Tuesday, 20 November 2018
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
80. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of preparations for Brexit, in particular contingency planning for all Brexit scenarios; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48355/18]
I ask the Tánaiste for an update on the status of preparations for Brexit, particularly the contingency planning that has been done across all Departments for all the various potential Brexit scenarios, and whether he will make a statement in that regard.
As I have already outlined to the House, our overriding priority currently is to work towards the finalisation of the draft withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the EU-UK future relationship. However, any Brexit scenario will mean considerable change and impact for Ireland. We are taking forward extensive and detailed Brexit preparations and contingency work across all Government Departments and agencies. As part of prudent preparation for Brexit, steps need to be taken at national level, at EU level and at the level of businesses and citizens. The underlying strength and resilience of our economy is critical in ensuring that Ireland is in the best possible position to respond to the challenges of Brexit. This has been a key factor in developing successive budgets, including the last one.
The Government has already taken a number of key decisions on measures to be put in place for the necessary checks and controls for trade on an east-west basis between Britain and Ireland. The recruitment of an additional 1,077 staff for customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, controls, in addition to ICT and infrastructure measures at our ports and airports, has been sanctioned and implementation is already under way. Various contingency measures such as the rapid redeployment of customs staff are also under active consideration in the context of a disorderly Brexit scenario.
Businesses and other affected sectors need to respond and prepare themselves and the Government is providing an array of support and information measures to assist them. Specific support measures and schemes are now in place for businesses and across the agrifood sector. To inform our businesses and citizens better, the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign was launched in September. Very successful outreach events were held in October and more will follow this month. We are in Limerick on Friday and Letterkenny next Friday.
Of particular relevance to citizens is the work on the Common Travel Area to ensure that the arrangements by which Irish and British citizens can live, work and access public services in each other’s countries will continue into the future regardless of what Brexit scenario unfolds.
In a number of key areas the appropriate response and mitigation will be at an EU level and we are continuing to engage actively with the Commission on areas of priority for Ireland. The Commission has flagged the particular impact of Brexit on Ireland and Irish business in its contingency planning communication last week. Ireland is also working closely with fellow member states to discuss areas of key concern, particularly the issue of facilitating the use of the UK as a landbridge post Brexit.
Given the current uncertainty regarding Brexit, it is imperative that we continue to plan for all possible eventualities. Last week, after the withdrawal agreement was announced, Simon McKeever of the Irish Exporters Association said companies were increasingly looking to take action around issues like customs and stockpiling of goods. He noted:
There's huge demand for warehousing space from the pharma and food and drink sectors both here and in the UK. Companies are pre-placing items in the event of a hard Brexit
He also said:
I wouldn't describe it as a sense of panic but we're starting to see the signs of concern that we have put our eggs in the basket of a deal and mitigating against outcomes in a deal scenario. There really isn't a plan B if there isn't a deal.
I also note that in the aftermath of the recent budget the Parliamentary Budget Office said:
no sensitivity analysis has been provided by the Government on the impact of changes to the Irish output induced by a ‘hard’ Brexit on revenue and expenditure projections. In addition, conventional economic models are based on historical long-run relationships between economic variables and may not adequately capture the impacts of unprecedented shocks such as the occurrence of a ‘disorderly’ Brexit. Due to the significant uncertainty over the nature of the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU and a consideration of recent developments on negotiations, it may not be prudent to plan on the basis of an ‘orderly’ Brexit.
In light of the Taoiseach's recent comments regarding five years of planned tax cuts, I believe our over-reliance on just balancing the books over the coming years is definitely not enough to prepare for a hard Brexit. We need to be preparing for all possible scenarios.
I am equally concerned about the uptake of Brexit supports. Figures released to me and the Fianna Fáil Party show that, as of 12 October, only €8.5 million of the €300 million available under the Brexit loan scheme had been sanctioned at bank level. Only 137 Be Prepared grants have been approved by Enterprise Ireland. That equates to approximately 3% of Enterprise Ireland firms. It seems to be the case that businesses are still not as prepared as they should be.
With respect, our job is to keep calm and plan as opposed to responding to these issues in the way the Deputy sometimes does. I have just been with Mr. McKeever for an hour and a half at an export trade council. I am going to see him for a couple of hours later this evening at a Brexit stakeholders' meeting.
We are talking to all of the key stakeholders. I will be talking to hundreds of businesses again on Friday, in Limerick. We will be doing the same in Letterkenny next week. We are planning in the areas in which we can predict outcomes and we are planning for all potential outcomes. We are not, however, going to add to a sense of panic. For the next two to three weeks, which is the time we have before the vote in Westminster, we should talk about the deal which has been agreed, which solves many of these problems, and we should help maximise the chances of it being fully understood, in a reassuring way, so that we can increase the chances of it passing. We should not be ratcheting up tension about what will happen if it does not pass. If it does not pass, we will have to respond to that, and we will. We have been working for months to prepare for that. I will bring new contingency plans to Government in response. We will work with industry and other parties. We will work in the national interest. Let us not create some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy here. Our job is to plan calmly for all outcomes, to try to predict what is coming down the tracks in a few weeks' time, and to advocate strongly for a deal that is good for Ireland, fair for the UK, and fair for the EU which negotiating teams have taken two years to put in place. That should be our focus between now and the vote in Westminster.
Let us leave the condescension at the door. I think we are all being calm, but it is prudent and reasonable for an Opposition party to ask the Government what planning is being engaged in and to ask for details. The quotes I gave from Mr. McKeever were his own words. They are not mine. The Minister says he is talking, but is he listening? I gave figures which the Government provided for the take-up of Brexit supports. They are very low. That is a fact, not opinion. I appreciate that we all want the deal to go through, but it is reasonable to ask what is plan B. Other member states are releasing details of their contingency planning, as is the United Kingdom. We ask that it be done here too and that the Minister inform the House and citizens of the details of preparations and planning. Last week in the Chamber the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, outlined that her Department had been working for almost a year to ascertain what we needed to do to maintain reciprocal arrangements under individual schemes between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Even though it has been happening for the last year, the details of the outcome of this analysis are not available. The Minister and the Government have the information, but they are not providing it for the rest of the House. That is why we are asking the questions. I acknowledge that it is difficult to be fully prepared for all scenarios, but it is reasonable to ask and it is not in the interests of ramping up pressure or creating difficulties. I would not be doing my job if I did not ask the questions.
I have explained many times that some information is available to the Government during a negotiating process that one does not put into the public domain. We make no apologies for this as our job is to get a deal and we got one last week. We did it by trying to negotiate with Michel Barnier and his team, working with the United Kingdom to explore solutions, to find a fair way forward for everybody. In public communications we focused on achieving an outcome, as opposed to contingencies, but that does not mean that we have not been making contingency plans, about which I have talked to the Deputy, as I have to many others. We signed off on an extra 1,077 customs officials and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, inspectors at the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health. Dublin Port is preparing and investing in contingency plans linked with Brexit. We have said the primary focus will be on east-west inspection infrastructure at Rosslare Europort, Dublin Port and Dublin Airport. There is a raft of supports and advice available for companies. Some are relatively new and have only been in place for the last couple of months and the uptake is building all the time. The Deputy is right to ask whether we are putting contingency plans in place or thinking about how we would react if Westminster was to vote against a deal. Of course, we are thinking about it. My judgment is that our primary focus should be on trying to talk about the deal that was done last week, which is still live, because we want it to be supported, rather than moving on and focusing on failure.