Thursday, 12 July 2018
Northern Ireland and Brexit: Statements
I am pleased to open the statements on Northern Ireland on behalf of the Government and to add the topic of Brexit to our discussions on this occasion. It has been asked for by a number of other parties. We are all aware that Brexit creates additional challenges in many areas, not least for Northern Ireland. I am glad to update the House on the Government's engagement, as we work at all times to protect and advance the Good Friday Agreement in all contexts.
I will first address the latest development in the Brexit negotiations. There have been two notable developments in recent weeks. First, at the June European Council, EU leaders took stock of the state of play. Their conclusions were forthright and robust, as they needed to be, and they set out in clear terms what must be achieved in the coming months. Concern was expressed that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland and it was reiterated that the UK must respect in full the commitments made in December and again in March. Importantly, EU leaders made it clear that in the absence of agreement on a backstop, it would not be possible to finalise the withdrawal agreement as a whole, including transition arrangements.
This reflects the Government's and the EU's position that, while our preference is still for an overall EU-UK relationship that would resolve all issues, it remains essential that a backstop be agreed which provides certainty that in any circumstances, and no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship, a hard border would be avoided. We retain the full support and understanding of our EU partners in this regard. EU leaders also urged the UK to come forward with workable and realistic proposals on the framework for the future relationship, noting the EU's willingness to revisit its approach should the UK's position evolve.
This brings me to the second development. Last week, at its meeting at Chequers, the UK Government reached internal agreement on its approach to the future EU-UK relationship. The detail of this position has been elaborated upon in the UK White Paper published earlier today and which my officials are now studying closely. Today's White Paper is clearly primarily focused on the future relationship but it also includes a welcome confirmation that the UK will agree to a legally operable backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement. We look forward to considering today's proposals together with our EU partners, guided by the mandate provided by the European Council in March. Taking account of an assessment of the proposals by Mr. Michel Barnier and his team, we will have an opportunity to exchange views with our EU 27 counterparts at the forthcoming meeting of the General Affairs Council in Brussels on 20 July. My officials and I remain in intensive contact with Mr. Barnier and his team, as Deputies might expect. I will, of course, continue to keep this House informed of developments as we approach the final stages of the negotiations. The Government has placed the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process at the heart of our response to Brexit and this will continue to be the case.
In turning to consider the political position in Northern Ireland, I acknowledge that today, 12 July, is a sensitive and difficult day for many and I take this opportunity to commend the important work that is undertaken each year by the Parades Commission, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and by leaders in both communities to see that issues around parades are anticipated and addressed in a constructive way for the benefit of everyone. I call for calm and respect on all sides this evening. The majority of bonfires in Northern Ireland last night passed without serious incident, although there were a number of disturbances in east Belfast, which the PSNI have indicated were orchestrated. I acknowledge the leadership shown by unionist political representatives and representatives of the Orange Order in condemning the violent actions seen in east Belfast last night and calling for respect for identity and religion. Although it concerns the actions of a small number of individuals, I put on record the Government's condemnation of the sectarian attacks and the violence against the PSNI that we have seen in Derry - in the Bogside and at the interface with the Fountain - in recent days.
I strongly welcome the statement from the leaders of all of the main political parties in Northern Ireland that called for communities to stand together to protect the rule of law. The people of Derry are rightly proud of their work in building bridges between communities and in sustaining peace and reconciliation in the city. It was heartening to see that the Bogside community took a stand on Monday evening, showing their support for their neighbours on the Fountain Estate, as did church leaders on Tuesday. The determination that we see in Derry to uphold our shared peace serves as an inspiration to all of us in government and in politics to continue to do all that we can to see that the Good Friday Agreement can operate to its full potential through its political institutions.
The devolved power-sharing institutions are at the heart of the Agreement and they are the best means for achieving accountable, representative decision making for all the people of Northern Ireland. This is a critical time for Northern Ireland. There are many challenges and questions raised by Brexit that should be considered and addressed by elected representatives in Northern Ireland through the devolved institutions. There are also now many important decisions that have an impact on public services and people's lives that are waiting to be taken by a new Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. The leadership at community level by the political parties in Northern Ireland that we have seen in recent days should also be represented in the Assembly and delivered on by a power-sharing Executive. It is of fundamental importance - most directly for all of the people of Northern Ireland - that the devolved institutions can operate again, and this needs to happen as soon as possible.
I remain in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley, as we seek a way beyond the current impasse. We met in Cork on 11 June and again in London last week, on 4 July. The Secretary of State and I have each conducted contacts with the parties to hear their views on how, at this stage, the two governments can support the political process in accordance with the Agreement. In light of these consultations, the Secretary of State and I are considering how best the two governments can chart a way forward that will give the best prospects for getting the devolved institutions operating again without delay. As an important part of that engagement, a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, will take place on 25 July in London. The Minister for Justice and Equality and I will participate for the Government in this meeting of the conference with our British counterparts. The meeting will be co-chaired by Mr. David Lidington and me. The BIIGC will discuss the effective operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, North-South security co-operation and bilateral cooperation between the British and Irish Governments. Both governments, as co-guarantors of the agreement, are fully committed to working together to achieve the earliest operation of the devolved institutions and to working together for the mutual benefit of all of the peoples of these islands.
I will conclude with a brief word on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. I had a good meeting with the family of the late Mr. Pat Finucane on Tuesday and reassured them of the Government's continued and complete support for the holding of a public enquiry consistent with the Weston Park Agreement. The Government remains determined to see that there is definitive progress in the period ahead on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy framework and other outstanding legacy issues, including the three all-party motions adopted by this House on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The Government welcomed the launch of the UK Government's consultation on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's past on 11 May, which is an important step forward. We are also working on drafting the proposals for the legislation required in this jurisdiction to provide for co-operation with the Stormont House legacy bodies. This work is being led by the Minister for Justice and Equality. I have met families, considered unionist or nationalist, which believe equally strongly in the need for truth and reconciliation through legacy structures.
The Government will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties to seek continued progress on legacy issues and we will also continue to prioritise reconciliation in Northern Ireland in our ongoing work. To underline the Government's commitment in this area, I was pleased to announce in May that from 2019, an additional €1 million will be made available through my Department's reconciliation fund. My officials will also undertake a study to identify the challenges facing reconciliation in Border communities, paying particular attention to the needs of minorities in Border counties. I look forward to hearing the views of colleagues.
I did not ask for it. Nobody can doubt the immense progress in Northern Ireland arising from the victory of democratic politics and the new beginning offered by the inclusive and brave agreement reached 20 years ago.
The problems that confront Northern Ireland and this island as a whole today are nowhere near those experienced at the height of the violence and sectarianism of the previous decades. We should acknowledge the tremendous steps that have been taken to try to overcome entrenched sectarianism and the spiral of conflict that it fed.
On 12 July we should note the importance of the day to much of the unionist community and the value they place on it. It is fitting that our Presidents have for some years made sure that they have used the office to show the respect owed to this distinctly Irish tradition and the extraordinary good faith shown by many of its leaders in helping that tradition to evolve. This was once a day on which Catholic communities lived in real fear and it defined aggressive sectarianism. This has overwhelmingly changed but, unfortunately, not completely. Recent days have shown again how a small minority can terrorise communities. Building dangerous bonfires in built-up areas, attacking workers, burning flags and political posters as well as abusive sloganeering have nothing to do with celebration of a culture; it is nothing less than sectarian thuggery. The apparent activity of the east Belfast UVF is a major concern, as is the activity of dissidents in Derry. The attempted murder of a police officer in Derry, the throwing of 20 petrol bombs and the attacks on the small Protestant community in the Fountain area of the city show a deliberate escalation of sectarian violence.
Fianna Fáil strongly welcomes and supports the joint statement signed by six Assembly parties yesterday condemning the violence of recent days and the call for full co-operation with the police. It showed that there is cross-community opposition to the tiny minority trying to destabilise Northern Ireland and undermine progress. I hope those parties, especially the largest two parties, understand the obvious fact that these concerning developments are being enabled by the ongoing political vacuum in Northern Ireland. Today marks 549 days since the agreed institutions for governing Northern Ireland in an inclusive way were collapsed. During this time there has been no voice for the people of Northern Ireland in their mounting health crisis, rising homelessness, tackling of sectarianism or, of course, in the debate on Brexit. Leaving a community without a voice at a time of great uncertainty and historic challenges is dangerous in any circumstance. It is potentially destructive in a community with Northern Ireland's history.
In two weeks' time the two governments will finally hold a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. While the significance of the conference has occasionally been exaggerated, it remains the only route available to the governments to be true to the expressed will of the people in supporting the Good Friday Agreement. We welcome the holding of the conference but we are highly disappointed that neither the Prime Minister nor the Taoiseach will attend given the scale and importance of the issues at hand. It is a disgrace that it took so long for the conference to be called. This delay has simply confirmed that no matter how often the key players talk, they have so far failed to find a way of moving ahead in a co-ordinated or urgent manner.
The first priority at the moment should remain the restoration of the institutions. The current blockage is the exact mirror image of the difficulties over the welfare negotiations some years ago. This even goes as far as each of the parties claiming the other backed out of a deal and each party claiming that the other is 100% to blame for everything. The calling of the conference should not be a replacement for trying to return to meaningful negotiations, including the direct and active involvement of the leaders of government.
While the calling of the conference is welcome it is singularly disappointing how limited the agenda is. In particular, there appears to be, on the face of it, an entirely unacceptable attempt to keep Brexit-related issues off the agenda. The conference is entitled to discuss all non-devolved issues. This includes the overall operation of the devolution settlement, which is on the agenda. However, given the number of areas where the British Government has recently denied the role of devolved administrations, the list of areas that can and should be discussed is dramatically longer than the last time the conference met in 2007. The British Government should be confronted with the fact that it recently passed legislation and fought a UK Supreme Court case based on the principle that the devolved administrations did not control a vast range of policy areas. In fact, it has gone as far as to assert that the Sewel convention on the devolution of powers is voluntary and all powers are held by Westminster. The British Government cannot make this naked power grab and then claim these issues are outside of the competence of the conference.
This is, of course, crucial to the basic position of Northern Ireland with regard to the European Union. Under the UK European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 passed in London, all competencies currently held by the European Union will automatically be held by London until some later point when they may be devolved. The Government should also remember that the British Government accepted in its pleading in the Agnew High Court case that co-operation on European Union matters and the role of the European Union is assumed in the Good Friday Agreement. As such, Ireland should simply insist that practical matters relating to Brexit and Northern Ireland be included in the discussions as well as the requirement on the British Government to be open in sharing information.
Businesses and communities in Northern Ireland have been abandoned by a political class which has either opted out of institutions that might give them a voice on Brexit or is involved in trying to subvert the will of the majority which voted to remain.
We are calling on the Tánaiste to use this meeting to push for the publication of whatever material has been prepared in London and Belfast concerning the implications of different options for Northern Ireland and details of what contingency planning is under way.
While matters of education and health do fall within the remit of devolved authority, intentions about how to proceed with urgently needed action fall within the realm of the overall operation of the Agreement. Therefore, we believe that our Government should push for an unambiguous commitment for the British Government to publish a statement of its plans and budgets for schools and hospitals. Northern Ireland's schools and hospitals are being squeezed relentlessly and the vital services they provide for communities across the North are being undermined. This is becoming a critical issue for many of the people involved on the front-line of services and those in receipt of vital public services. We know from various legal cases that the capacity of administrators to take decisions and so on is severely curtailed and the issue of governance is severely undermined by the current lack of the institutions in operation.
Some clarity is urgently required; it is needed now. I hope the BIIGC can bring some clarity to that situation. The holding of the IGC is unfortunately necessary because of a lack of political leadership and bravery in more than one party. It is unlikely to mark a major breakthrough but hopefully it will lead to some progress in terms of restoring the institutions. After 549 days in which there has been a sense of drift and a failure to turn contact into action, a return of a sense of hope that some progress is possible would be a major achievement indeed.
This year we celebrate 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement, 20 years of peace and progress and 20 years that have changed the relationships across our island and between Ireland and Britain. However, recent events demonstrate that we cannot be complacent or take the progress or the peace for granted. The Good Friday Agreement was an agreement in the first instance to protect citizens and accommodate change. Ireland is changing. A new Ireland is emerging and the North can no longer be viewed through the prism of orange and green. It is now a rainbow of identities and aspirations.
Sinn Féin stands for a new united inclusive and equal Ireland, an Ireland for all, whether British, Irish, both or neither. However, there are those who want to drag us back into conflict, those who want to maintain community division. They can be seen on the streets of Derry and on the streets of east Belfast. They cannot and will not prevail.
I know Derry. The actions of the antisocial criminal elements that have roved the streets of the maiden city do not represent Derry.
I know many unionists. The actions of the bonfire builders who decorate their pyres with sectarian graffiti do not represent the unionist community.
Sinn Féin elected representatives are on the ground and stand with communities at this time. In Derry we have marched in support and in solidarity with the community of the Fountain. Throughout the North, Sinn Féin representatives have stood with unionist and nationalist communities. We have challenged, and will continue to challenge, sectarianism wherever and whenever it raises its ugly head. We continue to support and work with the PSNI to challenge criminality and hate crime. There is an onus on all of us not only to condemn but to challenge those involved in these activities, to safeguard communities and hold those responsible to account. We must demonstrate that equal rights of citizens are fundamental and inalienable. We must demonstrate that grievances, whether real or perceived, can only be resolved through dialogue.
The Good Friday Agreement is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. It must be respected, embraced and implemented. A functioning executive operating for all in the community is the way forward. That is why we negotiated with the DUP to the point of agreement in February. What we agreed at that time was not perfect but it was progress. It was sufficient to allow for the re-establishment of the institutions. I note with regret that unfortunately the DUP walked away from this agreement and hence the opportunity for genuine power-sharing to be re-established was lost, for then but not forever.
The issues of contention remain. These are marriage equality, language rights and the right to a coroners inquest, rights that are recognised and honoured in Britain and this jurisdiction. The denial of these rights is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and the full implementation of the Agreement is the solution to these issues. The institution to resolve these issues is also found in the Agreement. The BIIGC brings together the two governments to deal with non-devolved matters of mutual concern, including rights. In the absence of devolved institutions, this conference is the opportunity for the two governments to deal with all of the matters outstanding, within the framework of the Agreement.
I welcome that the intergovernmental conference will meet on 25 July but it must be more than a talking shop. It is the opportunity for the two governments to assert the primacy of the agreements, to make clear that the rights available here and across in our neighbouring island of Britain will be delivered in the North, that the Irish language Act agreed at St. Andrews will be delivered and that progress will be made on all-Ireland working and co-operation. The conference is the opportunity to vindicate the rights of Gaelgeoirí, of our LGBT+ community and those of the victims of the conflict. They are rights that are not a matter of negotiation but of implementation. This would provide a pathway back to the institutions.
However, there are those in unionism and the British Government who may use the conference to play for time and to continue to stall on these rights. It will be for the Government to set the pace and to ensure, as the Taoiseach has said, that the people of the North are never again left behind.
We are not naive. Even with the Executive and Assembly up and working, we still face considerable challenges on women's health, for example, and looming over all this is Brexit, which my colleague, Deputy David Cullinane Sinn Féin spokesperson on Brexit, will now deal with.
The British Government today published its negotiating position in its White Paper, which is to be welcomed. We also welcome the commitment to there being no hard border on the island of Ireland, a commitment to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and a commitment to a legally operable backstop for the island of Ireland. The Tánaiste will accept that we have been here before. We had a political agreement last December which was to be built upon; we have a White Paper today and more political promises have been made. We must move beyond political agreements and promises and see the legal text, legal certainty and legal clarity that is necessary to ensure there is no hardening of the Border but also to ensure that we protect citizens' rights in the North and that we protect the Agreement in all its parts. We must move beyond the sound bite and aspiration and move to real detail so that we can see exactly what it being put on the table.
It is time for the British Government to live up to its responsibility to safeguard the letter and spirit of the Agreement and avoid a hard border. The Border in Ireland is not simply about trade nor was the Good Friday Agreement a trade agreement. It was about citizens rights, identity, social and legal rights and these have protection in the European Courts, including the European Court of Justice. Even in the White Paper published today, the British Government is still intent on taking the North of Ireland out of the purview of the European Court of Justice. We have concerns, which I have raised with the Tánaiste several times, that Irish citizens who live in the North, who are also European citizens, want to be able to vindicate their rights post-Brexit but there remains huge uncertainty as to how that will happen.
I welcome the commitment to a backstop but we still do not know what that will mean. There seems to be a difference between the December agreement, which was political in nature, supported by most, if not all, Members of this House, and the Government and what the British Government is now saying. Today, Theresa May reiterated that Britain and the North will come out of the customs union and Single Market. There has been progress on some issues, but not enough.
We need certainty on these issues as we move into the October summit. It was this Government, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach, who promised the Irish people that the Irish issues would be sorted before we moved on to the phase two negotiations; that did not happen. They also promised that we would have an agreement by June and that we would see real and substantial progress as we moved towards the June summit; that did not happen. There has been some movement today but we are clear that it is unacceptable that we would stumble into the October Council meeting without any legal guarantees or text on the Irish issues. They must be dealt with and if that means a summit in September, so be it, because this is our insurance policy.
The future arrangements including the future trading relationship between Britain and the EU is of interest to the people of Ireland. We want the closest possible relationship. I would prefer if Britain remained as close as possible to the Single market and the customs union. In the event that does not happen, we need that backstop, and that insurance policy, and to see it well in advance of October so that Irish people and businesses have the certainty they need.
I welcome that at last we have a written position paper by the British Government setting out its vision of the future EU-UK relationship. It has taken more than two years to get to this stage and only months remain before March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. I also welcome that Theresa May refers to commitments to Northern Ireland and to Ireland in her foreword to the White Paper.
There are two sides to the story when it comes to Northern Ireland and Brexit - the economic side and the political side. The White Paper is ambitious in the type of economic partnership it outlines. It remains to be seen whether a deal can be struck, not least in respect of UK payments to the EU, the role of the European Court of Justice and the four fundamental freedoms. Not only is there a risk of the UK cherry-picking what it wants from the Single Market but there is an explicit plan to allow employers to cherry-pick the so-called talented workers and allow them free movement but not other workers.
This is not something to which we could agree.
I would like to focus on three British proposals that are worth emphasising. They involve the maintenance of the all-island energy market; the suggestion of a common rule book for goods, including agrifood, which accounts for the greatest bulk of our exports to Northern Ireland; and the UK's participation in certain EU agencies, such as the European Chemicals Agency and the European Aviation Safety Agency. Ireland exports animals and food worth €3.9 billion to Britain each year, as well as chemicals worth a further €3.9 billion. Nearly €600 million in animals and food, as well as a further €200 million in chemicals, crosses from Ireland to Northern Ireland each year. In turn, we import food worth nearly €500 million and chemicals worth €64 million from Northern Ireland. Many people are unaware that we import so much food into the Republic from the UK. Behind all of these figures are jobs, farms and businesses. Without prejudice to the negotiations that are yet to come, I welcome the fact that the UK is clearly seeking an agreement that would maintain the open Border that is fundamental to the maintenance of so many livelihoods on this island.
Inevitably, there is a political dimension to the agreement of standards and regulations for trade. The proposal in the UK White Paper for biannual meetings between UK Ministers and their EU counterparts to agree the evolution of standards is a recognition of that. It is a way for the UK to participate as a rule-maker and not exclusively as a rule-taker. While this is a radical proposal, I believe it merits careful consideration. The proposed model is not unlike the European Free Trade Association, EFTA, which the UK co-founded in 1960. It envisages a relationship that is less one-sided than the current relationship between the EU and EFTA. From Ireland's perspective, a permanent association agreement between the EU and the UK would help to secure the permanent openness of the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It would reduce the risk that a future UK Government might tear up any agreement that might be perceived as locking the UK into some kind of second-class relationship with the EU.
Everything I am saying about the proposed model is predicated on an association agreement being negotiated and being deemed to be workable. I concede that this is a long path away because there are many negotiations to be had. I believe it could be a model for the EU's relations with other countries on its periphery, including Norway, Ukraine and Turkey. Before I touch on the political dimension to Brexit and Northern Ireland, I want to emphasise that the fundamental point I am making is that the model which has been proposed could be of value to the EU in the future. A number of countries that will seek membership of the Union in the years to come might not fully qualify for such membership. If a model of this type is negotiated with the UK, such countries might see it as an acceptable alternative to full membership of the EU. We should be bold and courageous enough to develop that and to think about whether it might work.
This House used to have a much greater focus on Northern Ireland affairs. In recent years, there has been a significant diminution in the number of debates, the quality of debates and the number of hours we devote to this issue. That has been my experience. Obviously, Brexit has brought the Border back into our debates. It is now a central part of our agenda. We need to look beyond the economic and social aspects of the Border. Northern Ireland's political system, as set up under the Good Friday Agreement, is in a precarious position. The political stalemate that has existed in Northern Ireland for more than 18 months has its origins in the so-called "cash for ash scandal" which, quite frankly, is not referenced too often nowadays.
We know there is an inquiry into it. Having listened carefully to the Sinn Féin leader's speech, I know this issue was not mentioned, even as the precursor of the collapse of the institutions. I do not say that as a criticism. I am pointing out the reality that a range of new issues, including marriage equality and the Irish language Act, are being referenced even though they were not referenced when the institutions collapsed. That is fine. The Labour Party supports marriage equality and has done for decades. It was at our insistence that the 2011 programme for Government included a commitment to hold the referendum that was ultimately held in 2015.
Ba mhaith liom Acht na Gaeilge a fheiceáil sa Tuaisceart. The nature of politics is that it involves addressing issues and resolving problems through participation in the democratic institutions that are in place. There was a majority in favour of marriage equality in the Northern Ireland Assembly but, as Deputies will be aware, it was blocked by a petition of concern from the DUP. The DUP no longer has the numbers to block legislation on its own. Likewise, the Irish language Act will happen - it is only a matter of time. I ask all the parties, including Sinn Féin, to stop seeing reasons to avoid doing their democratic business and taking on democratic politics. They should stop looking to the Parliament in London to impose or block legislation that politicians in Northern Ireland are quite capable of delivering through the hard-won institutions that currently exist. It is essential for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to be back up and running as soon as possible. There is no issue preventing this that cannot be resolved in those institutions and through those institutions.
In the past 48 hours, we have seen what happens when there is a political void. Northern Ireland has been moving forward for the past 20 years, but now there is a risk of societal movement in the opposite direction. Catholic youths have thrown petrol bombs at the homes of Protestant pensioners. Others have been lying in wait to throw stones and petrol bombs at the PSNI. Shots were fired. In Belfast, the UVF threatened to organise disorder. I will give some examples of the serious disorder we have seen. There have been illegal bonfires in addition to those that were permitted. Vehicles have been set alight. Fire crews have been placed in peril. While I agree strongly with the joint statement from six of the political parties in Northern Ireland concerning the violence and the intimidation that followed, it would be more effective if it had emanated from a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland. Policies must be implemented to improve the lives of young people from disadvantaged areas. Such people can be easy prey for the extremists who still exist in Northern Ireland and who seek to push others towards the path of violence.
The planned meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 25 July next is an important opportunity for the Government to push for the restoration of Northern Ireland's democratic institutions. I appreciate that the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister have met recently, but I join others in saying it is a pity they will not be attending next month's meeting. I hope the Tánaiste will be able to impress on his counterparts the urgency of getting democratic politics back up and running in Northern Ireland. If that means some of the parties proceeding in the absence of others, so be it. If it means the rules have to change to some degree to provide for an Assembly with a more typical government-opposition divide, so be it too. This shameful avoidance of responsibility at such a crucial juncture in Northern Ireland's history - the current Brexit negotiations will have serious long-term ramifications for the people of this island as a whole - has led to Northern Ireland having no functioning Assembly and no Executive.
I want to mention the issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland, which has not been mentioned so far in this debate and does not seem to feature in the minds of politicians in the North. Our fantastic movement for abortion rights has brought this issue to the centre of the stage for women. Following our repeal referendum, there is a concern that anyone who can become pregnant in the North is getting left behind. Northern Ireland and Malta are the only two parts of Europe which have such a strict ban on abortion that it is not permitted other than in the most exceptional circumstances.
While there is a political impasse and the sectarian parties are not in the Assembly, there is growing impatience, particularly among young people, for action on abortion rights and other progressive social issues.
Over 50 years ago, abortion was introduced in Britain via the Abortion Act 1967. The Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. Politicians united across the sectarian divide to see to it that abortion rights would never be provided to women in the North. The hypocrisy here has been part and parcel of the Northern Ireland state, with people travelling outside that the latter and, more recently, taking abortion pills. Now there is growing demand for action. There is a multitude of campaign groups. One of the groups in Northern Ireland with which I have a connection, ROSA, uses the slogan, "We won't be left behind". That is how people felt in the North when they saw the results of the referendum on repeal and the referendum on marriage equality three years ago.
Once again, the people are ahead of the politicians in the context of social attitudes. In all recent surveys, there has been a clear majority in favour of reform of abortion laws. In all the polls that have been produced, this has been the case. It is mainly the political parties that are left wanting. I refer to the SDLP and the DUP. There may be individual politicians who hold a pro-choice position. Until a few weeks ago, Sinn Féin did not have a position on this, except that of opposing any reform. I caution and condemn any party or organisation that tries to use this issue or any other for sectarian reasons or in a sectarian way. I took part in the Pride march in Dublin. I saw an official poster that stated something along the lines of "End Partition - Introduce Marriage Equality". It immediately linked a progressive social demand with partition or the national question rather than trying to unite Catholic and Protestant people to win social reforms.
Marriage equality was part of the negotiations in recent times. Abortion rights were never mentioned. It is absolutely necessary for a movement to be built in the North to force this onto the politicians' agenda in the same way as with repeal. All the surveys I have seen that were carried out in Protestant-dominated constituencies show Protestants are more in favour of abortion rights. It is not a case, therefore, of one section of the community being more progressive than the other. There is, according to the polls, a serious disconnect between the DUP leadership and the people who vote for the party. It is necessary to build a united movement of young people and women, of all religions and none, to force the issue of abortion rights onto the political agenda and make it irresistible for politicians, particularly the two big parties, to make it happen.
In the context of developments relating to this issue, Stella Creasy, MP, introduced a Bill recently that bought it centre stage. It is expected that an amendment will be introduced in the autumn to decriminalise abortion in the North. The Government of Ms Theresa May could fall before that but it is essential that the legislation be supported and that we support the demand for the decriminalisation of abortion. This would allow abortion to be provided through the National Health Service in the North, and it would create huge demand among people.
As we speak, at least two women from the North are using abortion pills. Others are travelling. The same hypocrisy pertains 100 miles up the road as pertained here. This has to be made a huge issue. A placard stating "The North is Next" was seen in Dublin Castle. We have to assist women and young people to see that this cannot be ignored any longer by the sectarian politicians and parties.
I will put the case slightly differently from my colleagues in Solidarity in that People Before Profit subscribes to the view set out by James Connolly, namely, that partition on this island would lead to "a carnival of reaction both North and South". In the South, we got the Catholic Church-dominated, anti-woman regime that held sway and persisted until relatively recently and that has been challenged forcefully by the Repeal and marriage equality movements. In the North, people got the sectarian state, sectarian violence and conflict of the orange and green varieties. For that reason, removing partition is vital in order to eliminate the divisions and the conservative and sectarian states with which people, North and South, have had to live.
I agree very strongly with Deputy Coppinger that the alarming eruptions of sectarian violence we have seen in recent days are a stark reminder that sectarianism remains alive and well in the North. That said, we glimpse the possibility for a different type of Ireland and for unity that emerges from below through struggles for things that unite ordinary people, working people and young people in a fight for a better and more progressive Ireland. After the Together for Yes victory, it was very inspiring for me to go to the North to participate in a march at which there was a huge contingent calling for abortion rights to be extended to the North. Both Catholics and Protestants were demanding that, cutting across the sectarian division. Similarly, there is a big movement erupting for marriage equality in the North. Again, it involves Catholic and Protestant people, but young people in particular.
Perhaps slightly more worryingly, although there is a positive side, Catholic and Protestant young people who are anti-racist had to take to the streets in the past week to protest against far-right demonstrations in the North, echoing the very worrying rise of far-right mobilisation in Britain, which, terrifyingly, saw 15,000 out-and-out fascists marching in London in recent weeks. It was great to see young, progressive, left-wing Catholic and Protestant young people mobilising against the far right in Belfast. The two possible futures are the sectarian violence we see erupting and a progressive and different type of Ireland based on Catholic and Protestant working people and young people coming together to fight for a shared, better and progressive future.
The political establishment, in the North, the South and Britain, has to take some responsibility for the violence that is erupting. The political structures in the North are not about eliminating sectarianism; they are about policing apart two communities. Suggesting that Orange marches and bonfires with sectarian slogans are part of some legitimate culture that we can manage is a mistake. This culture is used to stoke up violence. It has no purpose other than violence and it produces a reaction from people who are right to be angry about the sectarianism but who are completely wrong in that reaction and manipulated by elements who want to return to a futile armed struggle that will only divide the community again and lead absolutely nowhere.
We need a different type of politics that breaks from orange and green. People Before Profit is trying, North and South, to build a politics that will oppose austerity and fight for a socially progressive Ireland, not under a flag of green or orange but under the flag James Connolly would have flown, that of working-class, progressive and internationalist politics. We could do with a dose of that in Britain and in Europe also.
I have read voluminous reports and perspectives on the impact of Brexit on this island, including a report commissioned by the East Border Region Limited, which is a group of six local authorities from North and South led by the two chief executive officers of Down District Council and Louth County Council. There was also a more recent report compiled by Dr. Katy Hayward on behalf of the central Border region. The reason I refer specifically to those two reports is that the people who are spoken to in the reports are the public and community representatives who are at the coalface of not only the problems in Northern Ireland but also those relating to Brexit. There is clear agreement that Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the region of the EU that will be worst affected by Brexit. In fact, one report refers to a potential fall in GDP of between 0.8% and 2.6% below baseline by 2030 due to the disruption of Ireland's close trade, investment, energy, migration and integration links with the UK.
At a time when the Border region and the North of Ireland are set to suffer most, we are all aware of the stalemate that still exists in the North while the North-South Ministerial Council and other intergovernmental bodies remain in limbo. In the same way that the Minister created a voice for people in the South, a proper voice for the North is needed now more than ever. The people of Northern Ireland need Members of this House and others to articulate and express their concerns. In fact, the voices of Scotland and Wales also need to be heard collectively to demonstrate the potential disaster for all of us on the periphery of Europe. Even if there are no physical tariffs or customs, there is still the alignment with EU regulations relating to fresh food produce to contend with.
The White Paper issued today by the British Government outlines what Mrs. Theresa May agreed to at the recent Chequers meeting. That agreement is a soft Brexit path through the creation of a common rule book that will keep the UK in line with the EU Single Market standards on goods. It also includes the establishment of a free trade area for goods, which would avoid friction on the Border. The soft Brexit outlined in the White Paper is not what the hard-line Brexiteers wanted as it would seriously limit the UK's ability to trade with countries that have different or, indeed, substandard rules and regulations. The agrifood sector in particular will be affected, as the UK will not be able to trade with huge markets outside of these regulations. This is the reason for the recent resignation of three senior Ministers from the British Cabinet. It is good news, however, in that it avoids a hard border in Ireland. I cautiously welcome it. This is the first positive step by Britain in the two years of discussion and is a start on a final journey, which I have often referred to as fairy-tale economics.
In the recent report by the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, which included an online survey of people living in the Border region, people responded that they still were not assured that a hard border could be avoided. Respondents felt that the hard border would mean a step back in the peace process and interference with the Good Friday Agreement, and would be like going back, as they describe it, to the old days of the Troubles. Respect and tolerance of all views is needed now more than ever. Much as I have indicated a desire for a united Ireland, talk of that is not helpful. What we need is a unity of people, not land. We need an agreed Ireland, not an imposed Ireland.
I wish to refer to the paramilitary activity we have seen during this week of 12 July. Not only have we seen the reports other Members have mentioned, but in my county Uzi submachine guns can be obtained and used by dissidents. There were also the pipe bombings last night in Drogheda and more recent issues relating to the drugs trade. In this context, we need to be reminded that while the levels of violence after the Good Friday Agreement have disappeared from our media and televisions, in the past 20 years over 150 people have died as a result of paramilitary violence.
My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, will outline further the views of people in the Border region. We must protect the Good Friday Agreement and uphold our beliefs and the beliefs of people in the North who are waiting for us to deliver for them.
There was violence again in recent nights in Derry and Belfast. It is most regrettable that a small minority is still involved in thuggery and violence. It is sectarian violence and it must be stopped. Like previous speakers, I welcome the fact that the six political parties represented in Stormont signed a strong agreement denouncing that violence. It is good that there is cross-community opposition to this thuggery and violence.
In the second half of 2018 - 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement - the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are not functioning. It is most regrettable that at a time when there are huge political issues such as housing, welfare and health, as there are here, those day-to-day issues are not being dealt with because there is no executive in Northern Ireland, nor is there an assembly where the people's voice can be heard. I welcome that the Intergovernmental Conference is being convened before the end of the month. It is an important aspect of strand three of the Good Friday Agreement. The convening of the conference is belated but welcome.
I tabled parliamentary questions to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade earlier this week regarding some of the issues that might be raised at the Intergovernmental Conference and I am glad that the legacy issues are part of the business of the conference. Progress must be made on the legacy issues. The Stormont House Agreement has to be implemented. Some of us have taken the time to meet the victims of violence from both traditions. Many of the victims and their families have been waiting for justice and hoping that at least the truth will be found about the murder, mayhem and the taking of life by paramilitaries, as well as by some state forces. However, as time goes by memories fade as people get older. Unfortunately, people who lost family members and never got the truth about it are passing away. I appeal to the Tánaiste to ensure that this forms a central part of the negotiations with the British Government. It should be part of the Department's daily work. I am glad the Tánaiste referred to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 and the fact that the British Government has ignored the unanimous request of this House on three different occasions. The least the British Government can do is give access to those papers and files to an international eminent independent legal person.
On Brexit, I was discussing Border policing with the Minister for Justice and Equality earlier. I told him that, after 1998, I did not think I would be back in the House talking about Border crossings. Unfortunately, that is a big part of the political narrative in the two counties I represent and along the central Border area. Deputy Breathnach referred to work done by ICBAN. Dr. Katy Hayward of Queen's University Belfast carried out further survey work on behalf of ICBAN in regard to people's awareness of and concern about Brexit. Some of the findings are quite stark with regard to the concerns about the negative aspects of Brexit already. Almost 600 people from the Border area took part in the study. Three quarters of them stated that Brexit has already impacted negatively on their daily lives, in terms of their living standards, their planning for education and planning to access services across the Border. Brexit is a huge issue and we must ensure there is no return to the Border of the past on our island. The uncertainty since the British referendum is causing economic hardship.
It is having a negative economic impact on the Border region. The Tánaiste will be aware from his time as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the interdependence of the economy North and South. Thankfully, over the past 20 years there has been huge growth in business on an all-Ireland basis but these are the businesses that will be most impacted, unfortunately, by Brexit.
Previously in this House many of us have been highly critical of the British Government for its seeming ineptitude and in-fighting, which has repeatedly confounded attempts to nail down even the most basic of positions in respect of the proposed future relationship with the EU. The past week, however, may prove to have been somewhat of a catalyst for the future of the negotiations.
The White Paper which was published this afternoon lays the foundation for the UK's position going forward and the most strident dissenters have been sidelined. Despite this, there remain a number of potential pitfalls that will need to be addressed as soon as possible. From a first reading of the White Paper there are elements that are not perfect or realistic, but crucially for Ireland it points towards a realisation that a soft Brexit is not only desirable for the UK but in many ways it is inevitable. The UK policy now seems to have re-orientated towards seeking a free trade area for goods, which would require synchronisation with EU rules - a so-called common rule book or harmonisation by another name. This would in effect mean that existing customs and regulatory arrangements for manufacturing and agricultural products would continue after Brexit but services would diverge.
A facilitated customs arrangement is proposed. This would see the UK and EU become what is referred to as a combined customs territory in which the UK would apply the EU's tariffs and trade policies for goods intended for the bloc with domestic tariffs imposed for goods heading to the UK. This proposal, regrettably, harkens back to similar UK proposals that the EU has already rejected. Most alarmingly, the White Paper seeks to end the free movement of people to the UK from EU member states. Aside from contravening the principle of no access to the free market without free movement this section is very problematic from an Irish perspective. The section of the White Paper dealing with immigration is laid out, "without prejudice to the common travel area." If I am correct in my reading this means that the UK wishes to limit EU migration to skilled workers and simultaneously keep an open border between Northern Ireland the Republic. It is not clear how this circle can be squared. Also, and with complete disregard to the Good Friday Agreement and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, the White Paper states bluntly that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, ECJ, in the UK will end, except in relation to the interpretation of those EU rules to which the UK has agreed to adhere as a matter of international law. We urgently need clarity on whether the Good Friday Agreement falls into this category.
As we all know Theresa May's majority in the House of Commons relies on the support of the DUP which, despite the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland, has been one of the most vociferous voices in its support for a hard Brexit. We have not seen its reaction to the contents of the White Paper as of yet but if Theresa May is to re-establish fully her authority as Prime Minister, she must demand that the EU produce workable alternatives to what is in the document or fall into line behind her. I echo the calls of others that Sinn Féin reconsider its abstentionist policy, even temporarily, for the purposes of securing the best deal for its constituents in Northern Ireland. This is particularly pressing given the elements of the White Paper, which I have already referred to, that will affect Northern Ireland, specifically the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. These two issues, along with the customs proposals, should set alarm bells ringing for the Government, particularly in light of the comment by Michel Barnier on Tuesday that a Brexit deal was 80% done. We can only conclude from this that the substance of the White Paper was seen by the European Commission prior to publication. If the remaining 20% concerns the inconsistencies that I have already referred to, I urge the Tánaiste to seek assurances from the European Commission and EU leaders that these will be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
This week was a good week for the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. It was about time she stood up to her former Foreign Secretary, made the call and showed some leadership. It stands well to her that she did so. The fact sky has not fallen and a vote of confidence has not been called shows it was bluff, and it was good to call it.
My assessment is that we are still in high very risk territory of a no deal outcome to the whole process. I say that not to be in any way critical of the Irish Government because I think that by and large it has approached the negotiations in the right way. I think our public service and the general approach has been right but we are unfortunate to be in a particularly difficult situation. Earlier in the week I read an article in either The Spectator or the New Statesmanwhich quoted Lyndon B. Johnson who said the first rule in politics is that you have got to be good at maths and counting numbers. That is where I see a problem, because no matter what way I look at this, the numbers do not stack up for whatever deal is agreed between the European Union and the UK Government in terms of it getting through the UK Parliament. It will get through the European Parliament handy enough because Europe, by and large, has moved on. We will have a particular decision to make. If we are not happy with it, we may be in a very tricky position. The real problem exists in the UK Parliament. It is about realpolitik. One cannot imagine that there are not up to 70 hardline Brexiteers waiting in the long grass for their opportunity to say that a soft deal Brexit is not what they want. From their perspective, it is probably the greatest giveaway of sovereignty that we have seen in my lifetime in terms of it not having an influence on European rules and regulations and at the same time committing to it. It is hard to believe that anything could change in their minds. For Theresa May to get it through her Parliament, she would then be reliant on the Labour Party or the Scottish National Party, SNP, to get it over the line. I do not see that the Labour Party would make the political call of keeping the Tory Party in government and allowing the Brexit deal to go through while it remains in opposition for the next while. Why would the Labour Party do that? Some of its members might agree to it, but not the numbers that would be needed to get it over the line. Similarly, why would the Scottish National Party support a Tory Government that has not been gracious to it? Given Scotland voted against Brexit how could the SNP have the mandate to provide the support that would be needed to get it over the line? In those circumstances, my prognosis is that even though it has been a good week in the negotiations in that at last there is a position, it is softer and all of the red line issues which Theresa May set out over the last year have evaporated we are heading towards a crash-out Brexit and no deal is a real prospect. This would do real damage to relations on this island and east-west.
My final assessment is a personal one - we are all following this trying to work our what way it will go while we cannot control it. I have a sense from listening to Mr. Barnier, and to President Juncker when he was here, that while the European Union will agree pretty much to most anything on our island in terms of keeping the frictionless free border, I am not so sure it is going to give this have-cake-and-eat-it option to the UK Government in terms of bits and parts of the Single Market rules applying or not.
My instinct is that it will put the foot down over a border in the Irish Sea. If there is to be a deal, that is a real risk for the European Union. It is not a risk; to my mind it is a very likely prospect and one the European Union is entitled to pursue as a negotiating position, although we might want it to be more flexible because we want to keep good relations with the UK. Again on that side I see risk. No matter what way I look I see risk in the whole deal not going through and real risk to what happens in Northern Ireland. We need to prepare for that. We need to batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst eventuality. Please God, it will not arise, but based on my political analysis and doing the numbers based on my simple junior certificate maths, it is not easy to see how it will get through.
At the outset I wish to clarify something. The Fianna Fáil leader said that he did not specifically ask for statements on Northern Ireland and Brexit at the same time; the debate was to be split. There was a misunderstanding on that, but I do not want to cast aspersions on anybody.
I will respond on Northern Ireland first. I repeat what has been said by many. All political leaders need to stand together in condemning the violence we have seen in east Belfast and Derry in recent days. We do not want to get used to hearing news of pipe bombs and automatic weapons in Northern Ireland again. I thank the emergency services, the PSNI and the Northern Ireland fire service. They have come under significant pressure in recent days. That there has been no loss of life and no serious injury to date is testament to their professionalism.
I also thank the political and community leaders who have shown courage and bravery in the face of some intimidation, particularly in the Bogside interface area and the Fountain estate. I recognise and thank those in this House who have played a role in that. I hope to be able to visit Derry in the next ten days or so to express solidarity with those who are continuing to work and have achieved great things in community relations in recent years to ensure that Derry can fulfil its full potential as a vibrant and safe city in which communities interact with each other with maturity and a sense of honesty and togetherness. We need to be firm, clear and totally unambiguous on the need to support non-sectarian co-operation to ensure that those who are small in number but are causing mayhem get a very clear message that they do not have the support of broader communities within which they are living.
While the meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, is important, we should not expect miracles from it. We have agreed that David Lidington and I will chair the BIIGC. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, will also attend. People will want to discuss some east-west issues of interest. While we recognise this is not a decision-making body in terms of devolved issues for Northern Ireland, it is certainly a body where both Governments need to come together in consultation and discussion to ensure an agreement of which we are co-guarantors can be protected and implemented in the future.
Northern Ireland without devolved government simply does not function. It would be wrong to blame what we are seeing at the moment entirely on the absence of an Executive. Those who think that the absence of government and the maintenance of the status quoin Northern Ireland is a safe strategy and that it will not result in an absence of certainty, momentum and progress on many issues, from legacy and reconciliation to basic decision making for Northern Ireland on healthcare, education, housing, homelessness and many other areas, are very mistaken. Those of us who have got to know Northern Ireland well are right to be concerned at the political stagnation that has taken place in Stormont resulting in the lack of a functioning Executive and therefore the lack of leadership coming from the top to match the kind of community leadership we are now seeing on the ground to try to keep communities safe.
We - the Irish and UK Governments - will work together to do all we can to help the political parties find a way of accommodating each other. I encourage people to think about the language they use in order to create an atmosphere that manages the tensions we are currently seeing through the summer months so that we can create a context in early September where we can get back to a proper political negotiation that can result in an Executive being formed again.
May I just finally speak about Brexit? Every time we have a debate on Brexit in this House, the latest development in Brexit is being judged as if it is the final outcome. Of course, there are problems with it, just as there are inconsistencies and concerns that the EU and Ireland would have about the White Paper published today. This is a negotiation. I have said this and people have questioned it, but in my view this has been a good week for the Brexit negotiations. There was always going to be a moment in time where the British Prime Minister would have to exert her authority and she has done so in the last week. We no longer have a divided British Cabinet. We now have a British position that is the basis, I hope, for a serious negotiation to commence next Monday in Brussels.
The EU also has a pretty clear position. The points of difference will now have to be the focus of an intensification of negotiation so that we can move beyond that. However, we are in a better place than we were a week ago. We should recognise that and we should shift from political commentary in parliaments to an intensification of negotiation in the negotiation rooms of Brussels through the summer months to allow us, hopefully by the time we come back here in September, to focus on progress that has been achieved and perhaps compromise that has been achieved between the two negotiating teams.