Thursday, 12 November 2020
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak to this Bill. It has never been more important to ensure that Irish interests across our entire island are protected throughout the Brexit process. We have seen how the Tories continue to undermine the process and, indeed, Irish interests, most recently through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which is both dangerous and illegal. Surely at this stage we should know never to trust a British Government when it comes to Ireland, Irish interests and our people. We have to make every effort to ensure that a free trade agreement that protects Irish jobs is agreed. This is a matter of great concern in my constituency, particularly given the enormous damage caused to our economy by the pandemic and the closure of businesses this year. Some people feel that, as a result of the pandemic, the focus has shifted away from the potential difficulties Brexit may pose. We need to assure communities and businesses that they will be able to work and live their lives as normal once Britain leaves the EU.
On the specifics of this Bill, I will raise the proposed changes to the retail export scheme and the effect these will have on tourist-focused retailers. As we know, this scheme enables tourists from outside of the EU to claim a VAT refund on exported holiday purchases on sales worth more than a minimum of 1 cent. Since the 1980s, the scheme has played a part in helping local businesses to grow and has contributed greatly to attracting tourism spend. This Bill changes the scheme so that tourists can only avail of it if they are willing to spend more than €175 per store. It is estimated that 80% of tourists who use the scheme spend less than €175 per store. This figure rises to 90% along the west coast and in the midlands, areas that cannot afford any further blows to tourism. The types of businesses on which this change will have the worst impact are the arts and crafts businesses, the pottery businesses, the Irish woollens businesses, businesses selling musical instruments such as bodhráns, and so on. Tourists would have availed of this VAT relief when shopping in such businesses. This measure will hit small retailers hardest, particularly those outside Dublin where the majority of the tourist spend under the scheme takes place.
Other EU states are moving their existing thresholds while we are raising ours. It makes no sense whatsoever. Given the absolute hammering the tourism sector has experienced in 2020 and the potential for major travel restrictions next year, the timing of this move is absolutely disastrous for the sector, which is already on its knees. I ask the Minister to strongly reconsider this decision given the effects it will have.
I appreciate that, when asked by my party leader, Deputy McDonald, to work together on an all-party approach to Brexit, the Taoiseach agreed. I firmly believe that this is the only way to approach Brexit. I hope the Taoiseach holds firmly to his commitment in that regard.
I want to raise some of the serious concerns some of my constituents and I have regarding healthcare in a post-Brexit society. I am sure the Minister of State is aware that over 6,000 people availed of the cross-Border directive in 2018 and this number has grown year on year. With over 6,000 patients on the cataract surgery waiting list in this State, the use of the cross-Border directive will finish on 1 January. I welcome the announcement to develop a cataract surgery unit at South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. However, funding was only signed off on in September. We need a concrete timeline for when this unit will come into play. Operations will be stopped on 1 January so we need to know when this service will be up and running. The only issue I have with this facility is that it will only have the capacity to perform 2,000 surgeries a year. When there is a waiting list of 6,000 people with new people coming on the list every day, we are suggesting that a second facility or service should be put in place to share the workload.
We also have major issues with people who need hip and knee replacements. I know people who are trapped in their homes and unable to get out because they are not mobile and because of the pain and discomfort they are in. They are worried, along with others, about the potential loss of the ability to avail of the cross-Border directive. There were over 612,000 people waiting to see consultants in September 2020. This has increased over 500% in four years. Despite all the spin, the waiting times are going up year on year and this is not Covid-19 related. Many people have a fear that because of Brexit they will see the waiting times spiral out of control. We need a solution where a plan is put in place for people who have been living in pain and unnecessary discomfort for years. The thing about this is that sometimes we see figures and waiting times in lists but these are people. They are ordinary people and they include family members, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. We need to put a plan in place to work for these people.
The major fear about Brexit that I am raising is that hospital waiting lists will place an additional burden on our already overburdened health service. I hope that, with this in mind, the Government will give a firm reassurance that healthcare will not be disrupted due to Brexit. We want to work together to put the necessary measures in place to prevent this from happening.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. This is a comprehensive Bill and, as previous speakers stated, it is about working together for the goodness of this island as a while. To be honest, it is probably inevitable that we are heading for a united Ireland at some stage, despite what has been touted in the media at times. I agree with many of the speakers who indicated that protection of the Good Friday Agreement is paramount. Going through some of the issues in the Bill, many speakers have raised the matter that health will be a big issue and a concern for anybody in this country.
A matter that is particularly close to my hear is that of disability. I had the opportunity a year and a half ago to visit the Middletown Centre for Autism in Armagh. It is ironic that I am from Midleton and that place is Middletown. That is an all-Ireland specialist disability service that is supported by the Department of Education and the UK Department for Education. I noticed that under the arrangements relating to the health service in the Bill, there is a commitment to continuing that so I will pick the positives out of this today.
I have also listened to what has been said by those in the drinks and hospitality sector. These people are very worried and more engagement has to be maintained with the various stakeholders.
I have to put on the record that our near neighbours across the water and the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, have not been productive or forward going on this. I appeal to the European Union that when the chips are down it will not do what the old European Economic Community, EEC, did to some members of our Defence Forces, in particular, at the siege of Jadotville. The EEC gave us all the backing in that instance and promised us everything but when the Irish people went out there and gave their full graft, they did not get any support.
I also want to talk about the massive cross-Border workforce of 30,000 people. This issue places an onus on all of us in the House. It is about all of us having a genuine consensus to support this. Let us not see any form of a hard border after Brexit.
I have looked at the Harbours Act 2015. My constituency stretches from Youghal all the way to Cobh. The Port of Cork is busy and we have our own Naval Service base there as well as ferries coming in and out. Many people in Cobh are concerned about how tourism will be affected after the Brexit deadline. I mention the fishing industry and I wonder what will happen there. It is about working together on getting a strong agreement of which we can all be proud and in respect of which we can say that we stood our ground and did what we had to do for our nation and our people.
I appeal to the Government not to be found wanting. Let us all do our best. We will work with the Government on whatever is coming. I welcome the initiative of the debate. It is long overdue. In the coming weeks we will hopefully be sitting here again, maybe after Christmas, and saying that we will get down to the crux of this and get things right.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important and time-pressured matter. We know that it is just short of 50 days until the transition period comes to an end on 31 December. We also know the past two years have been painful as our nation has watched the Brexit madness and drama unfold. Our people have suffered from great uncertainty and anxiety, particularly this year. We know this was to be expected when faced with a global health pandemic. However, our people have further suffered from the threat of Brexit and what that will mean for them and for their families, businesses and futures. This threat is hanging over them like a dark cloud.
The tactics that have been employed by Boris Johnson can only be described as poker moves, with his UK Internal Market Bill or when he well and truly threw the spanner in the works and tried to rock the boat on the hugely important international treaty that is respected all over the world, namely, the Good Friday Agreement. It was an astonishing and shocking move but one that the Government needs to be mindful of in making decisions going forward. That is why I would like to add that I am devastated to learn that the Minister of State wants to push out the referendum on Irish unity. If anything, this sequence of events since its inception, coupled with the experience of Covid-19, clearly demonstrate that there has to be a clear pathway to a united Ireland and a new Ireland that can never be left open to these vulnerabilities again.
I want to focus on the assurances that are needed for my county, Clare. There is no better time to focus on this since we are coming up to Christmas and there is talk of food shortages. All in all, there is need for assurances for: our farmers in Clare, who have just under 6,500 farms; for fisheries, as we are all aware that fish know no borders or division; the tourism, retail and business sectors, which have endured great difficulties before Covid-19 and which we know have been brought to their knees in recent months due to Covid-19; the students who require support and who are already in third level courses in the UK; the cross-Border workforce of 30,000 people; and our airports.
I want to specifically focus on Shannon Airport, which depends on its connectivity to the UK. We know that Shannon Airport acts as a vital gateway for tourism and business coming into County Clare. It is important that this airport is supported, not partially or nearly but fully, in order to ensure that it can function when we reach the other side of this pandemic. It needs guarantees, certainties, preparations and a solid plan as they are the ingredients required to provide a healthy and balanced future.
This a job of work to be done and it must be done together. We must ensure we apply the necessary pressure on London to get the best outcome for us. I have no doubt that we will have support from Washington and Brussels. I reiterate my colleagues' earlier comments that we will support the Government in achieving that end. I look forward to this Bill being debated in full on Committee Stage.
We are debating the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 and by any standards this is comprehensive legislation. It is the second omnibus Bill dealing with Brexit to come before the House. The Bill involves nine Government Departments and has 19 Parts. It aims to protect citizens' rights and support the economy, enterprise and jobs. It sets out to protect the Common Travel Area and to facilitate North-South co-operation. It is clear to me that civil servants across those nine Government Departments have put a huge amount of time and effort into this Bill and we should acknowledge the work they have done in this regard.
Where do we stand regarding reaching an agreement on a new trade deal as negotiations between the EU and the UK intensify? The EU certainly wants a deal with the UK, but not at any cost. It seems there are significant differences in respect of fishing rights, issues in respect of a level playing field and governance. Discussions are still at a technical level. The UK is engaged in brinkmanship and time is running out. One thing is clear, however. A deal is in everyone's best interests. Let us hope that the negotiations will be successful.
The issue of trust is of major concern, however. The publication of the Internal Market Bill has severely dented the trust the EU has in the UK. That Bill gives the UK Government the power to break the Ireland-Northern Protocol in the withdrawal agreement. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still ruling out removing these provisions from the Bill and he has informed the President of the European Commission that he is proceeding with the Bill in its current form despite the House of Lords having voted to remove the offending clauses. The signs are not good, therefore. There is little trust in evidence. Let us hope, therefore, that a free trade agreement can be reached.
I warmly congratulate former Vice President Joe Biden on his election as President of the United States of America. The President-elect favours free trade over protectionism, he believes in multilateral diplomacy and participation in international organisations. He is also committed to tackling climate change. This is all good for Ireland and the EU. President-elect Biden is obviously a good friend of Ireland. During the presidential election campaign, he warned that there could be no UK-US trade agreement if there is any threat to the Good Friday Agreement or the introduction of a hard Border on the island of Ireland. His support is most welcome and it will, no doubt, be crucial in the months ahead.
It is notable that this week Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, which make up the Northern Ireland Executive, wrote to the European Commission expressing concern on behalf of supermarkets regarding the paperwork that will be required in respect of agrifood coming from Britain. The Executive requested a waiver from this bureaucracy for these products. This is a significant request and is yet another issue that must be resolved in the context of the current negotiations. This is a rare display of unity between the DUP and Sinn Féin, so hopefully the European Commission can respond positively to their letter.
Part 16 of this Bill aims to ensure that there is a mechanism in place to allow extradition between Ireland and the UK, following its departure from the EU. On the European arrest warrant scheme, reports in the newspapers last weekend stated that the European Commission is unhappy about Ireland's operation of this system and about delays in carrying out extraditions in particular. I hope the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, can address this matter when she is debating her part of the Bill, perhaps on Committee Stage.
An agreement is in everyone's best interests. A report by the UK's National Audit Office, recently published, stated that 40% to 70% of hauliers are unprepared for Brexit and that there could be queues of up to 7,000 trucks at Channel crossings. I note what the Taoiseach had to say on British television in recent days about the need for an agreement and how that will be in the interests of the UK and the EU. Any reports coming from a UK source clearly indicate that as the case. That brings me to the position of Irish hauliers and how prepared they are for Brexit. The Government is advising exporters to switch to direct ferry services to the Continent, rather than going through Britain. Stena Line and Irish Ferries are providing services from Dublin and Rosslare to Cherbourg. However, the Irish Road Hauliers Association, IRHA, is warning that there is not enough capacity on these planned services. It is questioning the report of the Irish Maritime Development Organisation, IMDO, which concluded that there is enough capacity for the number of lorries needing direct access. We must be sure about this aspect of the situation at this stage and ensure that exporters and importers can get their goods onto the Continent and into Ireland in as efficient a manner as possible. It seems to me that there is work to be done in this area.
I also take this opportunity to address another matter confronting the EU, namely, rule of law issues. As we know, there are rule of law problems in Hungary and Poland. A serious example of this is the introduction of so-called LGBT-free zones in Poland, which none of us supports. I welcome, therefore, the provisional agreement reached last week, whereby the provision of EU Covid-19-related funding will now be dependent on compliance with the rule of law and adherence to EU values. The provisional agreement is between the European Council and the Members of the European Parliament, MEPs. I am sure the Minister of State is fully aware of the most recent developments. I know he has raised these rule of law issues at EU level, as well as here in the Dáil in the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. There is more work to be done on this issue, but what has been agreed so far is most welcome.
This is significant legislation. It is a weighty Bill and deals with many matters concerning the Republic of Ireland and the UK. It is the second omnibus Bill brought before this House dealing with Brexit. I am pleased that we are addressing these issues and I am hopeful there will be no hiccups on 1 January, regardless of whether a trade agreement has been reached. We are prepared and that is most welcome. Irish businesses need to prepare for Brexit. It goes without saying, but time is running out, businesses need to be taking measures to deal with the situation, with or without a trade deal being in place on 1 January. I implore them to do what must be done.
People are concerned. The hauliers are concerned, supermarkets in Northern Ireland are concerned and there are even concerns about possible shortages here in the Republic of Ireland. We hope the move on 1 January will go without significant problems, but we must be as prepared as we can. This Bill deals with these outstanding issues.
No doubt if there are any other issues that emerge between now and the end of the year, more legislation can be considered by the House. I hope that we will get a trade agreement. The negotiations are intensifying and I guess that silence is golden because we are not hearing much leaking from the talks currently under way in the UK. It is in everybody's interest that we do get a trade agreement and an agreement in general on all the other various issues under consideration. I commend the Bill to the House.
We all recognise that we are now approaching the Brexit end game. Irrespective of whether or not there is a trade deal agreed between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and I hope there is, we all need to recognise that Brexit is a momentous occasion not just for the United Kingdom but also for this State. In years to come, when the history of the 21st century is written of Ireland and of the UK, Brexit will feature very strongly and prominently. It will have such a momentous impact on this country because our history and our lives are, to a significant extent, affected by the lives and politics of the United Kingdom. That has been the case for 1,000 years. The history of this island has been affected significantly by the history of the neighbouring larger island and this will probably continue into the next centuries.
It is worthwhile, at the outset, that we really reflect on what are the political origins of Brexit and why was it that our closest neighbour, a country with which we have so much in common, made what we all in the House believe was the regressive decision to leave the European Union, and to further their own path in what it believes to be the better interests of the United Kingdom.
While we do that, we should recognise that at the same time Brexit happened, an extraordinary political even happened in the United States of America. Sometimes we forget the significance that back in 2016 the people in the US elected as their President a well known businessman who was a television celebrity and who achieved prominence in the US in his campaign because he condemned the political system that operated in the United States of America at the time and he is still in power today.
The reason it is worthwhile that we in this House look at those political events and their origins, is that we have to recognise that as a country Ireland is hugely affected by what happens in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America. They are two very powerful political entities in the world and they have had significant influence throughout the world. We need to recognise that we are sandwiched between the two of them and that it is only natural and not unusual that our politics has been affected and will continue to be affected by events that happen in the United States of America and in the United Kingdom.
When one looks one can see that the origins of Brexit were a form of English nationalism that really wished to reject association and alignment with Europe. Leaving aside the whole issue of the European Union, at the heart of Brexit was the concern that the United Kingdom had become too close to its European neighbours and the whole issue of immigration was also linked with that. It was on that basis that the majority of voters in the United Kingdom, but mainly in England, made the decision that they wanted to leave the European Union. It is instructive to note that the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland decided that they did not want to leave the European Union, but unfortunately they are stuck with it now because of the dominance of English nationalism in that debate.
With the election of President Trump in the United States of America, again there was a form of nationalism associated with his election. There was also a rejection of what was regarded as the middle ground of politics. At the heart of Brexit and the election of President Trump was a rejection of the centre ground. It was an argument that said polarised politics is good and it has had that effect in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, as we have seen recently in the United States of America, there is also a very polarised political world there currently.
I mention these two points because as other aspects of our lives are influenced by the United States of America and the United Kingdom we must be particularly careful that we do not allow our politics to become infected in the same way that the politics of the United Kingdom through Brexit and the politics of the US through the election of President Trump have become polarised. I regret to say it may be the case that we are going down that pathway of polarised politics in this country. If one looks at the way politics operates in the US and in the UK, one can see that it is very strategic, very deliberate, and more advanced than politics in this country. That may sound as if it is intended to be a compliment, but it is not. Simply because politics is advanced and strategic does not mean that it leads to good governance. When I say that politics in those countries is strategic and advanced, it is that the political groupings in those countries know what they need to do in order to attract political support behind their own political groups. Unfortunately, in those countries the political objectives of those political groups are universally put ahead of what is regarded as good governance in those countries.
We need to be careful not to allow this country to go down the route of polarised politics. Unfortunately, for decades and for generations we have seen in Northern Ireland that there is polarised politics there. What do we mean when we say that politics has become polarised? It is really a negation of politics. It means that people do not look at issues on the basis of the content of the issue. Instead, they decide their view on an issue by trying to see which side the person's political grouping is in favour of. This has happened, unfortunately, for many years in Northern Ireland. We even see it today with their response to the pandemic. No issue in Northern Ireland appears to be safe or liberated from the politics of green and orange. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom when it comes to Brexit and it is what has happened in the United States of America when it comes to the politics they operate there. This is why it is so important that in this country we try to hold the centre ground. This is why Fianna Fáil is so important to this country, to ensure there is a large national party in the centre ground representing the centre left of the country for the purpose of ensuring we do not have a polarised political system.
Unfortunately, social media contributes to the polarisation of politics. It is, in fact, the weapon that is used to polarise politics. If one is going to polarise politics one must have an enemy and the enemy can never do anything right and the enemy must always be condemned for not representing the interests of your political group. That is a consequence of polarised politics. It is extremely important in this country that we do not allow political engagements on social media or elsewhere to be debased to a situation where it is just becoming attack politics. I regret to say that some of the politics in this House engages in that form of attack politics. The Members of this House do not. Most Members of this House are reasonable people. They know there is a resolution to political disputes, they recognise there should be debate about political disputes and in general my assessment of Members of Dáil Éireann is that they are open-minded people. Behind us, however, are people whose sole objective is to advance the political success of their own political agendas and groupings. For that purpose they use social media to create polarisation. We need to be careful of it. If it is the case that this country becomes extremely polarised politically let us be clear as to what will happen. We will go down the same pathway as the United States of America or the United Kingdom and people will be divided on the basis of whether they belong to one political grouping or another. Political engagement then ceases, political debate then becomes irrelevant and the only issue is where one's tribe stands in respect of this.
That is a message we have learned from Brexit. It is a message we all have to be careful of. If we go down the route of achieving polarised politics in this country, it will be very difficult to reverse it, as we have seen with what has happened in the UK and in the US. Once people go down that route it will take a generation to reverse it.
What is the solution to ensure we do not get polarised politics? I am not requiring that every Member of this House decides to position in the centre ground. That is a polarisation in itself: everyone stuck in the centre. We all need to ensure that we do not condemn our political opponents on the basis that they do not represent, nor do they seek to speak for, anyone else other than their own grouping elite, as is sometimes represented.
We need to recognise that engagement is a success in politics. The great political success of this generation on these islands was the Good Friday Agreement. Even in Britain, the great diplomatic success of the past 20 or 30 years was the Good Friday Agreement. That was achieved through negotiation, respect, discussion and debate. That is the secret to the centre ground and that is why we must be careful not to allow this country to go down the same route as the US and the UK.
I thought my contribution would not be appropriate, in that I am not going to address all the measures in this Bill, but it will be far more specific than the one I have just heard, which went all around the Houses, the world and history. Fair play to Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. He made a fine speech, none of which I agree with.
I will start by sounding a note of caution. We in this House need to be more realistic about our friends in Washington and Brussels. Echoed across this House is the mistaken belief that Joe Biden will be the saviour of the Good Friday Agreement and the guarantor of peace in this country. Similar hopes have been expressed repeatedly in this House about the great and the good of the European Union acting as a protector of our interests in this island and as a bastion against a hard Border. Joe Biden might know about Mayo's GAA hopes and Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier may continually wax lyrical about how much they love Ireland but, ultimately, it would be the height of folly for us to believe that the interests of the ordinary people of Ireland, North and South, will be the determining factor in either Joe Biden's or the EU's policies in the months ahead. Joe Biden will do whatever is in the interests of US capitalism, not what is best for Mayo or Ballina. Mr. Juncker stated clearly last year:
We have to make the sure the interests of the European Union and of the internal market will be preserved. An animal entering Northern Ireland without border control can enter the European Union without any kind of control via the southern part of the Irish island. This cannot happen. We have to preserve the health and safety of our citizens.
The Minister of State can interpret that how he likes but that is clear to me that-----
I understand, to an extent, the desire to believe we have friends in both the east and the west, given how revolting the political classes in control of Britain are at the moment. There is no doubt that Boris Johnson and the Tories have used the Brexit debate to stoke up xenophobia and anti-migrant racism within a wider project of using the withdrawal from the EU to position a declining British capitalism as a low-wage, low-regulation haven for the worst forms of neoliberal projects. There is an accompanying attack on all public services, the NHS being a shining example. It is also clear that the Tories want to be free of environmental laws and regulations and to position themselves as a low-wage, anti-worker and anti-environmental competitor of both the EU and other trading blocs. I see the Minister of State nodding. He agrees with me on that.
This debate and the 21 separate sections of the Bill highlight just how intricate and complex having a border on this island is. James Connolly rightly predicted "a carnival of reaction both North and South" because of partition. In the South, we are only in recent decades reversing some elements of that reaction in the legacy of the mother and baby homes scandal and much of the anti-women legislation that the southern State embedded in itself. The same fight continues against that reaction in the North through the campaigns for the right to choose and marriage equality. However, the strongest legacy of the reaction of partition today is the DUP. This is not just a conservative right-wing outcrop of the Tories. It would, by any standards of politics, be classified as extremely right-wing in every policy sphere. That type of politics has been sustained over decades only by a recourse to sectarianism and outright bigotry based on religion. The consequence of its strength as the largest party in the North has been abysmal for both communities. Protestant workers have paid dearly for the dominance of a sectarian far-right party as their primary representative through public services, wage rates, social services, social protection and so on.
In this Covid crisis we can see dramatically just how high a price workers pay when led by extreme right-wing and sectarian forces. The willful ignoring of public health advice by the DUP is based on a political philosophy that is marginalised in most jurisdictions, but we see it play out clearly in Trump's America, in Johnson's UK and with the DUP in Stormont. It is, when stripped of its rhetoric, a decision that economic interests must come before public health and that if the consequences of that decision are large death tolls and huge infection rates, then so be it. It is not a policy of living with Covid but of learning to die with Covid, with the added insult that these people claim that this is somehow the will of God. In this disaster, the rational case for a united Ireland becomes ever clearer in light of the Covid crisis.
As Deputy O'Callaghan noted, we need to remind ourselves that the people of Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit. A practical case is to be made for an all-Ireland health service and an all-Ireland approach to the pandemic. The need for a united Ireland is no longer a question of which flag flies over which jurisdiction but a question of whether we can truly build a national health service for everyone on this island, or ensure a safe environment with access to decent services, decent pensions and decent wages for everyone on this island. We cannot continue to shy away from the need for a border poll forever.
Many of us are extremely concerned about the question of an all-Ireland health strategy. Anyone who has listened to GPs and healthcare workers in the North pleading for the government there to listen to public health advice can tell that the discussions are falling well short of where they need to be. The Tánaiste told us earlier that the Government is in continuous discussions with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but we do not know what fruit is coming out of those discussions. All we can see is disaster hurtling our way. We need to know where those discussions are going and what sort of input we can have into an all-island strategy to crush this pandemic. The Stormont parties, especially Sinn Féin, need to be stronger and must spell out very clearly what the public health advice is and how they want to take measures to follow it. I will leave it at that. I do not have much to say about the 21 individual measures in this Bill. They are obviously necessary if we see the world in terms of who runs what part of the country but it is quite a disaster for this country that we remain partitioned and live, as Connolly predicted, "in a carnival of reaction".
I will start with a specific provision in the Bill, which states that a tourist from a non-EU country has to purchase something with a value of more than €175 to get the VAT rebate. This has been an incredibly important scheme for craft shops and other businesses around the country, particularly in areas where a high proportion of the economy is based on tourism. There are many jobs involved. All the craft shop owners will say that while these tourists might make multiple purchases in one shop and might spend quite a bit of money, the individual purchases would not come to €175. Like everyone else, I recognise that the island of Britain joining its neighbouring island, the Isle of Man, outside the European Union is going to change the world quite dramatically because of its sheer population.
I understand there are already good safeguards in the Bill to ensure this process is not abused by people from our neighbouring island. Even though technically the North of Ireland is going to be outside of the European Union, in lots of other ways it is going to be in it. In this case, it will be considered to be in the European Union. Accordingly, one will not be able to go into the North of Ireland, buy one's goods, claim the VAT and go out.
I hope we get good news on this before the Bill goes through the Dáil and that we see a more tourism friendly approach to it. It would be much preferred if more of the goods under this scheme were made in the country. We must ensure more of our tourism product is actually produced on the island of Ireland. When we look at it in the round, we are going over the top here to achieve something that might not happen in the way people fear. The only people from Britain who would be able to do this would be those who came here and left the island again. As I said, there is no shortcut through the North of Ireland on this scheme.
It is amazing watching the television these days. When Brexit was not happening, day and night, all we got on the television was Brexit. When we were really far away from it, as was shown subsequently, if one looked at RTÉ news, a whole section was devoted Brexit issues. Now that we are coming up to the real wall, it does not seem to be worrying the media as much as one would have thought.
I hope an agreement will be reached. It is going to take flexibility and goodwill on all sides. It is a pity that Europe did not recognise earlier that, whether Europe or we on this island liked it, the British people had a referendum and made their choice. We should have all respected that from the beginning. It seemed, however, that a lot of people spent a lot of time trying to tell them that they made the wrong decision, that it was all a big mistake and that they were badly informed. Last Christmas, whether we liked it or not, the British reaffirmed that decision by putting the Conservative Party strongly back into government on a "Get Brexit Done" ticket. We have lost time when we could have been working out the modalities of this. Instead of trying to persuade them that they had made a big mistake, we should have recognised their sovereignty on this issue on the island of Britain.
I recognise, of course, that events which happened 100 years ago have come back to haunt us and we are having an unforeseen difficulty on this island. From the beginning, I summed up that difficulty as a case in which one could not accept a border on the island but one would have to accept the sensitivity of the unionist pro-Brexit population - who are in the minority but a large minority at that - and that putting a border in the Irish Sea would send wrong political signals to them. Again, it is water under the bridge. It took a long time to sort that one out, however.
Peculiarly enough, maybe by accident more than design, if we do get a hard Brexit, Northern Ireland is going to find itself in an advantageous position and actually in a better position than the South. It will be the only sterling area in the Single Market. On the other hand, all the widgets produced in Northern Ireland - they might have to go through paperwork - can be sold through the South into the whole of Europe without any customs or tariffs. There would be no paperwork going that way. If they go into the island of Britain, they can also sell in there. It is going to be the only part of the European Union that can sell both to Britain and to the rest of Europe with no tariffs. Of course, we could find, particularly around the Border areas, a migration of companies, setting up in Northern Ireland because of that advantage. This is all the more reason that it is important for this island that we get an agreement.
I have always maintained that fishing would be a contentious issue. Looking at British politics, fishing and the like are symbolic of sovereignty. One other conundrum not debated much is where are the richest waters around the island of Britain. In England, they are off the north-east coast, not off the west coast, with its clear run for 200 miles towards Norway. It is interesting to note that, in the last general election there, the Conservative Party did well in those very north-east constituencies. Not that many of them are fishermen in those areas but it is symbolically important to them.
Much more important, however, is what is north of them. Scotland is surrounded on three sides by water. It extends well out and well north because the Shetlands and the Orkneys are to the north of Scotland while the isles are well west of Scotland. The country has enormous wealth in fisheries. Inevitably, there will be a new independence referendum in Scotland. The last referendum was won by the pro-union side by 5%. If Boris Johnson wanted to maintain this margin, he will want to be able to say to Nicola Sturgeon if she wins independence and goes back into the European Union, she will have to give all the fisheries back again. If, instead, she stays, Boris Johnson can tell her he will defend all the fisheries and hold them for Britain. For that reason, I have always believed Britain will hang tough on the fisheries issue.
No matter what comes out of these negotiations, it could have serious consequences for Irish fisheries. I am never one to look at things as half-empty. I prefer to look at them as half-full. It is time that we said in Europe that the whole fisheries regime stinks. We sold ourselves short on our water and fish resources from the very beginning in Europe. I hate to say it but that was done by a Fianna Fáil Government. We have 14% of the fish but 4% of the quota. We have allowed people near the coast with a six-mile sovereign area that we control. Up to 90% of the fish are caught by the big industrial operators but 80% of the fishermen are in small boats. Accordingly, there is a case to be made at European level that all of the coastal nations would get a much bigger slice of the coastal waters for their coastal fishermen. It should also be the case that the big industrial interests would have to yield to local interests and the benefit of local economies.
There are several weeks still available. An arbitrary deadline should not be set. We should keep talking until we get to a place of agreement. It concerns me that in the final hot hours of these negotiations we will not be at the table. It is hard to expect anybody to represent one's interests as best as one could when the big industrial interests of France and Germany are at stake.
I am a little bit afraid that we might be let down. I have always had that fear. All I could think of when listening to previous speakers is that in this country we have a history of believing that our salvation will come from abroad. Any time someone says we will be saved by Europe, America or somebody else, I always think of the song from way back when that goes:
"Tá na Francaigh ag teacht thar sáile"
Arsa an tSean-bhean bhocht.
Then I think of the people who decided that the destiny of Ireland should be taken into the hands of the people of Ireland. They did not want to avoid being internationalists or playing their part as one of the nations of the world, but they would do so in a sovereign way and make sure they were at the table. I accept that a very small number believes that. I am probably in a minority of one or two, but I have that deep worry and I sincerely hope I am wrong.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to introduce this Bill. I welcome its publication. It is very important that it gets out there. In 49 days, whether we like it or not and whether there is a deal, our trade relations with our nearest neighbour will face a severe shock. It is very sensible and prudent to get our house in order as soon as possible, at least from a legislative point of view. I have gone through the Bill in detail and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it. I am in general agreement and I will be very happy to support its passage through the Chamber in the weeks ahead.
I would like to comment on the opening remarks of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the convention centre yesterday. I found them quite reassuring. He mentioned that the common travel area, a bilateral arrangement between this country and the UK, will be maintained and protected from 1 January. That is important for our students, our workers and our families that are divided between both of these islands. I am very encouraged by that fact. I am also encouraged by his mention of a memorandum of understanding between Irish officials and UK authorities on the continuing healthcare cooperation, which is so important for these islands. This memorandum is very close to being finalised. Both of these measures are very important and officials on both sides should be commended on producing these draft agreements.
I have been in this Chamber several times in the past few months to speak about Brexit and the wider EU project. My views on EU affairs are well-established. I would like to focus on four key developments in the past week that will influence how the negotiations play out. First I would like to mention the comments of Sir John Major only three or four days ago, which were significant. A former leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister said he is completely against Brexit and that it will significantly diminish the UK's international standing. While he agrees with the sovereign decision of the British public, he believes they were sold a pup. They were sold an idea on false pretences. That is a significant statement and it has been his consistent view throughout. It will ratchet up the pressure on the UK negotiating team.
I would also like to mention the House of Lords, which emphatically voted down illegal provisions in the draft United Kingdom Internal Market Bill 2019-21. That is also a significant development. The ratio of the vote was three to one, which is huge. If there are people in this House who think that moderate Britain has disappeared and there are no sensible or prudent people in the British establishment, the evidence suggests otherwise. I am happy that those provisions have been at least temporarily taken out and perhaps even permanently torpedoed, which would be a positive development.
I would also like to mention the resignation of a senior British official at 10 Downing Street. That shows the level of discord, disharmony and dysfunction in that office. In a positive light it shows by contrast that there is significant unity of purpose in this Parliament, which has not gone unnoticed throughout the world. All sides of the House should be commended on that. Long may it continue. Finally, the election of an Irish-American, President-elect Joe Biden, is a significant development. It has the potential to completely change the calculus of how the negotiations play out in the next few days and weeks.
I have a few questions for the Minister of State. Perhaps he could touch on them in his closing remarks. I am conscious that he must be circumspect in his use of language given the delicate situation during the next few days, but perhaps he could outline the timeline of events between now and 31 December. For instance, a videoconference meeting of the European Council is scheduled for this day week, 19 November. Is that likely to go ahead? If there is a trade deal between the EU and the UK, will a remote conference be sufficient to sign off on it or will a physical EU summit be needed?
I refer also to the ratification process. The European Parliament will have to approve any potential deal. What is this parliament's ratification process? Does the Minister of State anticipate that further legislation will be required to codify any deal or is he happy with the omnibus Bill that we have in front of us? Perhaps he could outline the timeline and how he sees this playing out.
I refer also to the EU's €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve. It has been talked about a lot in the past few months. I was reassured by the comments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs yesterday that this fund will be targeted at sectors and countries that are disproportionately affected by Brexit. Does the Minister of State know what will Ireland's percentage of that €5 billion be? If not, when will we get more clarity?
The 11-month EU transition period has served all parties very well. It has been in effect since 1 February and the clock is running out on it at this point. My view is that we need an extension of three or six months. The end of June is probably a good date to aim for. The reason there is so much uncertainty about Brexit is that we do not know what the shape of the agreement will be, if there is one. If we get one in December, it will be too late to upgrade our port infrastructure and get our small and medium-sized enterprises ready. It would make a lot of sense to extend the transition period and we should aim to do so. Regarding the post-Brexit relationship, if we get a bare-bones trade agreement in the coming days or weeks, what is the likelihood of a more comprehensive trade agreement between the EU and the UK at a later date, perhaps 12 or 24 months from now? Is this possible or is it pie in the sky?
Finally, I would like to ask about an information campaign. Other Deputies mentioned this yesterday. Once a trade deal is agreed, or even if it is not, I would like to think that an information campaign is ready to go so that the trigger can be pulled as soon as the outcome is known. Time is very short. On behalf of my constituents, I emphasise the need for information from the Government.
All the indications show that we are inching towards a very basic bare-bones free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. The three outstanding issues are fisheries, that is, the EU fishing fleet's access to territorial waters, governance issues relating to the level playing-field and the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK desperately needs a deal. It needs a deal because the EU is its biggest and closest trading partner, but a deal is also in our interests. Our business community and agri-food industry have suffered disproportionately as a result of the pandemic and the ensuing global recession. We do not need a third hit. A double whammy is more than enough.
I wish Michel Barnier and the EU task force negotiating team the very best and I wish the Government the best also in the final days of negotiating. I very much look forward to interacting with the UK authorities as constructively as possible from 1 January in whatever shape that relationship plays out.
I dtosach báire, aontaím go huile is go hiomlán leis an méid atá ráite ag an Teachta Ó Cuív. Ceapann sé go bhfuil sé ina mhionlach anseo ach b'fhéidir go bhfuil níos mó daoine ann sa Dáil seo atá den tuairim chéanna.
Aontú opposes Brexit. We believe it will do enormous damage to Ireland. I am amazed that at this far remove from the British referendum there has been precious little introspection or self-examination from a European Union perspective. Much of the reason people across Europe are anti-EU is that many of them, me included, believe there is a democratic deficit within the EU. The structures and functions of the EU are not transparently democratic. The power resides in one or two countries and they dictate the direction of travel. This was very obvious during the crash in this State ten years ago when Germany and one or two other countries decided they would embark on a policy of hardcore economic damage on Ireland as a result of what happened. It is amazing that these countries can flip a switch and have a far different monetary policy in this particular crisis from the one they had ten years ago.
I agree with Teachta Ó Cuív that it is a weakness in our approach that there is not an Irish team at the negotiation table. Ireland comprises 1.6% of the population of the EU and it exerts precious little influence over the objectives on the EU negotiators' priority list. If we think that we are at the top table with regard to priorities for that negotiation, we are fooling ourselves. There is within the Irish psyche a tendency to defer to our betters at times, which is wrong. There needs to be some level of self-examination in the EU in regard to the reason so many people across the European Union feel the Union itself the biggest threat to the EU at the moment.
A couple of days ago, I received from the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment a reply to a parliamentary question which indicated that by August, 3,236 businesses in this State had gone bust this year, largely due to Covid-19, although I imagine some of the Brexit changes are probably having an affect on those businesses. It is an extremely difficult time to exist as a small to medium-sized enterprise in this State. The figure of 3,236 is, as I said, the figure up to August this year. It is bound to be underestimated because most businesses that go bust this year will not be known about until the end of the tax year next year. The real figure will be far higher.
I also tabled a parliamentary question to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the state of play with the financial supports that were being given to small businesses in this State. The information I got back is incredible. While the financial supports are available on paper to SMEs - I will grant the Government that some financial supports are going to SMEs - many of the financial supports that have been created because of Covid and Brexit are not being delivered to SMEs at the moment. In regard to the working capital scheme, only 915 of 3,935 applications have been approved and only 27% funding has been given out under this particular scheme. Under the Covid-19 loan scheme, €3.1 million of a pot of €15 million has been allocated. A mere 279 of 1,205 applications or 13.2% of that funding has been given out. Under the online retail scheme, the purpose of which is to get businesses ready for Brexit and to deal with Covid, less than 50% of allocations have been made. That pot was only €2 million. We are hearing that currently 51% of retail is online, which is the highest ever figure in that regard. The vast majority of that online retail is going abroad, which means it is lost to Ireland. At the same time, small businesses are being wiped out. Under the sustaining enterprise fund of €180 million, only 108 of 639 applications were approved and approximately 25% of the available funding has been paid out to date. The list goes on. We have a radical problem with regard to the allocation of the funds necessary for small and medium sized business to be able to function through the double whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit. There is so much of Brexit that is out of our hands at the moment but supporting those small businesses is in our hands. More needs to be done to make sure that happens.
I agree with Teachta Berry's remarks regarding the Brexit negotiations going to the wire. There is no doubt in my mind that the British are trying to run down the clock in a strategic effort to crowbar their objectives into the final deal. There is no doubt that we need to make sure we have a transition space. At this stage, it must be recognised that it is practically impossible for all of the democratic objectives that need to be met after any negotiation is complete to be fulfilled by the end of the year. Even if we do fulfil all of those democratic objectives - in other words, we get them through all of the committees in the European Parliament - it will still be physically impossible to give practical effect to the elements of the deal to enable businesses to function freely come the start of next year. I concur that there needs to be an extension of the transition period by at least six months to allow that to happen. Any less than that will not be feasible for Irish businesses. I note the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, is shaking his head.
That may be the case but this has to be an Irish objective with regard to a deal.
I want now to focus on the North-South element of Brexit. I have been campaigning on the objective of Irish unity for the last 30 years. Aontú was formed 20 months ago. One of its pillar objectives is the creation of a 32 county Irish republic. That objective is not a pipe dream or a romantic idea. In practical terms, the island of Ireland functions a lot better as a unit than it does as a partitioned space. It is clear to me that as a result of Brexit and Covid-19, many people who were not pro-unity in the past share that ground with us now. They favour the idea of Irish unity. It amazes me that 100 years after the War of Independence, which we are celebrating, the self-determination of the people of the North and our ability to function in this State, to do business here and to move people North and South on the island of Ireland are still determined by a Tory Government in London, which cares nothing about this country and knows nothing about it. It needs to be understood by the Dáil that partition is an exposure in our national interest. It is a weakness. The longer we leave it as the elephant in the room, without discussing and working on it, the longer that weakness and exposure will remain. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and I are from County Meath. The following may have some resonance for Deputy Byrne as a Meath man. One hundred years ago, the late Liam Mellows, a Teachta Dála for County Meath and an Irish revolutionary, said that if the island of Ireland was partitioned, there would grow two establishments on both sides of the Border which would then depend on the Border for their own existence. That has happened. In this State, we have Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which are regional political parties.
If we had an all-Ireland parliament, their support base would be radically smaller and, therefore, they would be politically weaker, have less influence and be less likely to make it into government. Unity is actually a threat to the self-interest of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That is one of the major reasons the Taoiseach still refuses to talk about the necessity of planning for Irish unity. Even though much of the rest of the island of Ireland is on board in the context of the logic behind it, there still is a resistance in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for their own party-political interests, to going down that route.
I understand that and I have no doubt there are many good people in Fianna Fáil who share my objectives with regard to Irish unity, but there is a chasm between those people and me, on the one hand, and the current Taoiseach, on the other, because he has informed me in this Chamber that he refuses to pursue the objective of Irish unity. He has stated that he does not agree with the element of the Good Friday Agreement whereby it should be a majority decision in the North as to whether we have Irish unity. He thinks 51% is not enough.
He has said that. We cannot go through with this Brexit crisis without coming to an understanding that partition is a threat to our national interest. We should be able to create a new Ireland forum at which we bring people from civic society and political society North and South together to talk about ways in which we can fight the worst excesses of Brexit and start to talk about planning for Irish unity.
No Deputy wishes to be here debating this Bill. That the UK, our nearest neighbour and the nation with which we share our deepest cultural ties, has chosen to leave the EU is regrettable in the extreme. Ireland and the EU have been patient and will remain at the negotiation table for as long as needs be. I can see why that is the case. This is not a straightforward process. In the decades during which the EU has existed, its policies and measures have evolved dramatically. Walking away from everything might seem simple but it is not easy.
Ireland is unique on many levels in this situation. The UK and Ireland share a deep and often troubled history which continues to influence our interactions with one another for better or for worse. Ireland is unique in its geography and the challenges it faces arising not only from sharing a land border with the UK, but also from sharing marine areas. Although the land border has come to dominate many of the discussions surrounding the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, we have heard much less about what is to become of the maritime areas. I understand that any agreement on fisheries and maritime remains worryingly distant in the ongoing negotiations. Ireland is one of the few island nations in the EU. Although our island seems tiny in comparison with some of our neighbours, we have the highest proportion of marine area relative to our land size. Our exclusive economic zone, EEZ, represents approximately 10% of the entire EU EEZ. It is a significant resource that surrounds our coast and stretches out into the Atlantic.
On the fishing and seafood sector, the fisheries of Ireland and the UK are deeply entwined, with agreements long predating our entry to the European Union. As approximately 34% of Irish landings are taken in UK waters, Irish fishers have become significantly dependent on their access to those waters. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has highlighted that the Irish seafood industry is worth more than €1 billion, with up to 15,000 people having been employed directly or indirectly by the sector. Our trade relationship in the sector is also highly important, with estimates of the value of imports and exports being in the range of hundreds of millions of euro. The people and communities who have benefited so much from this relationship currently stand to incur substantial loss.
The departure of the UK from Irish waters poses another major concern for the fishing sector in the form of increased traffic from other European trawlers. Not only could this exacerbate the losses imposed as a result of the loss of access to UK waters, it could make it far more difficult for Irish fishers to land catches close to home. This issue will have economic and environmental impacts. It goes far beyond a simple consideration of the bottom line. Very often, fishing is in the blood. It is handed down from generation to generation and it is stitched into the fabric of coastal communities. We cannot put a figure on that. It will be of central importance to build on existing EU support and to continue working with fishers, coastal communities and the seafood sector to address challenges as they arise when the transition period ends.
I refer to the issue of marine protection. In our efforts to ensure a level playing field in trade and fishery negotiations, we must also prioritise marine protected areas and the common good they bring, not just for this country but for all member states in the EU. Marine life and ecosystems are key but often overlooked players in the fight against climate change and the protection of a healthy planet. Oceans provide 50% of the oxygen we breathe. They sequester carbon and modulate global weather patterns. However, maritime life is being exploited and strip-mined to dangerous levels. When marine areas are protected, there are not trade-offs or losers. Rather, fish live longer, grow larger, produce more offspring and replenish the overall marine area. On the whole, the fishing sector stands to gain from such protection.
With all of that said, there is a genuine fear among environmental groups, smaller scale fishers and conservationists that the UK may not strengthen or even maintain existing levels of protection of its maritime environment. That risk is coupled with the potential for increased EU fishing in Irish waters which would further undermine marine protection and biodiversity as well as posing challenges to our indigenous fishers. I fear that we may face an even worse scenario whereby the UK would seek to increase the current quotas to match the amount of fish currently taken by non-UK vessels within the UK zone. That would lead to serious over-exploitation of stocks at everyone's expense and particularly at the expense of natural marine environments.
The forthcoming marine planning and development management Bill will shape the future of Ireland's maritime sector, particularly in terms of how it addresses exclusive economic zones in the EU 27 and the Irish continental shelf. Given the breadth of work covered in the Bill, it is important to maintain constructive communication with our UK counterparts to ensure their facing legislation interfaces well with what is passed by the House. It is regrettable that a decision on fisheries and the marine has not yet been reached but, as an island nation with rich and strong tradition of seafaring and fishing, I remain optimistic that these crucial sectors will be supported no matter what the outcome is.
I welcome the Bill. I wish to highlight some issues relating to the changing landscape of financial services and taxation that we are likely to see arise in a post-Brexit Europe. Although the Bill is sorely needed, it is something of a missed opportunity to implement more robust measures in the sector of financial services and taxation. In all the current uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the negotiations, there is one thing of which we can be sure - Brexit will result in change. Of course, it will result in change in our relationship with our closest neighbour, but it will also result in change in the balance of relationships with the rest of our European colleagues and the global community.
The drivers of Brexit may seem nebulous and obscure, such as a sense of exceptionalism that finds a voice in patriotic bluster and a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The social reasons for Brexit may be various, but there is a definite and identifiable underbelly to it which is about deregulation of the provision of goods and services, a loosening of constraints in the financial services sector and, possibly, a repudiation of the global move towards data protection.
In the context of taxation, I suspect Ireland will soon have to choose whose side we are on. Do we align ourselves with our partners in the project of a Single Market and a shared vision of Europe or do we continue down our current path as a place of accommodating tax measures for the largest global companies and their profits? In October, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child announced that it was going to examine Ireland's tax policies to see whether they are negatively damaging the rights of children around the globe and particularly in developing countries. The argument of the committee is that the law in Ireland is enabling profits to be shifted from countries in the developing world and devastating those countries' ability to raise revenue, fund essential public services and fulfil their human rights obligations. A recent working paper by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research identified Ireland as the number one profit-shifting destination, accounting for more than $100 billion. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges Ireland to avoid policies at home and abroad that undermine the human rights of children. This will be the first time the UN has examined the external impact on children of a country's tax policy. The fact that it is starting with Ireland is testament to how we are already being viewed internationally.
Is this how we want to be seen in a post-Brexit world, with a large and increasingly deregulated financial market at our shoulder, as a tax haven and a facilitator of tax injustice that damages children and communities in the most vulnerable places in the world?
I am aware of the argument that Ireland is engaging with ongoing reforms at the OECD and through the base erosion and profit shifting, BEPS, framework. Ireland has engaged with BEPS and, crucially, it has opted out of the key provision, Action 12 of the multilateral instruments, which would have put an end to one of the most commonly used avoidance practices by US multinationals in Ireland. If we truly want to reach out to our European neighbours and align ourselves with them and the global community, we could engage in this process in a more genuine manner. Due to Brexit, we must amend our taxation law in significant ways, as this Bill demonstrates. Now is the time. Ireland must align taxable profits more closely with economic activity and prevent multinationals from exploiting our laws to reduce their tax bills. As outlined by a number of NGOs in Ireland, it is obvious that without a fair and functioning taxation system the efforts of other countries to deliver adequate housing, healthcare and education and to tackle poverty, child poverty and inequality are badly undermined by Ireland.
We must act as responsible members of the international community and ensure that our tax policies do not negatively affect the realisation of children's rights around the globe. With our nearest neighbour about to embark on a unique path towards economic isolation, I urge the Government to move decisively towards international solidarity with Europe and developing nations, solidarity on taxation and tax justice and to reform our current laws to reflect that.
Before Covid-19, Brexit was seen as the most pressing concern facing this country. At the time, it was seen as a challenge that was potentially devastating for a number of sectors of the economy if an agreement was not reached. The withdrawal agreement was achieved, but with the current British Government it appears to be more of an opt-in and opt-out statement. Boris Johnson's Government freely admitted that it intended to break international law through the UK Internal Market Bill, which flies in the face of the withdrawal agreement. Our farmers, who were already concerned about their ability to export, have seen their concerns grow as a result of Mr. Johnson's approach. The same is the case with our hauliers, who have already been greatly impacted by Covid-19. Trade talks, which had been underpinned by the understanding contained in the withdrawal agreement and its protocol on Ireland, have been made even more difficult due to this fast and loose attitude. If Boris Johnson's Government continues to take an unreliable stance in these negotiations, the likelihood of a free trade agreement being reached is made more difficult.
There must be good faith on all sides, but we do not appear to be getting it. Mr. Johnson appears to take no notice of the preparations that are contained in the Bill us, such as the provision of healthcare regulations, employment regulations, education supports and so forth, but we do. I welcome the continued inclusion of provisions that have been made for citizens in the North and the UK to be able to access education supports. I also welcome how access to employment is included in the Bill. However, perhaps the Minister would speak on what happens if a situation arises in which these provisions are not reciprocated. We have seen the reckless attitude the British Government has adopted under Boris Johnson's leadership and how willing it is to go back on its word. Before any trade agreement is reached, I ask the Minister to assure us that all the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are honoured. While we commit ourselves to this, let us not forget what the ultimate achievement will be and what would have made the Brexit mess less of a trauma from the start, that is, constitutional change that leads to a united Ireland.
I wish to address another issue related to the economic landscape that this Bill seeks to protect, that is, the prosperity of our country and the need for a balanced system of regional investment and development. For too long the focus has been on the capital, to the cost of all other regions. For example, the N24 connects Waterford with the west of the country. In recent years money has been spent on the stretch of the N24 that goes through Tipperary town, a notorious bottleneck. Amazingly, however, not a penny was spent on taking traffic out of the town or facilitating traffic on its way either east or west. What is required along the N24 route is a programme of removing traffic congestion from towns, not patching up bottlenecks. This would make the route of the N24 fit for purpose as a link between east and west and between airports and ports. It would make towns along the route, such as Tipperary town, proper hubs for business and industry.
The same unbalanced attitude to regional development has affected Shannon Airport, which is no longer afforded the regional importance it deserves. Brexit should be seen as an opportunity to give Shannon Airport the status of an Atlantic hub that is uniquely positioned to connect the EU and the US in a way that continental airports cannot. Our rail services must be properly organised to link with ports connected to the EU and airports connected to the US. Rural transport desperately needs to be upgraded to facilitate trade and commerce across rural Ireland. The same is the case with the post offices, which must be embraced and nurtured. If we fail to invest in our own and adopt a proper roadmap to success, what is the point of a Bill such as that before us? While the measures included in the Bill are of major importance, they must be matched by the development of a country that facilitates progress no matter where one goes.
I join colleagues in congratulating US President-elect, Joe Biden. Ireland has a good friend in that man.
My understanding of this Bill is that the purpose of Part 11 on customs is to accommodate the anticipated substantial increase in customs controls required at ports and trade premises arising from the end of the transition period. I spoke about Rosslare Europort and the preparations at the port in my last contribution on Brexit, and I wish to raise it again today. It is of vital importance to Rosslare village, Kilrane and their hinterlands. The increase in customs control, for example, the 30 new customs staff in place at the port, will surely increase cargo waiting times and queues. I ask the Government to prepare a traffic impact management plan for Rosslare Europort, as it did for Dublin Port.
The other important issues are agrifood, the fishing industry and our SMEs. The talk of the British claiming territorial waters will have a devastating and annihilating result for fishing communities throughout Ireland and in my county of Wexford. This must be objected to in the strongest manner and approached in a principle of partnership with a level playing field. The introduction by the Tory Party of the UK Internal Market Bill is an affront to the Irish protocol and a blatant disregard of the Good Friday Agreement. I thank the Government and the EU negotiators for their strong, coherent and robust stance in protecting what is a fully endorsed international agreement. I hope an agreement can be reached even at this eleventh hour, and that it will be beneficial for a prosperous and united people on our small beautiful island.
We are in a predicament. There are a number of Members further down the list who wish to speak, but the debate has moved more quickly than we anticipated. I will suspend the sitting briefly to give them time to participate. The next slot is for Government speakers.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to talk about the importance of this particular issue, having listened carefully to the previous speeches. We can all learn. What is of importance is not how long or short our contribution is. However, we must recognise one point. We are coming to the final stages of the Brexit issue. Nigel Farage launched the campaign a long time ago. He spent 20 years of his life in the European Parliament, taking a salary from it, while undermining the concepts of European co-operation and the EU. He did so very successfully. Not only did he do that, but he also managed to convince the people of the UK that this was the way to go. He misled the people of the UK. His propaganda was very potent, available, forceful and attractive to people who had a doubt.
The EU is not always perfect. We have had reason to show concern on numerous occasions, but we have also had many examples that prove the success of the Union, in particular from this country's point of view. Many situations have arisen whereby membership of the Union meant we were in a position of solidarity, among equals, capable of participating in the debate, as opposed to waiting until the debate was over and attempting to influence it afterwards. The European Community has been very effective in terms of providing peace in Europe and alleviating starvation. Let us not forget that the original idea was to prevent starvation in the aftermath of the Second World War. It did so very successfully.
The EU continues to operate in a very meaningful way, but most of all in recent times when the Union was under threat. I always made the comparison with the United States. When the UK wanted to go off in its own direction and make Britain great again, it was reminiscent of other struggles we have heard of along the same lines. I was worried about it at the time, as was everybody else in this House. The fact of the matter is this: there is more to be gained from strength and solidarity than there is from the kind of dissent Europe suffered from in the past.
Deputy Jim O'Callaghan made a very interesting speech that was subsequently criticised. The sad part is that we do not have longer to debate subjects of this nature at greater depth and length. Suffice it to say, he made comparisons with the renationalisation, the polarisation of thinking across Europe, in the UK and in some other European countries. I had occasion to meet a delegation from another European country in the past year when its opposition to immigration and asylum seekers was voiced. I reminded them of a time when they themselves were asylum seekers and were in need of help, which they got in this country. Even though we did not have much to give, we shared it. It is interesting that after so many years of recent freedom, some people decided to assert themselves and to reject all others who are in the position they were in. That is a dangerous route to go, hence the polarisation to which the Deputy referred.
He also referred to the US as being in a dangerous situation. He is absolutely right, because the polarisation of opinion there has been ongoing for some years. There was a number of explosions and attacks on people, including racist attacks, but nothing was done about it. These things cannot go on for ever, but they are not good. Somebody, sometime, somewhere will pay a price. Like others said, the recent electoral developments in the US are to be welcomed by democrats everywhere and all freedom seeking people. Whether they can deliver or not remains to be seen. Recent US Administrations have been hampered by a lack of a majority in either House. Nothing happens in such a situation, hence the need for reform of the system there.
To return to the subject matter of this debate, we have been well-served by the Minister and his colleagues in this Government and the previous Government. We have held the line very well. The merit in that has been shown by the degree to which our colleagues in the EU have backed us up. They have delivered. They have stood up for us, which is the litmus test, and they will continue to do so, because it is in the interests of all of us remaining member states of the European Union. We have to cease looking at ourselves as being outside the European Union. We are part of the European Union and we must accept that.
I am one of the first people in this country to suggest that our response to Brexit, over which we have no control, was that the island of Ireland should be treated as part of the Single Market and the customs union. I thought it was a good idea at the time, and it is still a good idea and I hope it will prevail.
Ironically, another speaker mentioned that we can benefit from the situation now developing. Two things can happen. We will need to depend on our colleagues in Northern Ireland and they on us to a greater extent than we think possible at this stage. Inevitably, we will be interdependent with another state that we have not been interdependent with before. That situation will be good for relations on this island, good for putting the past behind us and good for the development of good relations in the future. It is an equally good development for economic recovery and advancement, and strength arising therefrom.
We need to bear something else in mind in the last critical days of the negotiations that are taking place. Our friends in the UK are famous for their last-minute submissions and we need to be watchful for the door being slammed at a particular stage when it is more advantageous to them than it is to us in this country or in the rest of the European Union. We need to be careful not to be phased by an ultimatum presented at the end. We need to live on the island of Ireland thereafter along with our Northern colleagues. It is up to us to do the best we can in the circumstances opening up to us.
Irrespective of what happens, we need to continue to be robustly involved in the European Union. I am not as convinced as others are regarding the need to have a relationship with the UK. Yes, we do, and it is up to the UK to continue that relationship. We did not force anybody out of the European Union, nor should or would we and nor are we likely to in the future. It remains a matter for our colleagues across the water to come to the conclusion that it is in the interests of Ireland, the UK and the European Union to reach an amicable arrangement that does not undermine one or the other.
We did not create the situation before us now. It was a fait accomplifrom the time the UK voted. Incidentally, the moral lesson from all that is this. If people do not respond to whatever is laid out before them, no matter how unrealistic it may be or how unattainable it may appear at the time, a result ensues, and that result might not always be what we want. The referendum in the UK went the way it did because nobody else objected to any great extent and it happened. I hope we will reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Even though he is not here, I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for his work on this issue so far. I saw it from a Brussels perspective as a Member of the European Parliament. I saw how sure-footed he was in his work and his negotiations. That was a great comfort and my colleagues in the European Parliament recognised that was happening. I also thank him for his assurances that he would fully co-operate with Members of the Opposition if they wish to propose relevant and well-founded amendments. That is really important because there needs to be a sense that this is a Bill that represents the interests of everybody in the entire country.
The Bill is extremely complex because it straddles so many ministerial responsibilities and deals with so much different legislation, including certain EU directives, regulations and, of course, Irish legislation. However, its coherence comes from the fact that the legislation sets out to protect citizens insofar as it can, and to adhere to the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. Hopefully, it also seeks to minimise the bureaucracy and red tape that Brexit will entail. I say "hopefully" because at this stage it is very difficult to assess how the Bill will contribute to minimising red tape and bureaucracy while at the same time protecting the interests of citizens and different sectors. I know the Government also wants to be ready to deal with emerging or unexpected issues that will require a legislative response, which is what makes this legislation so crucial.
I have watched the entire debate and virtually all speakers have emphasised that they hope this omnibus Bill - or most of it - will never see the light of day and I concur with those sentiments. I also fully recognise that if we do not put a safety net in place and do not co-ordinate systems between the Republic and Northern Ireland and the Republic and the UK to the maximum allowable degree, and if we do not deal with the necessary details and difficult circumstances that may arise, we are storing up a tsunami of complex situations and interactions. People will be tearing their hair out, especially those who live and work in Border regions and those who trade across the Border, unless we have the safeguards, the safety nets and the co-ordination systems in place. Even then it will be difficult.
This is not our first run at this. I was not a Member of the Dáil when the previous Bill was introduced, but there seemed to be good co-operation between the parties in the Dáil. As I said, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised that this would continue with this Bill. We will get down to the finer details on Committee Stage when I hope we do not encounter too many unexpected minefields. However, if there are any, Committee Stage is the time to deal with potential difficulties as carefully and as expertly as we can.
I will return to some specific issues and questions before I finish. Where do we stand now with the Northern Ireland protocol? Is the UK Government seriously working on addressing its concerns on the protocol, which are real? Is it making any serious attempt to formulate ways to set up arbitration, conciliation and dispute resolution mechanisms? These procedures are all contained in the protocol. Has the UK demonstrated flexibility in this area? Has the EU reciprocated by, for example, actively working to streamline and simplify exit summary declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain? Has the EU shown sufficient flexibility on the application of state aid rules so that certain supports can be provided to Northern Ireland without distorting the market? From the point of view of North-South interactions in particular, that is a very fine line. We want to see movement and flexibility on both sides. One of the issues this will throw up is whether we can ensure a level playing field when it comes to companies from Northern Ireland tendering for projects in the Republic and vice versa.
My final question on this section relates to the joint committee to be set up to adjudicate on disputes under four different strands. I will not go through them but this joint committee is the most crucial piece of architecture that we need to put in place.
I would like to know where we are in respect of setting up that committee.
I have a few questions on the specifics of the Bill. I see that it proposes the reimbursement of medical expenses for Northern Ireland residents, for unplanned care if they are actually in the EU. However, in regard to the current cross-border health directive, which I was actively involved in when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I am wondering what exactly we are putting in place for patients from the Republic to go to Northern Ireland or the UK to access necessary treatments, where the waiting times are too long, and where the cost will be reimbursed by the HSE. Through the memorandum of understanding, are we putting in place the same, or a similar type scheme? I have heard people say that patients can go to other EU countries. Yes, they can, but for virtually all of them, it is impossible, with the language barrier, the issue around prescriptions etc. Very few people do that. Therefore, I am asking what we are doing in that sphere.
Also, what arrangements are there in place, or does the Minister of State hope to put in place, to deal with issues like rare diseases, where for many Irish people, the UK health system has been a lifeline? Also, will the all-Island approach that we have in place, for example, in the area of paediatric cardiology services, continue? Will cross-border initiatives, such as the Co-operation and Working Together, CAWT, initiative, which is part-financed by the EU Regional Development Fund, continue? Will there continue to be the recognition of professional qualifications between Ireland, the UK and Northern Ireland, in all of the various different circumstances?
Various colleagues have raised the issue of information flow between ourselves and the UK. How will social security co-ordination be impacted by GDPR? As we know, many Irish people have returned from the UK, either to work here or to retire here. What, if any, implications will it have for the information flow between the two countries?
I also want to ask the Minister of State a really important question. What plans, if any, are in place to alleviate the passing of costs of consumer checks and operations from businesses to consumers? Just under half of our total food imports, which amounted to about €7.8 billion in 2018, came from the UK, with exports of foods and beverages from Ireland being valued at around €4.2 billion. To break it down very simply, it is also estimated that the extra cost per kilo on a carcass of beef will be approximately 11 cents and that is with a basic trade deal. Significant work needs to be done and significant supports need to be put in place in order to prevent significant increases in the cost of many items, but particularly in the area of food.
From the perspective of balanced regional development, the Minister of State is aware that all regions and sectors will be impacted, some of them severely, but there is no doubt that Border regions will experience severe dislocation. People cross the Border every day to work and their entire lives are lived on a cross-border basis. Also, there are certain sectors, such as the dairy sector, which are inextricably linked across the Border. I mentioned the cross-border CAWT initiative, but there are many other cross-border initiatives, encompassing everything from health to rural and local transport. These initiatives are a support system for communities and Border regions and citizens will be hardest hit, both financially and socially. This Government has committed to delivering balanced regional development and the Border regions cannot be a casualty of Brexit. They must receive the support and resources necessary to remain economically viable and for their social fabric not to be unravelled.
I was listening to Deputy Ó Cuív and another Member commented on his speech, perhaps it was Deputy Tóibín, where he talked about the "Sean-bhean bhocht". He said that in the white heat of negotiations our interests might not be fully protected. What I say to Deputy Ó Cuív is this: if we were at that table, the Belgians would have to be there; their losses from Brexit will be very significant, and the French would also want to the there. Therefore, it is much better that we negotiate as a Union, because that is what gives us strength and that is what makes the EU what it is. Whether it is negotiating a trade deal, data protection or leads on climate change, it is the fact that we work together that gives us strength. Individual nations on their own cannot have the same influence. Also, we could not have been luckier in getting Michel Barnier as negotiator, who was a commissioner for regional development and helped set up the peace funds in Ireland and who knows Ireland and therefore has context. We could not have been luckier with the negotiator that was appointed. However, I do not view the EU through rose-tinted glasses. I spent 15 years there and I see the reality of how things work. The reason that I hope our interests will be protected, namely, the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, is that all institutions of the EU have said that they will be protected. At the end of the day, our interests dovetail with those of the EU, because it cannot be seen that leaving the EU will confer a benefit on member states and those who remain will suffer. Our interests will, therefore, be protected because they are the same as those of the EU.
I very much agree with the Deputy and what she said in her speech and I wish to make some additional points.
I wish the Minister of State and the Government the best of luck in the negotiations as they are obviously hugely important. However, regardless of what happens, I certainly hope that there will be a deal which is in the interests of all of our people on these islands and indeed those in the wider EU. Although I fundamentally disagree with the Vote Leave side, I agree with the right to campaign to leave the EU, as I agree with the right of people in Ireland to campaign to leave the EU, although I will be campaigning on the other side when that happens. We are very keen to say that just because we are leaving the EU does not mean that we are leaving Europe, and we cannot return to any glorious period in the past, whether it is Ireland or the UK, and hope that the world has not moved on, because it has. Our trade links are essential to protect, certainly as much, if not more so, in agriculture than any other sector. I represent a farming constituency and I am also a farmer. I expect that there will be a precipitous drop in the prices of cattle and milk in a few weeks' time if a trade deal is not done. I am sure the Minister of State will have his own backbenchers calling on the Government for compensation, but nothing can compensate for being able to trade.
The same is true with regard to Covid, but that is another issue.
Many people say that Brexit has been a failure of British politics and perhaps it has been. However, it also marks a profound failure on the part of the European Union itself insofar as people feel marginalised from its decision-making process and that the decisions made do not represent their interests. That strand of disaffection is evident in every country in the Union, including our own, and it is very important that we address it. There is a certain smugness that can set in during any debate, whether it is the ongoing debate on Covid-19, debate on the successes and failures of the EU, or anything else. There is an elite in every country in the EU whose members have benefited significantly from Union membership. I must be honest and say that I have benefited enormously from living in a country that is part of the EU. Having an EU passport is of much more value than having an Irish passport because EU membership makes it more than an Irish passport. EU citizenship does not replace national citizenship but sits on top of it. It is an add-on but one that is sometimes neglected.
I was not a Member of the last Dáil but debate therein was apparently dominated by the issue of Brexit, how important membership of the EU is and how important our trade relationship is with, and as part of, the Union, as well as with Britain. However, since the formation of this Dáil, I have heard almost nothing about any of that. I appreciate that the Minister of State came back from the European Council meeting and addressed us on it, for which I am thankful. In the general political discourse in Ireland, however, I have heard very little about the EU and the four freedoms that are fundamental to it. Other countries have dealt with the undoubted risks and dangers that arise out of the Covid crisis and it is for each member state to protect its population and safeguard public health. Equally, however, it is for each member state to do so in a way that protects the four freedoms. I have not seen that issue feature in the discourse.
The traffic light system has been introduced, very late in the day, but there was no discussion of the fundamental freedoms when travel was, in effect, banned during some of the Covid period. There is a debate among experts as to the extent to which there is a risk from travel. If one goes to another country and behaves irresponsibly, there obviously is a risk one will get Covid-19, but there is the same risk if one behaves irresponsibly in Ireland. The act of travel, in and of itself, may not be the risk. There was no effort made at all to protect that fundamental freedom. There is no acknowledgement in the debate we are having now that there are thousands of families living in Dublin and throughout Ireland who are not originally from this country and do not have an Irish passport but who are availing of free movement. That needs to come more to the fore in our discussions. We can talk about issues in the abstract but there are concrete realities we must address and the most concrete is the fact that the four freedoms need to be protected. I urge the Government to address that issue when we move beyond this phase, whether or not a trade deal between the EU and the UK is successfully negotiated. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in that regard and I hope it will be the former.
Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Tiocfaidh mé ar ais ag an bpáipéar ó Roinn na Gaeltachta a d’fhoilsigh an Rialtas. Is cáipéis thar a bheith suimiúil í, ag cur síos ar an tionchar uafásach a bheidh ag an mBreatimeacht ar chomhlachtaí sa Ghaeltacht, go háirithe na comhlachtaí beaga atá ag brath go huile agus go hiomlán ar a gcuid táirgí ag dul trasna na farraige go Sasana agus ar na hamhábhair ag teacht isteach. Beidh siad buailte go dona agus beidh siad thíos. Tá a fhios ag an Aire Stáit é sin.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, set out very clearly what is involved in this comprehensive Bill. It refers to no fewer than 41 Acts, which will give people watching the debate some idea of its scope. It has 21 Parts and 121 sections. One of the areas it addresses is family law, an issue in which, in a different life, I had a particular interest. The Bill seeks to continue the recognition, on a habitual basis, of certain divorces, judicial separations and annulments. It also seeks to preserve the status quoin respect of certain arrangements to do with healthcare provision, social protection, students and the common travel area. I welcome all of that. I also want to acknowledge, on the record of the House, the amount of work that has gone into this Bill and the previous omnibus Bill, which, by and large, remained on the shelf and for which the Minister said he was grateful. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas. Tá sé tuilte ag an Rialtas agus ag na daoine atá ag obair air seo nach bhfuil le feiceáil anseo sa Dáil.
Significantly, it is 100 years since the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was passed, copper-fastening partition, home rule and the division of Ireland, all of which have led to the situation we are in today, when that division persists. If anything comes out of Brexit, I hope it will be a reunited Ireland by peaceful means. Brexit means that part of our body has been cut off. I visited there last year on my way to ócáid ag Conradh na Gaeilge. Ceapaim go raibh an tAire Stáit é féin ann freisin ach níl mé cinnte. Ar mo bhealach suas, chuaigh mé trasna na teorann trí nó ceithre huaire. Chuaigh mé ar strae uair amháin. Chuir sé sin in iúl dom go soiléir an easpa teorann agus chomh tábhachtach atá sé nach rachaimid ar ais arís maidir leis an teorainn. When I travelled to Monaghan and crossed the Border a number of times, it brought home to me the importance of never going back to a hard border and the importance of reuniting that body with our body in a peaceful way. We will be a much better country for it and I hope that is what comes out of all of this.
Several speakers referred to Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's contribution. I listened carefully to his speech and went along with some of what he said. He started an analysis but he did not finish it. I hope some of the points he made will be the start of a debate. I certainly do not like polarised politics in any way but the question we really need to ask is how polarisation comes about. Taking that question on a practical level within the Dáil context, before moving on to a more general consideration, we have a Business Committee that is not quite functioning. "Tyranny" is a bit too strong a word to use, but it is true to say that the majority has power now and is not as interested any more in hearing the voices of the Opposition in a respectful way. Now that the three parties in government have their majority - I will call them the three sisters, like the three rivers in the south east, as we learned about them in school - they might exercise magnanimity and recognise the onus that is on them to behave in a different way. They should heed the message of the last election and the one before it that people want a different type of politics and a variety of voices in the Dáil.
We all represent our different constituencies as best we can. I have the greatest of respect for all Deputies and the amount of work they do but the polarisation to which Deputy Jim O'Callaghan referred does not come about by accident. It comes about because people feel disconnected from the political system. When large amounts of public money are put into employing spin doctors to run politics and for the very purpose of spinning, then we are in serious trouble. That is what causes a disconnect with ordinary people and encourages polarisation. I would like a debate on this issue and more contributions from Deputies, including Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, but we might use a mirror to reflect our role in the polarisation that exists. Using it to say that Fianna Fáil takes the middle ground and does not want polarisation will put a kind of a stopgap on any analysis. It is like starting to open the door but then shutting it tight again and it does not take us any further in examining why polarisation is happening.
The referendum on Brexit took place on 23 June 2016. It is easy to forget the date and that it is more than four years since the vote. I do not agree with the commentary of the vast majority of people in the Conservative Party or that of Nigel Farage.
I was concerned then, and have been concerned since, at the failure to analyse why ordinary people on the ground voted in the way they did. We must remember our intimate connection with England. It took our people when we did not look after them. It took people from mother and baby homes and from the industrial schools, including members of my own family. These were people who had ended up on the streets because this country utterly failed to look after them. We exported them. They did the best they could and they did us proud but we let them go. They left the industrial schools, of which there were two in Galway, one for women and one for men, at 16 years of age with the clothes on their backs and nothing else. I sometimes hear younger people talking. I do not like the divide between younger and older people because that is also bad.
Ireland was, to a great extent, made by those people. The remittances they sent back enabled us to go to school, to buy clothes, to go to college and so on. The economy about which we rave was not built on the back of IT alone, but on the backs of those who went abroad, who did not forget where they came from and who looked after their families left behind. All of that has been valued in monetary terms. At one stage, the number of Irish-born people living in England was 1 million. The latest figure my office could get showed there were 430,000 Irish-born people in the UK. I thank my staff for all their work. Perhaps the Minister of State may have a figure for the number of people who have parents or grandparents who were Irish. There is an integral connection between us and England. When we demonise a people, we do so at our peril. They made a democratic decision. Our efforts should have gone into dealing with that decision in the most positive way possible rather than demonising those people.
With regard to America, I do not agree with some of the comments that have been made. I congratulate Joe Biden. It is great that Trump will eventually go, although he has not gone yet. The question must again be asked how millions and millions of people lost faith in the Democratic Party. That is a serious question. The analysis of, and response to, that question will not come from demonising these people or from saying that those in the middle states of America are ignorant and illiterate and do not know anything. It is frightening for me. I know the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach and I do not always agree on things, but we certainly agree on the importance of facts and debate. When I speak here, I often cite the fact that I spent an hour or two listening to Science Foundation Ireland lecturing us on the importance of evidence in forming our opinions. We need to look at the evidence in America to understand why significant millions decided that the better option was Trump rather than Clinton in 2016 or rather than Biden on this occasion. Therein lies the question for us. They did not trust the political system, as some here do not. It was not the case that they thought Trump was better but that they thought he was more in your face and that the other side was not telling the truth.
If there is any lesson in this for us, it is that we must stop spinning. We must stop paying advisers. Ministers must stand up, say what they believe in and tell us about the very hard work their Departments are doing, which they stand over. If they later believe it was wrong, they should come back to the House and say so. We all make mistakes. The Government should get rid of the advisers and the spin. That is my advice in this regard.
I will mention one last thing before moving on to the Bill. I really look forward to the day on which we go through an omnibus Bill on the eradication of poverty with a pen, as I have done in respect of the Brexit Bills. The eradication of poverty is firstly the right thing to do, but our economy will also thrive if poverty is eradicated. Can the Minister of State imagine if the same effort that has gone into Brexit had gone into that or into eradicating the housing crisis, which is absolutely consequent on failed market policies? I have no doubt but that those who led the Brexit debate are neoliberals who have absolutely no interest in equality. When I speak about people being disengaged, I am speaking about ordinary people on the ground who no longer believe those in power. Therein lies the danger.
The spending review to which I referred is particularly worrying. I ask the Minister of State and the Government to have a look at it. I have praised its authors, Rebecca Ryder and Sharon Barry, because it is important to do so. The spending review is subtitled "An assessment of the impact of Brexit and Covid-19 on Údarás na Gaeltachta and its client companies". It is absolutely startling. It states that "Gaeltacht companies are significantly more exposed to a disorderly Brexit than the Irish economy in general, due to their reliance on the UK as both an export market and a source of raw materials". The Brexit planning, into which the Government had put its efforts and which was welcome, was displaced by Covid. One can understand that but the spending review is now saying that it is too late for any more preparation and that it is time to deal with the consequences of Brexit and, post Brexit, to help companies, and smaller ones in particular.
Some 85% of Gaeltacht companies have fewer than ten employees. Another figure that jumps out is that 82% have not availed of any Brexit supports. I will not use all my time to read out figures but this review is crystal clear, written in plain English and easy for someone who is not good with figures to understand. It highlights that Brexit will affect some people and some areas disproportionately. The Gaeltacht is one of the areas atá thíos. Tá sí buailte go dona ó thaobh an Bhreatimeachta.
The review mentions the efforts of Údarás na Gaeltachta, which happened to be before the Joint Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community yesterday. It has done Trojan work, obair na gcapall, agus tá ionaid Gteic curtha chun cinn aige. It has found locations for Gteic and so on. This spending review says that "The lack of broadband and digital infrastructure in Gaeltacht regions is a major barrier to innovation and competitiveness". Market diversification is absolutely essential and these companies need help with that. The review also says that, although I may be paraphrasing it incorrectly, the Government has offered a lot of assistance through different packages, but the take-up has been dismally low. What is now needed is flexibility to refocus those packages. Údarás na Gaeltachta could work to repurpose some of the unexpended funds under the Brexit loans scheme, for example, for enhanced bespoke supports. That is what is needed here. We must target and look at bespoke solutions for the Gaeltacht.
I will go back to the Irish language to conclude. Mar is eol don Aire Stáit - níl aon ghá le leácht uaimse toisc go nglacaim go bhfuil an tAire Stáit ar an eolas faoi sin - go bhfuil an Ghaeilge thar a bheith goilliúnach. Táimid in am na cinniúna. Tá Bille os ár gcomhair, nó beidh i gceann cúpla seachtain, agus beidh an coiste ag obair go dian maidir leis. Níl ansin ach rud thar a bheith bunúsach chun cearta bunúsacha atá ag gach duine sa tír a úsáideann an Bhéarla a chinntiú. Faraor, níl na cearta sin ag daoine a úsáideann an Ghaeilge. Tá trí rud fite fuaite le chéile. Tá sé sin aitheanta ag chuile rialtas. Tá an fhreagracht curtha ar an údarás ó thaobh na tríonóide de fhreagrachtaí sin: an pobal, an teanga, agus cúrsaí fostaíochta, Gael-eagar. Tá siad go léir fite fuaite le chéile. Má tá na saineolaithe ag rá go bhfuilimid i dtrioblóid ó thaobh na Gaeilge de, anois tá saineolaithe i gcúrsaí airgid ag tabhairt aitheantais do na fadhbanna ar an talamh. Níos tábhachtaí arís, tá siad ag tabhairt réiteach orthu. They are identifying problems and providing solutions.
Nuair atá an tAire Stáit ag rá a chúpla focal, bheinn buíoch dá bhféadfadh sé cúpla focal a rá faoi na figiúirí agus na facts atá anseo agus faoi cé chomh goilliúnach agus atá an Ghaeltacht.