Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Cullinane who is in Westminster today where, once again, we see a day of uncertainty and political chaos. I hope that has nothing to do with Deputy Cullinane.
Considering recent developments and the comments of the Taoiseach and the European Commissioner regarding a hard border in Ireland, this question was tabled to ascertain what mechanisms are being put in place to avoid a hard border in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The Government has said consistently that we will not accept a hard border between the two jurisdictions on this island. The EU and UK both accept that avoiding a hard border is essential. I also know that is the position of the great majority of Members in this House.
Throughout the negotiations, it has been a priority to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and to ensure that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland under any circumstances. Only the withdrawal agreement, with its backstop provisions, provides the essential legal guarantee that we looked for. However, if the withdrawal agreement does not enter into force, Ireland will have legal responsibilities, and an economic interest, in terms of ensuring the protection of the Single Market and customs union. The UK will have its own responsibilities, including with regard to the WTO.
As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland and the UK have solemn and binding obligations to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As such, if the UK leaves without an agreement in place and the European Union and Ireland are on one side and the UK is on the other, we will all have to work intensively together to ensure that we deliver on our shared goal of avoiding the return of a hard border. We are absolutely committed to doing that, even in those difficult circumstances.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is also fully committed to this objective and he provided further reassurances on this in a telephone call to the Taoiseach on 24 January. This position is fully shared by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and our fellow EU 27 member states. As the Commission spokesperson stated on 23 January:
The EU is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect peace in Northern Ireland. The EU is fully behind Ireland and has expressed, on numerous occasions, full solidarity with Ireland. That has not changed.
We have a way of doing this; it is called "the backstop". It was designed around British red lines and with Britain. It was not an offer given to Britain. The debates we hear often in Britain now seem to suggest the UK had nothing to do with this and that it was somehow offered to it. This was a solution Britain bought into, through its Government, and endorsed.
Last week the Taoiseach talked to journalists about the possibility of troops being sent to the Border. He then went on to clarify the statement, saying that he was talking about British troops. That is of little comfort and we are going backwards instead of forwards.
Part of the challenge we have as an opposition party, and what does not help us and our understanding of this is that the Government has, to date, refused to clarify what measures it will put in place to ensure there is no hardening of the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Minister said again that the Government will not accept a hard border. Are there measures the Government can pursue to avoid a hard border? Such measures would have the full support of the House. Sinn Féin's difficulty is that it wants to support positive measures but it does not know what positive measures the Government is putting forward, although I realise negotiations are ongoing. That is part of the difficulty we have.
Ireland will not accept a hard border, and the Minister said the EU will not accept one either, but part of the difficulty we face is that if there is no agreement, there will be a hard border. The EU will want to protect its borders. It will be about compliance, standards, country of origin and so on. What are we proposing or putting on the table in the event of a no-deal Brexit and a hard border?
Ireland is clear on how it sees mechanisms working to prevent hard border infrastructure. They revolve around regulatory alignment in areas that are specific and are required to prevent the need for Border infrastructure. That is how the backstop works. It is essentially the fall-back position to which the British Government repeatedly committed, if it could not find other solutions through a future relationship discussion or through bespoke solutions offered to Ireland. The fall-back position would be regulatory alignment in the areas necessary to prevent Border infrastructure and to protect an all-island economy which is also very much part of protecting the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Borders are not mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement but the absence of physical Border infrastructure has been such a strong reinforcement to the creation of normality, commerce and peace, that it is self-evident.
The Government's view is that, deal or no deal, there is an obligation on the British and Irish Governments to work together, and on the EU to support that process, and to find a way of avoiding Border infrastructure through regulatory alignment.
My question related to a no-deal scenario where the backstop will not apply. The Irish Government either defies the EU or the Good Friday Agreement. There are already structures there which apply to relationships with Britain. The difficulty has been that, in many cases, the British Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, has not tied into those structures.
There was a poll on "Claire Byrne Live" on RTÉ last night that showed 80% of people in the South would vote for a united Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That solution would mean no border and we would still be within the EU. There would be positivity around that. The Government needs to speed up preparations for a Border poll which, if successful, would eliminate the Border. The Minister is on the record as saying that is not the way forward but it is a legitimate way to move forward. It is in the Good Friday Agreement. There is potential there to move forward with this poll. Would the Minister accept that in the event of no agreement and a hard border, this is a way to move things forward?
My previous answer referred to a no-deal scenario if the formal backstop and the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol linked to that were not ratified. Even in that scenario, there is an obligation on the British Government to work with Ireland and the EU. We cannot do this bilaterally. It has to involve the EU because this involves protecting the EU's customs union and Single Market. We cannot have a back door without checks. We have to ensure that we find a legally sound and sensible mechanism which prevents the need for physical Border infrastructure whether there is a deal or not. The only credible way to do that is through regulatory alignment, North and South, on the island of Ireland.
There will be a big obligation on the British Government to follow through on the commitments it signed up to in the withdrawal agreement, on which it is not now following through, but also on the commitments it made in December 2017 in the political declaration it made to people on this island.
The Irish Government is concerned about everybody in Northern Ireland, nationalist and unionist, who is stressed and concerned about what the future holds. We have to find a way forward that can protect the status quoas best we can. Having a constitutional debate on the future of Ireland right now, even bearing in mind the legitimate concerns of nationalists and unionists, makes the overall debate much more complicated.