Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I am sure the Minister is glad to have something of a break. I am also sure he is not resting on his laurels, but at least he has a break from the frenzy of the negotiations that have taken place in the past few months.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the fact that the European Union has agreed to a Brexit extension until 31 January 2020. There is no point in going back over the farcical situation that obtained at Westminster when MPs acted like characters in a P. G. Wodehouse comic novel. Because of the volatility of that parliament, even when it comes back in a new form, nobody can take it for granted that we will have a deal. Clearly, the Government, businesses, farmers, importers and exporters must continue to prepare for all eventualities. It would be very foolish for us to take anything for granted at this stage.
Irrespective of the outcome of the UK general election, priority must be given to filling the political vacuum in the North because, as the Minister outlined in his statement, a good deal of the proposed agreement is contingent on the Assembly being in place to enable MLAs to comment on the continuance or otherwise of the agreement. To a certain extent, we are building on sand until such time as politicians in all parties in the North decide that the Assembly is worth the candle after all of the violence and everything else we witnessed during the decades. We marked the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, yet for the past three years the Assembly has been useless. I note that the Independent Reporting Commission has recently stated the continuing uncertainty vis-à-visthe Assembly is increasing the risk of a return to paramilitary violence, something nobody in these Houses wants to see. Therefore, it is incumbent on the British and Irish Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to redouble their efforts to secure some movement on the Assembly. The Independent Reporting Commission has also highlighted the increase in the number of violent deaths and attacks of a paramilitary nature. Everyone witnessed the horror of what happened in counties Cavan and Fermanagh in the case of Quinn Industrial Holdings. The situation is volatile and we cannot underestimate the dangers. I know that I am at variance with other Members of the House and possibly with members of my own party when I say this, but I do not understand why people are calling for a Border poll at this time. I do not see the logic in it. I hope that in the future, possibly the not too distant future, when circumstances touch on being normal in Northern Ireland, a Border poll will take place in a calm atmosphere, but at the moment it would be nothing short of a sectarian head count which would exacerbate emotions. As long as Northern Ireland remains an unreal political entity, there should not be such a poll. I hope the Minister will agree with me.
Another issue that concerns me is the relationship between this country and Great Britain at this time.Naturally, where we were involved in a situation that was to a certain extent confrontational, we were not, to say the least, singing from the one hymn sheet. Tensions grew, fuelled, of course, by media and ill-advised comment from the hurlers on the ditch. It is fair to say that relationships between the British community and this community are not at a high level at present. Certainly, they have fallen a long way from the great relationship we had when the late Albert Reynolds and John Major, or Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, had an understanding which led to the Good Friday Agreement. That was a high point in our relationships and we all thought that the past was over and that kind of enmity of "the ol' enemy" was something that we could put aside. I am afraid it is there. I sense it is very much there in certain sectors of the British community. That hostility towards us has surfaced, certainly in some of the less-responsible interviews that we have heard.
Fianna Fáil, under its leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, will continue to act in the national interest as long as Brexit is in question. It was not easy for my party to undertake, and to commit to, the confidence and supply agreement. We had critics everywhere, including from within, but we have stood up. We went into a relationship with the present Government to create stability at a time when other parties which had the same opportunity ran away. They did not want to know about Government. They did not want to know about responsibilities. They could not wait for Fianna Fáil to underpin the Government so that they could go straight into their default mode of opposition. Maybe when there is another general election things will have changed. However, we did not abdicate our responsibility that time and the country appreciates that. I am sure the Government, despite all the sparing that naturally goes on between the two main parties in Ireland, deep down knows that it would not have been able to achieve anything of the sort with Brexit if Fianna Fáil had not been on side.
The UK general election on 12 December is entirely a matter for it and I will not anticipate the outcome. Hopefully, the result will provide clarity and a pathway forward because continued uncertainty, as we all know, is bad for Ireland. It is bad for our tourism. It is bad for our business. It is bad for consumer confidence.
The withdrawal deal, as outlined by the Minister, is acceptable. It is not as good as the deal that was negotiated with the former British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, but, nonetheless, the back stop has been replaced with this rolling consent mechanism. It is new. It is untested and, as I said, it is predicated on a Northern Ireland Assembly being functioning, which we cannot be sure of.
In terms of preparation, we still have to keep the no deal in our heads and some of the statistics are distressing and worrying. Some 58,000 businesses are still without an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number. An AIB report states that 41% of SMEs in the Republic and 53% in Northern Ireland have still done no planning whatsoever for Brexit. According to a recent parliamentary question, 30% of export-import companies have taken no mitigating action to address Brexit problems. Up to the end of September, only 14% of the €600 million loan fund for Brexit has been sanctioned for bank lending. This leaves an alarming €514 million in unused Brexit funds. I could quote Mr. Aidan Flynn, the general manager of the freight transport association, who made a stark statement the other day. I could go through all that. I am not a Doomsday merchant. We are where we are at present.
There is a hiatus. There will be some clarity when the British general election is over. We will have to keep pulling and working together for the good of the country. Whatever way this Brexit turns out, it will be bad but, hopefully, it will be the least worse that it could be.