Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
12. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will provide an update on the ongoing issues regarding implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56288/21]
40. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the preparatory measures that have been taken in the event Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol being triggered by the UK; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56467/21]
65. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the likely status of international agreements such as Brexit in the future given the stated intention of one of the signatories to set its principles aside with obvious consequences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [56455/21]
Talks are ongoing between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the protocol on Northern Ireland, which is part of the withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK. The European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and David Frost met most recently on Friday last. They agreed to continue and intensify talks at official level. They will meet again tomorrow. Following last week's meeting, Vice President Šefčovič noted the need to make serious headway this week, particularly on the supply of medicines.
I met with Vice President Šefčovič in Brussels on Tuesday. We agreed to maintain close contact as the European Commission continues its discussions. I strongly welcome the continuation of talks between the EU and the UK. We need to give these discussions every chance to succeed. To recall, the protocol is the joint EU-UK solution to mitigate the disruption Brexit causes for citizens and businesses on the island of Ireland. While concerns have been expressed about how the protocol is operating, it is important to note that support for the protocol remains strong in Northern Ireland. Recent polling in attitudes to the protocol in Northern Ireland show that a majority of people view the protocol as a good thing for Northern Ireland. People across communities support ongoing efforts to seek solutions and a pragmatic and flexible approach.
I remain in regular contact with business, civil society and political stakeholders in Northern Ireland. I am very aware of their views about the opportunities the protocol offers to Northern Ireland, giving them access to both the UK and EU internal markets. Surveys show that two thirds of Northern Ireland businesses see the opportunity here. We are seeing historically high foreign direct investment interest in Northern Ireland. We need to use the protocol to deliver on a prosperity agenda for the people of Northern Ireland. Realising these opportunities should be the focus of our energy at this time.
The European Commission has listened carefully to the views of Northern Ireland. The Commission has brought forward a package of proposals, published on 13 October, which addressed the issues that matter most to people in Northern Ireland. The Commission's engagement with people in Northern Ireland is continuing. Last week, Vice President Šefčovič held two round-table meetings with businesses and civil society to ensure their voices continue to be heard as talks with the UK progress.
Ensuring the uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is a key protocol-related priority. The European Union has committed to doing whatever it takes to address this issue. It has clearly signalled a willingness to amend EU law to ensure that the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland is fully safeguarded. The European Commission has also brought forward proposals regarding the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Its proposals could reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by about 80%. It would cut in half the checks, controls and documentation currently needed for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This would make it easier for Northern Irish businesses to move goods into Northern Ireland, while at the same time continuing to benefit from all the advantages of full access to the EU Single Market. The EU is also proposing an unprecedented role for Northern Ireland political representatives and stakeholders in the protocol, ensuring that the voices of the people of Northern Ireland are better heard and understood. As Vice President Šefčovič has underlined, this package represents a significant move by the EU.
The European Commission has acted in good faith. We now need a good faith response from the UK. I call on the UK Government to engage seriously and constructively in talks with the EU, so that we can provide stability and predictability for Northern Ireland. This is a point that I continue to make in my contacts internationally on the issue, including with my EU counterparts, whom I met in Brussels earlier this week - they have shown extraordinary solidarity and will continue to do so - and also in my contacts with the US Administration. I look forward to the Deputy's comments.
No problem. I might even try and complete my contribution in under a minute. I want to thank the Minister, as ever, for a fulsome reply on the post-Brexit situation, which is an ever-changing, but in some ways never-changing, situation that we are faced with. I have a supplementary question. We have talked at length about the generous package of proposals that the European Commission has made on foot of engagement with Northern Irish civic, business and political leaders over the summer. Perhaps the response to that from certain people has not been as appreciative as it should have been. However, it has gone down very well, most importantly, in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister, based on his discussions with Vice President Šefčovič or with Lord Frost himself, to set out what proposals the British Government has made. Where are we with this situation?
It may be the case that this British Government is coming to a place that it has never been before, namely, its senses. Looking back ten days ago, it was clearly the case that the British media and the British political establishment had been forewarned that this was the time when Article 16 was going to be triggered. Fortunately, they pulled back from the brink. The intervention of the Irish Government and Irish diplomats played a significant part in that. The British Government ultimately recognises that if it triggers Article 16, the EU will not then require this country to implement a hard border on the island of Ireland in order to protect the Single Market of goods. What would have happened is that trade tariffs would have been put on UK goods coming into the European Union. That clear message was sent by Ireland and by the European Union to Britain. It forced the UK authorities to concentrate their minds. However, I urge the Minister to keep going with these negotiations. The protocol is potentially a wonderful achievement for the people of Northern Ireland, if the political leaders use it effectively.
The Northern Ireland protocol was key in avoiding a hard border. Of course, the threat of triggering Article 16 is causing great concern to people now. This has eased off a little bit more recently. However, the way it is being used as leverage, and pretty much as a pawn, is very much a concern from the point of view of the threat of a hard border, and every social, political and economic impact that there would be from that. The way that Article 16 is being used as leverage in this whole situation is also a concern. The instability and uncertainty that surrounds Article 16 is not where we need to be. There needs to be greater clarity on it. To what extent has the Minister been able to communicate these concerns to the parties involved? He sounds more optimistic about the continuing talks. Has he a clear view on what kind of timeframe might be involved in that?
On Deputy Richmond's questions, the UK position is outlined in what is known as a command paper, which it published during the summer. There is much in that command paper that the EU simply cannot facilitate but there are certainly elements that can be the basis of agreement. That is particularly the case as regards goods coming from Great Britain that we can show are staying in Northern Ireland, in terms of the removal of the vast majority of checks that are currently required on those goods. It is important that we try to give space for the negotiating teams to make progress now. Lord Frost and Vice President Šefčovič meet again tomorrow in Brussels and there is hope that the change in tone in those negotiations that was evident last Friday will have continued into this week in our efforts to try to find compromise and a way forward.
On Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's question, of course we have to prepare for a triggering of Article 16 and a setting aside of significant elements of the protocol should the British Government decide to do that. However, I hope that is not the direction it chooses to take. It would be very damaging to relations with the EU and Ireland but it would also strain relationships with Washington. I do not believe the triggering of Article 16 is necessary and I think we can resolve the outstanding issues on the implementation of the protocol through dialogue and discussion. It is also worth noting that the EU is willing to put into law, or into legal agreement, what it claims it can do to reduce the checks burden. There has been some scepticism on the British side that what Vice President Šefčovič has said the EU wants to facilitate can actually be delivered and I think the EU wants to be tested on that, which is very useful.
As regards the leverage issue and the instability issue, we are working as best we can on that through dialogue.