal of concern and anxiety, particularly among unionist communities and political parties. There is no simple way of solving these issues. People have criticised me, the Irish Government and the Irish political system in terms of our search for a solution that became the protocol to the Irish question around the border issue. Many people have criticised the solution but have not offered alternatives that can do the same job. That is the reality. The protocol is not perfect. It does create some barriers, although we have tried to limit them to the greatest extent possible and focus on goods coming into four ports and two airports as opposed to having a lengthy piece of border infrastructure. There has been a pragmatism in terms of the agreed implementation of the protocol to try to take account of genuine concerns around supply chains and so on.
The truth is that when a country chooses to leave the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union, as the United Kingdom has done, there are significant consequences to that decision that cannot be easily solved. That is why the protocol is complex. It is as it is and cannot provide entirely for seamless trade North-South and east-west. We have done as much as we possibly can to address those concerns while protecting the all-island economy and ensuring that the tension and questions around border infrastructure into the future are comprehensively addressed.
I will respond to some of the questions that colleagues have asked. On the concerns that have been raised in relation to hauliers, direct ferry routes from Ireland to mainland Europe or to the rest of the EU Single Market, a dramatic increase in capacity has developed over the last 18 months. In regard to the ferry services, DFDS has announced a daily service out of Rosslare, Brittany Ferries is adding significantly more capacity, as is Stena Line, and Irish Ferries is taking delivery of a new ship and will significantly increase its capacity. We have had a conversation with all of those ferry companies and many more about adding extra capacity beyond that should there be demand for it. I reassure the House and those who suggest that we are not sitting around the table or that we are leaving things to the last minute that there is ongoing consultation with all stakeholders, from the road hauliers to the road hauliers associations. I have engaged with them, and the Minister for Transport engages with them on a regular basis. We have also engaged with shipping companies and exporters and importers. We have had over 20 stakeholder meetings at which many of these interests were present, as were many politicians. We have been discussing these issues for at least three years. Let nobody send a message out this evening that somehow we are leaving anything to the last minute, that we have not thought about something or that we are relying on the market to solve the problem.
The State is investing over €30 million in Dublin Port. We are taking on an extra 1,500 public servants as customs officials, in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health and in the Revenue Commissioners and so on as part of the inspections systems that have to be put in place. There is nobody relying on the market to solve these problems. We have put in place, and spent significant amounts of public money to put in place, new infrastructure to try to ensure that we have everything that we possibly can control in place in time for 1 January. Does that mean the transition will be perfect and seamless? It does not. Hauliers will encounter new barriers to trade in terms of paperwork and bureaucracy, inspections, delays, the need to go through parking systems and green, orange and red lanes when they disembark from ferries, depending on what load they are carrying. That is disruption, but that is Brexit. In the case of a business in respect of which 85% of its goods come into this island via the UK land bridge, if we are looking to change the supply chain and to have increased emphasis on direct ferry routes while still relying to some degree on the land bridge, that will involve disruption. I have been talking about that for two years. We continue to engage in communication campaigns and leaflet distribution. The Revenue Commissioners wrote to 90,000 companies outlining what they needed to do and it followed that up with 14,000 telephone calls to make sure it was engaging directly with people and they understand what they need to do.
On the readiness issue, there is no such thing as the perfect preparation for something as disruptive as an economy of the size and scale of the United Kingdom leaving the Single Market and customs union. The UK is integrated with the Irish economy. We are interwoven in so many ways in terms of supply chains and business across the Irish Sea. Every year, €80 billion in trade crosses the Irish Sea. Brexit, deal or no deal, is going to involve significant disruption to that trade. As legislators and policymakers, we have sought to put as much preparation as possible in place through legislation, expenditure, policy change, consultation with stakeholders and planning to limit that disruption to the greatest extent possible. That is, I think, what we have done but we are not done yet. The preparation will continue through the end of this year and into next year and we will continue to try to manage this transition as best we can to limit the disruption and protect the relationships through that process of change.