Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge and thank him for the determined, skilful and really committed approach that he has taken right through this process, both through the achieving of solidarity with Ireland as Brexit was unfolding right through to the negotiation of the protocol and the avoidance of a hard border, on to the present day. That committed, skilful approach is so appreciated by the people of the country and was necessary in this context.
In the time allowed, I can only do a little survey of some of the main points that occurred to me, which I would like the Minister to respond to in some instances and just to make them in others. On the protocol, I am encouraged by what the Minister said, that his approach has been to make the protocol work in a sensible, pragmatic way and to achieve an east-west solution. That was my view. In the notes I prepared, I was going to make the point that I thought that in the outworking of the protocol, we should be reasonable, achieve consensus and be there to do that. That is not to say that we are not correct in objecting to the breach of an international agreement when that occurs, but I think that a pragmatic approach is required. That is what the Minister is doing and I commend that continuing. An issue that is often raised in this House by Senator Ó Donnghaile and which I also wish to raise is the need for mutual recognition of professional qualifications on an east-west basis. I gather that an initiative of the two Governments could greatly accelerate that process and I urge the Minister to begin negotiations to that end. While a number of professional bodies are working through this themselves and approximately ten have achieved it already, an intergovernmental approach would be very helpful here.
As the Minister himself said, our relationship with the UK is of extraordinary importance now. We must maintain the bonds of kinship and friendship as well as the cultural and interpersonal ties that exist, not to mention our trading relationship, which is crucially important. I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe, one of the bodies of which the UK is also a member and through which we can interact, and of course the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly provides similar opportunities for interaction. Such interaction remains important, as does our trading relationship.
An issue was raised at a recent meeting of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union by the Irish SME association, ISME to which I draw the Minister's attention. ISME representatives said Revenue is debiting VAT and duties due by the importer 30 minutes before port arrival. In cases where the importer has multiple inbound shipments, Revenue may make a deduction which means the importer has insufficient funds to clear a shipment that is 30 minutes from port. The importer can transfer funds during working hours via Revenue's online service, ROS, but cannot do so outside working hours. This can hold up other shipments. ISME suggested that Revenue has offered a solution for this but it is not working yet. While I agree with the Minister that Revenue has done a great job so far and is very committed to finding easy solutions, I ask that this issue be examined. According to a submission from ISME, there is a problem with the payment system, particularly out of hours. It appears that there are some outstanding issues with clearance.
The trade and co-operation agreement is working well but needs to be built on and made to work in a very practical sense. Another issue of concern is the mutual recognition of EU and UK data protection rules. An agreement is in place in this regard that runs until July 2021 but there could be a lot of difficulties after that date at borders and on an east-west basis. I urge the Minister to engage on a bilateral, intergovernmental level to resolve this issue. We were part of a single data protection area when we were all in the EU so it should not be too difficult to continue a working arrangement.
It is worth noting that there has been growth in our trade with Northern Ireland in the first quarter of the year, which is a great by-product of Brexit. Imports from Northern Ireland increased from €137 million to €177 million and exports to the North increased from €170 million to €190 million. That trading relationship is very important. As the Minister said earlier, it is vitally important we keep the North-South trading relationship strong and we protect the Good Friday Agreement.
Another issue that has arisen at the aforementioned Seanad select committee is the potential for increases in the price of bread which, while affecting everybody, will hit the poorest in our communities the hardest. The problem is the milled flour for bread is being imported because we do not have sufficient flour milling capacity in Ireland. The price of bread is potentially an issue and this must be addressed on two fronts. We must increase our domestic flour milling capacity and reach some sort of international agreement to get over the problem.
The question of the reunification of the country arises and was debated very recently on "Claire Byrne Live". I remember engaging in a school debate on this question as a youngster. I won that debate on the basis of saying that what was needed was a reunification of hearts and minds and not just territory and fields.We should be considering the reunification question and how we can establish areas of co-operation. A simple suggestion I have always made, which is not the Minister's direct area of responsibility although I would appreciate it if he considered bringing it to the Cabinet, is that we should make it a condition of sports capital grants and all sorts of grants that they have a North–South dimension. Thus, a club receiving a sports capital grant here would interact with a club in the North, even just once or twice in the year. It would not have to be often but enough to establish a normal North–South relationship in both directions.
A beef farmer in Ireland is getting €300 less than a beef farmer in the UK for the equivalent animal. There is now a kind of nationalism in the UK associated with the eating of UK beef. It is a concern. In the context of Brexit solidarity funding, etc., our beef farmers will need support. Our dairy farmers will also need protection to ensure they do not suffer later on. It is important in the context that we protect our farmers.
I would like the Minister to comment in his reply, if he does not mind, on the prospect of EU solidarity funding and supports that we could use to deal with vulnerable sectors, even the milling and flour sector, so we could in some way compensate those affected.
I thank the Minister for being present.