Thursday, 18 May 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Yesterday at the finance committee, we had the Revenue Commissioners before us for the first time. They gave us information on some of the contingency plans they were looking at for Border controls post-Brexit. The information was quite concerning. The Minister might be aware that I made a freedom of information request for documents that the Revenue Commissioners held. Indeed, the Minister's own Department held one document, for example, which was a briefing given by Revenue to the Minister more than three months ago. That information has not made its way into the public domain. Will the Minister put into the public domain the information that Revenue has presented to him on its contingency plans for custom posts to monitor trade post-Brexit?
The oral question put by the Deputy is different from the written question. I will read out the prepared reply first and then we can discuss it.
The Government has published a comprehensive document on Ireland and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union on 2 May.
The Government's position in regard to the Border with Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit is very clear - continued freedom of movement, absence of a hard border, and minimal impact on business and trade are key objectives. Clearly, in this regard the closer the trading relationship between the UK and EU is more generally the better.
I would point out that the guidelines for the EU 27 Article 50 negotiation framework, agreed by the heads of state and government on 29 April, specifically refer to the need to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process.
In this regard, the guidelines recognise the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, outlining the need for flexible and imaginative solutions, including the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the union's legal order.
The Government has welcomed the EU’s negotiating guidelines as reflecting Ireland’s unique concerns and priorities. They express the EU’s continued support for the peace process and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement. They acknowledge the need for flexible and imaginative solutions to avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland. They agree to the recognition of existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the UK and Ireland, which are compatible with EU law, such as the common travel area.
Ireland has also secured the agreement of its EU counterparts on the need to recognise the unique constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the need to ensure that should a united Ireland be brought about in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would be part of the European Union.
This is a positive outcome, showing that the Government’s extensive political, diplomatic and official campaign of recent months has been effective in ensuring the understanding and recognition of our unique circumstances and specific issues.
Like all Government agencies, the Revenue Commissioners are actively engaged in examining a range of scenarios in order to support Ireland's objectives. The precise arrangements that will apply after Brexit will depend on the outcome of negotiations which will now take place between the EU and UK.
This is a political issue, which will require a creative political solution. It is not helpful to pre-empt any particular outcome at this early stage of the process.
Yesterday's exchange at the committee was illuminating, although it was like pulling teeth. However, it did establish some facts that some of us, at least, knew were the case. Mr. Barnier told us last week that there would be consequences of Brexit for the Border. Of course there will be consequences and some type of Border posts or customs posts will be in place, even if they are not quite on the Border and even if, as the Revenue says, they will be called trade facilitation stations instead of custom posts. Of course there will be disruption and delays to people and goods crossing the Border when one side of the Border is in a customs union and the other side is not.
Border communities and the wider public deserve to know what is being planned, even on a contingency basis. We do not keep it hushed up when the ESRI tells us the impact Brexit could possibly have on employment, debt, economic activity and growth. We do not hide the consequences for agriculture when we see reports being published. Why is this issue different? Why is the Minister not releasing the information in the presentation Revenue made with the Minister, that 8% of vehicular freight traffic crossing the Borderwould be diverted to the trade facilitation posts and that there would be roaming patrols along the Border making random checks.
As I said, this is a political issue which will require a creative political solution. The political solution being sought is along the lines of that promulgated by the European Union's negotiating guidelines and reflects Ireland's unique concerns and priorities. The guidelines express the European Union's continued support for the peace process and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement. They also acknowledge the need for flexible and imaginative solutions to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. They agree to the recognition of existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland. That is what is reflected in the EU guidelines and also in Prime Minister May's letter when she invoked Article 50. Revenue is independent and it would be prudent for it to look at a range of scenarios that might occur to be prepared for a range of scenarios that might occur if the negotiations do not go in accordance with the guidelines agreed between Ireland and the European Union and between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
I do not fault the Office of the Revenue Commissioners for doing its work or the scoping exercise in which it is engaged in planning on a contingency basis. My understanding is the plan to divert 8% of freight traffic crossing the Border and have roaming customs patrols randomly stopping people does not represent a hard border solution; it is part of what it is called minimising the impact of Brexit. In that case, I would not like to see what a hard border would look like or the contingency plans. This goes to the core of the question. The finance committee, of which Deputy Michael McGrath and others in the House and I are part, is examining the impact of Brexit in financial, customs and trade terms. However, the contingency plans and the 31 documents that deal with the issue of customs posts along the Border are not being released to any Opposition Member in the House. Why not? Mr. Barnier stood on this spot and said we needed to speak the truth. His next sentence was that Brexit would have consequences. We are all big enough in this House to look at these issues and also need to know what the contingency plans are. We need to be armed with all of that information. I appeal to the Minister, despite the independence of Revenue, to present the finance committee with the presentation the Revenue Commissioners have undertaken on potential scenarios in policing the Border after Brexit. That is what should happen in a normal functioning democracy in which committees and Members are respected.
Mr. Irwin briefed the finance committee on what Revenue was doing. I am now briefing the Deputy in the House on the policy position on the political side. There is no contradiction between the two. The Deputy knows quite well that I do not decide on what is released in responding to freedom of information requests. There are independent officers who make these decisions without me even knowing what documents are being released or that their release has been refused. I am not amenable to answering questions on freedom of information issues. That is not a matter for me. If the Brexit policy of the United Kingdom is continued to its conclusion, there will be an international boundary between the European Union and the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland. It will not just be a bilateral matter between us and the United Kingdom. The Revenue Commissioners, as described yesterday at the committee, are using their independent mandate and especially their responsibility for customs issues, to scope the different possibilities in order to contribute to a solution in the event that the negotiations go differently to the political and policy position of the Government.