Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I welcome the Minister. We are only three months into this new Brexit environment but it feels much longer. It is fair to say that a lot has happened in the short few months that the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement has been in operation. There is still a bedding-in period to go yet. There will inevitably be further teething problems.
I take this opportunity to relay some of the thoughts, ideas and challenges brought to the Brexit committee, as well as the difficulties that different stakeholders are having with the new system. There are areas where the State can assist in making life a little bit easier, particularly for those trading in this new environment. The committee had good engagement with US Congressman Richard Neal, Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. That was timely towards the end of last year when things were a little challenging, as they have been on many occasions throughout the Brexit process. It was very good to be in the Seanad Chamber with our colleagues and to have Congressman Neal relay in very strong words his support for the protocol, the Brexit agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. That support from our friends across the water is always welcome and really helpful.
The committee also heard from Mike Russell, a Member of the Scottish Parliament and a representative of the Scottish Government. In some ways, Scotland has had many of the difficulties we have had with trade, access to the land bridge and getting goods in and out of the country. The Scots have faced some of the challenges that we had as well. It was good to engage with Mike Russell, the Scottish Government representative, to see what we can learn from one another and even just to have that solidarity in dealing with what is a difficult situation that nobody really asked for but we have had to deal with.
The committee engaged with the Northern Ireland Executive's committee. Its members attended our committee meeting and then we, in turn, attended theirs. That was a really positive engagement between the two Parliaments and among colleagues, North and South. Many of these issues are all-island ones and we have to work together to resolve them.
There were no unionist representatives at the meeting we hosted, which was disappointing. That disappointment was expressed by members. All of the committee members and I, as Chair, are eager to ensure when we produce our report in the summertime that we will reflect that difference of views from a significant community in a significant part of this island. When we reciprocated and attended the Northern Ireland committee's meeting, there was an independent unionist voice present. He said he was almost there but not quite on that side. We did get a different perspective and it was a different way of looking at the situation. It was good to hear it and that we reflected on it. Sometimes we can be in an echo chamber all saying the same things on Brexit but there is a large community with a very different view on what has happened and what is going to happen.
The issue which has cropped up for many of the stakeholders is that relating to customs and practical matters like getting goods in and out, the extra paperwork, as well as the cost of transport. One aspect the committee will be exploring in the middle of May will be the challenges being faced at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort in the context of the HSE, Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine working together to make life a little bit easier for traders. There are all of these extra checks in place. For example, we have heard from the Irish Road Haulage Association and Dublin Port that the three different agencies are located in different places. One can be moved from pillar to post and delayed leaving the port. That is just making life difficult for the hauliers and for the businesses with goods on board. There is a job of work to be done in getting those three organisations to work better together and to streamline their IT systems.We have been told that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine is still looking for the production of actual paperwork, which in this day and age should be digitised to make life easier for those working in that sector.
We heard from representatives of the ESRI. Regardless of the committee before which they appear, they are always interesting witnesses to listen to and they give an objective overview of what is happening. One of the most poignant points Dr. Barrett made when he presented to the committee was that the Northern Ireland protocol presents a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland, but if it is removed, the opportunity will be gone. I am paraphrasing slightly, but that is the essence of what he told the committee.
It is important that we persuade and send the message that the protocol is a good thing that protects the Good Friday Agreement and ensures there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. In addition, there is a trade opportunity for the North, which now has access to both markets, the best of both worlds. When I said that previously, other parties and Members did not quite see things that way. However, that is my view and certainly the view the ESRI also expressed.
Senator Joe O'Reilly spoke about the data protection issue. Representatives of the Data Protection Commission are also to present to the committee. They have raised concerns over the transfer of data between the UK and Ireland. The UK now being a third country poses significant challenges in maintaining that data flow. The deadline is 30 April, but we are confident, as is the Data Protection Commission, that it will be extended to 30 June. Beyond that, we need to ensure that those data flows can continue because that is how the world works now. It would be good to get some clarity on that.
We had a very interesting engagement on the cross-border treatment directive with PDFORRA, Kingsbridge Hospital in the North and the HSE. As Members will be aware, the cross-border treatment directive facilitates people in the Republic to avail of healthcare in other EU member states. That used to include Northern Ireland but does not anymore. There is a sticking plaster, if I can call it that. There is an administrative system in place just for this calendar year to facilitate people in the Republic accessing healthcare in the North. We need a longer-term solution to that.
Remarkably, PDFORRA has set up its own system for members of the Defence Forces. To access the cross-border treatment directive, someone must pay the hospital upfront and then get reimbursed by the HSE. Many people do not have access to that kind of money or would need to go a lender. Many older people, in particular, do not like to do that. PDFORRA has very cleverly put in place a system allowing it to pay the cost upfront with the individuals paying it back when they are reimbursed. If there is a shortfall in what the HSE pays, PDFORRA will meet that shortfall. It is looking after the members within its own organisation. It is a fantastic example of an organisation that has got around the barriers that have been erected to people accessing this service.
I make one plea on that. As healthcare between North and South is no longer bound by the cross-border treatment directive, let us improve on what is there. Let us remove those barriers. We should not expect people to cobble together €5,000 or €10,000 to access treatment if we are going to give it back to them anyway after they get it done. Let us find a way of replicating what PDFORRA has done for members of the Defence Forces to facilitate people to access that healthcare because they are doing it anyway. Out of sheer desperation, people are begging, borrowing and stealing to try to get that money together to access it. We can improve on that situation.
It is important that we look after the protocol and maintain it. It is important that we listen to the significant number of people in the unionist community. For them, this is an affront to their identity and to their being in their own country. We need to listen to that and find a way around it.
We have a longer-term body of work to do relating to democratic oversight of the long-term implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement to ensure that this Parliament and the European Parliament have oversight over the operation of the agreement into the future.