Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I am grateful for the opportunity to update Members of the Seanad this evening. Since I was last here we have witnessed some important and positive developments in the Brexit process. On 17 October, the European Union and United Kingdom agreed a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration on future EU-UK relationship. As I have said before in this House, we were content with the agreement both sides reached in November 2018. However, we needed to find another agreement with the current British Prime Minister.
We have always understood that a Brexit solution would require compromise. When the earlier deal failed to pass through the UK Parliament the new UK Government sought a different solution. In a spirit of compromise the EU engaged once again. While Ireland supported this renewed engagement, our approach remained firm and consistent. Any revised agreement must meet our core objectives, including protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union and Ireland's place in them. Our partners in the EU understood and supported this approach. Michel Barnier and the task force remained committed to finding a deal that worked for all sides, including Northern Ireland, Ireland, the EU and the UK. We worked closely with them and, when appropriate, engaged directly with the UK as well.
The new agreement has been reached after much discussion, compromise and flexibility. We welcome it as it meets our core objectives and those of the EU. It preserves much of the original agreement. It secures transition, protects the rights of EU and UK citizens and provides for a fair financial settlement. It gives certainty to citizens and businesses and allows us all to move on and develop a new and, hopefully, strong relationship with the UK post-Brexit. It upholds measures to maintain the common travel area and continued North-South co-operation. It maintains commitments to ensure no diminution of rights and safeguards equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens.
The revised protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland sees the backstop provisions replaced with new Northern Ireland-specific arrangements. These provide a legally operable solution as well as certainty that at the end of the transition period the benefits of the peace process can continue to be enjoyed by all. This has been a priority for the Government and our EU partners throughout the negotiations. Equally, business leaders and representative organisations in Northern Ireland have been clear about the need to ensure that arrangements protect the gains of the past 21 years and promote economic stability and progress. Customs and VAT provisions mean that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory but continue to apply the rules of the Union Customs Code. EU customs duties will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland if those goods are at risk of entering the EU Single Market. No customs duties will be payable, however, if the goods entering Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK are not at risk of entering the EU Single Market.
Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, notably all rules related to goods to ensure there is no need for border checks. This avoids any customs or regulatory checks or controls on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from any free trade arrangements the UK signs and will also have access to the Single Market. This unique opportunity allows Northern Irish companies to produce goods for the UK or EU markets. Some of the practical detail will be further clarified during the transition period by the EU and the UK working together in what is called the joint committee.
Unlike the backstop, which was envisioned as temporary insurance policy, the new arrangements could have a more enduring nature. In other words, they could end up being permanent if people want to keep them in place. However, no one wants to see Northern Ireland remaining in these arrangements if it does not want to. Therefore, a role is provided for a majority of Northern Ireland's elected MLAs to decide if the arrangements are to be maintained in future. Some have asked if parallel consent from unionist and nationalist representatives is needed along the lines it is applied elsewhere to key decisions in the Assembly on devolved matters. However, international treaties and international relations are not devolved matters. They are excepted matters which fall under the competence of the UK Government and not the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly.Equally, it is important no outcome provides one side or the other with a practical veto. That risks paralysis and there being no solution at all; therefore, the process envisaged in the protocol ensures neither unionism nor nationalism will have a controlling vote, veto or an effective block. The vote of each and every individual MLA and the views of his or her constituents are of equal weight and importance. The UK Government has also given a commitment that before the vote, there will be proper consultation with business and civil society. It should be based on the lived reality and experience of businesses, farmers and citizens, not a proxy for any other issue.
Ratification of the agreement by both the European and British Parliaments will be the green light for the beginning of negotiations on what I hope will be a broad, deep and flexible partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom, a partnership centred on an ambitious and balanced free trade agreement. The European Union has indicated that it is ready to open negotiations immediately after ratification and created a new task force for relations with the United Kingdom under the leadership of Michel Barnier. The timeline for completion of negotiations is very ambitious as the transition period lasts until the end of 2020. It may be extended once by one or two years if both sides agree and a decision on an extension is needed by 1 July 2020, but that does not give us much time. As Michel Barnier said, the negotiations will be "demanding and difficult", as the Brexit negotiations have been to date.
As the talks will cover a range of issues of importance to Ireland, it will be vital to continue to ensure our priorities and core principles are appropriately reflected. This will require a whole-of-government effort underpinned by the same coherent, cohesive approach that has characterised our Brexit strategy from the start. Work is under way to identify and elaborate on our priorities, but our approach will remain consistent. We want to see the closest possible relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, while also ensuring adequate level playing field provisions to facilitate fair competition. During this process we will build on our strong relations with the task force and the Commission. We will also continue to engage with Members of the Oireachtas, domestic stakeholders and member states, as I hope we have done appropriately in recent years and months. Substantial work will also be required during the transition period to finalise a range of sensitive issues arising from implementation of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement.
While the risk of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October was averted, it remains a possibility for 31 January 2020 unless the withdrawal agreement is ratified by the United Kingdom and the European Union. As long as a no-deal exit is a possibility, we must be prudent. The intensive work carried out already can be banked for future use, while the additional time available can be used to add to or refine our response measures. We will continue to prioritise certain key issues in the period ahead. It is also important to take into account that some of the no-deal preparedness measures in place may also be relevant if and when a future relations agreement enters into force.
Brexit, whatever form it takes, means significant change for the people of this island. As we move, I hope, from ratifying and implementing the withdrawal agreement to negotiations on future EU-UK relations, managing Brexit will remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are determined to rebuild, strengthen and energise relationships, North-South and east-west, for the benefit of all businesses and all of the people. The Government will ensure the intensive work will continue to prepare Ireland for all possible outcomes and make sure we are best placed to advance Ireland's interests in the next phase of Brexit which I hope will happen in the not too distant future. I look forward to Members' comments and questions.