Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

Regarding British-Irish relations, I have said previously, and I am not the only person here that this applies to, that in many ways I am a product of Anglo-Irish or British-Irish relations. I refer to where I have been to university, my family make-up and where my brother and my sister have developed their careers in British cities.That is the case for so many Irish families. There is a generation in Ireland today, though, that sees Britain as an equal in negotiations and dialogue rather than a country of which we must be fearful or overly respectful in deference or anything like that. It is how we have approached the Brexit negotiations from the outset. We want to deal with the facts, the problems and the complexity that has been thrown up as a result of a decision by the UK as a whole to leave the EU. We are not willing to concede on the basis of political pressure or lobbying. We are trying to deliver an outcome we can stand over, that is politically operable and that protects our peace process while preventing the re-emergence of physical border infrastructure.

I hope we have always maintained that position in a respectful way. It has frustrated some people but it has been a successful process from an Irish perspective in terms of getting an outcome we can live with. Any outcome linked to the delivery of Brexit has significant downsides but I hope this is an outcome we can live with. I also hope we can persuade many unionists in Northern Ireland who are fearful about the implementation and consequences of the current deal that they can also live with it in a way that is not overly threatening.

I also reassure people that we will look to put in place new political infrastructure to reinforce the British-Irish relationship in future in the same way that many closely bound countries in the EU do now. For example, these include France and Germany or Portugal and Spain. Britain and Ireland are neighbours and we have an intertwined history. Much of it is very tragic but in more recent years, there is much that is positive. We will look to put in place agreed structures between the British and Irish Governments to ensure we are meeting, at least on an annual basis, and looking at many joint projects together. I hope we can also use the mechanisms, structures and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to do this.

Like others, I pay my respects to Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a British MP for 18 years in the North Down constituency. I got to know her through the Brexit process and I have enormous respect for her. She is a proud unionist but she is an intelligent, tough, fair and open MP who listens but who is not afraid to challenge people. She has been an extraordinary protector of the Good Friday Agreement through what has been a very divisive and difficult debate for unionists in the House of Commons at different times over the past number of years. I would not have spoken about her like this if she were standing for election this time around as I would probably cost her votes by the bucketload by doing so. As she is not standing, I can say that I have enormous regard for her as a unionist, her intellect and her contribution to British politics at a time we needed a voice like hers. It is important to recognise that, shortly after she has made the decision to step down.

I look forward to returning to this House before the end of the year to give a further update. We will know much more about what challenges Brexit is likely to deliver when we know the result of the British general election on 12 December. I hope we will use some of the time between now and then to continue to prepare Ireland for different outcomes. I will also use some of that time to put thought into how we can create opportunities or windows in Northern Ireland for constructive dialogue between parties to try to find a way after the British general election of re-establishing institutions that can function.

I have learned - in some ways the hard way - that there is never an easy window in politics in Northern Ireland and there is always a reason not to compromise, whether it is a general election, party conference season or the outcome of the renewable heat incentive inquiry, etc. There is always a reason to pull back and not take a risk. We need to create windows with political parties even in the aftermath of what I am sure will be a very divisive general election campaign in Northern Ireland to ensure we can focus on the re-establishment of devolved institutions that can function and deliver for people in Northern Ireland. When we ask people on the street or in a business about this, they are exasperated by the lack of political decision-making capacity within Northern Ireland, which has been ongoing for three years. We must find a way to change that and it is in everybody's interest, regardless of background, identity or political perspective, to try to find a way of doing that. Otherwise we will face perhaps even more difficult choices around more decision-making coming from Westminster, the Irish Government needing to insist on its role as a co-guarantor of the agreement in future and the potential tension flowing from that. It is not where we want to be and I ask Senators to think about how they can contribute positively to that dialogue.


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