Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements
I am extremely grateful to the Tánaiste, once again, for coming to this House to provide a timely update on what I have said on many occasions is probably the biggest issue facing the State since the Emergency. I am grateful to both the Tánaiste's activities within this House and, indeed, those of the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and all the officials in both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Reflecting on the comments made by the previous two Senators and, indeed, the Tánaiste, it is fair to say that over the past few months much has changed but, ultimately, not much has changed when it comes to this issue. We sit here, possibly not in a period of respite, as a Senator pointed out, but in a period of holding a watching brief as, once again, we look to Westminster to see what might happen.
I commend the Government on its work over the past number of months and its ability, along with European partners, to maintain the key interests as it affects this island facing into the crisis of Brexit and providing, within the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol, a method to make sure that we keep the Border on this island open. That was very important. That was done on the back of years of hard work, particularly by the Tánaiste as well as his predecessor, the Taoiseach and various Ministers of State with responsibility for European affairs.
It is over to Westminster, once again, and over to the United Kingdom and the four nations within, to select their next parliament and select their next Government which will decide where we go. I just read that Lady Sylvia Hermon is to step down at this general election. I would like to put on record and pay credit to her often lone voice in the House of Commons over the past few years of representing the real concerns of so many people on this island. Lady Hermon is a credit to every single person, regardless of what community or political background he or she comes from.
There is a pause. While Westminster makes its democratic decision, we wait for what comes next. Will we see a return of the Government?Do we see an expediting of the ratification of the withdrawal agreement Bill that allows the UK to exit on time on 31 January and, more importantly, allows the EU and the UK to move on to discuss their future relationship, which will be far more complex and, arguably, more difficult than what has gone before? Perhaps the electoral arithmetic will throw up something else. We do not know what that might be and it is not our place to make predictions or recommendations or to get involved at all. That said, we must be consistent in stressing that there cannot be a return to a hard border on this island and we must work as closely as possible with our friends in the UK to make sure that never comes about.
The withdrawal agreement and the future political declaration that has passed Second Stage in Westminster and been ratified by the European Council does exactly what needs to be done. As Senator O'Sullivan rightly said, there is no such thing as a good Brexit and this House will never hear me say that. That being said, the withdrawal agreement lays the groundwork for the least worst Brexit in the circumstances. Whatever happens in the UK over the coming months, we must make this work. We must move on and try our best to limit the damage. We must point out to the unionist community the many possible benefits for Northern Ireland and work with that community.
Beyond Brexit there are massive challenges facing this and future Governments and the wider Irish body politic. We were a little lax on those challenges prior to the Brexit vote, but if anything, this should serve as a key reminder of the importance of European engagement for this country. We must make sure that we work with all partners on all issues. Just because Brexit is one of the biggest issues facing the EU now does not mean that member state solidarity is a given. We must continuously work at it and work with the EU. Certainly, we can criticise where criticism is justified, but we must be mindful of the importance of praising the EU when it is deserved. We must conduct a far more detailed analysis of European legislation at every level and continue our work with other member state governments, political parties and politicians. It cannot be just a job for the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach to maintain relationships through European Council meetings and so on. It is the responsibility of the entire Government and the Oireachtas, whether through COSAC, meetings of the Committee on European Union Affairs, or through other engagements, to push constantly for Ireland's objectives.
Brexit also reminds us of the very important responsibility of all parties in this jurisdiction to invest time and effort in the politics of Northern Ireland. We cannot take the fragile peace or stability for granted. We must work continuously with politicians, political parties, citizens and groups from all backgrounds. If anything, we have to intensify that work, which is a big challenge for everyone, regardless of geography. It can be argued that for the past 20 years we have taken things for granted to some degree, and Brexit serves as a reminder of the dangers of doing so.
We have not pressed the pause button. One of the worrying issues in the UK at the moment is that while the general election campaign goes on, work on Brexit preparedness has been scaled back. Advertisements have been pulled and engagements have been lessened. We in this jurisdiction need to use this time wisely. Senators Marshall, Ó Donnghaile, Mulherin and I visited Dublin Port this morning to find out about its work on Brexit preparedness. While that work is advancing, as Senator O'Sullivan pointed out, a lot more can be done. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the statistics cited because some may be out of date, we must continuously work on our preparedness. I know that the Tánaiste and his officials will keep up this work, but just because the UK is having a general election does not mean that the Irish body politic and Irish society can step back from Brexit. If anything, now is the time to intensify our engagement, work and preparations. So much of the preparatory work being undertaken by Irish society, particularly by the business and agrifood communities, is just good to do and is not necessarily solely about Brexit. I speak here about things like supply chain diversification and alternative market identification.
We are at a worrying stage now, despite the many reassurances. We must wait out the next five or six weeks and continue to watch events in the UK, but while we watch, we must continue to do the necessary work here. I thank the Tánaiste and his officials for their attendance and thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.