Thursday, 11 July 2019
Brexit Contingency Action Plan: Statements
Brexit represents a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. I think this House understands that well. Three months since the European Council extended the Brexit deadline to 31 October, we still do not know how or under what conditions the United Kingdom, UK, will leave the European Union, EU. It is hard for any of us to believe that the British Government and Parliament would allow the UK to leave without a deal. Such a decision would have profound political and economic implications for the UK, including, most significantly, Northern Ireland, as well as for Ireland and the EU. Given events in London, a no-deal Brexit on 31 October is an ever more significant risk that the Government takes extremely seriously. No deal means the UK will fall outside the Single Market and the customs union, with no trade or co-operation arrangements in place with the EU and no transition period. It will be impossible for the UK to maintain the current seamless arrangements with the EU across the full range of sectors from justice and security co-operation to transport connectivity, trade flows and supply chains. This has significant implications for us, as the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, set out in the summer economic statement, and would cause lower growth, increased unemployment, and an impact on our exporting sectors, including agrifood, indigenous manufacturing and tourism.
Extensive measures were put in place for a no-deal Brexit in advance of the 29 March and 12 April deadlines. The extra time to the end of October is an opportunity to strengthen, refine and refresh those preparations where appropriate, which is exactly what we are doing. No-deal Brexit preparations continue to have the highest priority across Departments.
The Brexit contingency action plan the Government laid before the Oireachtas on Tuesday reflects this extensive work, both on a whole-of-Government and at an EU level, and sets out the steps to be taken between now and 31 October. It follows on from the Government contingency action plan, that was published in December and updated on 30 January. The action plan does not seek to pull its punches but lays out clearly the work done and the significant risks to Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. To be clear, we cannot fully mitigate against the impacts of a no-deal Brexit. The action plan shows that while extensive work has taken place to be prepared, the impact of a no-deal Brexit would still be profound. This is an exercise in damage limitation and Brexit will still pose serious challenges to many sectors and areas of economic, political and social life. It is only by Government and Opposition parties, business and citizens working together nationally, along with EU partners, that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the impacts of a no-deal Brexit and ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for the changes it will bring.
The action plan lays out the substantial work done in advance of the 29 March and 12 April Brexit dates. This includes passage of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019, signed into law by the President on 17 March. I thank the House again for the co-operation and support in ensuring this critical legislation was put in place in a timely fashion. We have put in place sufficient infrastructure to manage the necessary checks and controls on east-west trade at our ports and airports. This has seen some 400 additional Revenue staff, nearly 190 staff from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and almost 60 additional HSE staff trained and already in place. The high level memorandum of understanding on the common travel area that I signed with David Lidington on 8 May protects the right of Irish and British citizens to travel freely, and to move to live, work and study, and access healthcare and social benefits in our two countries.
In the time left until 31 October, the action plan emphasises in particular the need for exposed businesses to be prepared. While a no-deal Brexit was averted in March and April, citizens and businesses cannot assume that the same will happen in October. This would be a dangerous assumption. The need for preparations is more pressing than ever. Government Brexit communications will, therefore, include a call to action to businesses operating in exposed sectors to take the necessary steps to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, including an intensified engagement programme by Revenue. We will continue to provide further additional infrastructure at ports and airports to enhance our capacity to manage the necessary checks and controls on goods coming from the UK as smoothly as possible. I thank Dublin Port and Revenue for the work that they have done there, and indeed the teams that have worked so well in Rosslare. Dublin Airport will also be ready and I thank it.
We will continue work with the EU, the UK and partners on securing a landbridge connection through the United Kingdom. To meet our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, we are also advancing work on access to Erasmus+ programmes and the European health insurance card. Prudent economic planning and building the resilience of the economy have been a key part of our preparations, with the provision of supports to help businesses and other affected sectors to prepare. This will continue as we prepare for budget 2020, including making provision for targeted funding for the sectors most affected in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
In dealing with Brexit, we do not stand alone, and it is important to re-emphasise that message. We are working in close co-operation with our EU partners. Work at EU level has been set out in five European Commission communications, the latest of which was published on 12 June, as well more than 90 Brexit preparedness notices. Prior to the 29 March deadline, the Union adopted 18 primary legislative measures on a unilateral temporary basis to mitigate the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit. A number of these are in key areas for Ireland, including air connectivity and road haulage access, as well as maintaining PEACE and INTERREG funding. The Commission is committed to supporting Ireland in addressing the specific challenges of Irish businesses and we will continue our engagement with member states and the Commission on key outstanding issues, including on potential supports for Ireland and affected sectors.
The risks of a no-deal Brexit are most acute with regard to its possible impact on Northern Ireland, North-South relations and the Good Friday Agreement. A no-deal Brexit risks significantly undermining wider community relations and political stability in Northern Ireland with potential related security concerns. The impact of tariffs, of the customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements and associated checks necessary to preserve Ireland's full participation in the Single Market and customs union would impact significantly on the all-island economy. I have made that very clear this week. There would be additional costs and disruption for businesses throughout the island, particularly in Northern Ireland. This is why the commitment of the Government throughout the Brexit process to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland remains the highest priority. Those objectives were delivered by the withdrawal agreement. With the backstop, it remains the only solution currently on the table that delivers the outcomes that everybody, including the UK, wanted to achieve. It is very important that we in Ireland remain clear and consistent on the need for the backstop, which has come under sustained attack during the Conservative party leadership contest.
We can continue to rely on the solidarity and unity of our EU partners on this issue. In the absence of the withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. The Government is working closely with the European Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of protecting the Single Market, and Ireland’s place in it, and avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure. This work is looking at necessary checks to preserve Ireland’s full participation in the Single Market and customs union, but any arrangement will be clearly sub-optimal to the impact of the backstop should that ever be needed in the context of Brexit.
The Government’s overall objectives have been consistent from the start. We have worked to minimise the impact on trade and the economy, protect the peace process, including avoiding a hard border, protect the all-island economy, maintain the common travel area and reinforce our commitment to, and participation in, the EU in the future. These continue to guide our approach in any Brexit scenario, as is mapped out in the action plan. A no-deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels. Addressing those challenges requires difficult and significant choices of a practical, strategic and political nature. It is only by the Government, business and citizens working together, as well as with our partners in the EU, that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the severe impacts of a no-deal Brexit and ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for all it may bring.
We are approaching yet another Brexit deadline and we can look back to last March to see many similarities, but there is an acceptance that this time is different. By 31 October the UK must either accept the Brexit withdrawal treaty it negotiated, including the backstop that it helped to craft, or face a disorderly Brexit and leave the European Union with no deal. While there might be space to tweak the declaration on future relations to give further assurances that a good trade deal will be struck, thereby hopefully negating the need to invoke the backstop, there is no space and there are no cracks in the withdrawal treaty to wedge in any alterations. There must also be an acceptance in Ireland, however, that without a deal there is no backstop, which would leave us in a difficult and challenging position.
Ireland's position and the EU's position have remained constant and unchanged. There has been solidarity across Ireland, ranging from the business to the farming communities. All Members of this House have stood together to face down the challenge that Brexit presents. The maturity this House has displayed in dealing with the Brexit crisis is in stark contrast to the immaturity of the much older neighbouring parliament in England. Our politics, despite a minority Government and a sometimes fractured political landscape, have worked remarkably well on this issue, so it is deeply disappointing to see British politics so utterly broken and unable to serve the citizens. While we can look on with interest at the Tory leadership contest, we have no role in who becomes the next British Prime Minister. We will work with whoever replaces Mrs. Theresa May at the end of this month, although it is worrying and disappointing that a willingness to crash the UK out of the European Union and deliver the hardest Brexit is now almost a badge of honour for the two candidates. However, we must remember that in the heat of the leadership contest, they are speaking solely to Tory Party members and not to their wider citizen base.
The way in which relations between the Irish and UK Governments have deteriorated is a deep concern for Members. We have spent many decades building a strong relationship between both islands and Brexit has put a considerable strain on that. At times, there even appears to be a degree of hostility between both Governments. That is not good. We must look at the bigger picture and try to think of a time beyond Brexit, when we wish to continue to have a strong relationship with our closest neighbour not only because it is our biggest market but also because we have long historical and strong cultural links that are very important to our people. The Government has done a great deal of work on interacting with EU leaders in member states but, arguably, has failed to put the same effort into the very important relationship with the UK Government. Ultimately, that has caused damage and it must be addressed urgently.
The updated Brexit contingency plan published this week contains very little new information and is not really a plan. It contained much of what was in the original plan and a great deal of information on what the Government has already done, such as the memorandum of understanding, MOU, work at Dublin Port and staff who have already been hired. The economic warnings issued by the Government again this week were nothing new. We know Brexit is bad and the many economic forecasts from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, the Central Bank, the Department of Finance, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Minister for Finance have been saying that for a long time. We know there could be a deficit of €6.5 billion in the Government's finances next year and that we face job losses of up to 55,000 in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, so the stark warnings this week did not add anything to the debate. I am not sure the publication of the plan this week was useful.
There are glaring omissions from the updated plan. We still do not know what type of support package will be in place for farmers and businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit. There are no details about that. We also still do not know how we will manage the Border and what happens in the event of a no-deal Brexit when we know we will have to protect the integrity of the Single Market. As the Tánaiste said, we cannot have Ireland removed from the Single Market because of Brexit. Reasonable questions are being asked, not just by Fianna Fáil but by every Member of the Opposition and our citizens, farmers and businesses, but we still do not have answers with just over 100 days to go. Our preparedness leaves a great deal to be desired. More than 40,000 businesses are still not registered with an economic operators and registration and identification, EORI, number with the Revenue Commissioners. I appreciate that not all those businesses trade frequently with the UK, but some do.
I will reiterate a point I made previously. The Government cannot take a hands-off approach to small and medium-sized businesses or to small haulage businesses. It is not acceptable to say that it is up to them to get ready. It is in the national interest that the Government works with them and ensures they are ready. If they are not ready, every citizen on this island will be impacted.
Like many other Border county representatives in the House and others, I worked tirelessly and diligently, both locally and nationally, to ensure that the spirit of co-operation for an all-island economy would be achieved. Long gone are the days when the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic kept their backs to each other. They now face each other and have confronted what appeared to be insurmountable issues at times to achieve not only the fragile peace but two economies, North and South, that are interdependent. The prospect of a crash-out Brexit will leave both economies back at square one. There is also a real danger that the fragile peace process, which is so important for these islands, will be compromised.
Yesterday's cross-Border report in respect of a no-deal Brexit is stark reading, with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 jobs to be lost in Northern Ireland coupled with a similar forecast of 50,000 to 60,000 job losses in the South. That equates to the adult population of my constituency of Louth. If we wish to discuss the imposition of tariffs, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, has indicated that one of its major concerns, particularly with regard to the sheep and pig markets, is that there will be a huge compromise of animal welfare. If tariffs are introduced there will be no market and there is a danger that farmers will be unable to feed their animals or let them out. That shows there must be collective action to solve the problem. It is also evident that the small and medium-sized companies that are trading across the Border each day will soon find themselves with no place to go. When it comes to EU tendering and so forth they may be excluded.
I fully support the backstop and particularly the collective solidarity in these Houses of all parties and none. The withdrawal agreement was agreed by the British Government, but it is now trying to unravel it with suggestions of a five-year time limit. The elephant in the room is how we deal with a hard border. Politics is the art of compromise and I firmly believe, having lived with the Border, that an all-Ireland economy and an economic zone must be created on these islands for a period of years to ensure that the people North and South and their economies and livelihoods are protected.
I hope that the Russian roulette being played with our economy will be resolved. We are staring down the barrel of a gun and politics is being played by those who would like to pull the trigger. They need to take into account the people of all of our islands and particularly the island of Ireland.
Half way through the extension agreed with the EU 27 a number of permutations and combinations of how dangerously Brexit may play out have increased. The leadership contest within the Tory party, some uncertainty, to say the least, in the British Labour Party, the rise of the Brexit Party and the increasing Scottish support for a second Scotland independence referendum means that things are now far more uncertain than they were last March. It is a costly and dangerous uncertainty for us on this island. While we still fervently hope for an orderly and managed Brexit based on the already negotiated withdrawal agreement with a lengthy and calm transition phase, we know that we must prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
The wild speculation and the misinformation that is passing for political analysis from those around both of the Tory leadership candidates leaves us with no alternative but to be prepared for the worst, but we must still be careful that what we do and say does not add fuel to the flames of the misinformation. There is a responsibility, indeed a duty, on those who speak for the Government to be measured and precise in their phraseology in these uncertain times. People need to be kept informed. The political atmosphere on the neighbouring island is now so febrile that even the wildest piece of nonsense, something that we here know as totally untrue and incorrect, is hailed as political fact. We saw this recently at the ITV Tory leadership debate. Both candidates were asked about the Irish Border and the backstop. Mr. Boris Johnson asserted that the Border issue could be kicked down the road and addressed during what he called the "implementation" period after Brexit. That this nonsense claim was not challenged by his rival or by the moderator is breathtaking. Leaving aside the simple fact that there is only an implementation period if there is a withdrawal agreement, the other fact is that the Irish Border must be addressed in phase one. It cannot be kicked down the road to be used as a bargaining chip by Britain to hold us hostage. Mr. Jeremy Hunt failed to call out Mr. Johnson's nonsense and added to it by saying there were ways of avoiding checks at the Irish Border after Brexit. Mr. Hunt then bizarrely said that is “not new technology, but technology that already exists”. Let us be clear that such a solution does not currently exist. As the EU’s Director-General for trade, Sabine Weyand, said in January: "We looked at every border on this earth, every border the EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls." As others have pointed out, even if the EU agreed to implement a solution using existing technology, such as one based on mobile phone tracking, there is not a chance it could be designed and put in place by 31 October.
We risk seeing a whole fictional fake news world being built up around the idea of alternative arrangements as a viable and available solution. Last week the Prosperity UK think tank came to Dublin to outline its alternative arrangements proposals, which it claims provide a working solution that would supersede the backstop, ensuring it never comes into operation. To its credit Prosperity UK does at least acknowledge the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement, something that many in the Tory party do not acknowledge and seem happy to tear up. The good news, however, ends there. The excellent note from the British Irish Chamber of Commerce calmly and factually debunks and dismantles the alternative arrangement proposals championed by Prosperity UK when it advocated inspectors from neighbouring jurisdictions going onto farms on both sides of the Border. From going up there I know how welcome that would be.
The ongoing circus that is the Tory leadership contest should not in any way lessen the gravity of the situation facing Ireland. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have both shown an ignorance of the island of Ireland, its history, its politics and its economic reality, which would be laughable if it were not so serious. Regardless of who wins, this island needs to be prepared for all eventualities.
No matter what way we look at it Brexit means disruption. There is no doubt about this and the only question is by how much. Apart from Britain, Ireland will be the country most affected by Brexit in ways that are out of proportion to anything that may be experienced by the rest of the EU member states. Because of this it is not possible to apply a contingency plan drawn up to suit France, Germany or Italy and expect it to work for Ireland. We need bespoke solutions because our situation demands it. This is the case whether there is a soft or hard Brexit. Last year the EU took the decision that in the event of a no-deal Brexit all 27 remaining EU member states will initiate the same plan and it has not altered or changed those plans in any way since. The EU is using the same logic it used with the banking crisis and subsequent austerity, a logic that had disastrous consequences for the Irish State and for Greece, Portugal and Spain. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to a no-deal Brexit. While cognisant of our EU responsibilities the response that is needed should, nonetheless, address the singular problems facing Ireland, namely the threat that Brexit poses to exporters, the all-island economy, the Good Friday Agreement and the Border. There is a need for direct Government support for importers and exporters who trade exclusively with Britain.
I shall now move on to the substantive issue of the threat of a border and to the all-island economy in the event of no-deal. I reiterate that Sinn Féin has supported this Government and will continue to support this Government when it comes to the backstop and guarantees for the island of Ireland. We have not and we will not play politics with this issue.
We have concerns and we want to raise them, not to score points but because they are legitimate. They are held by the majority of the people in the North who are worried about what the next Tory party leader will do, be it Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. People are worried about the threat posed by a no-deal Brexit to the Good Friday Agreement. They are worried about what a no-deal Brexit will bring to a British imposed border. Brexit will be catastrophic for the people of the North and the island of Ireland. It is quite clear the British Government does not care about the impact of Brexit on the North's people, economy, businesses or agreements.
Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. One of the legal components of the Good Friday Agreement is the birthright provision that enables citizens in the North to identify as a right and be accepted as Irish, British or both. As such they should be allowed to assert their full rights as EU citizens. We must ensure Ireland’s interests and the rights of citizens in the North are fully protected at this crucial time. As joint guarantors of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including its nationality clause, the Irish and British Governments have a responsibility to defend it and to ensure its protection to protect the peace process, the all-Ireland economy and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Sinn Féin has been clear, the EU has been clear and the Irish Government has been clear that the backstop is the insurance policy for the people of Ireland. It is the bare minimum and it must be maintained. In the absence of a deal we must hear from the Irish Government and from the EU just how exactly they expect to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement had many presentations from Border communities and organisations trying to plan programmes that benefit communities and businesses and local authorities North and South. A mapping exercise was completed by the British Government and published in December 2018. It identified 156 areas of North-South co-operation, including the implementation bodies, agriculture, environment, health, tourism, education - including higher and further education - energy, telecommunications, justice and security, and fisheries. It shows that it is not enough to talk about border checks and what is happening away from the Border as if this will somehow square the Brexit circle. It is important to understand that Irish prosperity, in addition to being linked to the Single Market is also linked to the all-island economy.
Whether it is Mr. Johnson or Mr. Hunt who wins the contest to be the next British Prime Minister there is little to suggest that we can avoid a UK crash out of the EU. As we all knew, and as Sinn Féin has consistently warned, the consequences of this for the Good Friday Agreement and for the restoration of the political institutions in the North are not good. The power sharing Government was stood down by Martin McGuinness because it was not fit for purpose. So far, talks have failed to bring the DUP to accept the imperative of a rights-based Good Friday Agreement dispensation. The British Government has also failed to fulfil its obligations even before Brexit. The outcome of Brexit, whether it is a no-deal scenario or with a withdrawal agreement, is not good either.
Both will have a damaging impact on the political, social and economic life of the island of Ireland but especially Border communities such as those in County Louth and citizens living in the North. According to the Government's contingency action plan update, we can expect job losses in the order of 50,000 to 55,000 in the most exposed sectors. A report published yesterday by the North's Department for the Economy predicts that up to 40,000 jobs will be at risk in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. Last month a confidential British Government study was published by the Brexit select committee. It identified 142 areas of co-operation between this state and the North and between the island of Ireland and Britain. Incidentally, I appeal to the Government and others, in the interests of geographical accuracy, to stop describing this state as Ireland. It is not Ireland; its title is the Republic of Ireland. As wel all know, Ireland is the entire island.
This week the Government acknowledged that checks on some goods from the North would be necessary after a no-deal Brexit. The Tánaiste's statement this morning refers to the impact of tariffs, customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements and associated checks necessary to preserve the State's full participation in the Single Market and the customs union. That is despite many previous assertions made by the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach that there would be no physical infrastructure or related checks or controls. What does that mean for the tens of thousands of citizens who travel across the Border every day, whose land straddles the Border and, in some places, whose homes straddle the Border? What will happen to the people travelling to and from work, the farm, school, on business or socially to sports events and so on? The Minister, Deputy Ross confirmed to me yesterday that the Government had asked the European Commission to exercise its right to set aside the use of the so-called green card for drivers. Thus far the European Union appears to be refusing to do so.
As we have all pronounced, it is the future of the Good Friday Agreement and the political institutions that is of the greatest concern. Under Mrs. Theresa May, the Tories were committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and undermining the core human rights values of the Good Friday Agreement. Under Mr. Johnson or Mr. Hunt, that stance is likely to harden. We must always remember that the people of the North voted to remain in the European Union. That is a fact and it needs to be upheld. In its contingency action plan update the Government concludes that there is "a risk that the UK government might initiate a move to Direct Rule" as a response in managing the new post-Brexit situation. Having identified that risk, what is the Government doing about it? Has it spoken directly to the British Government about it? Will the Tánaiste confirm that the Government is implacably opposed to the imposition of direct rule? Will the Government also move beyond the rhetoric and, if the British Government moves in this direction, will the Tánaiste commit to using the diplomatic service and all available international forums to prevent it from happening?
We are standing on the bridge as the Brexit date looms into view. The challenges arising therefrom are significant to say the least and have been referred to expansively by my colleagues. We must continue working in an anticipatory fashion. However, we continue to work in a vacuum as we do not know what type of Brexit will emerge or the conditions that will be attached to it. The stark reality, as indicated in the Government's report, is that 50,000 to 55,000 jobs are at risk if there is a hard Brexit. Everyone contributing in Ireland, Britain and everywhere else says we do not want a hard Brexit. However, we are hurtling towards a no-deal Brexit facilitated by a battle for the leadership of the Tory Party in Britain, as the candidates outdo one another in their machismo, trying to indicate how strong they would be, but they have given very little thought to the economic consequences, even in their own country.
A report in Northern Ireland published yesterday states 40,000 jobs are potentially at stake there. For Northern Ireland, that level of job losses would be nearly twice as serious, given its smaller population and workforce. Clearly, the economic risks for Northern Ireland are acute in the context of a no-deal Brexit. As well as direct job losses, we know that any Brexit will affect wider economic output here and in Northern Ireland. The whole economy will contract, with a loss of living standards and incomes across the whole economy or, perhaps I should say, nearly the whole economy. One of the big problems with Brexit is that the harm will be concentrated in some indigenous sectors that have been mentioned such as agriculture and food. During the debate yesterday on Mercosur I indicated that in terms of the impact on agriculture, the immediate focus should be on Brexit. There are 300,000 tonnes of beef going to the United Kingdom, which accounts for well over 52% of the overall market. It is our largest market for high value and quality cuts. It is a terrible impact. While Mercosur is important, it is down the line and we can all work at it and indicate our dislike of it, but Brexit is the big issue. The farming public with which I deal is more acutely aware of Brexit and its confidence has been more directly impacted on by it.
Job losses will be concentrated outside Dublin and the other big cities, which is a significant problem. There is a real risk that the Dublin economy will be okay and that policy makers in the Dublin bubble will not see the reality for the rural economy. The word "rural" appears just once in the Government's 117-page plan which states: "The agri-food and fisheries sector is Ireland's largest indigenous industry [...] and acts as a primary driver of the rural economy". That is an understatement, as everybody understands. The plan acknowledges that most of the 55,000 job losses will be in the most exposed sectors which include agrifood, tourism and retail, but it fails to put two and two together. I asked that this issue be given attention in the coming weeks. It is my view that whoever wrote the plan failed to see the difference between normal fluctuations in employment and the job losses that will come from structural change in our export opportunities. We all know that when the economy is going well and GDP is going up, there are more jobs. We used to hear the old saying about the rising tide. However, what goes up must come down. When GDP drops, as it inevitably will and as the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, pointed out recently, the economy can provide fewer jobs. While in the normal run of events new or lost jobs are spread across the whole economy, in a hard Brexit most of the job losses will be in the same sectors of the economy and the same towns and rural areas. The impact will be significant.
There are about 91,000 people outside the farm gate employed directly in agriculture, forestry and fishing. How many of these jobs will we lose? Will we lose one quarter, one third, 30% or 40%? We have to get down to that level of detail; otherwise we cannot prepare or put in place the necessary resources to counteract these losses. There will not be another job to go to for someone who has the skills needed for farm work or food processing. They are specialised skills. We may suddenly be faced with losing 55,000 jobs in rural Ireland and smaller towns. If we assume Dublin jobs will mostly be okay, it means that around one in every 30 jobs in the rest of Ireland will be gone. Even if we include all 2.3 million jobs in the State, 55,000 job losses still represents one in every 42 jobs. That is a massive impact which will have significant consequences and implications for thousands of families and communities in the heart of rural Ireland. I know what it is like. We only need to hear the news emanating this morning from Lanesborough and Derrahaun about Bord na Móna. Losing ten or 20 jobs in such a place is like losing 200 or 400 in a city. The impact on the wider economy is significant and will mostly be felt in rural Ireland and smaller towns. The Government's plan does not demonstrate real preparedness for this scale of job losses and the impact it will have in those areas. When there are normal job losses across the whole economy, a worker can usually find work in the same industry or in a job that needs similar skills. However, we are talking about 55,000 workers who might have to retrain and seek work in a totally different industry.
The first response should be to see how many of these jobs we can support. As my party leader, Deputy Howlin, said yesterday, the Government should be talking to trade unions about altering work patterns on a temporary basis to see if we can limit the number of job losses and keep businesses going. We have to be proactive in that regard. It is much easier to preserve existing businesses than to foster new one and jobs from scratch. We are all acutely aware of the concentration being on areas with a high skills base, but trying to find a job in a rural area is more difficult. The Government should be talking about the amount of money and resources that will be available to keep businesses from closing down so as to preserve jobs.
It cannot all be doom and gloom, as this is only anticipatory, but we all have to work together. We all have an obligation in that regard, not just the Government. The economy is going well, but the Labour Party contributed to making the necessary changes and adjustments to fix it, hard though it was, and suffered as a result. However, we do not want to see another wave of job losses barely ten years after the last economic crisis. Following the economic crash in 2008, we created a €500 million jobs fund which we used to boost employment in areas in which a lot of jobs could be created such as hospitality and tourism. The Tánaiste is well aware of this, as it was the jobs fund that was used to fund the lower rate of VAT in the hospitality sector. I recall that, as part of our objectives, the Labour Party set about providing 30,000 new training places per year, but we delivered more than 40,000 per year. The Government’s plan includes a two-page section on training for workers who lose their jobs but no quantitative targets. However, what bothers me - another speaker referred to it - is that there is no indication that new money will be made available to secure existing jobs and train people for new ones. The question is: what jobs? The nature and type of job are of critical importance. There must be a greater focus on an industrial strategy in the Government’s plan.
There are a number of potential growth areas in the economy. We could develop new jobs in home retrofitting. We need workers in such areas if we are to reduce carbon emissions and eliminate fuel poverty. An area in which I see great potential to create new jobs is forestry in making new materials from wood, including replacements for many industrial plastics. Obviously, we could create more jobs in construction in building the affordable homes people need across the country.
In addition to looking across Europe to replace goods we currently import from Britain we should be looking at what we can supply efficiently in the domestic economy. There are many possibilities for job creation in the economy, but none of them is alluded to in the Government’s plan. Having a focus on an industrial strategy within the plan is critical.
The European Union understands the nature of the challenges we are facing. They were outlined by the Tánaiste. The reason there is a European Globalisation Fund, EGF, is to deal with situations where industries go bust and particular regions suffer acute job losses. The Government’s plan mentions the fund, but it simply states: "There has been engagement with the European Commission and agreement on the potential for the EGF to be used...”. That is a good start, but how long will it take to activate funding? If the Government’s plan is to wait and see if it wll be needed, it is being foolish. We must be more proactive. We must seek changes by way of engagement on the European Globalisation Fund to ensure it will be more widely available and less circumscribed than it is in the context of when job losses occurred. More could be done to ensure we would ready to step in at the beginning of the crisis. There is no point in waiting to see how bad matters will become or work out before taking action. Once businesses close and jobs are lost, it will be more difficult to pick up the pieces and families will find themselves unable to pay their mortgage or rent. In a word, the Government’s plan is passive. The tone of the plan is to wait and see what happens. We know what will happen if there is a hard Brexit. We do not need to wait and see thousands of jobs being lost before we take action. There are three and a half months until there is a hard Brexit. The Government has to be ready and we all have to support it in the actions it will take to ensure it is ready.
When a country is the victim of a big external shock, it needs to respond and there are always choices in how it might respond. During the Second World War, for example, many countries, even those within the framework of capitalism, decided that a high degree of nationalisation, coupled with increased welfare provisions for the population, was the best way to deal with the crisis. In advance of a potentially disorderly Brexit, the Government is making its choices. It has chosen the option of neoliberal shock therapy, with 50,000 to 55,000 job losses, wage cuts, price increases and cuts in social spending. That choice is being presented to the people as not being a choice at all. Instead, it is something that is inevitable and to which there is no alternative. It is not inevitable; there are alternatives. The key alternative is for the State to intervene to prevent job losses, price hikes and pay cuts. That could best be done by nationalising all major companies threatening to sacrifice jobs or cut pay rates to protect profits in the event that there is a disorderly Brexit. These measures could be supplemented by others such as freezing prices, banning rent hikes, etc.
The Government and the supporters of the capitalist market generally will argue that such measures are impractical and not realistic. However, let us note that the Government is proposing State intervention in the economy as the Brexit scenarios play out. It is proposing, for example, to increase state aid for businesses that will be impacted on by Brexit. The stated intention is to help to defend jobs, but the provision of aid will not be made conditional on job cuts not being made. Beneficiaries of this policy might well include the likes of Larry Goodman who has shown his concern for the welfare of the nation in recent times by choosing to pay company taxes in Luxembourg, rather than in this jurisdiction. The State intervention we advocate would not serve to benefit beef barons, tax avoiders, millionaires or billionaires. It would serve to benefit working people at the expense of those vested interests, through a policy choice of nationalisation, workers' control, job protection and the defence of living standards.
The Government will not achieve unanimity in this House on the option of neoliberal shock therapy because we will oppose it. Fianna Fáil, through its finance spokesperson, Deputy Michael McGrath, has made it clear that it is willing to support a shock therapy prescription. That was clearly demonstrated when Deputy Michael McGrath announced that, in the event that there was a disorderly Brexit, Fianna Fáil would join the Government in opposing even a €5 increase for pensioners and other social welfare recipients at budget time. Not only will we vote against neoliberal shock therapy policies, we will also urge the working class to oppose them, too. The working class and the poor should not be the whipping boys in the context of Brexit. We will support any genuine campaign, resistance and push-back against any attempt to make working people the whipping boys in this crisis.
The rottenness, the recklessness, the dishonesty and the overweening personal ambition of people like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are plain for all to see. They do not give a damn about people in Ireland or Britain. They just give a damn about themselves, their hunger for power and pathetic attempt to restore the notion of Great Britain and the Empire, the irony being that their stupidity and personal ambition may propel the United Kingdom towards its disintegration. That would be a reason to be happy if it were to happen, but the dangers they pose for people in this country and working people in their own country are obvious.
Of course the best outcome would be if whoever emerges as the victor, which will probably be Boris Johnson, does not succeed in getting his crazy plans through the British Parliament, thereby provoking an election, and a Corbyn government is elected. That would at least allow for a sane discussion, something which Boris Johnson if completely incapable of having. That would change the pitch. We do not have any control over what British Government would emerge or whether a Labour government would be elected but we should roundly denounce the scurrilous attempts to derail a possible Corbyn government with completely dishonest accusations of anti-Semitism. Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, a lifelong anti-racist. That is part of a really rotten effort-----
Absolutely, and what happens in British politics will impact upon it very significantly. We should want a Corbyn government. It is the better option if we are to have any sort of sane resolution to this situation. However, if I do not trust Boris Johnson, the Tories, Jeremy Hunt, or the UKIPs of this world, neither do I trust the European Union to protect the best interests of working people in the North and South of this island. If there was any doubt that it would not do so, we have seen evidence that it will not in the past week. The EU-Mercosur deal shows that Europe is engaged in deals that will undermine the best interests of farmers in this country.
In the context of Brexit, this double threat to many working people and farmers, the EU is also saying the integrity of the Single Market must be protected regardless of what happens. That means that we will have to impose tariffs and so on, which will do immense economic damage and cause great numbers of jobs to be lost. The Tánaiste has acknowledged and detailed this and we have heard similar reports from the North. That is what it is willing to do to protect its Single Market. Tragically, the Government seems to be willing to implement this on the EU's behalf. Let us be clear; the only people who could physically impose such tariffs are us. We should tell Europe we will not do so because tariffs would have these consequences. They would lead to these job losses and we should not accept them. We should stand up to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but we should equally tell the EU that the all-island economy and peace on this island will not be sacrificed to protect the integrity of the Single Market.
Deputy Barry is absolutely right that our contingency plans should also involve being willing to do, at the very least, what we did for the banks. When we talk about nationalisation to protect jobs and industries, we are told that it cannot be done. Despite this, we could pass emergency legislation to nationalise banks to bail them out. Through NAMA, we also ultimately bailed out the developers who crashed those banks. We can do that but it is apparently ridiculous to talk about nationalising key sectors of the economy to protect jobs. That just does not fit in with the neoliberal agenda. We cannot care about the neoliberal agenda when there is talk of the imposition of tariffs resulting in tens of thousands of jobs losses. Why on earth would we accept that? We should reject it. We should tell Europe and the Tories that people, jobs, services, and livelihoods come first for us and that we will not sacrifice those things either for the crazy extremist politics of Boris Johnson or to protect the Single Market.
I would like to talk about Brexit preparations for small businesses as they stand. Regardless of whether a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit with a deal occurs, small businesses have a lot to do to get ready for whatever kind of Brexit comes about. They must register for EORI numbers to allow them to trade across the Border and to trade with the UK in the future. That is vitally important. The number of such registrations has increased significantly in recent months. That is very welcome because these numbers must be secured. I was surprised to find that some businesses are still not fully aware of what needs to be done in that regard. I do not know what can be done to increase the number of businesses registering for those numbers but they will need them in either scenario. I believe this is partly because of the confusion surrounding whether there will be a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit with a deal. Regardless of the type of Brexit occurs, businesses must register. People seem to think that they will only have to do so if a no-deal Brexit occurs but they will have to do it in either event. The Tánaiste should take this on board and factor it in. I do not know how he intends to deal with it, but it is something which needs to be taken-----
That is good because it is vitally important to ensure that small businesses are ready and capable of dealing with this in order to continue to trade in the way in which they have. They must be made ready to get over any difficulties that will arise.
With regard to much of the talk we have heard about a no-deal Brexit, I wish I had the Minister's faith in our so-called European partners and in how they will go along with this. I believe that it is only when it comes down to the last half hour or ten or 15 minutes that Europe will become focused and try to make a deal. While everything is holding up well now, this is because we are not yet facing into the jaws of a deal. It is when it comes down to the last half hour that things will happen. Europe will make its deal at that stage but it will be too late for us to deal with it.
Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned the Mercosur deal. This basically amounts to cars for cows. That is the reality of the situation; Irish cattle are being sacrificed for the sake of German cars. When it comes down to it, will ensuring access to the UK for German cars be the deciding factor when making agreements on our Border? I am sorry but I do not have the Tánaiste's blind never-ending faith in our so-called European partners. I believe they will make their decisions based on their own needs when it comes down to it. That will be very difficult for us; there is no doubt about it. We will have to manage our way through that. Based on what has been reported in the newspapers, it seems the Tánaiste is also starting to see that. His commentary has changed in recent times. He has been promising to protect the Single Market while insisting that there will be no border checks, but there will be border checks. That has to happen. The Tánaiste will now have to change his tune in that regard. I believe there probably will not be border checks and that there will not be a complete crash-out. That will be even more difficult for the Tánaiste and for us, because we are going to be sacrificed on the altar of a deal. That will be a problem. I do not know how we will deal with it but it will have to be done.
Allowing for that, we will also have to look at how to protect our citizens who live in the Six Counties. That will be vitally important. I have never bought into the idea that the EU is vital for peace in Ireland. I do not remember it being an integral part of negotiations on the peace process. Regardless of what happens within the Union, the peace process in Ireland should be able to continue. We should be able to negotiate and to maintain the Border as it is. We have to look after our own interests and make sure that we do so in the future as well.
There are no conclusions coming out of what I have said but, much of the time, no conclusions come out of these discussions anyway.
It seems to be the most discussed issue in the Dáil Chamber. Until we see what type of Brexit there will be, we will be unable to focus on what needs to be done for the future. I do not believe we will find out whether the Brits are going to crash out until we reach the last 30 or 60 minutes of the negotiations.
I am happy to speak on this matter. As the Tánaiste has made clear, the Brexit contingency action plan has been updated following the agreement by the European Council at its meeting on 10 April last to extend the Article 50 process until 31 October next. The Council made it clear in its conclusions that the withdrawal agreement cannot be opened and the extension cannot be used to start negotiations on the future relationship. The EU is willing to look again at the political declaration on the future relationship if the UK moves on its red lines. It is in this context that I acknowledge and accept the Government's assessment that there is a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October or thereafter. Accordingly, preparatory work for a no-deal Brexit should continue as a matter of priority across Departments and agencies. Much more preparatory work should be done in the interregnum.
There is no doubt that the stark reality of what Brexit means is closing in on us quickly. The contingency plan makes clear that a no-deal Brexit will be an unprecedented event that will lead to disruption and have a severe and negative economic impact. It is deeply disturbing to read in the plan that in a no-deal scenario, significant job losses are likely in the most exposed sectors of our economy. It is estimated that of the UK leaves the EU in such circumstances, the number of unemployed people in this country will increase by between 50,000 and 55,000. This is probably a conservative estimate.
The people of Cashel and surrounding areas of County Tipperary are reeling this morning after learning that 50 jobs are to be lost at the relatively new Amneal plant in the town. We thought that this fledgling plant was in its gestation years, and that it would expand up to 300 jobs, but 50 jobs are now being lost, which is a pity. It is a huge shock and trauma for the local people. We understand the sheer devastation associated with the loss of 50, 100 or 200 jobs. I sympathise with the families in Cashel. I hope the State agencies will help to support the company, which intends to retain a skeleton staff. We can see the impact that a small closure can have. This closure is not small for Cashel because 50 families will be affected by the loss of these important and good jobs. This brings home to us the impact that job losses can have.
The possibility of a no-deal Brexit is creating significant fear and uncertainty in the agriculture sector, which is having to contend with the inevitable disaster that the Mercosur deal will bring about across the beef trade. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, must know that this is the case. The contingency action plan puts all of this in real terms by stating that the agrifood and fisheries sector is our largest indigenous industry, contributing 7.7 % of Ireland's gross national income and acting as a primary driver of the rural economy.
A no-deal scenario would not protect the peace in Northern Ireland. We all agree that there is a need to work hard to avoid such an outcome. The Rural Independent Group will do its utmost to this end. We will put our shoulder to the wheel. This is a surreal scenario. Nothing is certain. It seems that nothing can be offered to assure us that we will be able to emerge from this process without the infliction of significant and ever-increasing damage on our people, our economy and our country.
Some of the much-dreaded outcomes are already here. We all received an email from the Freight Transport Association recently. When I referred to the email in this Chamber on the Order of Business, with the permission of the Chair, I could not believe the reply I received from the Taoiseach. I thought I was back in national school when I heard the leader of our country say we will have to get smaller trucks. I know the Tánaiste and the Minister of State are distracted as they talk to each other. I ask them to think about the logic of the statement made to me by the Prime Minister of our country to the effect that the freight industry might have to get smaller lorries. I am grateful that our negotiating team is headed by the Tánaiste and not the Taoiseach. I agree that the Tánaiste is a safe pair of hands. I support him and ask him to keep the Taoiseach at home. Maybe the Taoiseach should be sent on holidays to some island - perhaps Bull Island - and not be let out.
I am sticking to the agenda. All Deputies, including the Acting Chairman, were contacted recently by the Freight Transport Association. Its correspondence made it clear that the failure of the UK Government to get its withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons will have significant ramifications across the Irish Sea. The general manager of the association, Mr. Aidan Flynn, has explained that the future economic success of this nation rests on Ireland being able to reinforce its supply chain and reassure businesses on both sides of the Border that trade can continue uninterrupted. He has made it clear that Irish businesses cannot wait any longer and referred to the need to ensure this country's trading relationships do not come under threat while new arrangements are bedded in.
Mr. Flynn has argued that the Tánaiste, who is leading Brexit engagement, must meet stakeholders in the logistics industry as a matter of urgency. He has pointed out that, despite many requests from the association, this has not happened in the past two years. Is this true? Has the Tánaiste met representatives of the freight industry? Mr. Flynn said that no such meeting has taken place in the past couple of years. What kind of planning, preplanning and logistical arrangements are being put in place? We cannot focus entirely on negotiations in Brussels and Northern Ireland. We must think about the stakeholders who transport our vital goods. The Taoiseach has said they should get smaller trucks because of carbon tax. It was a childish, pedantic, silly and downright stupid thing to say. I ask the Tánaiste to tell the House whether he has met representatives of the Freight Transport Association. It has been suggested that despite many requests from the association, such a meeting has not happened in the past two years. How many times has the Tánaiste met personnel from the association? When did he last meet them? Are there any engagements lined up at which he will meet them? This is basic stuff. The freight industry is the most important link in the export chain. These people get all our products to the boats and elsewhere. I salute the drivers and everybody else involved in the industry.
I stress that Deputies on this side of the House will co-operate with the Government when there is a genuine need to be constructive. I mean it when I say we want to be constructive. As a small business man, I understand the importance of forward planning. If the Government does not intend to engage with the major stakeholders in this area, it is very scary. More needs to be done along the lines of the Brexit scorecard issued by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Such measures will allow us to mitigate as far as possible some of the immediate effects of a disruptive exit of the UK from the EU. The Department has made clear that despite the uncertainty, Irish companies can, and should, take immediate action to mitigate the potential risks and position themselves to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. That is why it would be so alarming if the Tánaiste has not met representatives of the freight transport organisations, as they have alleged. I cannot believe that he has not engaged with them for two years. They are the most important link in the chain, apart from the ferries and boats that carry the produce. They bring the produce to the roll-on roll-off facilities.
I have seen reports of hurried Cabinet memorandums to the effect that loading and parking areas at our ports need to be extended. That is not much good at this stage. It is like closing the door after the horse has gone up the yard. It is very scary. The actions that are needed to increase the resilience of businesses make practical business sense, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. We must take such actions. Those involved in business must be supported because they are very worried. There has been a great deal of talk about the €50 million and the €50 million that is going to be put on top of it. When will this €100 million from the EU be rolled out? We cannot keep talking about these things. It is like the €50 million for the beef sector and the €50 million that is being put on top of it. Where are the application forms? Where is the process? When is it going to happen?
There are profoundly challenging times ahead. We must work together to navigate these historic times if we are to ensure our communities and our businesses survive without catastrophic damage. I mean it when I offer the Government the support of the Rural Independent Group in this regard. I am disappointed that the briefing that was offered the other day did not work out because of delays in the Dáil. I spoke to the Tánaiste about it last night. We are still available to meet and engage so that we are on the same page as the Government. The Rural Independent Group has significant concerns. Why would we not have such concerns, given that we represent rural constituencies? Part of the constituencies represented by the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, are rural as well. I will leave it at that because I know the Chair is under time pressure.
This is the umpteenth time we have had statements on Brexit in this House. The reality is that we are no clearer about what is likely to happen and significant uncertainty remains. There are several possibilities. Obviously, the withdrawal agreement is still on the table but it is very hard to see how the numbers in the House of Commons can change with regard to that. If a vote was put on a no-deal Brexit, one would have to say that it would not be carried by the House of Commons. There could well be a general election in which case I presume there would be an extension or there may be an extension for some other reason. Whatever about those possibilities, we are at the point where the likelihood of a crash-out is increasingly becoming a reality. The unthinkable scenario we said could not happen, that Britain could not possibly crash out and that it could not possibly be that foolish, might come about. We are now clutching at straws and are hoping that if Boris Johnson does end up becoming Prime Minister, his volatility might work to our advantage insofar as he might switch his position. This cannot be ruled out entirely given his past record of changing horses or changing direction for no apparent reason. It is shocking that so much of our economic, political and security welfare is dependent on the Rule Britannia brigade within the Conservative party which in turn is being dictated to by an extreme right-wing nationalist in Nigel Farage. That is the reality. That is what is dictating the pace in respect of all of this. To a large extent, our welfare is in their hands, which is a frightening thought.
Going back to the time Michel Barnier addressed this House, the issues have not changed. At that point, he said he was confident that all the non-trade issues like the movement of people and services could be dealt with. In fairness, they have been dealt with pretty comprehensively. All of the issues relating to entitlements, education, health and passports have been addressed and it would seem that they have been put to bed. However, the question remains about what we do about a situation where our Border with Northern Ireland becomes an EU border and Northern Ireland becomes a third country. What do we do about the movement of goods? I accept that the Government is in a bind about this and that the Tánaiste cannot discuss the details of the implications of that for lots of strategic reasons but we are three months away from what is looking increasingly like a crash-out Brexit and we have no idea how the Border will operate.
So much of our economic and social standing and our standing in terms of jobs is dependent on the agrifood industry. The Irish agrifood industry has a very strong reputation. That is a reputation that is underpinned by the strict rules and regulations that apply within the European Union. It is also dictated by a very high level of confidence in Irish products, be they food products or in terms of the traceability of our livestock and food products. That confidence will not continue to be maintained by other member states and indeed countries outside the EU unless we can protect the integrity of the Single Market. That is the enormous bind Ireland finds itself in. We like to think things in the Border region can continue or potentially continue as they are but the reality is that if we are to protect our agrifood trade, that cannot be the case.
There already are indications of that from other countries, which are saying they need assurances that there will be no question of breaches of standards or lack of traceability regarding any of our goods. We must be able to provide an assurance of that but how do we do that if we have a long Border that is not policed and if there are no checks? People have talked about the possibility of having checks off-site away from the Border and having a zone around the Border but I cannot see how that can operate. Perhaps somebody has worked out the logistics of that and perhaps the detail has been worked out in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Foreign Affairs and Trade but I cannot understand how that can work. I would like assurances that it is possible to maintain the integrity of our agrifood industry, while also being able to retain the integrity of the Single Market but it is very hard to see that without a hard border.
Whatever way issues along the Border are addressed, whether there is an economic zone or whether it is an actual hard border, the cost will be very significant, not just immediately but on an ongoing basis into the future. I do not know whether that has been costed by anybody here but the likelihood is that the costs involved will be significant. Given that our Border will become an EU border, the moral responsibility is on the EU to fund that. We may well want to be the people taking responsibility for that given that it is within our country but the costs need to be met by the EU and I have not heard anybody from Government providing that kind of reassurance and telling us what the estimated costs might be. Again, I appreciate that it is very difficult for the Government to go there but that is the reality and we need an assurance that these substantial costs will be met by the EU.
The other point concerns the implications of all of this for peace on the island and the Good Friday Agreement. We know that, regrettably, it seems that many in the Conservative Party have little regard for the extreme difficulties being caused between North and South on this island. We know they have little knowledge of the complexities and intricacies of operating in any kind of free trade manner across a border like our Border. We know there is very little appreciation of the implications of a hard border or the severe restrictions on trade that will inevitably result from a crash-out. That is the context in which we are operating. Of course, it is not helped by the fact that there is an absence of political structures in the North. This has been a key factor in recent years. If there had been an assembly in the North with which we could have dealt and that could have beat the drum for the future of Northern Ireland and spoken about the implications of a no-deal Brexit for Northern Ireland, that would have been hugely helpful but, unfortunately, we have not heard the voice of the citizens in Northern Ireland, which is regrettable. All parties involved must take responsibility for that. There is no question but that Northern Ireland will be the biggest loser in a crash-out Brexit. There are significant implications for trade, jobs, the economy generally and the political stability of Northern Ireland. How will we maintain the levels of North-South agreement that are provided for in the Good Friday Agreement? I would also like to hear whether there is potential for legal action under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in respect of the proposed action by the UK Government.
There are significant questions, but it looks like Brussels is holding firm. Even if it does on the backstop, we still should be in a position where we know what will happen in three months' time, given the increasing likelihood that there will be a no-deal Brexit.
As the Tánaiste outlined and has been reflected in Deputies’ contributions, Brexit represents a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. As Deputy Shortall outlined, significant uncertainty remains. The political uncertainty in London means that there is a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. It is not certain that the United Kingdom will seek a further extension or that the European Union will grant it if it does. It is in that context that the Government continues to prioritise preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit.
The Brexit contingency action plan update reflects the work that has taken place across government to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, as well as the further steps that will be taken between now and 31 October. I disagree with any assertation that the document is not useful and that there is no reason for it to be published now. While some understand and know what has been done, many do not. For example, two weeks ago I met an old neighbour from Scotland who wanted to know about arrangements for the common travel area and how they could impact on him and his family. It is important to stress the work we have done and outline what our plans are in the next 122 days in anticipation of a possible no-deal scenario. We cannot replace the seamless arrangements in place today with mitigation measures. The mitigation measures will reduce some of the impacts. There will, however, be a fundamental change in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We want to continue to have a close relationship.
The Government has been clear on its objectives since the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, namely, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including protecting the all-island economy and avoiding the emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. These objectives are delivered by the withdrawal agreement. Given the UK red lines, the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is the only solution on the table which delivers the outcomes everyone, including the United Kingdom, is committed to achieving. In the absence of the withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. As the action plan states, we should be under no illusion that a no-deal Brexit would result in far-reaching change on the island of Ireland. It would disrupt the flow of the all-island economy.
The Government is working closely with the European Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of protecting the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it, while avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure. This work is looking at necessary checks to preserve Ireland’s full participation in the Single Market and the customs union. As the Taoiseach indicated, tariffs, for example, could be paid online. However, other areas such as sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks are far more challenging. Any solution agreed to will be far from suboptimal to the backstop and highly disruptive to the all-island economy.
In the time between now and 31 October the action plan emphasises the need for stepped up preparedness measures by exposed businesses, in particular. This is not a matter of urban versus rural. I come from County Meath which has a mix of both, with strong small and medium-sized enterprises in the agrifood and drinks, agritourism and tourism sectors. It is about protecting all of them. Citizens and businesses cannot assume that because a no-deal Brexit was averted in March and April the same will happen in October. The need for prudent preparations is more pressing than ever.
A new phase of the Government’s Brexit communications, including an intensified engagement programme by Revenue, will focus on individual businesses. It will include targeted letters and follow-up phone calls. We need to ensure those businesses which have not registered to trade with the United Kingdom will do so. That is why they will receive a third letter and a phone call. We are supporting them in every way we can, but we cannot register all businesses. It is important that these messages get across. That is another reason the document was published this week.
Seminars offering advice and support for companies organised by Departments and State agencies will continue to take place nationwide. There have been over 2,500 engagements with stakeholders. I attended an event on 5 March with Freight Transport Association Ireland. The Government has engaged with the customs consultative committee, with a view to identifying a series of targeted measures which will be taken to support and incentivise capacity building in the customs intermediary sector.
The Government has put in place a range of supports for the agrifood industry, including a €78 million Brexit package for farmers, fishermen, food SMEs and to cover additional costs related to Brexit; the future growth loan scheme via the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland for farmers, the seafood sector and food SMEs; specific supports for food businesses through Enterprise Ireland and the LEADER food programme; technology and innovation hubs; additional funding for Bord Bia; trade missions and market access activity. Recently the European Commission announced a €50 million exceptional aid fund for the beef sector to address price difficulties caused in part by the ongoing uncertainty about Brexit. The Minister is meeting the respective bodies today to discuss the fund.
The Government will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to explore the full range of state aid flexibilities and supports for sectors in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. Ireland will work with the European Union and fellow member states to identify options for the fishing industry from 2020 onwards, including a common framework to manage the potential tying-up of boats, the possible displacement into EU waters under the control of Ireland of fleets from other member states, as well as funding for the sector. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will continue to engage with relevant traders to ensure they are registered on the EU trade control and export system, TRACES.
As detailed in the plan, sufficient infrastructure is in place at Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and Dublin Airport to provide an emergency response to a no-deal Brexit. In the coming months we will be refining and improving this infrastructure. At Dublin Port a 6,000 sq. m warehouse has been converted to accommodate facilities, including 13 inspection bays for SPS and food safety checks. Plans for a further 18 inspection bays are in place.
Additional staff have been trained and are in place to respond to a no-deal Brexit. Revenue has hired 400, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 190, and the HSE, 59. Further staff will be made available before 31 October.
The United Kingdom’s accession to the Common Transit Convention, CTC, post Brexit will facilitate its use as a landbridge. This is a crucial route for Irish trade, with 150,000 trucks, carrying 3 million tonnes of trade worth €21 billion, using this route to mainland Europe each year. We are working with the European Union and fellow member states, particularly France, to facilitate the best possible use of the landbridge after Brexit. We anticipate that there could be delays and need to look beyond this. Should there be significant difficulties in that regard, the Dover-Calais crossing has been identified as a particular bottleneck. There is capacity on our direct sea routes to mainland Europe. Irish Ferries MV W.B. Yeats which entered into service in January provides capacity for 60,600 HGVs per annum. Another vessel of similar size is due to be delivered on Irish Sea routes in 2020. In 2018 CLdN launched the MV Celine, the world’s largest roll-on/roll-off vessel. In 2019 it launched MV Laureline, significantly increasing capacity on the Dublin-Rotterdam and Zeebrugge routes. In May 2018 Brittany Ferries launched a direct route from Cork to Santander. BG Freight Line will commence a Waterford-Rotterdam weekly freight service in July. All of this shows the continuing work on preparations.
The Government remains firmly of the view that the best and realistic way to ensure an orderly Brexit is for the United Kingdom to ratify the withdrawal agreement agreed with the European Union. Our position has been clear and consistent. A change of UK Prime Minister will not change the facts of Brexit. The European Council has made it consistently clear that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be opened or renegotiated. That said, the Government’s view is that there is still a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. That is why contingency planning continues and has the highest priority across all Departments. We should be under no illusion that a no-deal Brexit would result in far-reaching change on the island of Ireland. We are doing everything in our power to protect every single citizen. It is only by the Government, business and citizens working together nationally and with our EU partners that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the impacts of a no-deal Brexit, as well as ensuring we will be as prepared as we can be for the changes it will bring. We will continue this work as a strong and committed EU member state and with the solidarity and support of our EU partners, in which there has never been a chink. There has only been full solidarity from our EU colleagues.
On Deputy Adams’s question about direct rule, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, other Ministers and I have always said we would never accept it.
I wish to close the debate by saying that on a practical level, we are about to head into recess and this summer will be dominated in media commentary and political concern by Brexit and by the build-up to what will be a challenging period in September and October, with a new British Prime Minister in place, with an ongoing negotiation and with a lot of efforts to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the consequences of which have been discussed in this debate. I thank all of the political parties and Independents in this House for the co-operation the Government has got thus far on this challenge. As Deputy Lisa Chambers pointed out, it is in stark contrast to the British Parliament and political system. As the Government wants to ensure that co-operation continues, if Members need briefings or if they have questions or concerns, we will be available through the summer to answer those questions to ensure the unity of purpose this House has created with the Brexit issues can be sustained and strengthened as we move into a difficult period in the weeks and months ahead.