Wednesday, 25 April 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Yesterday, on the Order of Business, I called for statements on Brexit, given reports which have been published, and in some cases leaked, in recent times. I was told that was not possible, but if I tabled a Topical Issue matter, the issue would be heard. However, there is no sign of the Minister with responsibility for this area. That is an absolute disgrace. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, should be here to hear the concerns of the three Sinn Féin Deputies on this issue. For whatever reason, he has not bothered to turn up. If we was not in a position to be here, we should have been informed, which is the rule under Standing Orders. I want to protest in the strongest possible terms, given the gravity of these issues, that the Minister is not here. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State who is sitting across from me.
Yesterday, when I raised this issue following a leaked report from European officials which cast doubt on the viability of the backstop arrangement agreed last December, I got a very flippant response from the Taoiseach. He said that it was just a leaked report. That is the case, but it still a report, and it still raises serious doubt. Back in December, the backstop arrangement was called a "cast-iron guarantee". It quickly went from cast iron to a political agreement and then to a gentleman's agreement. When the European Union published what it saw as a legal text that would translate the political agreement into an actual protocol, it was dismissed out of hand by the British Government. Then we had the draft withdrawal agreement, huge swathes of which have not been delivered.
I was not looking for a response from the Minister of State across from me, but rather one from the Minister with responsibility for this issue, who is in constant contact with European officials. I wanted him to update this House and he is not in a position to do so. I think that is bad faith on behalf of the Minister. My party has given full support to the Government on Brexit so that we can get the best possible result for Ireland. We need information to be given and if the Minister is not in a position to attend to give us that information, it is bad faith on his behalf.
I live in a Border county. My constituency stretches from Belturbet in County Cavan right around to Pettigo in County Donegal and it takes up almost a third of the Border. It is ironic that today, Mrs. Theresa Villiers, MP, is introducing a Bill in the House of Commons to prevent live imports from outside the UK after Brexit. If a person from County Leitrim or County Cavan bought a couple of sheep in Fermanagh, they would not be able to bring them back across the Border. Trade that has gone on for centuries will be halted in these circumstances. It is a reflection of the concern that all of us have about where the Tory Government is in regard to all of this issue. On the one hand, they talk the talk but, on the other, the reality is that most people who live in Border areas are very fearful that there is going to be a border. We often hear about soft borders. We do not care if it is soft or hard; we do not want a border. That is the result we need.
As my colleague has said, we have been forthcoming with assistance to the Minister and the Government in every way possible so that we can get solutions. We need to get a response. We need to understand what is happening, and we expect to get decent communication. In this instance particularly, there needs to be a clear communication from the Irish Government to Mrs. Theresa Villiers, MP, and the Tory party that it is totally outrageous for her to suggest a ban on the export of live animals on the island of Ireland, which would be the outcome.
We are coming to a crunch time on Brexit. The back stop does not have legal standing, and nor did it. It was a statement.
I wish to raise the issue of energy, which is of major concern. We are dependent on Norway and Britain for much of our gas, with a pipeline coming through Britain. Some 40% of our electricity is generated from gas, and if this line is cut or tariffs are put on it, there would be huge implications. We have very little energy security as a result. The east-west interconnector connecting to Britain is another issue. That must be tied down. I am not sure that this has been getting enough attention. The single electricity market for the whole of Ireland, which was due to go live next month, is now delayed until October. What is the future of that project? That is of major concern. It is supposed to save consumers and businesses €200 million. What is the future of the overall all-Ireland electricity market, which has been there for a decade, if this goes ahead?
Regarding oil reserves, the State has oil in storage facilities in Britain. We also have oil stored in one facility in the North. Do we have a replacement for those stocks in the event of a hard border? I do not want to see any border.
I apologise for the Tánaiste. As the Deputies may be aware, he is in Derry today, meeting community politicians and business leaders in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process, events in Derry and Brexit. The Tánaiste is certainly working hard on the Brexit situation and to ensure that the institutions in Northern Ireland can get back on track again.
I thank the three Deputies for raising this issue. I assure Deputy Kenny that both the Irish embassies in London and Brussels, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, all Government Departments and the Taoiseach are monitoring the situation in the UK and Brussels very closely. It is not as if we are not dealing with these issues. We are doing so.
Regarding the Topical Issue itself, the EU's position is quite clear on this. The back stop solution, as proposed in the draft protocol in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is fully workable. It aims to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and to protect both North-South co-operation and the integrity of the customs union and the Single Market. Some progress has been made on the draft protocol in the negotiations that immediately proceeded the European Council meeting in March. This was recorded in an annotated, colour-coded version of the draft withdrawal agreement published by the European Commission task force on 19 March. This reflects the agreement on some articles of the draft text, including the common travel area and other areas of North-South co-operation.
During the negotiations, the United Kingdom also accepted that a legally-operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December and that all the issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These were important steps forward.
Since the March European Council, intensive negotiations have been continuing between the EU and UK teams with a view to narrowing the remaining gaps in respect of the draft protocol and other withdrawal issues. Irish officials have been involved in some of these meetings where the task force believes this would be helpful. We will continue to work closely with the task force.
The European Council is continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return at its next meeting in June to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and the framework for the future relationship. The European Union has also made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken are respected in full. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has met several of his EU counterparts in recent weeks and received a strong message of their commitment to this principle and their continuing solidarity with Ireland. The Tánaiste will also make clear the position of the Government and the European Union to Mr. David Lidington when he meets him tomorrow.
I am delighted that the European Union's chief negotiator on Brexit, Mr. Michel Barnier, will visit Ireland next week. This is a further indication of the commitment of Mr. Barnier and his team to taking account of Ireland's concerns. Mr. Barnier will meet the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and engage with a wide range of stakeholders at the all-island civic dialogue in Dundalk.
The EU has been clear that there must be significant progress on agreeing the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland by June and that the backstop on avoiding a hard border set out in the protocol is a legally workable solution.
To respond to the specific query raised by the Deputies concerning the leak of the so-called EU memorandum, I have no intention of commenting on press articles based on leaks. I assure the House, however, that the so-called memo or note alluded to is not a European Commission document, nor does it reflect the position of the European Union in any way. We cannot comment on every newspaper article. Our focus is on Brexit and on ensuring we secure the best solution for Ireland.
While I do not have any difficulty with the Tánaiste carrying out business in the North, when a Deputy requests statements and is asked to submit a Topical Issue instead, he or she expects the Minister to be available. We could have had this discussion with the Minister tomorrow or next week. Notwithstanding that, the Minister of State is correct that the backstop is workable. Sinn Féin called for special status for the North in order to keep it in the customs union and the Single Market and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
It is important that the Government does not overstate or hype the position set out by the British Government. The British Prime Minister stated that the legal text produced by the European Union is out as no British Prime Minister could sign up to it because it would mean a border in the Irish Sea. The agreement also states that the goods covered by full alignment will be listed, which means some good will not be covered, for example, all services. Only areas connected with North-South co-operation and those that fall under the Good Friday Agreement will be covered by full alignment. The goods and services that will not be covered must be subject to checks, which will mean a hardening of the Border. A backstop is the bare minimum required and, even at that, it will create difficulties. Despite this, there is still no agreement on it.
With respect, the British Prime Minister stated that "a" protocol, as opposed to "the" protocol, would be agreed. As the Minister of State knows, there is a significant difference between the words "the" and "a".
Sinn Féin appreciates the that Government is doing its best in its dealings with the Tory Government in the UK. My party had the same experience and we understand how difficult it can be to deal with a Tory Government. What is needed is a flow of information and the application of maximum pressure in the interests of Irish citizens, both those living on this island and the millions living in Britain.
The Minister of State may have attended the presentation on Irish passports in the audiovisual room earlier. We are conscious of the large numbers of people applying for passports because ordinary citizens are fearful of the potential consequences of Brexit. The Government has a job to do and we must raise the bar in this regard in order to reassure people that their rights will be protected.
We spoke about the issue of agriculture and cross-Border trade. We must also bear in mind the trade in agricultural produce across the Irish Sea. Substantial amounts of agricultural produce are exported to our nearest neighbour, which is our largest market. Despite this, we have not secured any assurances about what will happen in respect of this trade. Many exporters are extremely concerned about the possible outcome of Brexit. Many companies that export to continental Europe transport goods across Britain and we have not been given any assurances on this trade.
The State relies on oil it stores in Britain and the North. Joined-up thinking will be required in respect of this issue and I ask that it be given special attention. Given his brief, the Minister of State will understand that without energy, we will not have industry, jobs and many other things. It is crucial, therefore, that we are able to turn on the lights and have power, including gas and oil, in order to drive industry until we develop alternative sources of energy. Realistically, we do not have a replacement for the gas we currently import and on which the economy relies. If Britain opts out of the customs union and Single Market, tariffs will be imposed on gas and our trade with Britain will acquire third-country status. According to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Corrib gas field will supply gas for a little more than ten years. We must develop renewable energy sources and copperfasten the all-Ireland electricity and gas markets, including the wholesale markets. I ask the Minister of State to address the specific issue of oil.
Maximum pressure is being applied at European Union level regarding Ireland's relationship with the United Kingdom. Our colleagues in the EU have an excellent understanding of Ireland's special relationship with the UK, particularly in the area of trade, but also in other areas, including those to which the Deputies refer. The Government wants clear progress to be made on the protocol before the June Council meeting. Neither the Government nor the EU task force wants to put this matter on the long finger.
Last week, at a meeting in Iveagh House, which I am sure Sinn Féin representatives attended, the Tánaiste updated members of the political parties on the Brexit talks. The EU has made clear that the backstop, as set out in the protocol, is a viable solution for avoiding a hard border. It will mean that there will be no physical infrastructure or associated checks and controls in place. It is vital to have this legal certainty in the withdrawal agreement to ensure that regardless of what happens in terms of the agreement between the European Union and the UK on their future relationship, there is no prospect of a return to a hard border The Tánaiste and Taoiseach will have an opportunity to take stock next week when Mr. Barnier visits County Louth. Tomorrow evening, Mr. Barnier will make his views clear to Mr. David Lidington, as he did last week when he met the deputy Prime Minister in Westminster. We are very much on top of the matter. The period leading up to June 2019 will be critical and sensitive negotiations are ongoing. Time is of the essence.
I thank all the political parties for their co-operation to date. We must take this journey together because Ireland's interests are in all our interests. As the UK exit date edges closer, we must make progress in the negotiations.
As I stated, the Irish issue has been identified as a key element of the negotiations. It is important that our EU partners understand where we are coming from. The issue of Ireland remains high on the agenda of all Ministers when they travel abroad. The next couple of months will be crucial in the context of ensuring that we get the protocol in place.