Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
The Bill before us is essential to ensuring we are as ready as we can be for the challenges coming in just 50 days' time. The support of the House has been a hallmark of Ireland's approach to Brexit. I look forward to continuing that constructive engagement and working closely with all Members as the Bill passes through the Oireachtas.
Last year, when I opened the Second Reading on the 2019 Brexit omnibus Bill I made an unusual call for a Minister in wishing that the law we were seeking to enact would sit on the shelf. I am glad to say I got my wish on that occasion. The 2019 Act sought to provide contingency measures to address issues that would arise should the UK leave the EU with no deal. The withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, agreed late last year meant many of the provisions of the 2019 Act would not be commenced. Ireland strongly supports the withdrawal agreement and the certainty it brings. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland protects the Good Friday Agreement, North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. It avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland while preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland's place in it. It also ensures access for Northern Irish goods to the Single Market and trade in goods will continue to flow freely on this island. It is vital the protocol is now fully and faithfully implemented.
The House understands well the impact the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will have on the protocol. It is our view, and that of our EU partners, that the offending provisions need to be removed. The withdrawal agreement provides structures for handling issues around the implementation protocol. These are the only appropriate way to deal with the outstanding questions. I am in regular contact with the Commission Vice-President, Mr. Sefcovic, who is the EU co-chair of the joint committee overseeing the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. Talks on the future relationship between the EU and UK are also continuing. All of us here today share that wish for the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK in the future. To get a deal there will have to be compromises with which both sides can live.
However, a deal cannot come at any price. There must be a level playing field supporting open and fair competition for our businesses and a fair and balanced outcome on fisheries, which is a particularly sensitive issue for a number of member states, including Ireland. We cannot have a deal that would damage the long-term political and economic interests of Ireland and the EU. The UK will also be aware that a future partnership agreement will only be possible if the withdrawal agreement, which it signed and ratified less than a year ago, is fully implemented.
Throughout this process, we have worked closely with the EU task force. I speak regularly with Michel Barnier. From the start, Mr. Barnier has been a good friend to Ireland and has taken the time to really understand our concerns and vulnerabilities. He is acutely aware of our concerns and knows that Ireland fully supports his work in his attempt to close out an agreement that is fair to both sides. However, even if there is a deal, the end of the transition period will bring significant and lasting change for citizens and for businesses. From 1 January, the UK will be outside the EU Single Market and the customs union, and will no longer be bound by EU law. This will significantly change the way the EU and UK engage into the future.
We have used the transition period to recalibrate and refine the readiness work carried out ahead of a possible no-deal Brexit in March and October 2019 and January of this year. In May, the Government decided to intensify preparations on the basis of two scenarios: a limited free trade agreement, including fisheries; or a hard Brexit that would see the EU and UK trading on WTO terms from the start of next year. This has proved a prudent basis for baseline planning.
On 9 September, the Government launched its Brexit readiness action plan. The plan sets out the actions the Government will take, and that businesses and citizens must also take, to address the changes that will arise at the end of the transition period. Probably the most significant change is that, in 50 days, the UK will be outside the Single Market and customs union. This means that new controls and procedures will apply to anyone moving goods to, from or through Great Britain, processes that simply do not apply to such trade today. A significant part of the action plan is given over to outlining the steps businesses must take into account.
The action plan has been accompanied by an intensified programme of trader engagement. Since it was launched, there have been more than 50 separate ministerial engagements touching on Brexit and these were supported by a range of official level meetings and briefings. We are using a multitude of virtual tools, from webinars to instructional videos, to assist businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period. The Tánaiste sent a checklist on Brexit readiness to 225,000 businesses registered in Ireland. Revenue separately has written to over 90,000 businesses that are trading with the UK and followed up with some 14,000 phone calls. Budget 2021 allocates €340 million to Brexit-related measures and provides for a €3.4 billion recovery fund to respond to the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. We have made a range of financial, upskilling and advisory supports available to businesses in response to a specific demand. The July jobs stimulus package included a €20 million "ready for customs" package to assist with hiring and training staff in the customs area.
Government preparations also continue. Our ports and airports are well prepared for the new realities. Provision has been made for some 1,500 additional staff to support and carry out customs, sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, and food safety checks and controls. The State has spent over €30 million making Dublin Port ready and fit for purpose for the new realities of 1 January next year. The decision of the European Council to approve the €5 billion Brexit adjustment fund is also welcome. We are working closely with the European Commission to ensure the fund targets the sectors and member states most disproportionately impacted by Brexit.
The Government's approach to Brexit readiness is broad. Our needs are being addressed at a national level through policy and economic responses on an administrative basis and through targeted Brexit-related resources. As part of this work, primary legislation is again required to support measures that address a number of the complex issues that could arise for citizens and businesses post-transition. An omnibus Bill is considered the most effective way to address this broad range of issues. This 2020 Brexit omnibus Bill contains 21 parts which come under the remit of 11 different Ministers. The Bill is similar to the 2019 Act but it has a different point of departure. The Bill is intended to deal with the permanent changes that will take place at the end of the transition period while the 2019 Act catered primarily for the possibility of a disorderly UK withdrawal from the EU. In other words, the last omnibus Bill that we introduced some time ago was preparing for a disorderly no-deal Brexit whereas this legislation is preparing potentially for a no trade deal or no future relationship deal Brexit. However, it does not have the same series of requirements because the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland deal with many issues.
The Bill is diverse and technical in many aspects. Its overarching purpose is, first, to protect citizens, consumers and businesses; second, to reduce the possibility of serious economic disturbance; third, to facilitate the sound functioning of a number of key sectors, and fourth, to support aspects of the common travel area and North-South co-operation on the island. Protecting our citizens lies at the heart of this Bill, with several provisions aimed at minimising the impact of Brexit on citizens across the island. Provisions of the Bill will support ongoing co-operation in healthcare between Ireland and the UK, provided for under a memorandum of understanding on health arrangements which is currently being finalised. We will facilitate the continuation of student mobility by allowing SUSI grants to be paid to eligible Irish students studying in the UK, as well as to UK students in the Irish higher education institutions. The Bill will amend the Social Welfare Act to ensure continuity of treatment in respect of UK payments. It will also amend the Protection of Employees Act to ensure that employees who make contributions in Ireland are covered if their employer becomes insolvent under UK law. We will provide a basis for the ongoing recognition of divorces, legal separations and marriage annulments granted in the UK or Gibraltar, and also ensure that UK citizens continue to access the national childcare scheme on the same basis as Irish citizens.
The Government is keenly aware of the impact the end of the transition period will have on businesses. Several parts of the Bill seek to minimise disruption to our economy and the business sector. Part 8 includes a number of measures on taxation that will allow businesses and citizens to continue to access measures and reliefs in areas such as income tax, capital gains tax, corporation tax and stamp duty. Specific anti-avoidance provisions are also included. The Bill includes provisions to introduce postponed accounting of VAT to alleviate potential cash flow issues by allowing extra time for businesses trading with the UK to make their VAT returns. This measure has been requested by a number of business representative bodies. Restrictions will also be in place regarding the operation of the VAT retail export scheme to limit the risks of loss of revenue to the Exchequer in light of the volume of travel to the UK.
Part 8 also provides for a run-off regime of 15 years to protect the policyholders of existing insurance contracts issued by providers in the UK or Gibraltar. Part 11 makes a number of amendments to the Customs Act to support the operation of the customs online roll-on, roll-off service. This new service is required to handle a substantial increase in non-EU trade from the end of the transition period. The legislation proposed will specify new offences and provide additional powers to customs officers.
To address the possibility of labour force disruption when companies are applying for new employment permits and renewals, provision is made to allow UK citizens to be counted together with citizens of Ireland, the European Economic Area, EEA, and the Swiss Confederation for the purposes of the 50% rule.
Several technical provisions support the sound functioning of a number of economic sectors and businesses. This includes additional time for re-certification of professional qualifications in specialized fields such as flourinated greenhouse gases and harbour pilotage services, as well as for market surveillance in the fields of construction products. The Bill also provides for Irish participants in UK settlement systems for financial services to continue to use these systems for a limited time after the end of the transition period while the migration to a new system is completed.
A number of provisions also seek to protect and maintain the common travel area, CTA, as well as broader UK-Ireland relations. I mentioned earlier the provision to facilitate continued operation between Ireland and the UK on healthcare arrangements. Access for Irish and EU citizens in the North to certain EU programmes and benefits, such as European health insurance cards, or EHIC, as many people know them, may be addressed in the future partnership currently being negotiated by the EU and the UK. However, the Government recognises the importance of such programmes and benefits to Irish and therefore EU citizens in Northern Ireland. Therefore, Part 3 of the Bill provides for a scheme to allow eligible residents of Northern Ireland not covered elsewhere to seek reimbursement for the cost of necessary healthcare while on a temporary stay in another EU or EEA member state or Switzerland, should it be required, from 1 January 2021.
Part 13 will provide a fallback for cross-Border bus services in the event of no EU-UK arrangements being in place. Part 16 puts in place measures to apply the 1957 European Convention on Extradition to the UK. This will ensure workable extradition arrangements are in place between Ireland and the UK after the end of the transition period if these are not otherwise provided for by agreement between the EU and the UK. Part 17 will provide a clear legal base for the exemption of UK citizens from passport checks within the CTA and will also ensure UK citizens do not come within the definition of non-national as applied in the Immigration Act.
Part 18 allows for the designation of safe third countries where appropriate safeguards are in place in line with international law. It is intended to designate the UK a safe third country for the purposes of returns of applicants for international protection whose applications are deemed inadmissible. In addition, provisions in the Bill will be complemented by a number of measures in secondary legislation which will also be adopted before the end of this year.
It is the Government's intention to take Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil from 24 to 26 November. The Bill will then go to the Seanad for Second Stage in the week commencing 30 November, with Committee and Report Stages the following week. Our aim is to pass all Stages in a timely fashion and be ready for enactment and commencement well in advance of 31 December.
The end of the transition will bring significant and lasting change. Many aspects of our relationship with our nearest neighbour will change quite fundamentally. The Government remains committed to protecting and strengthening the Ireland-UK relationship following the end of transition. For now, however, we need to prepare for whatever change may occur. It is simply the reality that if we do not manage to conclude a future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK in the coming days and weeks, then much of this legislation will be required to limit disruption, protect our citizens, protect the common travel area and to protect co-operation on the island of Ireland, North and South, in the areas that people will be familiar with, such as healthcare, education, social protection, freedom to travel and move around and freedom to work and study.
That is why I hope I will get the kind of co-operation that has always been forthcoming when it relates to Brexit from other parties in this House in order to make sure that we can do this in time and that it is not rushed at any stage. If people have concerns, come and talk to me about it; if people have amendments that they want me to take seriously, come and talk to me about it. I assure Deputies that this is not legislation that we will bring forward in a party-political way or in a Government-versus-Opposition way, but quite the opposite. If we are missing something, we would like to hear about that and Deputies will find me receptive to ideas and new thinking. If we cannot accommodate what Deputies propose, I will explain in some detail why.
This is an issue that the Irish political system has shown extraordinary solidarity on for the last four and a half years while preparing for and trying to navigate our way through at times quite stormy waters in the context of Brexit and the decisions that we have been trying to make around that in order to protect our relationship with the UK, to protect relationships on this island, North and South, and to protect our place in the EU, its Single Market and its customs union. We have achieved a lot so far but we still have a significant amount of work to do in a very short period of time. I look forward to colleagues' co-operation. Together we will produce legislation that will provide as much protection as we can provide, given the circumstances that we face with the approaching end to the transition period and what I hope will be the start of an agreed new relationship between the EU and the UK that will limit some of the disruption that is linked to the UK leaving the EU, its Single Market and customs union and to the end of the transition period in 50 days' time.
I am sharing time with two colleagues. I thank the Minister for outlining the approach to the Brexit omnibus Bill. I will take a moment to offer my condolences on the death yesterday morning of the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO, Dr. Saeb Erekat, to his friends, family and colleagues. His loss to the cause of the Palestinian people is immeasurable.
As we come close to the culminating point of the drawn-out drama that is Brexit, we are still forced to contend with the ongoing obtuseness of the Tory party Brexiteers. Unfortunately for us, as the bellicose bluster of one blowhard blows out across the Atlantic, we in Ireland are left with a befuddled buffoon in Westminster. It is fitting and right that we take the necessary steps as a collective to prepare the island of Ireland in the most appropriate manner we can to withstand the challenges forced upon us by the predations of English nationalism.
As the Sinn Féin spokesperson for foreign affairs and defence, I have many dealings with the diplomatic community resident in Ireland and, as can be imagined, Brexit is a topic that is frequently tabled during our discussions. What is striking is the impact and impression left upon the international community by the commitment, coherence and unity of purpose that infuses the approach in Ireland towards Brexit, not just among the political parties in this House but amongst the whole of the Irish nation. Our approach has been ably abetted by the EU, whose negotiators have put the defence of the Irish peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish protocol at the heart of Europe's stance on Brexit. It is critical that this approach continues.
We must hope the election of President-elect Joe Biden in the US will bolster the hand of common sense. President-elect Biden has been firm and consistent in the manner in which he has articulated his support for the Irish peace process. He clearly carries a sense of responsibility towards the role of acting as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, having clearly stated during the recent US election campaign that there would be no trade agreement with a Johnson Government that would attempt to ride roughshod over the Good Friday Agreement.
We can only hope that his election will have a decided impact on the Tory approach to the negotiations.
The polite but pointed message from the former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, that President-elect Biden should butt out of the sovereign affairs of Britain clearly evidences that the arrogance and obtuseness that we have come to associate with the British approach to Brexit remain ingrained.
The decision of the House of Lords to roundly reject the elements of the internal market Bill that would have Britain trash international law is a welcome development. The Internal Market Bill fundamentally undermines devolution in the North and the Good Friday Agreement. We, in the Dáil, along with our allies in Europe and the United States, must continue to work together to ensure that all of the offending parts of the internal market Bill are withdrawn. All elements that undermine the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement must be removed and the Bill must be binned.
The insistence of the British to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, ECJ, offers an insight into the malign intent of the Johnson regime. Undoubtedly, the ECJ has consistently acted to protect the interests of ordinary British citizens down through the years. The British Government fights approximately six cases a year in the ECJ, where the majority of its convictions have been for breaches of environmental law. The generally held belief is that the British opposition to the ECJ is linked to its opposition to attempts to reach an agreement on a level playing field. The primary objective of the Tory Government is that having severed all ties with any judicial body with the authority to arbitrate, it will commence the erosion of environmental standards, workers' rights and living standards to secure a competitive economic advantage over the EU as a manufacturing economy. To this end, under the provisions of the internal market Bill, an unelected quango will have the authority to override the institutions of the Northern Assembly and force these impositions on the people of the North without recourse. This also poses the threat that inferior food products or ingredients will find their way into the Irish food supply chain and that cannot be allowed to happen.
The Brexit omnibus Bill moves to prepare the relevant sections of the Irish economy for Brexit within the parameters set down in the withdrawal agreement drawn up between the EU and Britain. It is a vital response to the changes that will come into force on 1 January. It is a Bill that Sinn Féin will support While there are areas of the Bill that could be strengthened, I hope that these changes can be worked into it in co-operation with the Minister. I welcomed his comments that he is open to positive and progressive changes.
I welcome the progress that has been made for our citizens in the North to be able to access the European health insurance card, the Erasmus+ student programme and Horizon 2020. Alongside these welcome developments, we must endeavour to establish mechanisms that will ensure that the people of the North of Ireland achieve democratic representation within the institutions of the EU. Reports indicate that there are approximately 30,000 cross-Border workers and it is essential that we work together to ensure that the British Government introduces and implements a frontier workers' scheme that offers full protections to those who are living on one side of the Border but work on the other.
In this strangest and most dramatic of years around the globe, we in Ireland have been forced to confront two major challenges, namely, those presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. The experience of the pandemic is ongoing and well documented. The impact of Brexit is yet to be fully felt but we are very aware of the challenges that it will introduce to all of our lives. What both challenges have in common is that they have proven themselves to be a challenge to the island of Ireland. Their impact questions the validity and common sense of the maintenance of two jurisdictions on a small island. Arguably, our response to Covid-19 has been impeded by a dual, and often conflicting, response between the North and the South. Just an hour up the road, we witnessed the leadership of the Stormont Assembly issuing an appeal to the EU for fear of food shortages in the event of Brexit.
If there is one clear message that arises from the experience of Brexit and Covid-19, it is that we must begin the process of planning for constitutional change on this island. We must ensure that the process of planning is all inclusive, that it provides for input for all shades of opinion and outlook on this island and that it is an all-Ireland approach. Nothing could be clearer than that the future of the shared experience of the people of this island lies in the reunification of Ireland because together we are stronger.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important and broad legislation. Most of my points about the Bill will be technical in nature and I will have some additional commentary about the state of Brexit negotiations.
With regard to the sections of the Bill that pertain to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the issue of workers' rights, I will focus on the changes to securities trading. I want to ask about the amendments concerning the issuance of certificates and the sections allowing for the disapplying of sections of the Companies Act and the insertion of a new section in the Act. Regarding the issuance of certificates, will there be an external and public record of securities transferred under this legislation beyond the record held by Euroclear UK & Ireland, where the securities are migrating from, and Euroclear Bank in Belgium, where the securities are migrating to be deposited? If so, will the Minister let me know where those records will be held and if they will be publicly available?
Part 4 relates, in part, to section 1087E, 1087F and 1087G. Will the Minister clarify a few points I raised during the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment discussion on the Bill? With all that has been going on, the replies from the Department have been delayed, which is completely understandable. I understand that these sections allow securities to be transferred to the Euroclear Bank in Belgium and the sections in question are to ensure that the transfer of securities operates as quickly and smoothly as possible. Section 1087E and 1087F make substantial changes to the primary legislation mentioned. As referenced in the explanatory note of the general scheme for these sections, similar changes were made to British law in 2001 and 1996. Perhaps there is existing evidence that there would be no unintended consequences following these changes. Has the Department looked into this since I raised the matter with its representatives some weeks back? Have they considered monitoring the operation of these sections on a short-term basis to ensure that the changes will have the desired and proposed impact? Can I get confirmation that the changes regarding the migration of Irish securities from their current central security depository, Euroclear UK & Ireland, to the Euroclear Bank after Brexit will not delay the settlement or transaction date on which securities are traded and that all trades will still be cleared in real time, ensuring that the buyer of a security is not waiting for days to retain ownership of a share?
Will the Minister also confirm that there are no new financial risks with the new arrangement regarding these securities and that the changes will not disrupt trading of certain types of securities being traded between Ireland, the EU and Britain?
I turn to Part 5, in particular the section on restrictions on the granting of employment permits. Given the volatile nature of the British withdrawal from the Union, a description that I think no one will dispute, has the Minister any concerns that previously agreed aspects of the withdrawal agreement, including the equitable arrangement whereby Irish workers in Britain will not have to obtain a work permit, could be reneged on by the British Government? If so, what is the view of the Minister and that of his Department?
Have any contingency plans been made for such an event?
What has the Department done and what is the Minister doing with regard to the difficulties that will arise for EU nationals crossing the Border from the South to the North for work and also regarding the frontier workers legislation that is being brought forward in Westminster?
As always on legislation of such importance, we remain willing to work with the Minister and the many other Ministers whose portfolios this Bill touches upon. We have, give or take, 50 days to go before the real Brexit changes start. It is, therefore, important that this legislation is expedited through the House. We also need to ensure that we get it right and in that regard I greatly welcome the Minister's words on co-operation. This is an issue on which we are capable of working cross-party and it is of great importance on all sides of the House. My hope is that co-operation will continue.
Tá ár dtír, mar atá a fhios againn ó thuaidh agus ó dheas, faoi bhagairt Covid-19 don chuid is mó den bhliain 2020. Cuireann an Bille seo atá os ár gcomhair inniu i gcuimhne dúinn go bhfuil bagairt eile ann. Is é sin an Breatimeacht agus nílimid réidh leis an mbagairt sin go fóill. Much of this time over recent weeks and months has been occupied by responding to the challenges the virus has posed to our health, the health services, jobs and the economy. The Bill before us is a reminder that other challenges loomed large before the outbreak of Covid-19. Few are greater than the challenge of Brexit. Just as there is hope that a vaccine can be manufactured and distributed to bring an end to the Covid-19 emergency, there is cause for optimism that the challenges brought about by Brexit can be overcome and an agreement between Britain and the European Union can be found that protects our island and safeguards the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. The British Government has pursued a narrow and reckless strategy that has undermined trust in these negotiations. Boris Johnson, instead of preparing for an end to the transition period that causes the least disruption and protects these islands, has used the Irish protocol as a bargaining chip. He has sought to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and has introduced an internal market Bill which clearly breaches international law obligations under the withdrawal agreement and completely undermines trust once again in the British Government.
Ag achan céim den phróiseas seo agus de na cainteanna sháraigh Rialtas na Breataine agus an Páirtí Tóraí ansin go docht Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta agus ní raibh ionracas ná dea-intinn ar bith le taispeáint acu. There is reason to believe that Boris Johnson’s strategy is running out of road, and that is welcome. On Monday, the Tories' internal market Bill suffered a significant defeat in the House of Lords by 433 votes to 165, with amendments passed which removed measures of the Bill that disapplied the Irish protocol and were in breach of international law. The election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States will further frustrate the British Government’s reckless strategy. President-elect Biden has made clear his commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, as have many other legislators in America such as Nancy Pelosi, Richie Neal, Donegal’s own Brendan Boyle and many others. It has been reported that President-elect Biden warned the British Prime Minister yesterday that Ireland cannot be collateral damage in the pursuit of Brexit. He and both parties in Congress have made clear that there will be no trade agreement unless the Good Friday Agreement is upheld and protected.
In the coming months, we have an opportunity through Washington and Brussels to exert maximum pressure on London in order to ensure the best outcome for our country and its people. In achieving this objective we need a unified approach in this Dáil. That is essential and we will support the Government to that end. We know that nothing is certain. Our people, their jobs and livelihoods have already borne so much uncertainty this year. We all know the heavy toll that has been exerted and exacted on many since the outbreak of Covid-19. A disorderly Brexit would be another blow to our economy and people.
While Covid-19 has hit certain parts of the economy hardest, particularly in the retail, hospitality, tourism and construction sectors, the industries a disorderly Brexit would most strongly impact on are different. These are agriculture, food, traditional manufacturing and fishing. Ireland, North and South, has spent the year dealing with a public health emergency that has dealt a blow to sectors of our economy. A disorderly Brexit would deal a further blow but to different sectors entirely. Preparation, therefore, insofar as it is possible, is absolutely crucial.
The Bill before us is part of that preparation. Broadly speaking, the objective of the Bill is to maintain the status quo of the common travel area and current legislation for the transition period which ends after 2020. This is in order to achieve minimum disruption as a result of whatever comes to pass at the end of the transition arrangements. That is a common sense approach. We look forward to scrutinising these provisions further and in greater detail on Committee Stage.
This Dáil will do its work to ensure that the interests of our islands are defended from the threat posed by the British Government. We should not lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. The people of this island did not choose Brexit. As for the North, whatever final shape it takes, Brexit will be very damaging. As this Dáil works to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, let us not also lose sight of its greatest promise. We have had much talk about the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit and the agreement is probably now better understood internationally than ever before. One of the greatest promises of that agreement is the reunification of our country and a future where the people of the island determine their destinies together. That is something that all of us in this House should strive, prepare and campaign for. Fad atáimid ag tabhairt cosanta do Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta, caithfimid gan dearmad a dhéanamh don ghealltanas is mó atá sa chomhaontú sin, is é sin athaontú na tíre, agus creideann Sinn Féin gur chóir d’achan Ball, páirtí agus duine neamhspleách den Oireachtas seo a bheith ag cuardach, ag eagrú agus ag plé na ceiste seo sa dóigh go dtig linn an príomhaidhm atá ag na páirtithe sa Dáil seo a bhaint amach. Gabhaim buíochas, a Cheann Comhairle.
I cannot begin my contribution as I would normally begin discussion of a Bill by saying that I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to this Bill because it is one that nobody in this House welcomes and it has been brought about by an event that is entirely damaging to this country and over which we have no control. We must mitigate that damage to the best of our ability.
As the Minister has indicated, it is the second Bill of this type. On balance, the first Bill was probably the best way to approach the issue. It was an omnibus Bill incorporating a variety of Departments where we could take an omnibus approach to preparing for the impact of Brexit on all aspects of our country, economy and society. Nine Ministries were initially involved in the briefings given by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This has now increased to 11 Departments. An array of complex and varied issues continue to be identified. The purpose of the Bill is to remedy these issues to the best of our ability and to mitigate the harm Brexit will do.
There are two basic principles to continue post Brexit and these are underscored in every aspect of the legislation. The first is the maintenance and continuance of the common travel area, which has been a feature of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom since the inception of Ireland as an independent entity. We have maintained a common travel area. We have used that phrase but it is a misnomer because it involves a much deeper and more comprehensive relationship between the citizens of our two nations than simply the right to travel into each other’s territory.
It involves the rights of housing, health access and even the right to vote. That is a fundamental principle which not only has to be maintained but which must also be codified for the first time in light of the fact that we have obligations to our EU partner nations and their citizens. Codifying any long-standing relationship like that is a difficult thing to do in law but this Bill and the previous legislation, and all the bilateral treaties and agreements that had been drawn up bilaterally between Departments over the past four years, embedded the meaning of the common travel area in a very positive way.
The second principle is the issue of North-South co-operation, which is fundamental. It was built and hinges upon the negotiated settlement and the Good Friday Agreement, and the maintenance of that being the cornerstone of our approach to any agreement with the United Kingdom on how we are to continue to deal with one another, either politically or economically. As others have stated, people, including many in the United Kingdom, doubted the degree of solidarity that Ireland would enjoy. We were seen as a peripheral nation that economically was not all that important to many in Europe, or so it was thought. For the concerns of Ireland and the maintenance of the fundamental principles of a border-free island, and all that underpinned the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, not only to be front-loaded but put absolutely as a requirement for any progress has taken many by surprise and has strengthened the view of the people of Ireland of the importance of the European Union as a bulwark for our defence of our interests. The old adage, ní neart go cur le chéile, is certainly true on the international stage. We are part of an important grouping who, to use American parlance, have our back on fundamental issues that are important to us.
There are other issues that will need further work including maintaining regular parliamentary and ministerial contact when the United Kingdom no longer attends European Council meetings and there are not normal bilateral meeting between Ministers. Many of us have had the privilege of attending European Council meetings on a monthly basis and understand the personal relationships that can be forged and the importance of them. As we have said on other occasions, we need to explore mechanisms between parliamentarians and Ministers to ensure that those personal interactions are not only maintained but also that they are developed into the future. One of the ideas that has been posited is that we might consider having direct meetings with UK Ministers in and around the time of Council meetings if they are willing to do that.
I want to make brief mention of some of the provisions in the legislation. It is impossible to make any meaningful, section-by-section analysis in a 20-minute contribution but I want to pick up on one or two of them. On health, the common travel area provisions are important. The Minister touched upon the absolute underscoring of the rights of Northern Ireland citizens to maintain the privileges they have, in essence, in all the various European programmes which they will continue to have access to and beyond that. I refer, for example, to the right to have health expenses reimbursed throughout the European Union if they are on holiday there and become sick or within countries that are part of that relationship such as Switzerland.
In terms of justice, extradition was once an extremely fraught issue in this jurisdiction. Those of us who are long enough around remember how hard-fought some extraditions were in the bad old days until the advent of mechanisms such as European arrest warrants and so on. It is important that we would have simple extradition mechanisms that will ensure that we do not have to go through diplomatic channels to do what is a justice matter. I hope the provisions of this legislation will achieve that objective. Until we see how this plays out in reality, we will not know for sure.
I am concerned about one aspect and I would be interested in hearing the Minister for Justice's commentary in respect of it. I refer to the maintenance of the Dublin Convention procedures. If we have a difficult break-up, and I have said personally to the Minister, who is an optimist by nature, and we all have an expectation, if not a hope at least, that there will be a very sound and strong relationship post Brexit and that there will not be a difficult collapse of the current talks and no deal. In those circumstances, however, where individuals have come into this jurisdiction from the United Kingdom and the Dublin Convention provisions pertain and people are removed from this State to the United Kingdom for asylum processing, will that continue to be the case? If there is a difficulty with regard to any agreement will that be a part of the suite of measures on which the United Kingdom will simply say they will no longer co-operate on those matters?
The legislation provides that divorces transacted in the United Kingdom or in Gibraltar after January of 2021 will be recognised in this jurisdiction.
As I said, there are areas which, despite the exhaustive work of Departments, will probably arise in the months and years subsequent to the end of the transition period and the complete withdrawal of Britain from the legal structures of the European Union. An issue that I have repeatedly raised as being of immediate importance is that of connectivity. I know the Minister and others have listened to what I have said, namely, that the first great test of our preparedness will be our ability to import and export from the island of Ireland. I have received from the Department of Transport the Irish Maritime Development Office analysis report to the Department of Transport on a reassessment of Ireland's maritime connectivity in the context of the Brexit and Covid-19 challenges. I have discussed this report with the Irish Maritime Development Office since its publication last week. I have to say I am not entirely convinced. Its basic conclusion is that we have enough capacity, even in the event of there being a fundamental disruption of the land bridge, to continue to import and export. The mechanism that is envisaged is that vessels that are currently used on the Irish-UK line will simply be repurposed to European ports. I am not sure that is as simple as is believed and set out in that process. In any event, it would have implications for our exports directly into Britain if those vessels were no longer available to bring our biggest trading partner, the goods from Ireland, to the United Kingdom. The same vessels cannot be used on two separate routes at the same time; that is not possible.
There are fundamental issues of connectivity that have yet to be resolved. I am raising them yet again today because I intend to continue to push this until I receive an assurance that we have sufficient capacity and that there will not be difficulties. The premise of the analysis carried out to date is that we have asked the ferry companies and they say all is well. That is not proper contingency planning. I know it is a tad simplistic and those who were behind the production of this comprehensive document might have other things to say about that but that, in essence, is my shorthand take on that and I want to make that point as strongly as possible.
I want to raise one other issue before I talk about the generality of the discussions, that is, the proposed provision in the Bill put forward by the Department of Finance.
The Department of Finance has proposed to amend section 58 of the Finance Act 2010 by including a new section, section 64, on page 42 of the Bill before the House. That is unnecessary. I have spoken to the Department about it. It would be extremely negative. The section would raise the minimum expenditure required to qualify for the VAT retail export scheme — that is, tax free shopping — from €0, which is the current figure, to €175. That means to qualify for the tax-free rebate as a tourist, one has to spend at least €175. This is against all the trends and it will have the greatest impact on small retailers and those that are now enduring the greatest degree of hardship under the Covid pandemic restrictions. These include small shops and jewellery stores selling Irish jewellery, Irish knitwear and crafts and other Irish products and souvenirs. After the enactment of this legislation, the minimum requirement will be that tourists who wish to qualify under the scheme will have to spend €175 in these shops. By analysis, that will exclude 80% of current expenditure in them. It would be disastrous for them. I genuinely ask the Minister to examine this. The objective is to simplify the administration. I will talk to the Department about it.
A separate section that deals with the United Kingdom would also have the effect of exclusion. That is perhaps justifiable but the broad impact, or basically the killing off of tax-free shopping at a time when we are looking for every incentive to be given to small traders, is quite unacceptable. It is the one aspect of this legislation I must draw attention to. The Minister asked us to be honest and come to him with issues so I ask him to re-examine this. If there is a difficulty in six months, let us look at it again. Let us not compound the difficulty for the traders in question right now. They have all contacted all of us regarding this. The imposition, which is for ease of administration, is unacceptable. The focus is to ensure that tourists or other travellers coming from the United Kingdom will not avail of tax-free shopping. That could be cut off in and of itself. That is done in a separate section but killing off the entire tax-free process to address the issue in question is unnecessary and it will have consequential damage that is unacceptable. We will come back to that, no doubt, on Committee Stage.
I want to talk generally about the position on the discussions that are ongoing this week and that I hope will come to a conclusion. The outstanding issues obviously concern the so-called level playing field. We obviously require goods that have open access to the Single Market to be compliant with the standards that apply in that market, including environmental and labour standards. The related requirement is for governance. I am afraid the introduction in the British Parliament of Part 5 the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill makes the requirement for governance all the more necessary because if a deal is done with a sovereign nation and it feels at liberty to simply undermine it fundamentally in law, arbitrarily and without discussion, there has to be some mechanism to ensure that if another deal is done, there will be a way of enforcing it. That is why the level playing field and governance issues are so important.
The third issue is that of fisheries. I had expected some time ago that this might be capable of being addressed. I have said at many public forums that the Minister for Foreign Affairs is an expert on the life-cycle of the mackerel. I have heard him give erudite explanations of its spawning grounds, maturing grounds and catching grounds. That is good because fish obviously do not belong to anybody. They operate in open seas and we need to have a semblance of reality regarding fisheries. I have said publicly before that when it was put to the Vice President of the European Parliament on a British television programme that Britain was going to catch its own fish, her retort was that she hoped the British would eat them. The EU comprises two thirds of the market for fish caught by the British.
A semblance of the reality has to be reached in regard to these three issues. A degree of flexibility on both sides will be achieved. I, too, am an optimist. Ultimately, these matters will not go away. They are fundamental. We are down to the nitty-gritty of the final round of discussions. We can be flexible all we like but there are fundamentals on which we cannot yield. We cannot have circumstances in which goods and services are allowed access in a way that undermines the fundamental tenets of our Single Market, namely, in respect of the rights of workers, environmental standards and so on. Britain says it has no interest in undermining any of these but that will mean it can have some sort of external mechanism to ensure it does not come about.
I look forward to the detailed discussions on all these matters over the coming weeks. Unfortunately this Bill, unlike the last omnibus Bill, will be enacted and required because the inevitability and reality are that the UK will end its transition period on 1 January. We have to make preparations for that and make the best of what we have to face.
I fully support the Bill. The clock is ticking and we are now just seven weeks away from the UK leaving the Single Market and customs union. Prime Minister Johnson's cavalier approach to Brexit and the possibility of leaving the Union without a deal can be described only as a dangerous political experiment. It appears that appealing to the hard Brexiteers matters far more than doing the right thing by his country and people. The undermining of the Good Friday agreement in recent weeks has been absolutely reprehensible.
The election of Mr. Joe Biden as President of the United States last week will help to copper-fasten international support for Ireland. President-elect Biden recently tweeted:
We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.
Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.
From Friday, 1 January 2021, how we trade with our near neighbours in the United Kingdom will be significantly different. Even if an 11th-hour free trade agreement is struck between the EU and UK, there will be still significant and enduring changes. It is essential that all businesses, regardless of their size, now focus on Brexit readiness because circumstances simply will not be the same. As Roy Keane famously said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. This Bill will protect citizens and consumers. It will reduce the possibility of a serious disturbance to the Irish economy. Furthermore, it will facilitate the sound functioning of a number of key markets, sectors and fields.
One element of the Bill that I am really glad to see included is Part 15, which seeks to make legislative changes to the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984.
We have a high level of dependency on British high street stores. In the event of one of them or, indeed, any British business becoming insolvent under UK law, this Bill would ensure a smooth transition of employer protections.
I welcome a number of other provisions, including reciprocal access to health services for residents of Ireland and the UK. There is an assurance that EU health insurance cards for residents of Northern Ireland will be in place if they lose cover at the end of the transition period. The Bill also provides for the continuance of crucial financial support to Irish third level students in UK colleges and maintains continuity of social protection arrangements in the common travel area.
I wish to raise the matter of aviation. Some in the sector see Brexit as giving Ireland a new opportunity in terms of international air cargo. Ireland, in particular Shannon Airport, is perfectly positioned as a stepping stone between the US and the EU. I implore the Minister to consider all of the possibilities to take advantage of cargo hub opportunities that will open up in the weeks and months ahead.
Brexit, the UK Internal Market Bill, the Good Friday Agreement and the future of Irish reunification are on the world stage. Last month, Joe Biden, the incoming President of America, held a campaign event on the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and the future of Irish reunification. Regardless of his approach to foreign or domestic policy measures or the economy, his keen interest in maintaining the Good Friday Agreement and in Irish reunification is clear and we cannot underscore enough how important his Presidency could be for the cause of Irish unity in a post-Brexit environment.
The ousting of Donald Trump means that Boris Johnson has lost his main geopolitical ally. A supporter of Brexit in the White House has been replaced with an opponent of anything that could undermine the Good Friday Agreement or see a hard border in Ireland. As Trump is consigned to the dustbin of history, it seems likely that the same will go for any prospect of a US-UK free trade deal should Johnson go ahead with his controversial internal market Bill. Any move by the Johnson Administration to undermine the Good Friday Agreement will not be tolerated by the incoming US Administration. Nor should it be tolerated by our Government.
In the Brexit negotiations, Downing Street has stated that significant differences remain between the two sides. Notwithstanding those differences, it is clear that the ground is beginning to shift quickly beneath the feat of the Johnson Administration. Nicola Sturgeon has already stated that, if the Scottish National Party wins a majority in the Scottish election in six months' time, Scotland will hold another independence referendum. As recent polling has shown, there is now majority support for Scottish independence.
Peter Robinson, the former leader of the DUP, has pointed out that an Irish unity referendum is inevitable. Unfortunately, that inevitability seems to have been lost on our Government, especially its so-called republican element in Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil is quick to talk about the idea of a shared island, but it is slow to flesh out what that means and, unfortunately, even slower to do anything about it. The Taoiseach has ruled out a unity referendum for the next five years. Given that the Government seems to stagger from one crisis to another, however, five years is a long time.
The time for a unity referendum is fast approaching. The reunification of this island gets closer day by day. The arrival of Joe Biden into the White House could easily be the last piece of the puzzle in achieving Irish unity. In former President Bill Clinton's view, his big foreign policy achievement was the brokering of the Good Friday Agreement. It seems likely that a big potential foreign policy win for the Biden Administration would be the conclusion of this work, the end of partition on this island and the reunification of our country.
I thank the Minister and welcome his constructive and collaborative approach to the Bill. I will make a couple of specific suggestions. First, I acknowledge the work that has been done by his Department and all of the other Departments that have been involved in the Bill and the Brexit preparations. That large amount of work is a credit to our public service and is something of which we can all be proud. I also acknowledge the work being done at EU level, including by its negotiators, who have been strong in supporting Ireland during the entire process.
I wish to raise an issue regarding UK citizens living in Ireland, some of whom have been here for several decades. I do not know whether it can be addressed within the scope of the Bill or elsewhere, but will the Minister examine it? Some of the UK citizens in question are married and their children are Irish citizens. Due to the issues that Brexit will cause them, they have applied for Irish citizenship. However, they have been waiting on their applications for several years. They have received no feedback or any indication as to when a decision will be made. They applied in good time hoping that their citizenship would be in place in advance of the UK's withdrawal.
There have been a number of significant developments with Brexit recently. First, there was the heavy defeat of the internal market Bill, which would breach international law, by a vote of 433 to 165 in the House of Lords. The internal market Bill has been criticised by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland for undermining the equality and human rights outlined in and guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement.
Second, the election of Joe Biden in the US is significant, as is the defeat it signals of the politics of hate and division. It sends a signal against the kind of politics that values bluster, brinkmanship and buffoonery instead of the kind of politics that many of us support, namely, mutual co-operation and social cohesion. US President-elect Biden has told Boris Johnson that the implementation of Brexit must uphold the Good Friday Agreement and that there is no chance of a US-UK trade deal if the implementation undermines the peace process.
We should be clear when discussing the other trade agreements being pursued by the UK, including the one with the US. Where the UK's trade and economic positions are concerned, such agreements would in no way be a substitute for a trade deal with the EU, which is the UK's closest neighbour. A failure to agree a deal would be devastating for the UK in terms of investment and jobs. It would also be devastating for the EU. The Halle Institute for Economic Research projects a potential 700,000 job losses across the EU, including 35,000 in Ireland, or almost 2% of our workforce. It is in all of our interests to do everything we can to ensure that a deal is agreed over the next number of weeks.
It is worth nothing that, of our exports, approximately 50% of our beef, 80% of our mushrooms and 34% of our dairy, representing 82% of our milk and approximately 80% of our cheddar, go to the UK. The impact on our food sector of reverting to WTO rules and tariffs would be considerable.
In addition to WTO tariffs and the disruption to transport, Irish businesses could be affected if they are undercut by lax protections for workers' rights and climate change in the UK. There are reports of sweatshop labour conditions in the UK, with some clothes manufacturers paying as little as £3.50 per hour.
That lack of enforcement of employment law relating to the minimum wage could undermine conditions in Ireland. The enforcement mechanisms will be key in terms of negotiations and the level playing field.
I wish to comment on the land bridge. I took a look at the Irish Maritime Development Office report. I share some of the concerns outlined by other Deputies who spoke before me with regard to the report. I know the Government and the Minister have been engaging with the ferry companies. I know what the ferry companies have been saying in terms of having capacity. It is welcome that there will be additional and daily direct routes to mainland Europe. At the same time, we know from the Irish Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association of Ireland, both of which are credible and relevant actors in this, that they have serious and ongoing concerns on our connectivity. The Freight and Transport Association of Ireland asserts that the routes the ferry companies are offering will not be sufficient in terms of the access the operators are looking for. They have said clearly that they need access into ports closer to key markets in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as well as into either Calais or Dunkirk. They have asked specifically for such access.
I am concerned that the report from the Irish Maritime Development Office does not deal with those concerns in depth and that the assurances given by the ferry companies do not meet the expectations of those closely involved on a daily basis in logistics, moving goods, ensuring quick supply of food and imports and exports.
We know that the connectivity of the ferry services is needed not only for perishable goods but also, as the report makes clear, in terms of high value goods and goods in respect of which we are competing in terms of connectivity efficiency. I am concerned about what the report says on increasing capacity in ports. It simply states that construction work is ongoing. That work should be complete by now. We are only 50 days or seven weeks out from Brexit. The timeframes are short.
If there is a no-trade-deal Brexit it will not only impact on business. One area that has not been mentioned and is not covered in this Bill is the impact on low-income households. This has not been mentioned by other Deputies or the Minister. We know low-income households spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food and other necessities, including rent and utilities. They would be least able to deal with the price shock that could occur in the event of a no-trade-deal Brexit and tariffs being put on goods. They would be least able to deal with the price shock that would place on food on our supermarket shelves. We all hope an agreement will be made but in the event that there is no agreement, that area needs a great deal of attention either through this Bill or elsewhere. We know from analysis conducted by Social Justice Ireland that these households could be severely impacted. We also know that the people most at risk of deprivation and poverty are the very people who kept our services going at the height of the pandemic. They kept our supermarket shelves stacked, they looked after our elderly as care assistants and they kept our hospitals clean. These groups of people would be most impacted in that scenario.
It would be a mistake for us as a House to neglect this aspect of Brexit. Let us look over to the USA. All of us are absolutely right to take hope from the election results, but it would be a mistake not to realise that the kind of politics we have seen there can be exploited by people who play on fears and marginalisation. We have seen a defeat of that kind of politics in the US election but it can arise when we do not pay sufficient attention to the needs of people who are marginalised and on low incomes. That must be a key part of what we are looking at with Brexit.
Part 21 relates to construction products and a market surveillance authority. This is an important part of the Bill in that it allows for the Minister to appoint a local authority as a market surveillance authority for construction products under European Union construction products regulations. Dublin City Council is to be appointed as a market surveillance authority with a national role for the country. The council will have a role that will apply with respect to 35 product areas that have a harmonised EU standard. This will apply to new products. Anything in stock currently and placed on the market before 1 January will not require new certification from an EU-notified body. It is important that we get this right. This is an important function and this means it is essential that Dublin City Council is properly resourced to do this job.
There is a great cost to individual homeowners and the taxpayer when these things go wrong. The Minister will be aware of this from his previous role as the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. We have seen when it goes wrong in terms of the investment that has had to go into the national pyrite remediation scheme. We have seen it in terms of what is happening now with fire safety defects. This is partly about inspection and independent regulation of buildings but some of it is also about ensuring that the products used are properly certified in safety and quality. We have seen the Grenfell Tower inquiry and the investigations and questions about some of the products used in the construction of Grenfell Tower. We have seen the potential costs at the level of human life and the other costs in terms of remediating defects when they are found. We have seen how important this is.
The Minister specifically asked for constructive proposals from us. I wish to reiterate two things. Whether they are to be in the scope of the Bill or otherwise, these matters need to be addressed either way. There is an issue with UK citizens who have been waiting - some have waited several years - for citizenship applications without any feedback or decision. These are UK citizens who have been living here for decades and who applied for citizenship because of Brexit. This needs to be looked at. There is a high level of stress and concern among these people and their families. The other point is if we fail to strike a trade agreement, the issue of how it will impact on low-income households, especially in terms of food poverty, will matter. I call on the Minister to look at those two things specifically.
Some of the previous contributors spoke about fisheries and the fact that fish do not know about borders. I absolutely agree. I worked for the Marine Institute many moons ago. I spent maybe a night and week at sea on research boats out of Northern Ireland and mainland England. I worked on collaborative projects. They were EU-funded and looked at our fisheries as a shared resource. It is incredibly sad that we are at this point and that such collaboration may no longer be possible or feasible.
Discussions on Brexit have maintained a sharp focus on what it will mean for particular sector of businesses, fisheries and cross-border travel. This is incredibly important. However, it has meant that the conversation has unfortunately strayed away from the impact Brexit could have on children's rights. The Children’s Rights Alliance raised these concerns as far back as 2017. At the time the alliance commissioned research into key areas of concern for children post-Brexit. Some of the concerns included child poverty, child protection, access to justice and health and education.
It is important to remember throughout the Brexit negotiations the fact that the protection of children's rights is based on the UK's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the Good Friday Agreement. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill currently going through the UK Parliament undermines the protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. If that Bill delivers on those threats and passes, it will have serious repercussions for children north and south of the Border. In the last recession, children bore the brunt of the austerity measures North and South.
In Northern Ireland, a quarter of children lived in relative income poverty in 2014 and 2015. Recent figures from the CSO show that nearly 200,000 children are currently living in poverty in the Republic. If Northern Ireland and the Republic experience an economic downturn as a result of an economic shock post Brexit or if Covid-19 continues to affect our finances, which is obviously very likely, there is a threat that child poverty rates could increase. Furthermore, it is likely that Northern Ireland will not receive additional social inclusion moneys or PEACE funding from the European Union post Brexit, which have previously helped stave off high rates of child poverty. While the Good Friday Agreement does not specifically mention the issue of poverty, it contains a commitment from both Governments to protect economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living. This important right addresses issues of food poverty, housing and material deprivation. Child poverty north and south of the Border should be tackled as a human rights issue, whereby both Governments set out clear indicators and actions for reducing the number of children living in poverty now and post Brexit.
Child protection cases often rely on the co-operation that currently exists between the EU member states. This must be maintained after Brexit. EU mechanisms such as Eurojust and Europol-Frontex facilitate direct collaboration between member states, allowing for swift action against child abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking between EU countries. It is still uncertain, however, whether this high level of co-operation will continue post Brexit. We often forget the fact that children living in Border counties are particularly vulnerable to a post-Brexit landscape. Their ability to travel freely to their school on the other side of a post-Brexit border could curtail their rights to an education. In addition, they may have difficulties enrolling in schools on the other side of a border for various reasons, which could include hiked fees or financial costs. Approximately 400 pupils from Northern Ireland study in primary or post-primary schools in the Republic at the moment, which is nearly four times the number of students from the Republic who study in Northern Ireland. Changes in residency requirements, a physical border of any sort and the cost of education may impact upon existing educational arrangements for families in Border counties.
Also of particular concern are the healthcare rights of children in Northern Ireland and Ireland, which may be restricted post Brexit. Furthermore, the European health insurance card scheme may no longer apply to them. The UK may no longer be able to avail of EU resources, which could hamper research and development in the healthcare sector.
I urge the Minister to consider the points raised today and to maintain a channel of dialogue that is dedicated to children's rights issues as Brexit negotiations continue. Our most vulnerable are often the ones we forget about when discussions focus on the economy and the financial aspects of things, but they are the people we should be protecting the most. I will write to the Minister shortly to outline further these points and I look forward to corresponding with him on the matter.
Given that this is my first opportunity to speak on the matter, I wish to take just a quick moment to mark the passing of Saeb Erekat and to echo the words of Uachtarán na hÉireann today in offering my deepest condolences and sympathy to his family, his friends and the Palestinian people. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi described this as a significant transition in Palestinian history and reality. In light of how closely aligned Saeb Erekat was with negotiated settlements and talks between Israel and Palestine and his vocal support for a two-state solution, one hopes that this will not be left in the past as he passes away. With the recent passing of Robert Fisk, the Middle East is now a very different place and we are without the guides we had before. That can be quite dangerous.
I wish to talk about the context of Brexit. We need to acknowledge that Brexit is a tragedy. It marks a breakdown of international co-operation, international law and the kinds of things we need to rely on in an ever more chaotic world. While there may be some people who revel in the opportunities to break these things up, our peace, security and prosperity will ultimately be guaranteed by working more closely together and resisting such international fragmentation.
This Bill is an incredibly important part of ensuring that we can protect ourselves in the face of the fragmentation that Brexit will cause. The Bill's sheer volume and the breadth of the issues it seeks to take in show how important and how significant Brexit is. We are here trying to deal with many of the aspects of Brexit without yet having achieved a trade deal. Despite the hard work of this Government and of the European Union, there is still huge uncertainty as we take the steps needed with this Bill, which is very welcome. I wish to highlight a few of my concerns about this ongoing uncertainty, as other Deputies have done.
One of the important matters is environmental regulation. Some 70% of the environmental law of the United Kingdom came from the European Union. Very little of it has been transposed into domestic UK legislation. The challenge here is twofold. In the first instance, as we have all been saying in the context of fisheries, nature does not give a damn about a line on a map but will just do what it will. The reality is that any problems with environmental regulation in Northern Ireland will impact us down here, and we need to protect ourselves by ensuring high standards there. This also cuts to the core of the issue of the level playing field because if we are to lower environmental standards and sanitary and phytosanitary regulations as a result of this, it means that our farmers and our agribusiness will not be competing on the level playing field that is very much needed to ensure our stability and prosperity going forward.
One of the other issues yet to be resolved is of data protection. I heard Deputy Howlin refer to the Minister as an optimist by nature. When the Minister was before the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I raised this matter and he was confident a solution could be found. Unfortunately, and perhaps it is the cynic in me, I do not share that confidence and I have a deep concern about data protection and data exports to the UK and the huge consequences that will have after the UK's withdrawal. The reality is that if we look at what has happened with the GDPR, America, safe harbour and the privacy shield, these have been thrown out because America does not meet the standards required for the European Union to allow data export. We are beginning to see the consequences of this in Facebook being prevented from exporting data. The same things that have made America miss the adequacy standard for data exports apply to the United Kingdom. Alongside this is a huge weakness within the UK's data protection authority. It is quite simply not up to scratch. When these two things are combined, it makes it almost impossible for the UK in the short to medium term to really meet those adequacy standards, which leaves us in a situation where we will not be able to, or should not legally be able to, export data to the UK. This has major consequences for police co-operation, job protection co-operation and mutual social welfare payments. While we can agree some things in that regard, it will also affect business and financial services and will have far-reaching effects that we do not even realise yet. As a result, I remain deeply concerned and deeply cynical about this. These are two extremely important matters we need to pick up on.
One final matter I will try to squeeze in in the time I have left is that relating to policing. Obviously, we are all working to avoid a hard border. That should be stated as a given, but the Garda recently referred to needing the Army to support it in policing the Border, particularly if it is to be a hard border. If we look at what the Defence Forces have now compared with what they had at the height of the Troubles and before the Good Friday Agreement, we have lost several of the barracks and we do not have the same level of manpower, logistics support, vehicle support or air support in the relevant units.
Hopefully, the issue of providing aid to the civilian power as part of policing a hard border can, at the very least, be included within in scope of the commission on the future of the Defence Forces. It is certainly one aspect of Brexit we need to think about going forward.
I will limit my remarks to the impact of Brexit on businesses, particularly in the south-east region. The biggest issue facing many businesses is the monumental bureaucratic process the English government requires businesses to undertake to bring their products to the English market. This has been a massively challenging and quite daunting process of change and adjustment for many businesses in the south east, in particular my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny.
I will highlight one company in my constituency to shine a light on the practical and real implications of Brexit. Seerys Bakery, an award winning company, started out in a shed in the family's back garden in Tinryland, County Carlow. It makes cakes, and from such humble beginnings, the company has grown substantially and its cakes are now shipped around the world. Such is the success of the home-grown business, it now operates a second large distribution facility in County Carlow which is obviously fantastic for the local area and employment. This time of year is obviously extremely busy for a company in the cake business and Seerys is busy getting ready to ship Christmas puddings around the world. The implications of Brexit have permeated all aspects of the business and all staff need to have a knowledge and understanding of how Brexit is incorporated in their roles. This has required the expense of retraining staff. While Seerys has made much progress to date, this is not case for all companies which, through no fault of their own, have been presented with an enormous challenge in getting Brexit-ready.
Seerys Bakery has highlighted three big fears it has regarding Brexit and I am sure these are shared by many other companies. It does not want its products stopped at the ports as this will add delays and create greater costs. It needs clarity on possible tariffs and it does not want the customs process to require a lot of manual handling which would further delay shipments. While some of this might be within the company's control, tariffs are obviously not, which is a big issue.
I have also heard anecdotal evidence that companies in the south east now face challenges in finding haulier companies that will process customs clearance as many will not do this work. Companies, particularly in Carlow-Kilkenny, are struggling to find a customs clearance agent. If the tariff is in the region of 8%, Seerys is adamant that this will mean one of its largest markets in England will simply not be viable any longer. It is completely honest in its assessment of the whole confusing process. The stop-start nature of negotiations has been extremely costly for businesses. The cost to the Seerys business in terms of information technology requirements and warehousing has been substantial and the whole process has been overwhelming at times.
It is incumbent on all of us to remember that Brexit is not just the story we see on the nightly news. Its implications place real and substantial pressure on indigenous companies and real people are trying to make a living and support families and communities at the back of all these stories. Obviously, this is even more difficult against the backdrop of Covid-19.
The Halle Institute for Economic Research recently estimated that 1 million jobs could be lost as a result of a no-deal Brexit. Of these, 176,000 would be lost in Germany and 91,000 would be lost in China. However, per head of population, nowhere would more jobs be lost than in the Republic of Ireland where it predicted 35,000 job losses or almost 2% of the entire workforce. A large number of these jobs would be in low-paid sectors such as agri-food.
The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, recently estimated that an increase in trade tariffs arising from a no-deal Brexit could increase the annual cost of a basket of goods here by between €892 and €1,360. It pointed out that lower income households would be impacted 70% more than the highest income groups as a result of spending a far greater percentage of their income on food and energy.
I do not have time to make points about rent or wages but I will make this point. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions should make it clear that working people will not be the whipping boys or whipping girls on the Brexit issue. If a price is to be paid, let it be paid by those who can best afford it. Having taken this position, the union movement should then organise to make it a reality. The first step is calling a nationwide gathering of workplace representatives and community activists via Zoom or some other means to discuss, plan and build resistance to this offensive against workers' interests.
On the detail of the Brexit Bill, people in the Republic of Ireland and the UK enjoy many rights, for example, freedom to travel to each other's jurisdictions, access to each other's social protection systems if a person goes to live in the other country and access to each other's health and education services on the same basis. This must continue to be the case. It must not be conditional on a deal or deals. These rights should be enshrined in law. We have already seen how an Irish Government revoked the rights of UK citizens here to vote in European elections. This must not happen to UK citizens here and it must not happen to Irish citizens in the UK. As I said, these rights should be enshrined in law.
The Tory Government's internal market Bill raised the prospect of east-west trade being conducted without checks. This, in turn, raises the prospect of European Union pressure being brought to bear on the Government here to introduce checks at the southern side of the Border. Not only would this do serious economic damage, it would also evoke memories of the Troubles and would be seen, particularly by the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, to copper-fasten partition.
Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Socialist Party will oppose any measure which would increase sectarian division among ordinary people. That includes any hardening of the Border North-South but also includes any hardening of the border east-west. Hardening of the border east-west would serve to increase the insecurity of ordinary Protestants about the future and generate a sense of being coerced into an economic united Ireland.
Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Socialist Party are also opposed to any attempt to resolve the national question via the coercion of one community over another, including in the form of a border poll. Instead, we need the coming together of working class people in common struggle on their common interests across the sectarian divide. That is needed now more than ever.
I will make some points about immigrants and immigrant rights. Neither the European Union nor the British Government can be trusted on the issue of the rights of immigrants. The European Union operates a fortress Europe policy which would be the envy of Donald Trump. It is a policy which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people by drowning in the Mediterranean.
As part of the Brexit process, the British Tory Government has introduced a racist immigration Bill as part of its so-called hostile environment policy strategy. This is a points-based immigration system based not on human need but on prioritising those with skills that can be profited from. Significant parts of this Bill have also gone through the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is no surprise whatever that the right-wing DUP allowed this. Sinn Féin also allowed, however. I have no doubt Sinn Féin Deputies will argue that Westminster held the reins, which is true, and that the full Bill did not go through the assembly, which is also true. However, a legislative consent motion was allowed through the Northern Ireland Assembly when opposition to it could and should have been registered in the strongest way to highlight and oppose the racist character of the Bill as a whole.
I will conclude with a couple of brief points about trade. The prospect of a US-UK trade deal in the context of a no-deal Brexit has been part of this debate. The incoming US President, Joe Biden, has warned Boris Johnson that there will be no deal between their two countries if the British Government meddles with the peace process. As I said, that issue has been raised in the course of the debate. An issue that has not been raised is the warning issued by War on Want when it pointed out that both Downing Street and the White House have what it described correctly as a "corporate agenda". Let us remember, despite some of the eulogies that have been given in the Dáil today, that Joe Biden is very well known in the United States as a corporate Democrat. As Barack Obama's Vice President between 2008 and 2016, he was an ardent support of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. That trade agreement was vigorously opposed and campaigned against by trade union activists and environmental campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic as a development that would seriously undermine workers' rights and the environment.
A new trade deal between the US and the UK would raise those same issues again. It also could, and likely would, raise the prospect of the privatisation of Britain's National Health Service, NHS. A trade agreement would put increasing drugs bills on the agenda by way of the scrapping of the voluntary pricing and access scheme, VPAS, through which the NHS drives down medical costs and caps medical bills. If such a privatisation move is in prospect, it will not just be a huge issue for the people of England, Wales and Scotland but also for people on this island, particularly the people in the North who would be directly affected by it. This is something that working people would need to organise around and which socialists would see as a very important issue on which we should campaign.
Boris Johnson is a wrecker. That is clear from his Internal Market Bill and his talk of breaching international agreements, resurrecting the threat of a hard Brexit and resurrecting fears, which must be resisted every inch of the way, of a hard border and so on. More generally, there is the economic damage that would be done as a result of a no-deal Brexit and the advent of tariffs, customs and so on, on an east-west basis, all of which will do very severe economic damage to particular sectors of our economy. Most important, as Deputy Barry said, they will have a severe impact on working people, in the North, in the South and in Britain. It is par for the course for Boris Johnson to behave in this sort of reckless way. In that context, we support the broad thrust of this Bill, which is about trying to maintain, as much as possible, the status quoin terms of the common travel area arrangements and co-operation on a North-South basis in respect of health services provision, social welfare arrangements, immigration arrangements and so on. The intention is to minimise disruption and ensure people's rights are maintained as much as is possible. In broad terms, therefore, we support the provisions in the Bill.
However, I find some aspects of it interesting and noteworthy. It is a lengthy Bill and there is a lot in it. As I said, the broad ambition to maintain the status quois absolutely correct, but it is interesting that the Bill, because it has to cover so many different areas, highlights certain aspects of the status quo, particularly in terms of the tax system and corporate tax reliefs, which are not so wonderful. The Minister might address this issue in his response. For example, section 51 relates to an anti-corporate tax avoidance measure set out in section 130 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 which seeks to re-characterise interest paid as a distribution of profits in certain circumstances. It is a good measure in that interest being paid by a company to one of its subsidiaries is one of the main mechanisms by which companies, many of which are based here but have operations elsewhere in the EU, avoid paying tax. If a company is paying interest, that is considered a cost and, therefore, eligible for tax relief. As this section rightly identifies, these so-called interest payments are often, in reality, distributions of profits. However, the correct re-characterisation of interest payments as being, in fact, distributions only applies to countries outside the EU. Within the EU, companies can fiddle their taxes by calling their profits interest payments, but companies outside the EU are restricted from doing so. Whether they are inside or outside the EU, companies should not be able to fiddle their taxes by characterising profits as interest repayments and, therefore, costs. This is a very significant mechanism through which bigger companies with subsidiaries in multiple jurisdictions can evade tax. As I recall, it was used by one of the companies owned by Mr. Goodman, which had operations in Luxembourg, to reduce its tax bill. Many companies do the same.
It is interesting that, notwithstanding the wrecking ball being thrown by Boris Johnson and the possibility of a hard border, this Bill makes provision to ensure that Britain will still be treated, in effect, as a member of the EU for the purposes of facilitating companies there to continue availing of this particular form of tax avoidance. Whatever about Brexit, the section on corporation tax is revealing in that in the case of all of these myriad tax loopholes that benefit large corporations by facilitating them to reduce their tax bill, Britain is still going to be included in the loop. In case anybody gets me wrong, I do not think that we should single Britain out in this regard. As I said, I accept that the purpose of the Bill is broadly to maintain the status quopost Brexit. However, it is interesting that the status quoincludes myriad tax loopholes which, it seems, are absolutely essential to maintain. Those loopholes allow corporations that should be paying a much bigger contribution in tax to avoid making that contribution. That is noteworthy.
On the broader thrust of the Bill, we have to do everything possible to ensure that the Boris Johnson wrecking ball does not succeed. Under no circumstances, whatever may happen, must we allow any of his actions or pressure from the European Union to protect the Single Market from Boris Johnson's race to the bottom to result in any talk of re-establishing a hard border.
While I welcome President-elect Joe Biden's comments on not doing trade deals with Britain if it does anything to endanger the peace agreement in the North, to break international agreements or to cause the reinstallation of the border, I echo some of the comments made by Deputy Barry. We should not put too much trust in Joe Biden. We are all relieved to get rid of Donald Trump and the toxic politics and agenda of hate and division that he represents - he was, of course, an ally of Boris Johnson - but we should not be under any illusion that Joe Biden and the Democrats will necessarily be stalwarts when it comes to preventing the sort of neoliberal agenda that Boris Johnson represents. Joe Biden and the mainstream of the Democratic Party have facilitated and encouraged neoliberalism and the race to the bottom at the expense of working people. It was, to a significant extent, their failure to protect working people in the United States and their facilitation of a corporate agenda that created the conditions for the rise of the rotten and toxic politics of Trump in the first place. I would be cautious about placing much hope in or dependence on Joe Biden. I hear Sinn Féin also saying that such illusions in Joe Biden would be somewhat misguided.
Johnson is a wrecker and has been exposed as such. He has similarly been exposed for his incompetence and failure on Covid-19. One can see that playing out with the mess - the Northern Executive has to share some culpability in this - arising from the failure to recognise the need to be co-ordinated with the South in an all-island strategy and to maintain the current restrictions rather than talking of lifting them on Friday. For these reasons, the time has never been better to make the case for a united Ireland. When we look at what Johnson represents, the mess he has made in Britain at every level and, indeed, how the politics of the DUP, Johnson and others are threatening public health on this island and the ability of people to deal with the existential health threat presented by Covid-19, now is the time to make the case for a united Ireland. However, it has to be a different type of united Ireland, one which genuinely offers a better future and real equality for working people and an end to the politics of sectarianism and division.
In many ways, there is a sense of déjà vu about this Bill given that we were here previously, but this time it is real. In seven weeks, Britain will leave and the transition period will be over. This is very much an under-the-bonnet Bill. It deals with the technicalities of our deep relationships and how our people interact.
There are very different things involved. The Bill is being debated in the context of negotiations that are still under way between the EU and the UK and against the backdrop of the infamous internal market Bill, which raises a question about the commitment of the UK Government to upholding any international agreement.
We must acknowledge the work the Minister, his officials and all of the team at the Department of Foreign Affairs have put in to this process over nearly five years to do the best for this country and get us the best possible deal.
In the middle of the pandemic, it has been difficult to find space to lay out to people how things will change for everybody on 1 January. It will become more challenging and more difficult than what we have been accustomed to. That uncertainty is enshrined in the Bill as we cannot give specifics yet because negotiations on access to health care, for example, are still under way. That shows the detail involved.
Given the extent of the changes, it is important that we continue the programme of investment in physical infrastructure. There was a programme of investment in our ports and airports in this year's and last year's budgets. Our airports, which have been laid low by Covid, now face the challenge of Brexit being realised as opposed to being a concept. We need to give guarantees to airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock, which is heavily dependent on traffic to and from the UK. The supports for regional airports announced by the Government yesterday are more than welcome. I acknowledge that but more will be needed and guarantees will be required on the ability of people to travel over and back to the UK.
As we come to the point of, I hope, concluding a deal between the EU and the UK about our future relationship, we need to be very careful about a number of issues, to which I know the Minister is sensitive. The fishing community feels that, once again, it may have to bear the burden of a deal. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, previously had responsibility for the marine and he knows how nervous fishermen are and how angry they feel about previous deals. We have to ensure on this occasion that they are part of this deal and are respected because they will lose out most in the event of a no-deal Brexit or a no-deal relationship.
The agricultural community is dependent on access to the UK market. When one reads reports in today's media of warehouse space being bought in Dublin one gets a sense of the strength of the commercial arrangement. However, fresh beef cannot keep if it is stored in a warehouse for months. It is a precious and perishable product. Blockages to transporting it over and back to Britain must be kept to a minimum.
We often forget that the UK is an important land bridge to Europe, not only for our food industry but many other industries. I welcome the extra ferries that have been put in place, but we need to see investment in our ports and, more particularly, in direct services to the Continent so that people know the supply chain will not be badly affected.
There is an issue with VAT for non-EU residents. We have an important scheme in place, which was initially designed for US tourism but has expanded into retail. The withdrawal of the UK and Northern Ireland from the EU will challenge this scheme. We have to acknowledge the damage that has been done to the retail industry and in tourism areas over the past nine months and come up with a compromise on the provisions proposed for VAT.
In the next few weeks, the Minister will have to continue the work of informing people that Brexit is happening. It is difficult to break through with this message as we move through this phase of Covid. As we approach Christmas, people tend to switch off news and media. However, businesses, citizens, communities and families need to know that on 1 January things will be different.
I wish the Minister well as part of the EU effort to get a proper agreement with the UK on access. It is important to acknowledge the election of Joe Biden, his comments the internal market Bill and his awareness of and support for all of the elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Hopefully, that sends a strong message to negotiators in Downing Street that the Good Friday Agreement has more friends in court and that they need to be cognisant of the agreement as they enter the final phase.
As I said, we have been here before but it is now real. The decisions taken in the coming days on the EU-UK agreement and the various aspects of this legislation that have yet to be implemented, for example, in healthcare, will impact on citizens for many years to come.
The Minister will do everything to ensure that we get the best possible deal. I ask that he also ensure that this is a deal which, in the first instance, protects and, in the second, enhances all sections of our society such that no one section is going to feel it is carrying the burden of a European deal.
I have raised this issue with the Minister before. My contribution will focus on how Brexit will affect our road haulage sector and the impact it will have on those using the landbridge through Britain to transport goods onto and off this island. The Copenhagen Economics report commissioned by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation found that two thirds of Irish goods exporters or 150,000 heavy goods vehicles make use of the UK landbridge to access continental markets each year. It is a vital route but one that is under threat as a result of Brexit.
Whether it is a hard, soft or indifferent Brexit, new checks and procedures as a result of Britain leaving the European Union will mean significant delays and queues at the Dover-Calais crossing and there is the promise of significant delays at Holyhead and on the Irish side too. These delays will impact on the sector hugely and the Government must move decisively to mitigate this impending crisis for as many hauliers as possible. A report from the Irish Maritime Development Office published in the past few days states that there are currently sufficient shipping connections and capacity to accommodate hauliers who want to bypass Britain and sail directly to continental Europe in order to avoid the delays that will inevitably arise there in January. This, I have to say, came as a shock to many in the road haulage sector who were not consulted in the context of the report and who would dispute the Irish Maritime Development Office’s findings. It is a statement of fact that there is a clear deficit in current roll-on, roll-off services to Europe and gaps in the current shipping schedule to the Continent. We do not, for example, have daily sailings departing for the Continent every day. Exports, such as perishables for example, depend on just-in-time logistics and such gaps in departure times cannot be afforded.
Sinn Féin believes that the Government should prepare contingency plans for State-supported shipping routes, including public service obligation routes. These should be focused on roll-on, roll-off services where vehicles that currently use the land bridge have the option of using new, frequent and direct routes to the Continent that reduce the time at sea to the bare minimum. Leaving it solely up to private companies to put these essential shipping connections in place is an incredibly risky strategy, particularly given the critical importance of these routes for food imports and exports. When I raised this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, she stated that it was up to individual haulage companies to contact ferry companies, essentially in order to stoke up demand. I have engaged with hauliers, very many of whom are from my constituency and my family has worked in haulage for many years. I have engaged with ferry companies as well. I welcome the fact that there is going to be a focus on this matter at the transport committee in the coming weeks but there is not enough focus on it yet from Government. We need to see that because time is of the essence.
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not happened, the primary focus of people at this time would be Brexit. The media would be running endless articles and debates and the talk on the street would be of Brexit. As it currently stands, many people can speak with authority on the US electoral system, quote Covid trends from around the world and debate the business of this House at length. Their knowledge of current affairs is vast. There is, however, a disproportionately low level of interest in Brexit among members of the general public.
There appears to be an apathy on the part of people when it comes to Brexit. It seems as though many have grown tired of or frustrated with it. Britain’s imminent departure from Europe was all-consuming in the early stages of 2019 but now it has slipped well down the list of priorities for many people. This indifference to Brexit is not new. The exit poll from the most recent general election showed a mere 1% of voters gave the issue consideration when casting their ballots. This compared to 32% of voters focusing on health, 26% on housing and homelessness and 8% on the pension age. People voted on the issues of the day not on the issues of the will be far-reaching implications for Ireland as a result.
Everyone in Ireland, irrespective of background, will feel the impact. There has been a good information campaign by Government targeted at specific sectors. Updated information is being made available insofar as is possible in light of the ever-evolving Covid situation and the ongoing uncertainties surrounding Brexit. With nothing definitive, preparation becomes very complicated yet remains very necessary. We need to ensure risks are planned for and adequate preparations are in place. Support, certainty and structure are needed for the Irish agrifood sector for suppliers, farmers and small and medium-sized businesses.
Information is less readily available for the average person. Workers, homemakers, students, caregivers and those living week to week or month to month are largely unprepared for the changes Brexit will bring to their everyday lives. Some believe that it will not impact on them at all. The farming sector, which will be one of the hardest-hit sectors in the country, is deeply concerned about what the future holds for it. Those involved in the sector fear that the impact for them will be much harder than the picture that is currently being painted. These two conflicting situations, these two ends of the scale, are the people who make up the constituency that the majority of us represent. It falls upon each of us to ensure that members of the public are fully and accurately informed, as much as possible, about what lies ahead.
The reality is that no matter what the final Brexit picture looks like, the decision by Britain to leave the EU will affect all of us to some degree. For the average household in Ireland, the impact will be felt in terms of everyday spending. This comes at a time when the pandemic fallout has already hit many incomes through reduced working hours or job losses. Many households are not aware of where the Brexit-related costs will occur. There will be additional costs involved in buying products from the UK after 31 December. If an item costs between €22 and €150, VAT and import costs will apply to it, while products in the UK that cost more than €150 will be liable for VAT, import and customs duty costs. Different rates will depend on the product a person buys. If there is no trade deal between the EU and the UK, there could also be tariffs on items bought from the UK. An Irish retail source is quoted this week as saying that unless there is a Brexit deal, prices in our supermarkets and retail shops will go up very quickly. If there are tariffs, they will be passed on to the consumer. The tariffs will, on average, increase prices by between 15% and 20%. This will be a major blow to the average Irish household.
After 31 December, the UK will become what is termed a third country. This term refers to any country outside the EU and outside its economic structures, namely, the Single Market and the customs union. Businesses in a third country have to complete custom declarations when they import from and export to the EU, regardless of whether there is a trade agreement in place. In addition to increasing the cost of goods on the supermarket shelf, it will also increase the cost and possibly the supply of certain medications and medical devices commonly used in Ireland. Those on long-term medications may not be aware of the fact that these medications may be in shorter supply, leading to patients having to opt for alternative brands. This will be difficult and confusing for many people, particularly the elderly and caregivers.
The recognition of academic qualifications is also a grey area at present. Under EU rules, Irish and UK citizens are offered mutual recognition of qualifications. However, there is no decision as yet on whether this will continue after 31 December.
These are just a handful of examples of the changes that are just around the corner, but many people remain unfamiliar with them. For the farming sector, there is endless information available, some of which has been confusing and, indeed, conflicting. The agrifood sector provides 8.5% of national employment and generates €14 billion for the economy. The dependence our farmers have on the UK market makes for vulnerable and uncertain times. The agrifood sector is exposed. Irish beef farmers are already experiencing major uncertainty regarding meat prices and environmental compliance.
This is forcing many dairy and beef farmers to question their livelihoods and financial sustainability. On top of this, farmers are facing potential losses in CAP repayments to farm families arising from a substantial reduction in the EU fund. This reduction is predicted to be up to 30% for some farm payments. Many farmers will be unable to withstand such a drastic drop in income. As trade in agriculture and food is subject particularly to WTO tariff rates, this does not augur well for Ireland's beef and dairy sectors. In a scenario whereby the UK chooses to slash trade barriers to EU member states it will have to offer this same access to other WTO members so Ireland and all other European Union countries would face much harsher competition on the UK market.
I have highlighted a fraction of the issues that ordinary Irish people and the Irish farming community could be facing from 1 January. I accept that total readiness for the change that will result from Brexit is impossible at this time. I accept that extensive work has to be done in an effort to keep people informed about the changes that will and may occur post Brexit. I know that in ordinary times Irish people would be actively engaging in everything that is happening but these are not ordinary times. While they concentrate on dealing with life in a pandemic, Brexit is sneaking up on us and many are not ready for it. An enhanced campaign that places the impact of Brexit centre stage is urgently required. There should be greater focus on ensuring that every Irish person is aware of what Brexit means to them. Recognising the changes Brexit will bring may not make them any easier but it may help people to have a greater understanding of them. It is imperative that the EU adheres to the withdrawal agreement. Notwithstanding the serious implication of a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish agricultural sector needs to be protected and our trade position in terms of accessing the UK market has to be strengthened and prioritised. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on his work to date on behalf of our country and people. His tactical approach and skill set is paying dividends and we wish him well in his continued endeavours.
I am certainly not in the habit of correcting colleagues but the reality is the review released this week by the Irish Maritime Development Organisation, IMDO, has certain cohorts under the illusion that extra ships have been brought on and I would like to correct this miscommunication. At this point in time, no extra ships have been brought on to service land bridge traffic. The review included factors such as an overview of freight volumes through Irish ports, focusing in particular on land bridge traffic, which is roll-on, roll-off traffic, with trucks and drivers, as well as lift-on, lift-off traffic, with no trucks or drivers. It is a minuscule amount of what would be regarded as land bridge traffic. It took into account demand factors and supply factors as well as a case for State intervention in the shipping market.
The report states freight demand will be lower than normal in 2021. As a word of caution I state the review was carried out in the second quarter of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic when most of Europe was in lockdown from a manufacturing perspective. This means there would not be a true reading of movements during this time. Another conclusion of the report was that supply capacity will be higher than normal in January 2021. Again, this is not true with regard to land bridge traffic. Land bridge traffic will not be catered for on lift-on, lift-off routes, where the IMDO states the capacity exists. Furthermore, Rosslare Europort, which is the most strategic port and provide the shortest crossing to mainland Europe, does not have the facilities required for lift-on, lift-off container ships. Therefore, any extra capacity is on much longer sea routes than a direct 18 hour roll-on, roll-off service. In some cases, the capacity we are expected to use as an alternative requires a 38 hour shipping journey.
This is at a time when the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said the Government could subsidise it but it is not currently required. The report states that State intervention is problematic and the case has not been made that it is necessary at this time. This is not true either. The case has been made continually by the customers of these shipping providers and the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, but the IMDO did not ask the IRHA nor did it ask any of the pharmaceutical companies or major food producers to whom I spoke. From what I can tell, it only asked the current shipping providers, which is the equivalent of asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. A move to direct routes from the land bridge will increase shipping costs by 30% in one fell swoop to the supply chain and its service providers. This is detrimental in most cases and far too much to bear in this climate. Neither Covid nor Brexit are of our making and a subvention to eliminate this cost until the dust settles on Brexit is a most or jobs will be lost.
The Taoiseach told the house yesterday the IMDO is informing Government policy, so the reasons I have outlined, and the misinformation provided by the IMDO's report, can only mean the Government's policy on shipping and ensuring the land bridge traffic suffers the least interruption will also be flawed. The Government's policy should be ensuring that an efficient and effective daily service is put in place now. This service requires extra ships to be chartered and placed in service from a port that is the closest in line time wise to the current land bridge service of 13.5 hours. This means Rosslare Europort must have a daily service. This may require a subvention from the Government. We were told at the outset that the EU would support Ireland if it was disproportionately affected by Brexit. That time is now. We are disproportionately affected. The Connecting Europe Facility, commonly known as the EU connectivity fund, is available for infrastructural investment in transport aimed at greater connectivity between European Union member states and must be drawn down to prepare Rosslare Europort to be the direct access port to mainland Europe. This must happen in the national interest. The Taoiseach said last night that it is never too late. Let us act now and ensure it happens before it is too late and businesses and jobs are irreparably affected.
Coming from a Border county area I know too well the devastating effects a hard border would have on the region. In recent times, we have almost forgotten that a border exists as people and trade flow seamlessly both ways across the Border on a daily basis. I am also old enough to remember when this was not the case, a time when there were Border checkpoints, cross-border smuggling, daily killing and attacks. I genuinely thought we had left all of this behind us and I hope we do not go back to those dark times.
The UK's decision to leave the EU is, without doubt, going to cause great difficulties for us. It was not our decision but we will have to face the consequences. I have said many times in the House that we must be prepared for a no-deal Brexit and on each occasion I was told by the Government of the day that this would not happen. I only wish it were true. While the Bill is welcome, it does not go far enough in putting in place measures that will help and support us during a no-deal Brexit. It is too vague and lacks detail.
Speaking to members of the Government in recent days, I have been advised that talks between the EU and UK are ongoing and that the key outstanding issues remain a level playing field, governance and fisheries. I have also been told that regardless of the outcome of the talks the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, is vital. This is a complete understatement. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland was designed so it would operate regardless of whether an EU-UK future relationship is in place.
As we have seen in recent times, the UK Government has basically ignored this international agreement and is pursuing legislation through Parliament at Westminster in order to override it.
I speak with people and businesses on a daily basis. Many are located close to the Border and their businesses operate on both sides of it. As matters stand today, 11 November, they still do not have a clue as to what will happen. In seven weeks, we will have Brexit regardless of whether there is an agreement but businesses still do not know what the plans will be in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They are being told by the Government we have a withdrawal agreement that includes a protocol on Northern Ireland yet, when people read newspapers and watch television, they are being told this protocol will not be implemented by the UK Government. There is genuine worry out there in regard to Brexit. Simple questions are not being addressed. The reality is that people and businesses are a resilient bunch but they need to know what they are dealing with. We need to prepare them for the real facts. They are not afraid of the facts; what they are afraid of is the unknown. Businesses will be able to deal with a no-deal Brexit as long as they are prepared for it but in order to be prepared, they must be informed. Let us face the facts and let these businesses deal with them.
At times, it seems that we are sleepwalking into this with no real preparation. Let me give the Minister an example of some of the questions I and my consistency office are being asked daily by businesses and residents who live and work on both sides of the Border. Is there going to be a hard border on the island of Ireland? Will there be customs checks on the Border and, if so, how will they be implemented? Will cross-Border workers still be treated the same as before Brexit? Will they face daily delays travelling to and from work when crossing the Border? Will UK driving licences be valid in Ireland and, likewise, will Irish driving licences be valid in the UK? Will motor insurance policies be affected? Will the common travel area remain post Brexit? Will food standards stay as they are? How will food standards be monitored? How will cross-Border agencies operate post Brexit? Will they exist or will they be disbanded?
Will students who travel across the Border to schools and colleges be affected? Dundalk has an excellent institute of technology, known as DKIT. Many students travel from Northern Ireland to attend colleges here. Will they be affected? What about Irish students attending colleges and universities in Northern Ireland and the UK? How will they be affected? Will their qualifications remain as they are now? In regard to tariffs, businesses are still in the dark. Is it safe to assume that, should we have a no-deal Brexit, the WTO tariffs will kick in immediately? Will the cross-Border healthcare initiatives remain? In the context of security, will we still have the same cross-Border co-operation? Deputy Verona Murphy spoke about the issues affecting hauliers. I have heard the same things said as my colleagues. We are hearing the horror stories that hauliers can expect to face delays of up to ten hours once they reach the UK ports. This must not be allowed to happen.
We must find real and viable solutions in respect of these issues. We are seven weeks away from Brexit and people and businesses still do not have answers. I hope it is not too late but what is needed is a clear roadmap for a no-deal Brexit so that at least we can prepare properly. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a roadmap. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill states:
Protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, supporting North-South cooperation and the all island economy, are key underpinnings to the Government’s approach in a number of provisions of this Bill. The North-South cooperation arrangements bring tangible benefits to the daily lives of people in the border region on the island of Ireland, and contribute to economic opportunity and development. They are also a very practical outworking of the peace process and of the Good Friday Agreement, which allows for the normalisation of relationships between people across the island, to mutual benefit.
I agree with everything in that quote. My question to the Minister is how we can protect the Good Friday agreement when the UK Government is bringing through legislation in its own Parliament that, in reality, dismantles the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol.
The United Kingdom will be outside the EU Single Market and the customs union in a little over seven weeks' time. While the outcome of the negotiations between the parties is ongoing, it is critical to recognise that all businesses, regardless of their size, will be impacted by the outcome of the negotiations. As a result, it is vital to be prepared to face the challenging and complex environment we find ourselves in.
Before moving on to the content of the Bill, I take the opportunity to congratulate President-elect Biden and Kamala Harris on their election victory in recent days. President-elect Biden has always been a good friend to Ireland and it is welcome he has reaffirmed his full support for the Good Friday Agreement and discussed the importance of a Brexit outcome that respects the agreement and ensures no return to a hard border in Ireland. I also want to take the opportunity to offer my sincere congratulations to his sister, Valerie, who has strong connections to my parish, Killeagh.
It is also welcome that the President-elect recognises that any trade deal between the US and the UK must be contingent upon the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. As he tweeted in September, and is believed to have re-emphasised to Prime Minister Johnson yesterday, there is a need to ensure that the customs facilities will not apply to trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol must be upheld to avoid a hard border on this island. However, the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain will change as customs controls will be applied to the movement of goods between Ireland and Great Britain. These changes to the terms of customs administration are particularly significant for Ireland, given the large volume of goods going to and from the UK through Irish ports.
Part 11 of the Bill is designed to accommodate the anticipated substantial increase in customs controls that is required at ports and at traders’ premises arising from the end of the transition period. We must ensure that ample resources and technical expertise are provided to the Revenue Commissioners to oversee this task. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where we have inadvertently created a non-level playing field between Ireland and the UK through a lack of resources.
Making it an offence for truck drivers to exit customs at a port without obeying instructions given by the Revenue Commissioners is probably an issue that needs to be addressed. Additional powers need to be established and additional facilities provided to customs officials in order that they can properly police this after years of a free trade system.
The UK land bridge is essential to ensure a robust customs regime is in place. It is estimated that there are approximately 150,000 movements across the land bridge annually, with an estimated value of €18.2 billion in goods. A significant portion of the goods transported via the land bridge are agrifood goods with a short shelf life, such as fresh fish. This makes the UK land bridge the most viable route to the market. The UK accession to the common trade convention is welcome and such a system should allow EU goods to transit through the UK without undergoing full customs import and export formalities on entry and exit, which is critical.
While I understand that the Bill before the House can only Brexit-proof the arrangements that are within our control, we should nevertheless be constantly working towards ensuring that our exporting community is ready to adapt to the situation in which we will find ourselves in only seven weeks' time. I recognise that the Government has undertaken substantial arrangements and engagements at a political and official level across the EU to ensure EU goods moving via the land bridge are not subject to additional and unnecessary checks and controls, and to ultimately ensure that, once the necessary controls are implemented, transit goods will be given the green light and permitted to leave port.
As a person who grew up in a farming household, I am very conscious that the farming community will be hard hit both on the export front to the UK and by all the other potential ramifications of Brexit and what it will mean for our trading relationships with other EU markets. The UK is Ireland's largest market for fresh food and drink, with 40% of our exports destined for the UK in that sector. In 2016, 34% of Ireland's dairy exports went to the UK, representing 53% of cheese exports, 29% of butter exports and 12% of skimmed milk powder exports. Exports of cheddar cheese amounted to 78,000 tonnes, representing 82% of all cheddar imported by the UK in 2016. Ireland is the only significant exporter of cheddar to the UK market, which is the only market of significance for Irish cheddar.
This matter is critical to the constituency of Cork East, which I represent. There are thousands of people, particularly across the north of the constituency, working for companies like Dairygold and Teagasc, and in many other agri-related activities. Their livelihoods could potentially be very badly damaged by any prospect of a crash-out Brexit. We have to do everything we can, as the Minister is aware. Deputy Lowry referred to the fact there is a lack of knowledge, awareness and worry among the population regarding Brexit. I agree with him to a certain degree. In the coming weeks, people will become more aware of what potentially lies in front of us, which could be devastating. I am incredibly worried about what it could mean for the agriculture sector and for the livelihoods of thousands of people working in agrifood facilities in Cork East. The Minister is very familiar with my part of the country and County Cork. He knows that this matter is a priority for me, as a local representative in the area. I understand that we are doing all we can to ensure that the transition will be as smooth as possible and that, without planning, there will be little to no execution.
However, I re-emphasise that we must have a tangible system of operations on the ground which are ready to be operationalised to give us the best opportunity of navigating through this in the months and years ahead.
I thank the Minister. I commend the work that has been done and acknowledge the complexities that have faced us in terms of Brexit. I assure the Minister that we will continue to work with him in every way possible to ensure the outstanding elements that need to be addressed are addressed, as we have done from the beginning.
I will raise two matters with the Minister. The first relates to the driving licence situation. We have around 17,000 people in this State who have British driving licences. One of the reasons that many of them are reluctant to give up those licences is that they do not know if the Irish licence will be recognised in Britain. Many people live here but are working in Britain during the week and going back and over. They do not know what that will mean for them. Is there a way the Minister can give them reassurance? They are also looking at the law that underpins them being forced to hand over an official document in exchange for another. It would be helpful if the Minister could explicitly let them know what legislation that is based on. People are discussing, with reference to the Good Friday Agreement, the right to be British or Irish or both. They do not see why they need to hand over the British licence. We need to do that immediately before we run into the end of December.
The other issue I raise is that, in response to Brexit, we need to double down on working on an all-island basis in all aspects of our society and economy. The area of further and higher education, as well as research and development, needs to be protected and improved upon in terms of how we operate on an all-Ireland basis. There are positive indications that solutions will be found for Erasmus and Horizon and those are necessary. Horizon has been a powerful driver for all-island research, evident in the fact that, between 2014 and 2016, 63% of successful applications for research funding to Horizon from the North were in partnership with third level institutions in the South. While we need to protect the progress that has been made, we also know there is much more that needs to be done in terms of cross-Border enrolment and other aspects of higher education. I look forward to working with the Minister, Deputy Harris, to ensure that happens in the future.
I want to acknowledge what John Major has said in recent days on Brexit, the challenges it poses and his acknowledgement that Brexit has left the British and the UK much further down the line in terms of the break-up of the union.
I too am delighted to speak and I assure the Minister that the Rural Independent Group will not be found wanting when it comes to these delicate and sensitive negotiations.
We are in the 59th minute of the 11th hour and I heard all the talk from the former Taoiseach, now the Tánaiste, telling us about the backstop and all the reassurances he had. Then we fell off the trough and Covid took over completely. People in the country have switched off. I questioned the Taoiseach this morning about the health situation, RTÉ, the previous Taoiseach and himself and the fact that we have dosed the people morning, noon and night with Covid. We have forgotten about this most important issue, our nearest and - I nearly said "dearest" but they were not always our dearest - neighbours and the implications for trade, education, the road haulage business, tourism and people with British driving licences. There are multiple implications.
The Good Friday Agreement was an international agreement and that must be respected. Prime Minister Johnson is elected now and he is making lots of noise and the British people voted to go. We should have accepted that long ago instead of hoping they would not go and they would change their mind like we did regarding Nice and Lisbon, when we went back twice, but they did not. They made a decision and they stuck with it. We have to live with it but we have not done any preparations.
I listened to Deputy Verona Murphy yesterday and again today on the IMDO, which is advising the Government. This is the problem with this Government and the last one. They have too many cohorts of advisors and consultants and if one wants to cross the road or cross the Liffey, one has to get a consultant to do a study. They are not being told the truth. As has been pointed out, with Covid it is a whole chain situation. Many of the cases have not been properly examined. We do not have a proper port or connectivity at Rosslare. That is why I was fighting for the M24 from the west into Shannon, Limerick and Tipperary town and on to Waterford and Rosslare. Connectivity is vital, as is a fast port with roll-on, roll-off from Rosslare. There is a fund in the EU but are we even looking for it? Will the Minister clarify that for us: have we looked for the funding to put in infrastructure for those daily services? We need connectivity.
The road haulage situation is perilous. One sees them stopped on road blocks. They are on a tight schedule with tachographs in the cab, delivering from farm to fork. For all our export issues, time is of the essence. They cannot afford to be delayed further and any of them I meet doing international travel are very frightened. Will they have right of passage? We need to be serious about how desperate this is.
I am disappointed because the Minister mentioned everything about transport and how patients in Northern Ireland can come down south and go to other European countries but he forgot to mention the issue that Deputies Collins and Danny Healy-Rae have been asking about day-in, day-out for the last several months. Many people in the Minister's constituency are going blind or would go blind only for Deputy Collins's bus to Belfast. "Belfast or blind", is rightly said. Are they going to go on? Why will the Government not come clean on this? The Taoiseach has been asked and he just waffles and tells people they are canvassing outside mass to bring them up. It is a serious situation. The health service here is not fit for purpose. We had this release valve. We need that release valve and we need certainty because people are booked in to go.
I had people in Tipperary, and I thank Councillor Danny Collins and the staff in his office for the work they do, who collect patients at three or four o'clock in the morning, get them on buses and go up. They have obliged me in Tipperary by bringing passengers from Cashel up. It is a wonderful service but it is a shame and disgrace that we have to do it. That is going to be cut off now. Many people in the HSE would love to have it cut off because they are embarrassed by the fact that our taxpayers' money is paying to get operations done in Kingsbridge Private Hospital. I thank the staff in Kingsbridge for being so helpful. The Minister never mentioned that and he studiously avoided it in his script. I have looked at his script and it is not in it.
We need those answers and clarification but we also need certainty for students who go to college in England and vice versa. They had a tough enough time last year and this year in their first year of college and they need certainty. There are many areas where we are closing the stable gate when the horse has bolted.
The presidential candidate Joe Biden made lots of noises. Let us see when he gets into the White House if he will be as solid as we want him to be. I hope he will because we need friends now more than ever and we need to maintain relationships with people in the UK and across the Border. We need to go forward as one and do this together as an island nation as well. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
There are many issues I would like to speak on this evening. Agriculture and other issues are very important in relation to Brexit but I will concentrate on two issues.
Brexit is generating a fallout for the fishing industry. It is already visible with a huge increase in the number of foreign boats operating in Ireland’s exclusive economic zone, the EEZ. Irish vessels have fished traditionally primarily in the north-west waters round Rockall, the Scottish Isles, in the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. Following Brexit, we will lose about 50% of our fishing grounds. Irish fishing trawlers have little or no rights in the North Sea, English Channel, Portuguese or Spanish waters as our fisherman are prevented by not having a history of doing so when Ireland joined the EU with no historical landings for what they caught as much as was needed in UK and Irish waters.
A no-deal Brexit will force all EU vessels from UK waters, estimated at around 400 vessels. In contrast, our entire fleet of over 18 metres or 59 feet in length numbers only 170. This possible invasion of displaced EU vessels means certain damage to the biologically sensitive area where fish come to spawn and juveniles feed and grow before the swim away.
The demersal white fish fleet must be protected. Some vessels in this sector catch up to 70% of their fish, which makes up to 80% of their earnings, in UK waters. I see that the industry, working with its French colleagues, has learned that a substantial commitment has been made to the fishing sector that includes a substantial sum for each individual vessel affected. A figure of €800,000 each has been mentioned and I hope that some kind of compensation package is being put in place. The Minister might enlighten us in that regard.
The biggest issue I want to address is protecting and maintaining the common travel area, CTA, and associated rights and benefits. Those considerations must form a critical part of Ireland's planning and preparation. That is vital not only in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland peace process, but also for broader UK-Ireland relations. It would be helpful, therefore, if the Minister and the Government could outline the broad thrust of the background work undertaken to date in securing the CTA. It would also be helpful at this point to obtain clarification on the legal guarantees being put in place on the CTA and whether they have been formally agreed with the British Government. Will measures be committed to in order to facilitate individuals from the State who wish to obtain medical treatment in Northern Ireland under the EU directive currently in place? If not, what concrete guarantees are being put in place to ensure that a patient from this State can continue to avail of treatments under the scheme in the North after 1 January? This is an issue that I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group have been raising in the Dáil at every available opportunity over the past few years. We are concerned that, with approximately eight weeks left before the UK leaves the EU, the Government has still not provided clarity on this issue. Will the Minister please clarify the matter? Can he offer a guarantee that a patient from the State can continue to obtain treatment under the cross-border directive scheme in a hospital in Limavady or Belfast after 1 January? Has a bilateral agreement been reached with the UK so that patients from the Republic will be able to avail of EU directive type treatments in the North? Has this formed part of discussions? The extent of progress, or attempted progress, in this crucial area remains unclear.
The Minister said earlier:
However, the Government recognises the importance of such programmes and benefits to Irish and therefore EU citizens in Northern Ireland. Therefore, Part 3 of the Bill provides for a scheme to allow eligible residents of Northern Ireland not covered elsewhere to seek reimbursement for the cost of necessary healthcare while on a temporary stay in another EU or EEA member state or Switzerland, should it be required, from 1 January 2021.
We have tried tirelessly in this Dáil over the past two months to get a straight answer from the Taoiseach and he has skirted around giving one. People from Cork and Kerry, in particular, have been going to the North of Ireland for procedures on their cataracts, hips and knees. A clinic is to be opened in the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital in Cork. I look forward to that happening but it will probably not be for another two years. People are going blind every day of the week here. We have saved up to 2,000 people's eyesight by allowing them to go to Northern Ireland. I want a straight answer and I will give the Minister a chance to give one. Is the Government negotiating for patients to continue going from the South to the North, even if it is a for a two-year period until we have the issue resolved, to allow for cataract, hip and knee procedures? Will that scheme continue indefinitely after 31 December? I ask the Minister to clarify that and give a straight answer because the Taoiseach either does not understand or does not care. To date, the Minister has been fairly straight up on these issues.
The UK formally left the EU on 31 January 2020. The protocol around the Good Friday Agreement has always to be upheld. There are 21 Parts to this Bill. I will focus on customs aspects and how Brexit will impact on the transport industry for all our exports to Europe and the speed with which we can get products to market.
I am bothered by the number of reports produced for Brexit. This is one of many. I am also concerned about the statements that since 2018, 600 staff have been working in customs-based roles to get experience. A report states that the infrastructure at Dublin Airport requires an environmental assessment report and An Bord Pleanála approval. The process is under way. Does this sound as if anything will be ready for Brexit on 1 January? Permanent facilities will need to be developed within the port complex at Rosslare. Does that suggest anything will be ready for 1 January?
I have spoken to Mr. Eugene Drennan, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association. He said that it is very simple and that there needs to be a daily direct ferry to the north of France that is time efficient. It must be a quality boat with a minimum speed of 23 knots per hour and there must be adequate single occupancy for the drivers. It is all about speed to market. We need to be in western Europe in 18 hours which means that we are at the European markets at 5 a.m. Irish produce could then be in eastern European areas the following morning. This is a win-win scenario all round.
Roll-on, roll-off services give direct certainty of service to our customers and certainty of delivery without Irish companies having to arrange to go through the UK. This would mean that we could avoid all the long queues that will apply if we go through the entry lanes to Europe from the UK. Ireland can be the main exit port to Europe for Irish companies. Our reputation will grow on the basis of predictability. Ireland's current capacity is 46,000 units per week according to a report of the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO. The requirement, according to the IMDO, should be 90,000 units leaving the country with 60,000 units coming back in. Those numbers do not count the added vehicles that may come from Northern Ireland to use this service to their advantage by going directly from Rosslare.
We have a gap for roll-on, roll-off services to move fresh and frozen produce into European markets which is not being met. With a sailing three days a week, the capacity is 46,000 units per week. They will be unable to meet demand. There is a promise of a daily sailing from January but if it is not efficient and reliable, we are at nothing. Let us say we have an outbreak of Covid-19 on a ferry that is then required to sit in the Irish Channel for 14 days. Has the Minister allowed for that? Where is the contingency plan for that?
If the Minister wants to know what is best practice in our ports and how to make it happen, he should ask the people who use it daily for their livelihoods, in other words, the road hauliers. They will give the Minister the answers because their livelihoods depend on it. I ask him to listen to the people whose livelihoods depend on this.
This is one of the most critical debates we have had since I came to Dublin and Dáil Éireann. What will happen on 1 January is of critical importance. It has significance for farmers, business exporters and importers, hauliers, fishermen and many other sectors of our economy. We were recently told by the Department of Finance that one worker in seven could lose his or her job because of Brexit. I fear it will hurt my part of the country, rural Ireland and particularly rural Kerry, worse than anywhere else. I ask and hope that the Government and the Minister can minimise the disruption to our economy in whatever way they can in the talks in the days and weeks before the end of the year.
The Minister mentioned that residents of the North would be reimbursed if they had to travel to Europe, to the South of Ireland or to Dublin for medical treatment if, for whatever reason, they could not find a treatment in the Six Counties. The Minister did not mention a similar arrangement for our residents going northwards to Belfast. I cannot understand that. Surely we should be looking after our own before we look after anyone else.
One year ago, when we asked a question about the continuation of the cross-Border directive after Brexit, the Minister promised that a Bill would be introduced to ensure a bilateral arrangement between England and Ireland on travel across the Border, which in our case related to cataracts, where many people would otherwise have gone blind in the past three years. I fear that almost 2,000 people would have gone blind if we had not put in place that service. I am very proud and glad it has been so successful. Both myself and Deputy Michael Collins from west Cork got that service going and we were the first to do that. We are very worried now. It seems that political expediency is coming into this now and that Fianna Fáil and some Fine Gael Deputies are anxious to stop both us and that service. I was very disappointed in recent days to hear Deputy Colm Burke from Cork, a companion of the Minister and, like the Taoiseach, a Member from Cork, suggest that the service should be stopped at this time.
Little does he know how important it is to have one's sight. The one thing my grandmother, before she went to her grave - she lived to be 97 years of age - used to pray and hope for was that she would not go “dark” as she called it. She did not want to go blind. I appeal to the Minister, as he promised us more than a year ago, to put in place legislation for a bilateral arrangement to ensure we can continue the service after 31 December. I am sad to say that when asked about this a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach of our country, was smirking and laughing. It is no smirking and laughing matter if one is going blind or is facing the threat of going blind. If one is roaring with pain in the middle of the night and needs a hip operation, it is not fair to be told one has to wait two or three years to get an operation in Cork or in Tralee. The Taoiseach is promising some centre in Cork but that will take two years or more, if it ever comes into being. I appeal to the members of this Government on this matter, and it is not a laughing matter. We will remind them about this every day of every week we are up here for whatever length of time we are here. If this Government is going to let people go blind on its watch we will remind it of this. If it is going to allow people to continue roaring with pain, we will remind it of that too. I appeal to the Minister in regard to this service, and I respect him for his promise a year ago, as it looks like the Taoiseach has stopped and grounded him. I ask him to stand his ground and to ensure that people in Kerry and Cork do not go blind for the want of this service we have been supplying to them for the past three years. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
We are 50 days away from when the UK may leave the Single Market and customs union and the end of the transition period. I echo the Minister’s comments where he hopes the provisions of this Bill are never required. Ultimately, an agreement is in the best interests of all of these islands and the peoples on them. One reads the provisions of the Bill more in sadness than in anger. Anger was an emotion we experienced during the early phases of Brexit. Anger will not get us anywhere. As we read through each provision, and I have listened to the contributions of the previous speakers, I accept the importance of the service that is provided, not just for those who need routine operations but I am also thinking of rare disease patients who may need to access services in the UK, where the centre of excellence for that service across the world may be based.
Listening to the contributions from Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath, one would think Deputy Coveney is a Minister of the Crown and not a Minister of this Republic. This Bill is about the UK walking away. If the UK walks away, we cannot force it to do anything. We cannot force it to provide services in hospitals which are unfortunately within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom at this point in time. I may want something different politically but the reality of the different jurisdictions on this island is what grappling with Brexit has been all about. I blame Fine Gael for many things but it is preposterous to suggest that this Government is standing in the way of giving guarantees for services that are provided in the UK.
On Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, will the Minister consider, when negotiating the memorandum of understanding, those rare disease patients? Often those services are accessible in those centres of excellence. There are many rare disease patients who are greatly concerned that the treatment abroad scheme they may have used to access that expertise may not be available. In these deliberations I ask him to give special consideration to those families.
I welcome Part three of the Bill dealing with the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC, scheme and I do this for two reasons. It demonstrates the commitment that this Government has to ensure the rights of citizens of Northern Ireland and there are some 632,000 holders of the EHIC scheme. By putting in place provisions for us to protect their rights, we are showing good faith and we are expecting a reciprocal response from the United Kingdom.
I also refer to Part 7 which deals with education. There are 1,500 students studying in the UK and the elements of these amendments to the Student Support Act 2011, the main piece of legislation which deals with the financial supports for third level students, are crucially important and must be put in place if there is a no-deal scenario.
Part 15 of the Bill is also very important as it deals with the protection of employees and the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act. This will protect many Irish workers who work here for UK companies. We have heard too many times in this House of the impact of the insolvency arrangements regarding Debenhams workers who have been treated in the disgraceful way. We can only imagine what it would be like if a UK company was trading from the UK and if those employees were not only to not benefit from the collective agreement but were also not to benefit from the safeguard of the employers insolvency scheme. I am very pleased that protection is being put in place in this omnibus Bill.
I ask the Minister also, and the I take him at his word on this, to consider amendments and changes such as the significance of different arrangements in how Irish and UK law treats preferential creditors in insolvency situations. That is a matter I believe we have yet to resolve in this Bill and it is perhaps one that we can address on Committee Stage.
Part 16 deals with extradition. If I said this Bill was devised more in sadness than in anger then this is probably one of the saddest parts of the Bill. We have only started to see the benefits arising from the European arrest warrant. We have only started to see how routine arrangements and requests between different European Union countries can be dealt with so that we can tackle crime. Instead, we are being forced, because of the decision of the British Government, not to engage in an agreement and to return to a Council of Europe convention from 1957. This would essentially put extradition back in the hands of diplomats rather than being in a judicial process.
I say that meaning no disrespect to our colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs. However, extradition should not be a matter which is subject to political influence. We have seen in the past that lobbying is possible and representations can be made to the political system when it is done through that process. I would have concerns about the way we deal with dissident republicans, those who want to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and those who might want to engage in human trafficking. The overwhelming majority of requests to this country for European arrest warrants are from the UK. It is a real sadness that we have to reach back to 1957 but there are plenty of things about this Brexit debate that reach back to 1957.
Part 21 relates to the European Union (Construction Products) Regulations 2013, with which I was not familiar, which give the local authority, Dublin City Council, responsibility for monitoring such products. I have had reassurances from Dublin City Council on this matter but in all cases where we give local authorities responsibility we should also make sure that we give them resources. Whatever arrangements are put in place, I ask the Minister to support the local authorities in giving them that role.
I wish the Minister the best of luck, not in the passing of this Bill but in the work he and the Government have done to secure a deal. Let us hope we will never have to use the provisions of this Bill. Let us hope we can tear it up and make a deal that will benefit the people of this entire island.
This Brexit omnibus Bill sets out in stark terms the challenges that face our country in trying to mitigate the impact of Brexit, particularly a no-deal or bad deal Brexit. In essence, this Bill is the lowest common denominator in terms of Brexit readiness. The truth is that we will be powerless in terms of many of the damaging aspects that will arise as a result of the British continuing their current reckless approach.
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic it might be easy for many to lose sight of the Brexit steam train that is coming straight for us. For many ordinary Irish workers, small business owners, farmers and communities, particularly in the Border region such as my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, the outworkings and developments of the next number of weeks will be long-standing and potentially devastating. This Bill simply will not and cannot address all of the concerns. Issues of trade with Britain and the fact that Britain stands between us and the rest of Europe mean that anything less than full, free and open trade will result in an economic hit for many Irish businesses, not least in the agri-food sector. We must try to minimise that hit, including by sourcing alternative markets and providing financial supports to our farmers and businesses to assist the response to the short-term shocks.
Where we do have additional control is in addressing the issues that could arise in our country, specifically in respect of North-South co-operation and integration. Throughout this process, we have heard a great deal of very welcome rhetoric from the Government and others who have rightly and repeatedly stated that there can be no hardening of the Border in our country. That must be matched by actions. It must be said that we have missed opportunities to do so.
We know that all-Ireland progress is not easy. We know that the DUP and others in the North will oppose any attempt to undo the damage of partition but we also know that the all-Ireland approach is the correct approach. It is the only way we can seek to protect communities and economies on both sides of the Border. We must be guided by the recognition that the Good Friday Agreement upholds the rights of citizens in the North to be Irish citizens. That means this House has a responsibility to protect those rights. It means this House must recognise that to put any barriers to trade, movement and co-operation between my county of Monaghan, for example, and our neighbours in Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh would be akin to me suggesting to the Minister that the same barriers should be put between his county of Cork and Kerry or Tipperary. This House must recognise that the Good Friday Agreement allows us the opportunity to avoid that prospect and undo the horrendous damage of partition.
There is nothing to be afraid of in allowing the people to have their say. The undemocratic nature of the Brexit imposition on the people of the North can and must be met with the democratic action of allowing the people of Ireland to determine our own future together and in peace. It is time for the Irish Government to plan and prepare, along with the rest of us, for a referendum on Irish unity.
Here we go on the Brexit omnibus again. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the constant leaks and political controversies, one would be forgiven for forgetting about the next looming Brexit deadline. It feels as if we have been preparing for Brexit for years, because we have, and the tension is building before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. We had the campaign period before the vote in the UK in June 2016. We have had the withdrawal agreement process, the protocol on Ireland and the North and the transition period up to the end of this year. This transition period has allowed the UK to remain as part of the Single Market and the customs union of the EU while the negotiations on a future partnership agreement between the UK and the EU have been taking place.
The Bill before us is very comprehensive legislation and has again been prepared under an uncertain round of negotiations, with certain sticking points. We are still none the wiser about certain important issues such as fishing. The Bill comprises 21 Parts and a number of sections that will make provisions for continuing cross-Border life from 2021. It addresses the health service, reimbursement of medical expenses, taxation, student support and issues relating to the Employment Permits Act, to name but a few. I know that Department officials have been working diligently in the background, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, to prepare this substantial legislation. How much money has Brexit cost us so far? That is a question we need to examine. I refer not just to the potential cost of issues coming down the line but in actual personnel working on issues over the past four years. The pre-legislative scrutiny process included the 11 relevant Ministers and Departments and engaged the necessary committees. These meetings took place throughout October 2020.
I appreciate the Brexit readiness briefings that were provided for Deputies. In the most recent briefing on 3 November, we heard from a number of the key Departments and officials. There was a good deal of emphasis on the communications that have been ongoing with stakeholders, with local radio and media campaigns also. Apparently, there has been a lot of outreach and training and I have no doubt that the impact of Covid-19 has had a detrimental effect on getting out the important messages. Covid has crowded the headlines and head space of the public but it is important that businesses get ready for what is coming down the line.
As I mentioned, the negotiations on a future partnership agreement between the EU and the UK are still ongoing, which means that yet again we are deciding on legislating without knowing the outcome of plans between the EU and the UK. Back in 2019, the first Brexit omnibus Bill was enacted in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. Just three sections of that Bill, Parts 1, 14 and 15, were commenced, while Part 3 was repealed, and others were not commenced because the withdrawal agreement came into effect.
From 1 January 2021, the UK will no longer be in the Single Market. Some of the main issues for the future are that trade on the island must continue freely and that the common travel area is protected and maintained. This Bill was explained as containing a number of safety nets as we await the outcome of the negotiations. The Revenue Commissioners told us that approximately 300 additional staff have been recruited for Brexit and that more will be deployed if needed. The customs system is to be completely IT driven, similar to the systems in France and Germany. I certainly hope it will be better than the IT system used for the leaving certificate. The official from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine stated there would be "enormous challenges" from the beginning of next year and checks and controls in both directions, from the UK to the EU and vice versa. Again, we heard about improved IT systems and recruitment of additional personnel. I get worried when I hear so much emphasis being placed on IT systems.
The UK is now known as a third country and was referred to as a land bridge in briefings. The Department of Transport is one of the other key Departments involved in Brexit readiness. It was concerning to hear that the new cross-Border Interbus service will not be ready on 1 January. What will happen to those of us who live in Border counties and very often travel back and forth to the North by bus or pass through the North en routeto the South? An alternative for the interim was not presented at the briefing. Will one be in place before Brexit takes place?
The Bills digest by the excellent Oireachtas Library & Research Service outlined how Part 13 of the Bill relates to third country bus services. It is proposed that the National Transport Authority would be the competent authority charged with regulating bus services between Ireland and third countries.
It provides for enforcement by the Road Safety Authority, the National Transport Authority and An Garda Síochána, as is the case with existing services and existing regulatory rules. The intention is that Part 13 could provide the backdrop to any future bilateral discussions to be held between the Irish and the UK Governments regarding arrangements to facilitate bus services between the two jurisdictions. I do not believe there should be no arrangement in the meantime.
A number of years ago, we heard about the green card for car insurance. It has now been decided that drivers from the South will not require a green card to drive in the North or the UK but that those from the North driving into the Republic will be required to have one. Why the difference? Why is it not the same for drivers on both sides of the Border?
Apparently there are webinars taking place involving organisations such as the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. These webinars will be made available on the relevantpages. It is welcome that officials and Departments are providing information, but this year so many small and medium-sized businesses and many others have had to contend with closures or significant losses due to Covid-19, or both. How has the engagement been with Enterprise Ireland and other bodies since March? How many businesses know that product conformity issues will arise from 1 January 2021 if their products require a CE marking? A CE marking can only be provided by an EU-authorised authority and not bodies that may be issuing the markings now that are currently based in the UK. Many products require CE marking before they can be sold in the. CE marking indicates that a product has been assessed by the manufacturer and deemed to meet EU safety, health and environmental protection requirements. It is required for products manufactured anywhere in the world that are later marketed in the EU.
One area of the final negotiations that I am very concerned about and that has been widely reported as a sticking point is that of fisheries. On 4 November, Mr. Michel Barnier tweeted:
Despite EU efforts to find solutions, very serious divergences remain in Level Playing Field, Governance & Fisheries. These are essential conditions for any economic partnership. [The EU] is prepared for all scenarios.
Soon after, his counterpart on the UK’s negotiation team, Mr. David Frost, tweeted:
We've just finished two weeks of intensive talks with the EU. Progress made, but I agree with [Michel Barnier] that wide divergences remain on some core issues. We continue to work to find solutions that fully respect UK sovereignty.
It seems very Trumpian to be tweeting such updates and about reports coming out of the meetings that are blaming the UK for peddling back on some positions. Is it a case of one step forward and five steps back? There are livelihoods and industries on the line and these delays do nothing but create more stress and uncertainty. I am concerned that Mr. Barnier appears to be saying fishing is used as a negotiating tactic in dealing with us. He wanted to move on this but countries would not let him.
With the apparent slowing of negotiations and possible deadlock on certain issues, I fear that those in Donegal’s fishing industry will be hung out to dry. Bloomberg reported that it is possible that the UK could claim it has won back control of its seas and pave the way for the country's fishing industry to catch more than it does currently. By conceding on fishing and fisheries, it is possible that the EU would make headway on the other sticking points. This would be disastrous for our island and particularly for the fisheries in Donegal.
The UK wants fish quotas to be set using zonal attachment, and reports indicate that this could possibly be agreed, with final decisions on whole stocks left until further down the road. It was reported, however, that an official said:
It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way Barnier would agree to that. We would lose all leverage over future quota share.
What is the position? When will we have clarity?
Zonal attachment relates to where fish are when caught instead of where they spawn. The UK is reportedly negotiating around the zonal attachment method for up to 20 of its priority stocks, and the remainder could be dealt with as legacy catches. European boats catch an estimated €650 million worth of fish in UK waters each year so this is not an insignificant industry to be used as a pawn. It is clear that much of the value of the fish is Irish value. What will be the impact of this?
Another point of note in this Bill is Part 16’s amendment of the Extradition Act 1965. Should this not be a judicial decision? Part 16 sets out that the Government is intending to revert to the European Convention on Extradition, 1957, in cases where the European arrest warrant does not apply. Requests for extradition would be updated so that instead of hard copies going through the Department of Foreign Affairs, they would be transmitted electronically directly to the Department of Justice.
Another area of concern relates to the common travel area and third country citizens who are not citizens of Ireland or the United Kingdom but who live in the North. Their travel will be seriously restricted. Their plight should be examined and they should not be forgotten in our negotiations.
As I mentioned, the transition period ends on 31 December, but the deadline for the treaty to be ratified by the European Parliament is 14 December. Then the legal text needs to be translated into 23 different languages, and it must also go to several committees. As usual, we are left waiting to see what collateral damage will be caused by the UK voting to leave the EU.
The US election result, which saw the Democratic Party’s Joe Biden winning and the loss of Donald Trump, should put us in a stronger negotiating position. Will fishing lose out in that regard, however? President-elect Biden and others have previously said there will not be US-UK trade deals if peace on the island of Ireland is threatened. It is certainly better news for Ireland than if Boris Johnson’s pal Trump had won a second term in the White House. I will support the Bill. I acknowledge the significant body of work of officials here in Ireland.
I will be supporting the Bill. Hopefully we will never have to use it; that is the first thing we should all say.
There has been a lot of talk about our access to Europe. Regarding ports such as Rosslare, we have to up the ante. A lot of our stock is exported. We have a 9-1-9 system. The Government should be considering putting a lairage system in place in the likes of Rosslare to help with the live export of calves. There are many critical points. Milk goes across the Border both ways.
There is a reference in the Bill to employment. There is a lot of talk in the South about subcontractors coming from the North. How will we know, after Brexit, how legitimate or safe it is to give contracts to northern businesses? We will not be able to look into them in the same way as we could.
Deputies Michael Collins, Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath referred to cross-Border issues and a subsequent speaker said Britain is pulling away. We know it is but I am thankful there is a triangle in the north of the country to ensure that people from Donegal, Sligo and elsewhere can access treatment for cancer. Unfortunately, there are people in this country who have been waiting for two, three and four years to have a cataract removed. It is a simple, basic procedure that should be done for them. There are people in a lot of pain. I do not know what genius in the HSE wrote an answer to the effect that patients would no longer be able to go to Northern Ireland but that they would be able to go to mainland Europe. The idea would be to load them up and send them to France or Holland. What an idea. We need to make sure that we put some arrangement in place. We should just forget about the EU treatment purchase scheme and fund the facility ourselves for the next year or 18 months until we are on top of the results. We have to make sure that we look after people.
On the agricultural side, we cannot wait until the final hour. I understand that nobody knows what is going to happen but the EU needs to be sending signals to offer comfort and solace to the Irish farming community such that if a hard Brexit occurs in respect of tariffs and so on, intervention will open at a proper price, not a reduced price, and such that the dairy and beef sectors will be looked after. With regard to sheep, we will not be too bad for the simple reason that we import a lot of sheep from Northern Ireland and England, but we need to put these measures in place to ensure we are not frightening both businesses and the farming sector.
We must ensure there is the necessary infrastructure at, for example, Rosslare. I heard mention of boats travelling at 24 kn. I do not know enough about boats to know what speed they need to go, but we must ramp up sea ferry crossings for lorries. We are an export-led country. Instead of closing the door, whatever efforts need to be made in the next few weeks should be. Such efforts are required in the agricultural industry, including the beef sector. We must also be mindful of the communities along the Border. Reality will show that rural Ireland will take the biggest hit in a hard Brexit. We must be ready to open the purse strings and do whatever we have to if we are to keep rural areas viable and put solutions in place for them.
When Ireland was not able to cater for people's health needs, the cross-border initiative was a good scheme. It helped many people who were in pain. We must ensure that it continues.
We must consider what Brexit will affect. Generally speaking, most farmers do not buy new tractors. Many of their tractors are imported from various auctions in England, for example, the Cambridge Machinery Sales auction. In that regard, we must ensure that there is not a significant ramping up in duty fees or whatever might be the case. If there is, the rural farming community will be affected. The rest of the EU will not be as badly affected as those of us on this island. I hope that Mr. Barnier and Prime Minister Johnson can resolve this issue in their negotiations. If there is a hard Brexit, we will see who our friends are on the first day of January. We need people to put in place the necessary steps to ensure that intervention is open. We should not be left for a month or two or three. That would be catastrophic for the agricultural sector, particularly in light of what people are going through now.
On employment, we cannot forecast whether a company will enter into liquidation or whatever, but some price cutting is happening at the moment. We need to consider what a realistic price is. I do not mean that anything should be overpriced, only realistically priced. Much of the price cutting is originating from outside the Twenty-six Counties, be it Spain or wherever. Anyone can tender for business anywhere in the EU. We need to examine this issue very sharply because we must keep employment in our own country.
I support the Bill and wish the Government luck in the negotiations. We do not want to have to talk about this issue. Let us look at the glass as being half full rather than half empty, but if we have to look at it as being half empty, then we need to put the steps in place to ensure that the agricultural sector and rural Ireland are not brought to their knees overnight, particularly after what they have gone through this year.
I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the work he has done in his Department in recent years, particularly on Brexit and on this and the previous Brexit Bills. I appreciate all of the work his Department has done to best prepare this jurisdiction for what will inevitably cause significant damage, not just to our economy, but also to our relations with the UK. Of course, all of that can be avoided if prudent steps are taken in the next few weeks to come to an arrangement that is to the mutual benefit of everyone on both islands and the EU. The kind of detailed forward planning that this Bill envisages negates some of the risks that this period will present to us. The pandemic and the economic uncertainty it has caused underscore the importance of effectively negating as many of the difficulties posed by Brexit as possible.
The decision by the UK to leave the EU is not one that we chose, but as part of the EU we have engaged with our UK counterparts in good faith, an act that has not always been reciprocated from the other side of the negotiating table. The Irish Government and its predecessors have planned for the event of a disorderly Brexit since the passage of the Brexit referendum. That has been reflected in successive budgets and placed us in a position where we can adapt to the challenges throughout the Brexit saga. Most recently, budget 2021 implemented extensive measures to address the concerns of businesses and industries affected by Brexit. Brexit preparedness was also at the heart of the July stimulus package, which provided among other measures €20 million for a Brexit support package to help businesses adapt to the coming changes.
Providing security and stability to sectors in the economy will reduce to the greatest possible extent job losses and economic fallout from Brexit. There may be some in opposition who will in future look for weaknesses or say that we have not done enough to prepare the country for the impact of Brexit, but any honest appraisal of successive Governments will show that we have done our best to meet the challenges and continue building a working relationship between the EU and the UK.
The UK Internal Market Bill developed by Downing Street has rightly drawn sharp criticism from a wide range of groups. Remarkably, it has been acknowledged by the British Government itself as breaking international law. The approach adopted by the British Government shows that we must prepare for the worst-case scenario and continue our constructive partnership with our European counterparts.
As an island economy, Brexit poses a threat to our import and export industries, which have been a major factor in our economy for a long time. Likewise, Northern Ireland's continued access to the Single Market is of paramount importance and will benefit everyone on the island of Ireland.
This Bill makes a variety of important and timely changes that will make the process in the period following the end of the transition period in December as smooth as possible. I will focus on two areas of particular importance, namely, changes to the Student Support Act 2011 and qualification and certification for working with fluorinated greenhouse gases.
The Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant represents a bridge for a large number of students every year who would not be able to afford or continue their studies without it. The loss of this grant for students who rely on it would also represent a loss of opportunity. While not the be all and end all, attaining a third level degree provides all graduates with the best possible start to their professional careers. Every year, approximately 1,500 Irish students studying in the UK qualify for the SUSI grant. Likewise, approximately 200 UK citizens studying in Ireland also qualify for the grant support. These students qualify for this support based on an approved list of courses and institutions that is limited to courses and institutions within EU member states. Without the Bill, they will find themselves ineligible for the SUSI grant and therefore cut off from this vital support post Brexit. The changes detailed in the Bill will expand the definitions in the current legislation and include the UK as a third country. This will ensure that students will remain eligible for SUSI grant support and provide reassurances to them that they will be able to continue in their studies and work to the best of their ability to attain the highest level of academic achievement.
The Brexit omnibus Bill addresses important changes to the qualifications and certifications required to work with fluorinated greenhouse gases within the EU.
F-Gases are a category of greenhouse gases that have a major impact on climate change. These gases are used in aerosols, refrigeration and air-conditioning units. These gases were a particular focus of the Kyoto Protocol and have since been subject to further EU regulations. These regulations provide controls on leak checking, servicing and recovery of F-Gases at their end-of-life process. Furthermore, the EU has committed to reducing the use of these gases by two thirds compared to 2014 levels through phased reductions in imports.
As it stands, individuals and companies that hold qualifications or certification in the UK are eligible to operate in these sectors across the EU. This will cease to be following the end of the transition period in December. A free-of-charge process to gain Irish certifications in this field is ongoing and this Bill will extend by six months the period in which a qualification from the UK can be recognised. Furthermore, it will extend by four months the period in which a company can apply to gain Irish certification and by doing so continue to work in line with European Union regulations. I imagine Members will accept the importance of that.
We find ourselves placed in the centre of one of the most consequential geopolitical events to take place on our Continent since the foundation of the European Union. It is, to be sure, an unenviable situation, one made more complex by the delicate history experienced by people on the island of Ireland. Ensuring the continued functioning of the Good Friday Agreement is crucial to the long-term success of our communities. This is something to which we must remain committed in the face of such challenges.
In January 2021, things will change dramatically. We cannot escape that fact. The relationship, so long fostered, between our country and the UK will experience major changes. We did not ask for these changes but we will address them. When we reach the other side of this difficult period I believe we will see the fruits of the work done by successive Irish Governments to try to protect our economy, our peace and our people throughout every step of this process. In doing so, they have strengthened our relationships and position within the EU and opened new avenues of progress for people in the largest trading bloc on Earth.
I want to go back to what I started with, which was my compliments of the previous Government and this Government in dealing with Brexit. Let us consider where we were a decade ago in terms of our relationships in the European Union and the failure of the then Irish Government to attend meetings or to be a regular attendee at meetings. Let us compare that to the position we are in now. When European leaders speak of Brexit, Ireland is the first country mentioned not only in the context of the Good Friday Agreement but in the context of the relationships that have been built up during the past decade. That comes down to the extraordinary work done by successive Ministers, including the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and others such as the former Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan. I wish to take this opportunity to note for the record my personal appreciation for the work they have done on behalf of all of us. As has been said by others, some of us hope this Bill will not be necessary but if it is required we have it ready. I thank the Minister for bringing it to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few brief words on the Brexit debacle and the legislation before the House. I listened from my office in Leinster House and from the back of the Convention Centre to much of the debate. It appears to me there is a self-delusion at play to the effect that if only we were properly prepared, we could have a benign Brexit. People have rightly referenced particular areas in this regard but a benign Brexit is a contradiction in terms. Brexit is an ugly beast that has been foisted upon us. We have done our utmost to prepare for it and I salute the Minister and his colleagues in this regard. Yet, even in the context of a negotiated trade agreement without tariffs and quotas, the Brexit reality will come crashing confrontationally in front of citizens in supermarket aisles, cattle marts, milking parlours and dairy processing plants. The same applies for students who travel to the UK and to those working in fishing harbours from Killybegs to Castletownbere. It applies to those working in our import and export points, including Rosslare, Cork Airport, Cork Harbour, Dublin Airport and Dublin Port. The reality of Brexit will come crashing down in front of us on 1 January 2021. Notwithstanding how much effort we have made to prepare for that reality, the truth is that it will have severe adverse impacts. There will be economic casualties and job losses. There will be opportunities that were within our grasp prior to Brexit which will not revisit us in a post-Brexit scenario. That is the unfortunate reality of something that had been built up over almost 50 years of shared membership of the European Union and is now, by the democratic will of the United Kingdom, being unilaterally withdrawn by the United Kingdom effectively overnight. That reality will dawn on us on 1 January 2021.
As I said, the change will come notwithstanding the level of preparedness. I believe that level of preparedness is impressive and I agree with the previous speaker in that regard. The effort has been phenomenal across the political, administrative and diplomatic fronts. The engagement with business has been phenomenal. We have seen investment in infrastructure to deal with this reality. Yet, I have no doubt that there will be shortcomings and unforeseen events. There will be things that we have not countenanced and, in the early days of 2021, they will come sharply into focus.
I do not expect that we will get a green light from Brussels for any forbearance or light-touch regulation. Yet, the reality is that is what will be needed and I have no doubt that is what will happen. Someone will turn up without the right paperwork and we will have to take a practical approach to that. In effect, we will have to have a yellow card system. Those responsible will have to be told not to let it happen a second or third time. Otherwise, the reality is that we will have problems in Dublin Port. I visited the facilities there previously. If we take an approach that is not tolerant of the challenge we face on 1 January, then we could block up the entire port, the tunnel, the entire city and the distribution system. With a heavy hand, we could ensure product destined for supermarket shelves will never arrive. That is a possibility.
Our colleague in the Northern Ireland Executive, Edwin Poots, has referenced the reality that many retail outlets which have an international dimension, especially those with a UK dimension, may decide that there is no future for them in a post-Brexit scenario supplying either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. That is an unfortunate reality but a real possibility in the context of Brexit. We will need tolerance and forbearance from the Commission in how we deal with this transition period in the early days.
The negotiations are at a critical point. It is important to point out that we are the most impacted member state. Now is the time to ensure that we redouble our resolve to get the best possible deal and a negotiated settlement. That is critical. We need to remind Michel Barnier, who has been a fair-minded and accessible friend to Ireland in the context of these negotiations, of our unique position. We are an island on the periphery of Europe. We are the most exposed to the UK market, more than any other member state. In particular, it is important that we strengthen our resolve in the context of the fishing industry. Our exposure to UK waters is well documented. It has been put on the record of the House on numerous occasions. Now is the time to make that point again and again and emphasise it to the negotiating team.
It is also important we try to leverage as much as we possibly can from the new dispensation in the White House. The elephant in the room in the context of these negotiations is the statement by the British Prime Minister that he intends to reinstate the internal market proposals that were defeated in the House of Lords. The reality is that has the potential to shift the border from the Irish Sea to the island of Ireland, which is of course something we have always sought from day one to avoid. It is critical that every effort is made to ensure that the Biden Administration makes it abundantly clear, as I believe the President-elect has, and I congratulate him on his victory, that a UK-EU trade agreement is not a runner if it involves anything that undermines the Good Friday Agreement, the peace on our island and, in particular, the negotiated settlement which the UK regrettably appears to be willing to tear up in passing legislation in the House of Commons that is in breach of international law. That is alarming. It is the elephant in the room in the context of the legislation we are talking about because it would be a very significant game changer in terms of the painstaking negotiations that went into the withdrawal agreement and, in particular, the protocol on Northern Ireland.
Much has been said about the exposure of the agri-food industry, in particular to the UK, and that is true. Reference has also been made to getting our product to market, the land bridge, etc. These are all critical issues, and a lot has been done to try to mitigate the worst excesses of those problems, but we need to look beyond the immediate in the context of Brexit and see where the Irish agri-food industry needs to pitch its bid for new market opportunities in the context of diminished opportunities that will arise in the UK, notwithstanding our best efforts. A lot of good work has been achieved by the industry, working in tandem with the State, to find new market opportunities in recent years, in particular developing opportunities in the Asian market, China in particular. They are all welcome. They are, however, at a greater cost than markets closer to home. The most important market close to home, after the United Kingdom in the context of its membership of the European Union, is the rest of the European Union. We need to play to our strengths and our capacity to be an environmentally sustainable producer of high-quality product and go aggressively after the opportunities to displace other product in the European Union supermarket shelves with Irish product. A lot of effort is going into that. I appreciate the very significant increase in resources that has been ongoing for some years now to Bord Bia, but that is where the major opportunity is to secure additional market share without the opportunity costs, which are higher in markets that are further afield, where we have made great progress as well, particularly, as I said, in the Asian market, the Chinese market and in the Middle East and African markets. The European Union market, however, is the best market for us after the United Kingdom, and we need to redouble our efforts there.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few brief words on this. It was interesting that in the exit polls that were done following our election earlier this year, people said Brexit was a low priority for them. Brexit, as I said at the outset, will confront them in a very unfortunate way because there is no benign Brexit. Any Brexit is bad for Ireland. I hope we get a negotiated trade agreement but even that is not a benign Brexit.
Has the Government plans in place to replace the EU cross-border directive on the island of Ireland? Hospitals in the North have been told by the HSE just this week that they will not reimburse any new clients for operations after 1 January. Those who have had a consultation before the end of the year will be reimbursed if they are in the system, even if the procedure goes into next year, but not those who seek to attend for the first time after 1 January. The option to travel to the Continent for these procedures will still be there but that will prove much more difficult, especially in light of the current restrictions on travel, but even post Covid this is not an easy option. Many who travel up north for an operation do so for hip or knee replacements, cataract removal or back operations. All these make mobility difficult. Travelling to the Continent is not an option for the vast majority of people. The ideal, of course, would be that public waiting lists here would be shortened through addressing the many problems within the health service. The ideal is not to continue to have to pay taxpayers' money to private hospitals in the North or on the Continent. Until the health system here is overhauled, however, the option to travel to Belfast to have an operation needs to remain. People should not have to endure years of pain while awaiting an operation.
It states in the Government's Brexit readiness action plan, which was published in September, that the protocol protects the all-island economy and that under the protocol goods from the North will have free and open access to the EU Single Market. This, it seems, however, has been thrown into doubt. It has been reported that the Commission wrote to one Irish export sector stating, "For the purpose of EU free trade agreements, goods produced in the UK, including Northern Ireland, will not be considered as being of EU-27 origin as from the end of the transition period." I wish to express my deep concern and that of my party that it seems that the all-Ireland economy which has steadily been built up over the past 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement is under threat from Brexit, even with the protocol that was negotiated between the EU and Britain. Even though the protocol will see goods produced in the North adhering to EU standards, there is no provision included within it to continue the practice of northern components being added to goods produced in the South and then exported around the globe under EU free trade agreements. The "rules of origin" terms in many trade deals would only allow a product produced completely within the EU, that is, in the South, to benefit from tariff-free exports. This will leave some sectors of the all-island economy very exposed and certainly has the potential to significantly disrupt all-Ireland production.
The most exposed areas will be the constituencies along the Border, such as my own of Cavan-Monaghan, where co-ops such as Lakeland Dairies and Glanbia source a significant proportion of their raw milk from the North for their production plants in the South. Lakeland Dairies, for example, which has its head office in Cavan, has a milk pool of 1.8 billion l from over 3,000 suppliers on a cross-Border basis and is the largest dairy processing co-operative on the island of Ireland, providing employment to more than 700 people. If not rectified, this will have a serious adverse effect on the all-island economy, not solely but especially in the dairy sector, from export producers to farmers and all the indirect businesses supplying them, and could see a significant loss of employment in the Border region. The Government must step up its efforts to secure a commitment from the EU that a solution will be found to protect the all-island economy and that component products sourced in the North, which will have to adhere to EU standards, will be recognised as coming from the EU 27.
A key principle for the EU in the past two years of negotiations has been the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. This must extend to the all-island economy. I would further argue that this is another reason the only sensible solution for the island of Ireland is unity. Anything less will continue to have a negative impact on the futures of people on both sides of the Border. We in Sinn Féin believe that discussion and planning needs to start now. It does not make sense to wait for the outcome of Brexit when it is abundantly clear the outcome will be overwhelmingly bad. We believe the economic gains from building a shared island are quantifiable, and it would guarantee us a prosperous future.
My party, Sinn Féin, has been clear since the Brexit referendum in 2016 that the protection of full and equal access to EU benefits, such as the EU health insurance card, Horizon 2020 research funding and Erasmus programmes are vital in protecting the rights of Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland. It is welcome that the Irish Government has sought to make arrangements in order that people living in the North would continue to have access to EU health insurance cards in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, reaffirmed this commitment to my colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, in the Seanad only last week, and that is something positive and proactive and is to be commended. However, our approach to the rights of our northern citizens cannot be piecemeal, an add-on or an afterthought.
We must make concerted and concrete moves towards protecting the rights they enjoy as EU citizens. They are and will continue to be EU citizens regardless of what flavour of Brexit our British neighbours cook up next.
Brexit has highlighted the unique position in which Ireland finds itself. Hundreds of thousands of our citizens live only 50 miles or 100 miles from this Chamber and yet have far fewer rights than citizens who live the same distance in the opposite direction. What rights they have as Irish citizens now face the real threat of being diluted or diminished even further. We cannot rely on the goodwill of any British Government to protect the rights of Irish citizens. At times, it seems as though Irish people in the North having Irish citizenship is only a headache that some would have us forget, ignore or dismiss.
This has been made painfully clear by the Emma DeSouza case. She has been dragged from pillar to post in the British courts system because she has the nerve to identify solely as Irish and not as British or a combination of both. Emma and Jake DeSouza have done all Irish citizens a service in highlighting the contempt in which the British administration holds our Northern citizens. It is this contempt, and the real impact of the stripping of fundamental rights enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, those citizens now face as Brexit looms.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has committed the Government to protecting the rights of our citizens. We are, however, only a couple of short months away from Britain cutting itself away from Europe and forcibly taking Irish citizens with it. The British Government has also made similar commitments, but again, we have seen it tie itself in knots as it has tried to force the Internal Market Bill through Westminster. It is a race-to-the-bottom Bill which only serves to breach previous promises, break international law and tear up large sections of the Good Friday Agreement.
Brexit is a reminder that we cannot rely on a Tory Government to honour its commitment or keep its word. We need legal guarantees that the Irish Government will protect all the EU freedoms and rights of our citizens and ensure their rights will be protected as staunchly as if they were from Dublin instead of Derry or Cork instead of Belfast. We need those guarantees and practical solutions to the challenge Brexit poses to all our citizens, North and South.
Today is Armistice Day and I want to think about what unites us as Europeans, and what unites us on these two islands, in the commemoration of all who fought and died in World Wars, in all the theatres of battles, be it for king or kaiser, or for the small nation of Belgium or for the hope of freedom here at home in Ireland, or simply for wages to put food on the table.
Leaving the EU will be a time of realisation and adjustment for Britain, not alone in how long it can or will remain united as a kingdom, but equally, in how it can make a psychological place for and within itself after centuries of empire and generations as a member of the European Union.
On New Year's Eve, therefore, there will be a new political midnight and the people of the United Kingdom will be its children. Unfortunately for us, however, the people of the North of Ireland will be dragged out of EU against their expressed will but as neighbours, friends and, in so many cases, family, I wish the people of Britain well.
As the Minister will be aware, I am a proud and unrepentant united Irelander. I believe the island of Ireland should be united politically and socially as it is geographically, with freedom and respect for everyone of all faiths and none. Last night, in a sense, we had our own armistice here in this Chamber with Civil War politics calling it a day, or should I say a century, as the Soldiers of Destiny came rushing to the rescue of the leader of Fine Gael. For what, I have no idea, except to mirror the politics of the Tories and Mr. Boris Johnson to stay and sit on the benches opposite where power resides.
I believe standards matter, however, as we see in the victory of Mr. Joe Biden and Ms Kamala Harris in America and it is heartening to see the President-elect and Vice President-elect support the Good Friday Agreement. Standards matter too in the Internal Market Bill and its treatment in the House of Lords. That House moved to reject the controversial provisions of the Internal Market Bill approved by the House of Commons which will breach international law. This is its own worry now that the UK will also leave the European Court of Justice. The House of Lords voted to remove clause (42), which includes provisions on the North of Ireland protocol, and also clause (44), which should have overridden parts of the withdrawal agreement relating to the North of Ireland.
Standards matter because they allow dignity in doing what is right. Our argument is with the Tory Party's disrespect for international law and the European Court of Justice; it is not with the people of our neighbouring island. We respect their right to self-determination. It is a pity the Tories would not respect the right of self-determination and the vote of the people of the North to remain. I urge us all to look at this time to prepare for a referendum on Irish unity. The answer to this mess is staring us in the face.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue on Brexit and the implementation of the British withdrawal come 1 January. It will, unfortunately, cause a significant amount of distress and worry about the jobs of workers in industries, particularly in the agri-food industry. It will have a major impact in my constituency of Laois-Offaly, particularly if we do not get a good trade agreement.
It is important that businesses are given certainty around how Brexit will impact on their operations. While we have many differences with people on the Government benches regarding Brexit, Sinn Féin has supported and trusted the efforts to get a strong trade agreement between the EU and Britain and we will continue to do so.
We also need to continue to work not only to hold on to the all-Ireland economy, but to strengthen and deepen the economic connections between North and South economically and to build a strong all-Ireland economy. Workers and families need to know their livelihoods are secure and their employment is sustainable into the future. If one looks at meat factories in Laois-Offaly, for example, they and their workers need to know we will continue to have access to markets in Britain to allow them to plan six months, 12 months or two years down the road. The meat industry provides many jobs in the two counties in plants such as Meadow Meats and Rosderra. Their future is dependent on trade agreements yet to be finalised.
The dairy industry could be similarly impacted. Hundreds of people work on the Kilkenny-Laois border in the Glanbia plant in Ballyragget. The new cheese factory, which belongs to Glanbia, is just about to open in Portlaoise. That will depend on an export market with Britain and it is important we do everything possible to try to support the work to get a good trade agreement before Britain crashes out completely on 31 December.
We have seen the alarming reports that Brexit could endanger up 12,500 jobs in the agri-food sector and that our beef exports could drop by 20%. We must do everything possible not to allow that to happen. There are also quite a few engineering companies in the midlands and, indeed, in County Laois which have contracts with businesses in England. Workers from County Laois travel over to carry out work in Britain. These companies support incomes and families in our communities and we need to ensure we give certainty to them about the future and their businesses.
It is important that Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise offices reach out and work with local businesses. I know and acknowledge much work has been done to ensure plans are in place post-Brexit. Recent evidence, however, highlights the fact that 20% of domestic companies still do not have a proper plan in place in the event of talks collapsing with Britain and, indeed, to mitigate the effects of Brexit. One way or another there will be effects, even if we have a good trade deal.
We must, therefore, also remember the significance of the Good Friday Agreement. We cannot allow attempts by the British Government to override and diminish that agreement. The introduction of a hard border of any sort, or any kind of deviation from that agreement between the Twenty-six Counties and Six Counties, must be challenged and stopped. The citizens of the North voted against Brexit and Stormont must have maximum authority to decide its future. An all-Ireland economy has the potential to be stronger than any negatives we could face from Brexit and we need to move in that direction. The attempts by Boris Johnson to destroy the Irish protocol must be stopped. I welcome the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. As the Minister knows, that strengthens our hand in negotiations and we should use that to the full in terms of keeping the pressure on Britain.
We need to keep the Six Counties in the Single Market and within Single Market and EU rules. I look forward to the time when the Six Counties rejoin the European Union alongside the rest of Ireland. The logic of having all 32 counties in the European Union was never more apparent and we need to start planning for and working towards it. The real solution to the British exit from the EU is a united Ireland and that will take some time and some planning. In the meantime, let us do everything possible to mitigate the effects of Brexit.
The Government is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and it is about time it took that role seriously. The full implementation of that agreement and subsequent agreements needs to be prioritised by the Government. Commitments such as the holding of a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane must be delivered upon. The Irish protocol must be defended at all costs. There are well over 700,000 people with Irish passports living in the North and there were almost 100,000 first-time applicants for a passport in 2019. We cannot stand idly by as those people are used as human shields in a staring competition between Britain and the EU to see who blinks first. We need to ensure their voices are heard and their interests are protected.
The majority of people in the North voted to stay in the European Union and their wishes must be respected. The people living in the Six Counties no longer have a voice in Europe but I and other Sinn Féin Deputies will continue to represent their views. Brexit will have a significant effect on them. On 1 January 2021, there will be just seven weeks' supply available of the chemicals used for the purification of the public water system. Due to their volatile nature, they cannot be stockpiled. Vital medicines cannot be stockpiled, due to the relatively short expiry date on some of them, particularly biologic drugs administered by injection. We need to provide an alternative to the European health insurance card and ensure a reciprocal arrangement is in place for our mutual benefit.
Britain is leaving the EU and we must ensure the transition is as seamless as possible. In particular, we must avoid border infrastructure on the island of Ireland. For more than 20 years, we have seen the benefits that peace has brought. A generation has grown up without the shadow of conflict hanging over it. I have attended several community-led meetings along the now invisible Border that were organised by Border Communities Against Brexit. The mood of people living in Border areas was clear at that meeting when it came to the prospect of Border checks. Any infrastructure that is installed for that purpose will be removed by local people. They will not tolerate it and nor should we.
With just over 50 days to go, there are considerable uncertainties around Britain's exit from the EU. Sterling volatility will have a massive effect on our exporters and the cost of goods in our shops will rise if tariffs are imposed. We are uniquely exposed to Brexit. Approximately 15% of Irish goods and services exports go to the UK. In the agri-food sector, some 40% of exports are destined for the UK. We need to ensure that a fair deal is agreed between Britain and the EU that will allow farming families unimpeded access to larger markets. Arrangements must be put in place for the two thirds of Irish exporters who make use of the UK land bridge to access continental markets. The Covid pandemic and Brexit have really shown the negative effect the Border has on all the inhabitants of this island. Now is the time to talk about a referendum on Irish unity. Unity is coming, whether some like it or not, and we need to prepare for it.
I am sharing time with Deputy O'Dowd. I welcome this Bill, although it is hard to welcome anything that arises out of such sadness of circumstances. None of the issues and legislation that we have debated concerning Brexit in the past number of years has been a positive thing. Brexit has needlessly exercised the minds and abilities of scores of civil servants, politicians and business people throughout the entire island. All of that effort was needed for what is an exercise in pointlessness and negativity. We in Ireland have no choice over what is happening and we must simply respond and continue to prepare as best we can. Whatever happens over the coming days or maybe the next fortnight, while there is the possibility of getting a deal on the future relationship, we know that come 1 January, things will change, and change utterly, for all of us on these islands and across the EU. Regardless of the breadth of this legislation and the previous Brexit omnibus Bill the Minister brought through the Houses some years ago, when I was a Senator, we can never fully prepare for the impact of Brexit, deal or no deal, because there is no such thing as a good Brexit.
The Bill before us today is timely and it addresses a number of key issues. It is an absolute credit to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, his officials and the other Ministers with whom he worked to bring it forward. Together with the previous omnibus Bill, it covers a vast array of issues affecting everyday life for people throughout the country. I am drawn to Parts 2 and 3, in particular, which deal with healthcare provision and the impact of Brexit on the common travel agreement as it applies to cross-border health services. The Government has shown a very worthy commitment to maintaining access to the European health insurance card for Irish citizens in the North. That issue received quite a bit of attention during the summer when certain people in certain parts of the Brexiteer media said that the whole negotiation process was a vengeful European plot and that our citizens in the North would not be able, for some reason, to be able to take advantage of the benefits of membership in the form of the insurance card. In fairness, the Government has stood up once again on that issue.
I have concerns in regard to access to medicines. I was both intrigued and concerned by the reply I received today from the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to a parliamentary question I submitted in this regard. It is an issue that will have to be watched continuously by officials, not just in this jurisdiction but across the Union. It is something that is concerning our British colleagues because they are net importers of medicines.
Part 11 relates to customs arrangements and calls to mind the volume of work that was carried out in recent years by the Government in recruiting customs officials and preparing Dublin Port, Dublin Airport, Rosslare Europort and so on. It is a huge and impressive achievement, particularly when compared with the continuing concerns over works at Dover, Holyhead, Pembroke and Fishguard. Last summer, when the rate of take-up of economic operators registration and identification, EORI, numbers was a cause for significant worry, the Government, working with Revenue, turned the situation around very quickly. That outcome was a credit to the collective effort of those involved. I strongly welcome the measure in last month's budget to provide grants of €9,000 to businesses to allow them to engage customs agents. The profession of customs agent is something from a different era but, sadly, we are forced to embrace it once again.
Part 13 deals with an issue that is simple but also very important to life throughout this island, namely, third-country bus services. It is vital to maintain the current level of access and continuity for simple things like getting the bus to school. Large numbers of people cross the Border every day to go to school, third level education or work. When this pandemic lifts and tourists return, there will once again be lots of people who come to tour the entirety of this island, often in conjunction with a tour of the neighbouring island, and they will be assisted by the good work of our tour operators. We all know people who have, perhaps more in hope than anything else, already booked their rail and sail tickets or are planning to take the old-fashioned National Express route home for Christmas. We hope they make it but that is a discussion for another time and with another Minister.
As we reflect on where we are now in the Brexit process, we may recall the many times when one would wake up and think it was Groundhog Day, with yet another stand-off between the negotiators or, alternatively, a thawing of relations and a coming together between Michel Barnier and one of the four negotiators on the British side. As we face into the next couple of days and whatever comes next, the important thing is that there is a desire to do a deal. There certainly is a desire to do a deal on the part of everyone in this Chamber, as there is on the part of everyone across the EU. We must hope that the same desire is reflected in the position of our British colleagues. The need for a deal is absolute. The entire European Union needs it, including Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and every other member state. However, if we look at the economic forecast from the European Commission, the country that needs a deal the most is the United Kingdom, which is the country that brought this on itself. A no-deal Brexit will hurt everybody but the country that will suffer the most from it is the country that brought it about.
That brings me to the parallel, not negotiation but discussion, both in the joint implementation committee and, of course, on the Internal Market Bill that has been referred to by a number of Members already. The welcome moves in the House of Lords this week to amend that Bill and the concerning comments by the British Government relating to that are a matter perhaps for discussion on another day.
We will leave it to the continuing solidarity from our European colleagues to make sure that the withdrawal agreement, that binding international treaty, is implemented fully by both the European Union and the United Kingdom. That is our responsibility because everything about Brexit is not only about choices, it is about responsibilities. It is about meeting one's responsibilities. It is about the Government's responsibility to meet the needs and the rights of the citizens of this island and of this State. Every step of the way, the Government has proven its ability to do that. When the citizens of Ireland looked in despair at the result of the referendum, they followed up every day with looks of relief at seeing the likes of Deputy Coveney, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, who understands their concerns and is making sure that we can deliver the least worst Brexit for the people of Ireland.
We now must ask what the relationship between Ireland and the UK will be as well as what that between the UK and the EU will be. While we talk about the negotiations and people get mixed up on the trade aspect of the future relationship, geography will not change. The UK has left the EU - that may become official on 1 January - but it cannot leave Europe. They are not leaving Europe. The UK will still be a part of the Council of Europe, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and of so many other supranational and intergovernmental bodies. Equally, the relationship between the UK and the EU will still be so vitally important. There is so much we have in common. There are so many interests, both in this neighbourhood and around the world, that the EU and the UK share as progressive western liberal democracies. Many have referenced the elections in America over the past week and they look at the opportunity. Many people, quite rightly, over recent days following the Taoiseach's phone call, have said that Ireland will be the gateway into Europe for the new American Administration. Whether one is from Mayo or Louth or, indeed, Wexford, everyone is rightly claiming a part of Joe Biden's ethnicity. Really, what we want to look at when we talk about the new American Administration is its approach to international relations and multilateralism.
We talk about Ireland as the bridge into the European Union for the US. Who will be the bridge for the UK into the EU going forward? This is where Ireland must stand up. We are a small member state, but we are an established member state, a respected member state, a member state that believes in the rule of law, that believes in the power of the European Union, and a member state that crucially has benefited so much from European membership. Using the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, that agreement that successive Ministers have worked so hard to protect and implement in this jurisdiction, we use those institutions, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, and all Members of this House and, indeed, of the Upper House use the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We need to be inventive. We need to be imaginative. We need to have the discipline and the structure so that those institutions will ensure that Ireland and the UK can continue to work together because we have that unique position. We are the only European member state that has that opportunity within the rules of the European Union.
When we have this debate - I do not know if this will be the last debate we have on Brexit before the transition period expires - we have to put out a message. There is much hard rhetoric. There are many aggressive tweets. I myself am responsible for half of them. Regardless of what happens, the UK is still our closest neighbour. We still have the responsibility of a benevolent relationship. There are still 48% of people in the UK who are being dragged out of the European Union against their will, be they in Scotland, northern England, Northern Ireland, the rest of England or Wales, and we must leave a message for them: "The light is on. You are always welcome back."
I welcome the Minister to this debate. I would agree with most of what I have heard. I particularly agree with my colleague, Deputy Richmond, when he spoke about the future being us working together, working with the British notwithstanding what will happen now.
We all agree absolutely - we are ad idem- that Brexit is a disaster for everybody, and especially for people on our island, North and South. What we need to work on is the relationship that will continue, North and South and east and west. As chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I am anxious to make progress on improving relationships North and South. Indeed, in a recent meeting we had for the first time an MP from the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, Dr. Stephen Farry, participate. We had, obviously, Sinn Féin and the SDLP. We need to get to the place where we can have unionists participating if they wish. We want them to come in. There is no sign of them coming right now. What we need to do is to find a mechanism for involving ourselves with them, both as parliamentarians and as citizens of the North and the South.
I very much welcome the note of confidence in the speech of the Taoiseach in Dublin Castle relating to the shared island unit when he announced a very significant investment of ring-fenced shared island projects of €500 million. That is hugely important in showing our goodwill here in the South to the people in the North, and particularly to people in the Border counties.
I welcome also the commitment from the Taoiseach to looking at new jobs for Border areas because they are most likely to suffer as a result of what will now happen with Brexit. All our politics must be based on reconciliation, tolerance and trust of each other, and building that up in a way that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been doing. That is the challenge for all of us.
At the end of the day, like other Members in this House, I am a united Irelander. I believe in a united Ireland. I believe in it by consent and I believe in showing the way by showing that we are generous and that we are prepared to work with people and respect them. It is not a united Ireland whether they like or not, as Sinn Féin Members said here tonight, but a united Ireland where we all agree that, whatever mechanism or what relationships we have, we move forward together and that each person's individual entitlement to and entity in his or her political beliefs is respected.
One of my concerns, and this is why we need to work together, is the question of our health and Covid-19. I am not quite sure what happened in Belfast today but there seems to be a significant difference between how they will deal in the North with opening up their economy. Some people want to relax it now and more want to dovetail in with what we are doing in the South. It is hugely important in terms of health policy, especially in terms of Covid, that we work together. Covid is rampant in Northern Ireland at present and I would hate to think that things would get worse rather than better up there. Nevertheless, we need to work together. I would like to see greater co-operation and greater progress made on the same regulations, North and South, if at all possible. That is not about politics. That is about health. It is about making people safe.
Obviously, I am also concerned at the implications that Brexit may have for following up criminals wherever they be on these islands and that we would continue to have appropriate, proper and fair due process extradition proceedings to bring criminals from one jurisdiction to the other one. I would hope that that will not suffer notwithstanding what will happen with Brexit. In the case of the international arrest warrant etc., we need to make sure that, whatever happens and however extreme the views might be in the United Kingdom about leaving the European Union, criminals will not get any succour or will not be able to hide in either jurisdiction.
One of the important projects in building up relationships, certainly in my constituency of Louth, is the Narrow Water Bridge proposal. I very much welcome the Taoiseach's commitment in his speech in Dublin Castle in which one of the three issues he raised as needing to be progressed further was the Narrow Water Bridge. That will obviously improve economic relationships, North and South. It will certainly make a huge difference for tourists and people who we want to flood to our shores shortly, please God, if and when we can defeat this Covid. The Narrow Water Bridge is a hugely important issue for my constituents which I very much support.
When one thinks of the relationship between Britain and Ireland over the centuries, among the most significant changes were obviously the Acts of Union 1800 which in many ways destroyed the economy, certainly that of Dublin. In the 1920s, the island split again with the division of our country. Then we had the Good Friday Agreement and now we have Brexit. Alongside all the issues and political developments that happened, we never managed to really reach an accommodation, particularly with unionists in the North. The most important point to emphasise in this debate is the opening up of all opportunities for involvement and participation, North and South.
I welcome the commitment on education. There are also very sensible things that could be done with health co-operation. With towns like Dundalk and Newry are right beside each other, can we reach new agreements on sharing health services? If we look at counties Derry and Donegal and at the hinterland of Derry, there is huge room for economic co-operation and new initiatives so that the Border, which has been invisible in recent years thanks to our joint membership of the European Union, will be the least visible border we can possibly have. That is really the only way to go and the future for us is together.
This Brexit legislation is traumatic for all of us but it is important that we, as European citizens, recognise that the EU has really stood behind us. People like Mr. Michel Barnier have faced challenges on our behalf. The firm, determined and resolute approach by the European Union has been most welcome in terms of our relationship with it. As we untangle the economic things that we must untangle as a result of Brexit and consider the very significant adverse economic impact it will have on us, I believe we can rely on Europe. Given the difficulties that may very well lie ahead, its goodwill is hugely important to us.
I pay tribute to our civil servants, particularly those in Brussels and in the Department of Foreign Affairs, who have worked might and main. Over the years, I have got to know a number of them personally and I seen their patriotism, commitment, expertise, knowledge and influence. They have done a fantastic job in making sure the views of citizens here, represented by our Parliament, are fully represented and understood in all parts of Europe. They did not, and they will not, walk away from us.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to discuss this Bill tonight. I look forward with hope, notwithstanding the trouble that is coming in the form of economic problems and, unfortunately, significant job losses. However, by looking forward we, as a nation and a as Government, can show that with the shared island economic policy, we can bring people together. As I said, reconciliation, tolerance and trust must be the watchwords for all of us.
Brexit is nothing short of a tragedy and most of all it is a tragedy for the British people. Those who were conned into voting to take back control will, as a direct result of Brexit, see their Government take control all right - control of a faltering economy, a poorer, less diverse society and a deeply uncertain future. Far from delivering on the promise of a Britain more respected and more influential in the world, the conduct of the Brexit project to date has, in fact, sullied Britain’s reputation and the status of a country whose future was at the heart of a reformed, social, Europe. I say this as a friend of Britain and who always strives and seeks to better understand the complexities of our long relationship. We all need critical friends, however.
Make no mistake, the mirage of taking back control was all about the unrealisable fantasies of a cosseted elite in Britain, well versed in manipulating citizens and using them, ultimately, for their own ends and profits. If all of this collapses around them, they will still be rich. Their kids will still get a privileged education and the best start and progress in life. They will all be okay but the same cannot be said for working people, SME owners, people whose jobs are at risk of disappearing and business owners whose markets may diminish before their very eyes. We all hope for a strong future relationship and that that relationship will be agreed over the next short period of time and underpinned by the rule of international law. I take this opportunity to wish our Ministers and our skilled officials well as we enter what we might term the endgame.
I am very proud to represent the people of County Louth and east County Meath, a Border constituency. The risks for our country and our economy generally are very obvious but they are particularly acute in the Border region. An entire way of life is under threat, not merely our economic future. As has been mentioned time and again today, our EU colleagues fundamentally get this. They have been as good as their word. At every turn in these in this tortuous saga they not only stood with us but stood up for us. They backed us on the backstop. They, like President-elect Biden, still back the Good Friday Agreement and all it promises. They have backed peace and prosperity in Ireland. We all want to see the EU and UK trade as simply and productively as possible while maintaining the integrity of the Single Market and its rules. I recall accompanying the then German Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, my social democratic colleague, Ms Katarina Barley, MEP, on a visit to the Border area of north County Louth in early February of last year. We stood on top of a well-known place, Flagstaff in County Down. To the east I showed her where the IRA ambushed and killed 18 British soldiers near Warrenpoint. That site could become a very real symbol of reconciliation and positive economic development if we build the long-awaited Narrow Water bridge. I showed her where the countless watchtowers and checkpoints had pockmarked the landscape in north County Louth, south County Armagh and south County Down until relatively recently. She wondered how a place so staggeringly and stunningly beautiful could have witnessed so much sectarian violence and misery over decades.
The future relationship needs to be viewed not just through the prism of our economic interests but must also be grounded in mutual respect, the promotion and maintenance of respect, mutual trust and good relationships, east-west and North-South. We should never lose sight of this. Of course, the closeness of the relationship between Ireland and Britain was given practical form in the common travel area arrangements which predate our common membership of the EU. Many of the mutual agreements and arrangements we have taken for granted over the decades have had to be codified and captured in primary laws. It is welcome to see arrangements applying to healthcare, third level education support, social welfare, employment permits, employment rights and other important matters provided for in this Bill and in previous legislation brought to this House over the past two to three years.
Ultimately, the provisions of this Bill seek to minimise disruption and mitigate the anticipated worst impacts of a potential no-trade deal Brexit to business and the economy. On this point I turn for a moment to a particular provision in the Bill. There are enormous very legitimate concerns in the tourism-retail sector, if I can use that term, about the potential impact on that sector of a measure contained in section 64.
My colleague, Deputy Howlin, articulated this very point in his contribution. He is not, as the Minister well knows from his experience, a Member who is prone to engage in fits of hyperbole. He was very clear on his concerns and the concerns of many who operate in this sector, in terms of the potential impact of section 64.
The non-grocery element of the retail trade, as the Minister knows, has been absolutely hammered since the onset of the pandemic. There has been a concentration of job losses in this economic sector, which is heavily concentrated in rural parts of our country and in our smaller towns. The Government has, of course, provided unprecedented cash supports to keep businesses afloat and to keep people in work and connected to businesses, when closure seemed the only alternative for many of these particular businesses. This makes the frankly reckless measure provided for in section 64 all the more inexplicable, given the vast range of supports provided to businesses over the last period of time. The proposed amendments to the successful retail export scheme could not have been devised more unwisely or at a worse time. In order to give our retail sector every chance we need to maintain every weapon in our armoury and now is no time to turn the gun on it.
One element of this proposal involves increasing the value of qualifying goods under the scheme to €175 in order for a third country resident to be eligible to enjoy the benefits of the retail export scheme. The Minister may be aware that robust research undertaken for the sector suggests that 80% of tourist transactions are below this figure. Extraordinarily, this change, if approved by the Houses over the next couple of weeks, will see this minimum spend for tax-free shopping rocket to what we are told is the highest level in the EU. I understand France plans to drop its minimum spend for non-EU tourists from January 2021 in what is a very competitive environment. In order to give this exceptionally distressed sector some chance of trading its way out of the current quagmire when, we hope, we can get back to some semblance of normality, I urge the Government to drop this ill-conceived and poorly timed proposition.
To a point I understand the logic behind the proposal and the overall intention of section 64. I know from a reply to a parliamentary question I received last week from the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, that his view is that the volume of passenger traffic from the UK could mean a substantial increase in the volume of refund applications and that the current iteration of the retail export scheme could be open to abuse. Frankly, I do not share these concerns. They are overstated. They may be over-egged. Fáilte Ireland data show that shopping comprises just 11% of total expenditure when UK visitors take a trip here. I am not certain the displacement of consumer goods and potential massive VAT revenue loss arguments are ones of which we should be all that wary.
The Minister also advises in his reply to me that this move and the other associated measure, which is that UK visitors would be required to go through a different process from others in terms of proof of importation and payment of duty, are precautionary in nature. If the Minister is determined to introduce the latter measure, as contained in section 64, I implore the Government at least to review its efficacy after six months of operation of this particular provision and engage with the House and the sector affected to establish whether the measure is indeed required to meet the Government's stated objectives. In the Minister's contribution at the outset of the debate, he remarked he is prepared to engage with Opposition Members to look pragmatically at some sensible amendments that may be made to the legislation we are discussing here today. Certainly this is a conversation Deputy Howlin and I are prepared to have with him and his officials and, potentially, officials of the Department of Finance to address this particular concern, which I believe has a great degree of validity.
I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020. In particular, I want to focus on the area of healthcare, which is dealt with in Part 2 of the Bill. It deals with arrangements on healthcare and allows the Minister to make the necessary regulations to deal with this area now that the UK is leaving the European Union. A memorandum of understanding is already in place between Ireland and the UK on many of these issues. It is important to understand the contribution that Irish people have made to the British health service and the contribution that Britain has made to the Irish health service, in that many of the training processes in the medical profession are organised jointly.
There is huge co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between the Republic and the UK. Many Irish doctors and nurses train in the UK, or part of their training is in the UK. This is, to an extent, going to change because the UK will no longer be part of the European Union. This training process was already in place long before either country entered the European Union. There was a huge level of co-operation on medical care in both areas and we have learned an awful lot from one another. It is important that we keep this level of co-operation and contact in developing healthcare and have this connection. In Ireland there may be particular procedures or treatments needed by only five or six people in any one year, which means it is not possible to locate a specialist dealing with the particular issue here in Ireland. This is why we have worked with UK medical authorities on this matter, with regard to rare diseases and, in particular, very complex medical procedures such as transplants.
The arrangements we are speaking about, which are dealt with in the Bill, allow the Minister to deal with regulations and set out the categories covered by the common travel area and the entitlement of citizens to visit, work, study and reside in another state. The arrangements also outline categories of health services, such as planned healthcare, in the other state. We have become very much familiar with cross-border healthcare. I had the privilege of being in the European Parliament when the issue of cross-border healthcare was being discussed and progressed between 2007 and 2009. It dealt with the entitlement to travel to another member state to get healthcare if the healthcare required is not available in the person's own member state or there is undue delay. It was finally passed in 2011 and came into place in Ireland 30 months later. People have had the benefit of it in Northern Ireland, people from the UK have travelled to Europe for healthcare, and people have travelled from Ireland to Northern Ireland and the UK.
The existing arrangements outline a number of categories of health services. As well as planned healthcare and cross-border healthcare, which I have dealt with, the arrangements also outline other categories, including healthcare during a temporary visit whereby tourists are entitled to get healthcare; the right to healthcare of posted workers, for example, a person posted by an employer to the UK for a period of time of less than 12 months; and the right to healthcare of frontier workers, who work in one state and reside in another, and we have many frontier workers in our Border counties, with people living in the Republic and working in Northern Ireland or vice versa. Students studying in Ireland or in the UK will also require healthcare and their right to healthcare is also included in the existing arrangements. It is important that we make sure the arrangements we have had and enjoyed for a long number of years can continue.
I know there will be different qualifying criteria and it will be managed differently, but it is important that we co-operate with one another in this area.
Access to healthcare for Irish residents in the UK will be based on the health legislation applicable to each of the four devolved areas of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. UK residents will have access to health services in Ireland on the same basis as a person with limited eligibility status who resides in Ireland. It is important we make sure we can continue that level of co-operation. It also means we must work with our other partners in Europe, such as Holland, Denmark and all of the other EU countries, to develop closer co-operation. We need to make sure we keep up to date so we can deliver the quality of healthcare that is available in this country and that continues to be developed in other countries. We need to keep up with them.
One of the other areas we need to focus on is the whole area of research and development. There has been a lot of co-operation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland in regard to the area of research, and it is important that this would continue. There is connectivity because of the training mechanisms within the medical profession, and it is important no barriers are put in place to reduce that connectivity at any stage in the future. In recent months, we have faced a pandemic right across the world. It has been amazing to see the level of co-operation that has taken place in trying to develop a vaccine. We have had progress on that matter in the last 48 hours with the announcement by Pfizer that it may have a vaccine available quite soon. It is important that we are in tune with the progress made in areas like research and development at all times so we can make a contribution but also get a benefit. That is what has happened with our healthcare service and it is why we must continue to make sure we do not in any way reduce our level of contact with the UK in that area.
I very much welcome the work done by the Department of Health, the previous Minister, Deputy Harris, and the current Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in this area. I thank all Departments, all officials and all the Ministers who have held relevant portfolios for the work they have done in regard to foreign affairs, agriculture, transport and health. We have made huge progress in trying to come to an agreement that will benefit every citizen in this State. It is important that we continue that work right up until we have an agreement that can benefit all of us. I thank the Minister, the officials and everyone involved for their work in this area and for dealing with what has been a very complex area in recent years. Let us hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we can see a greater level of co-operation from the UK with the European Union, and that the co-operation that existed while it was a member will continue to grow and develop in the years ahead.
I compliment the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and their officials in the Department on preparing this legislation, and I know other Departments fed into it as well. This is important legislation and is welcome from many points of view. It ensures reciprocal access to health services for residents of Ireland in Britain, as Deputy Colm Burke has outlined in good detail. It ensures the European health insurance card for residents of Northern Ireland should they lose that facility when Britain exits on 1 January next. It continues the financial support for Irish third level students in British colleges. It maintains continuity of social protection arrangements in the common travel area. It protects employees in Ireland of a company that has been made insolvent in Britain. It enables extradition between Ireland and Britain when Britain leaves the European arrest warrant scheme.
These are issues we deal with daily and take for granted, but they are very important protections for our citizens. In barely seven weeks' time, Britain will be outside not just the European Union but, most importantly and very regrettably, outside the customs union and the Single Market. The trading and economic relationship between Ireland and Britain, which has been gradually and progressively aligning and harmonising for almost 50 years, will receive a cold, hard shock. Almost 50 years of progress will be substantially reversed, which has to be a cause of concern to all of us. Moving goods to and from Ireland and Britain will become more expensive and cumbersome, not to mention the added difficulties of trading goods with our EU partners when those goods must travel through the so-called landbridge that runs right through Britain.
It is not just about goods. Much of the economic and trade activity across the two islands is in services, increasingly so in recent years. The obstacles, costs and impediments to the trading of goods are replicated when it comes to trading services, with the added difficulty of data transfers, an area where there is increasing uncertainty. We have been seeing battles over the protection and integrity of personal data transferred to the US being played out in our courts. The two methods introduced to permit businesses to transfer the personal data of EU citizens to the US, Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield, have both been struck down. Could we face the same problems and difficulties in transferring data to Britain when Britain is outside the EU and no longer under the aegis of GDPR?
Our economy, unfortunately, is about to receive a major jolt, if not a seismic shock. With just seven weeks to go, we remain unsure as to the nature and construction of the new relationship. That is not the fault of anybody in our State or Government at political or official level. It is extraordinary that we cannot state with any certainty now, with only seven weeks to go, if there will be a post-Brexit deal between Britain and the European Union, never mind what it will contain. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have repeatedly said we anticipate there will be such a deal, and that is an important message to give out. I know there is very little else that can be said right now because, if the Government was to talk about a no-deal situation, it would be seized upon by the Brexiteers in the British Government as evidence that the EU just wants to punish England for having the temerity to leave the EU.
The delay in reaching agreement in negotiations is going to cause difficulty for businesses in my constituency and many other areas on both sides of the Border. We are working in the hope there will be some last-minute agreement on such outstanding issues as fishing and a level playing field, but we are also seeing deadline after deadline pass. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, attended the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement recently, where we all spoke about the need to implement the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol, and not just implement them, but implement them in good faith. We know any agreement reached in the negotiations led by Michel Barnier and David Frost will need to go through a ratification process, yet we watch the clock tick down. It is worth asking just how sustainable and long-lasting any agreement reached in these stop-start talks with the representatives of the current British Government will be.
A British National Audit Office report on British border preparedness, which was published last week, makes it clear there will be significant disruption at the end of the transition period because of inadequate infrastructure and IT systems. The report also said there is a lack of preparation on the part of British businesses. What it does not say is how British businesses can be expected to prepare themselves for the post-1 January black hole when their own Government does not have a clue what it is doing or trying to achieve.
Irish businesses are being placed in a similar position, although the Irish Government and State agencies have been working hard, insofar as they can, to help businesses to prepare by offering their best assessment of what the situation will look like, and, very importantly, giving financial support to businesses to prepare.
After 1 January, all of us as public representatives will be inundated with questions about economic operator and registration identification numbers. These are, as Members know, the unique reference numbers that allow businesses to import from or export to countries outside the EU and which are required on all customs declaration forms. We will see the return of the customs broker, a job title we thought had gone the way of the glimmer man. Companies exporting goods will now have to have customs brokers and have a mechanism to pay the customs duty and the right information and documentation to support the importation of goods. How companies large and small do business is going to change. Almost no one running a business today has any muscle memory of operating customs processes. I know this will be a problem for all companies but, given the scale and capacity of larger companies to deal with this, it will be a much bigger issue for small to medium enterprises.
In a series of speeches here over the past few years both in plenary session in the Dáil and at various committees, I have set out in the starkest terms my anxieties about the many economic and social problems that Brexit heralds for my community and my region, both North and South. For the past three years, we have been feeling the early impact on the agri-food sector and we recall the huge difficulties the mushroom sector faced immediately after the Brexit referendum, when sterling fell in value. Similarly, the dairy industry, which is a major economic contributor across the Border region, with large producers such as Lakeland Dairies and others, sources the raw material from both sides of the Border. Thankfully, since 1998 we have witnessed a huge growth in the all-Ireland economy. Thankfully, today most of our major food businesses, whether dairy, pig meat, sheep meat or beef, are all-Ireland businesses. Those industries are true cross-border industries but they still face much uncertainty about how they will go about their day-to-day trading. Regarding raw product collected in one jurisdiction and processed in the other jurisdiction, what will be the mechanics and the modus operandi of getting that product to its destination for processing and then to its final destination and onto the shelf?
Our region and our communities are effectively being held hostage and used as leverage by a Tory Party driven by what we have to regard as Brexit madness. As I said here many times, this is not the action of a good neighbour. Last June, I said here in another debate that the Government must prepare for the worst and this Bill is an important further step in doing that. I commend the Government on producing such a wide-ranging and comprehensive omnibus Bill. It is a vital element in tackling the huge range of complex issues individuals and businesses alike will face post-Brexit transition. Its aim is clear: to reduce as far as we practically can the impact of the post-Brexit situation on Irish businesses and ameliorate the disturbance that Brexit will bring. There was an understandable wariness about moving too quickly in that direction in the forlorn hope that sense might prevail in Westminster. As we can see, it has not. The careless and reckless abandon that Mr. Johnson's Government has shown to its neighbours in Europe, not to mention his mendacious approach to his responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement, will take years to repair. Future British Governments will find themselves having to undo the damage inflicted by Mr. Johnson, Mr. Gove, Mr. Raab and their colleagues, just as President-elect Biden must undo some of the damage caused by his predecessor. Indeed, the election of Joe Biden reinforces the message sent by such great friends of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Richie Neal and Congressman Brendan Boyle that Britain will not be allowed to shirk its responsibilities to the Good Friday Agreement.
It is important to put on the record in our discussions here that American support for the Good Friday Agreement comes from both sides of the aisle. It comes from Members of Congress and Senators from both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. It is important to put on the record also that a motion passed in the US House of Representatives in December 2018 was a cross-party one which called on the British Government to ensure that in leaving the EU, no damage would be done to the Good Friday Agreement.
I complement again the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and the officials in their Department and in other Departments on preparing this necessary legislation. It would be great if we did not need this legislation but it is an important protection to have in place should Britain leave the EU without a deal but we sincerely hope that will not be the situation.
I rise to speak in support of this omnibus Bill, which is the result of the sad decision of Britain to withdraw from the EU. There are numerous reasons for this Bill as we have entwined much of our legislation in our partnership with the EU over the past 47 years. This Bill is made up of 21 Parts relating to matters within the remit of 11 different Ministers and it also makes provision for the Northern Ireland protocol, which protects the peace process and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland while preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market and the customs union and Ireland's place therein.
I commend the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the former Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the senior civil servants on their preparation in going into these ongoing negotiations on Britain exiting the EU. They were well ahead of the posse in persuading our European partners of the strategic and political reasoning in negotiating the Northern Ireland protocol.
When Ireland and the UK joined the Common Market in January 1973, Ireland's exports to the UK were around 70% of our total exports. Ireland's dependence on the UK for trade was massively transformed as a result of EU membership. We now export our goods and services to all corners of the globe. Our membership of the EU has been very good for Ireland. Our exports to the UK now account for only between 9% and 12% of our total exports and 25% of our imports.
This Bill has been drafted to protect our citizens and consumers, to reduce the possibility of a serious disturbance in the economy of the State, to facilitate the sound functioning of a number of key markets, sectors and fields and to ensure our businesses are not disadvantaged. It also protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, supporting North-South co-operation and an all-island economy. These are the key underpinnings of the Government's approach in a number of provisions of this Bill. This Bill protects and maintains the common travel area and the associated rights and privileges which precede our membership of the EU. I am pleased that both the Irish and British Governments are committed to maintaining the common travel area. It should be said that this probably prevents us from joining the Schengen area for the foreseeable future.
This Bill is being dealt with in a timely fashion and should be ready for commencement before the full withdrawal of Britain at the end of the year. One concern that has been brought to my attention relates to section 64, which amends section 58 of the Value-Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010, the proposed change to the retail export scheme and the issues arising from admitting UK residents, now that they are not members of the EU, into the scheme. It must be remembered the proposal is to raise the minimum threshold from 1 cent to €175 and that this spending is conducted in one retail outlet. This scheme led to the export of traditional Irish products, such as crystal, glass, china and pottery, handmade woven clothes and other specialty Irish-produced goods. This, in turn, led to greater online sales when these products were brought back to the tourists' home countries. Those involved in the trade are concerned that this amendment to the scheme will unnecessarily impact the availability of this scheme for tourists from all non-EU countries. I am aware that France has reduced its previous threshold from €175 to €100 in time for Brexit.
Would it be possible to maintain the status quofor the next year as a boost to the tourism recovery plan and could we make a detailed assessment of this scheme in time for next year's Finance Bill?
In the context of Brexit, the major concern that I will raise is connectivity to and from the mid-west and western region through Shannon Airport. It is essential that we maintain air connectivity to such major hubs as London Heathrow and develop reliable and frequent routes to other European hubs such as Frankfurt and Paris. At present, Heathrow is the only hub airport accessible to the catchment area of Shannon. The loss of EU hub connectivity after Brexit is of serious concern to stakeholders in the region. Air links to hubs in the US and Europe via London are critical for effective regional development and necessary if the Government's ambition to drive 75% of growth outside the capital by 2040 is to be realised. Access to airports is particularly important for the high-tech foreign direct investment, FDI, and knowledge-intensive firms that are the key drivers of economic development. The importance of Shannon Airport in this regard is also evidenced by the fact that over 40% of FDI companies in the region are located in the catchment area of the airport.
I also have concerns about our valuable exports, particularly those from the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors which account for 50% of our exports by value. The majority of this cargo is freighted by air. We are all aware of the problems that may occur with the landbridge route to Europe. It is essential that we also build air bridges to the European mainland. It is crucial that the Government invests in securing these strategic routes to provide connectivity in a post-Brexit era and to provide business and tourism with vital links to maintain growth in these sectors.
I am aware that this Bill is proposing changes to many sectors of our legislative framework but these are necessary changes to protect our nation and its citizens. I know that every Department, agency and organisation in the State network has been working hard to make these amendments to our legislation.
I wish the negotiating team all the best in the next month as it brings the negotiations on Brexit to a conclusion. I express my support for this Bill.
I commend the Bill to the House and welcome the opportunity to speak on it. The legislation that is before us is made up of many Parts and straddles many Departments. It is a complex omnibus Bill that tries to deal, insofar as possible, with many of the issues that are facing us with Brexit six or seven weeks away. I wish everybody who is involved in the negotiations well - those on the Irish side, including the Minister who is here to take the debate, and also those on the European and British sides. I wish them well in making sure that Britain leaves the European Union with a deal. That is outside our control and we are trying to make sure that every eventuality is accounted for under this complex legislation.
I would like to discuss a number of issues. Some sections of the Bill deal with health matters and the provision of healthcare is vital. Over the past number of years, the initiative under the EU cross-border directive has been used by many people on the southern side of Ireland to travel to Belfast and places across Europe for healthcare. Many complex medical procedures and surgeries have been sought in the UK and across Europe. Over the past number of years, I have facilitated a considerable number of people from my constituency and others to travel to Belfast for cataract and other procedures. That has helped in an enormous way with the backlog in our region. I know that bilateral arrangements are being negotiated and importance is being placed on that.
It is vital that the services I have mentioned are not only available as an excuse for the Irish health service. One would hope that further investment in Irish health services would mean that travel across the Border to Belfast or other places will not be required and that we will be able to provide these services in a timely fashion. In the meantime, it is vital that the opportunity to avail of those services is made available and that we make sure that the bilateral agreement is teased out to the nth degree and that it properly reflects exactly what is the case at the moment. I know that a lot of issues are referred to under the auspices of healthcare in this Bill but that is one of the initiatives that I would like to make sure is maintained and continued.
Many speakers have spoken about the impact on many industries. I come from a rural part of a rural constituency and one of the major industries there is agriculture. A number of other indigenous industries have built up and are exporting a considerable volume of products to the UK, having built up a market over many years. I will deal with the agricultural industry, particularly the agrifood industry which has developed enormously. Farmers take huge pride in the product that they are producing at the moment. Those products have been produced to the highest possible international, EU and Irish standards. Many of those farmers are fearful and wish to make sure that there is a route to market for their products. In all discussions, we must make sure that the indigenous agricultural industry is maintained and that the value added that has built up in many instances in that industry is maintained. It is important that industry is referred to in any address. Perhaps the Minister, when he is wrapping up this debate, will reiterate those points about the food industry and the many agencies that are working to make sure that we have an expert and excellent product going to market.
Many people have looked on fearfully over the past number of months at what has been coming from the UK and what was passed by the English Legislature relating to the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol. We must ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected in all its aspects. It is 22 years since the agreement was signed on 10 April 1998, which was a monumental day. An enormous investment was made to bring all parties to the talks over a long period of time in order to silence the gun, and make sure that everybody was on board and could see the dividend for them and their communities in peace and reconciliation in the North of Ireland.
What has happened in the world over the past three, four or five years has been the polarisation of politics. We have seen it manifested in the US over the past few weeks and years. There is no room for the polarisation of politics because it does not lead to good outcomes in the end.
Many people have challenged different aspects of the European Union and its regulations over many years. Some of those regulations have been hard to deal with from an Irish perspective and have changed the way of life of communities here. Those types of regulations must be fought back against, negotiated and considered from the point of view of the EU. However, if taken in an overall context, the European Union has been extremely good for Ireland and Europe.
We stand here only six or seven weeks from the UK leaving the European Union. It is going to have an impact and disturbance. All practising politicians and those who are involved in political debate, whether in the media or any other format in which political discussion is going on, need to show less of the polarisation of politics. We need to have the centre ground and moderate politics that reflect what has been achieved through the European Union. Nearly all of the politicians here have been out to Brussels at various stages in delegations or meeting groups, or whatever.
Some people say that a bureaucratic nightmare has been built up there. It has certainly had, however, significant peaceful dividends and input into the lives of Europeans who had been at war for the previous 100 years. One man said to me as we were leaving Brussels one day that no matter what one would say about its bureaucracy, it certainly beats killing one another. The European Union has had an enormous impact on the peace negotiations in the North of Ireland and on the regularisation of relationships there and it is important that we stand firm behind the Good Friday Agreement.
Following the results of the presidential election in the United States, the President-elect Joe Biden said that he believes fully in the Good Friday Agreement and that it is sacrosanct in international law. We should all take heed to ensure that in all our political discourse and discussions, not just in heated discussion, that the polarisation of people is not the way to have better outcomes for the ordinary man and woman on the street. It may provide great discourse on Twitter and the social media and in any other debate one can have but at the end of the day, politicians are elected to serve people, not just in this House but right across the globe, and they are there for the betterment of the people who send them there. It is important to ensure that at the core of our political discussion, we are not polarising people and are bringing everybody with us. We have seen the rí rá in relation to one or the other, not just in recent history but down through history and polarisation does not work and cannot work into the future.
There are two aspects of this Bill I wish to refer to in the few minutes that are left to me. On the student support and the change in how the SUSI grant was framed in legislation in 2011, it is important to ensure there is a channel available. Many people have gone to the UK and have benefited from third level education in UK universities in a whole raft of careers, particularly on the medical side, including physiotherapy, pharmacy, and doctors. Many have gone to the UK, not just to England but to Scotland and other places. It will be important to have a bilateral agreement to ensure that students from Ireland can continue to use that process and have access to education, together with the professionalism that people bring back from it.
I note that the social welfare and security element within the Bill deals with social security payments that have been made in Britain and in Ireland. People have emigrated to the UK and have worked over many decades for short and for long periods and when it comes to their pension, it is vitally important that the bilateral understanding that is there between Ireland and the UK in respect of social security is firmly rooted in positive legislation that cannot be challenged. Over the years, we have seen instances of people who, within a year or two of pension age, that is, at 63, 64, or 65 years of age, start looking at their contributions and at shortfalls in that regard only to find, perhaps because of legislation, they are unable to do anything about it. It is important that there is a proper bilateral arrangement on the social security and welfare side.
I cannot emphasise enough the need to have access to UK universities for a whole raft of qualifications, be they primary or masters degrees, In addition, people have received training there. Historically, this has been a positive way in which people have gone to practise medicine in UK hospitals, having qualified in Ireland in different medical professions, and then have come home to practise in Ireland and have given the benefit of that to our State and Republic. It is important that this practice is underlined and kept.
The most important thing that we do is that we wish everybody well in the negotiations and that we do not have serious damage to our small island as a result of Brexit because we have a small open economy, have fantastic people producing great product right across this spectrum and we need to have access to markets for those products. I commend the Bill to the House in the strongest possible terms.
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
It has been stated by many people here that we are still dealing with Brexit and with a failure of British politics and in Ireland we feel that pain. We have no clarity. We still have nothing resolved as to fisheries or level playing field governance. We have one deadline after another that has not been seen or met.
In fairness, this week a number of a bright shoots have appeared. We have the possibility that we may have vaccines that could provide us with some solutions as to the situation we find ourselves in as regards this pandemic. We also have had changes in American politics with the election of Joe Biden. Whatever about any other aspect of his politics, it is fair to say this is a man with a good County Louth connection in Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula in the north of the county and he has an understanding of that area. He has shown a commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, that there can be no hardening of the Irish Border and that there is no possibility of a free trade agreement between Britain and America in the event that any of this is put in danger. This is part of the international solidarity which has been absolutely necessary. We need to ensure that it is maintained because at this point in time, if one googles Brexit, one finds results like “EU Commission realises that food supply difficulties for the North of Ireland are a real problem”, and “Another year needed to amend distribution of distribution of medicines post-Brexit”. These are incredibly worrying things at this point in time, particularly with regard to medicines as we talk about vaccinations. We have seen the dangers and the difficulties of what a Boris Johnson or a Michael Gove or whoever in Britain determines to operate from the point of view of what suits Britain and we, here, have to deal with that.
I welcome some of the moves of the Government and the fact that we now have a shared island unit and that the Taoiseach has said that he will be pushing forward with projects such as the Narrow Water Bridge, the A5 and other such projects that have fallen between stools at times and have not been dealt with adequately.
I also welcome the work that has been done on Brexit readiness and that a great number of firms have already sorted themselves out as regards Revenue and customs, with EORI numbers and such requirements. We need to ensure that this is maintained and continued and that any firms that have not made preparations do so, because we do not know what type of Brexit we will be dealing with.
We are in support of this legislation, which is based on the fact that we will have a withdrawal agreement and that we will have the Irish protocol. While we now have further international solidarity, which puts pressure on the British Government to follow up on the promises and deals it has already made with regard to Ireland, we do not have complete clarity. We still have the Internal Market Bill and the fact that we have a British Government that is willing or at least promising that it will break the law to undermine some of these supports. This is utterly unacceptable. We need to ensure that we maintain international solidarity and that Britain is left in no doubt that there can be no hardening of the Border and that we will accept no moves back from those mitigations.
It is fair to state that the people of the North did not vote to leave the European Union. In the near future we could be entering a period where all of us on this island will need to make a determination. For the people of the North, it will be about staying in the European Union and leaving another failed union. Irish history tells us we cannot not trust or rely on a British Government so we need to take the power back to Ireland.