Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I also welcome the Minister to the Chamber. We appreciate that he has made himself available. I also want to express my gratitude for the phenomenal work he has done on Brexit on behalf of the people of Ireland. It has been brilliant and we appreciate it.
There has been much discussion about the impact on our country of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Most of the discussion has been centred on the economic impact of this withdrawal but issues such as education and health have also come to the fore. It is vital that we maintain common standards and approaches across the entire island in key areas such as environmental protection, healthcare, education and human rights. This is particularly clear when it comes to the environment. The UK is no longer bound by key EU environmental directives post Brexit and this has caused a great degree of uncertainty. Environmental issues, by their nature, transcend borders and there is a big overlap on issues like biodiversity, waterways and air quality. We need a co-ordinated, consistent approach across the island, treating it as a single biogeographic unit and realising that our rivers run across borders.
An all-island approach must be taken for human rights protection as well. At present, the European Convention on Human Rights applies in both jurisdictions and this should be maintained. It would be regressive and unsustainable to remove rights currently enjoyed by people living on the island. With the UK withdrawal from the EU we have to ensure they are not placed with a Bill of rights that is watered down and less far reaching. We simply cannot row back on people's rights. Human rights protections must be equivalent on both sides of the border. This is outlined, as the Minister well knows, in the Good Friday Agreement and we need to maintain it. On rights and equality, it is worth remembering that the Northern Irish protocol contains no diminution guarantee. It is vital that this is effectively implemented in the North. There still seems to be a lack of awareness around it. I also look forward to seeing the human rights and equality institutions on the island working much more closely together in the future.
There was a real concern among disadvantaged third level students in the North that they would no longer be able to avail of the Erasmus+ scheme to study in Europe. However, I welcome the Government's arrangements to enable students of relevant institutions in the North to have continued access to the programme. It means that third level students in Northern Ireland have access to programmes no longer available to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Covid pandemic has brought the health service, North and South, into focus. The shortcomings of both systems have to be addressed. It is essential that there is a unified health service for the whole island. The planning for this needs to be undertaken as soon as possible. The roll-out of the Sláintecare model all over the island should be researched and costed.
Brexit will create challenges and opportunities for the Irish economy and Irish-based businesses. Some immediate challenges have emerged as companies deal with the reality of the new rules and paperwork. The withdrawal of the UK has resulted in problems for Irish exporters and importers who previously used the land bridge. While new ferry routes to Dunkirk and the expansion of the services to Cherbourg from Rosslare are welcome, sidestepping the land bridge is not possible yet. Hauliers, wholesalers and retailers are struggling with the new complexities when it comes to important goods going across the land bridge or direct from the UK.This has led to drivers being stuck at customs and food safety inspection bays at Dublin Port for days on end.
Brexit has initiated a process of divorce by those in the Irish retail sector from their UK partners. It is easier to import directly from the EU rather than routing through the UK. However, the buying power of Irish importers is likely to be much less than that of UK firms. In addition, the cost of setting up totally separate distribution streams is significant. The results are likely to be less choice and competition and higher retail prices here.
Besides the challenge of increased trade friction with our largest trading partner, opportunities could emerge in many areas. For example, new foreign direct investment projects that would have historically looked to the UK as an English-speaking base in the EU may now consider locating in Ireland.
An unexpected issue that has gained real prominence in discussions is the constitutional status of the North. A majority of the people in the North voted to remain in the EU and have been taken out of it against their wishes. The conversation on reunification of the island has taken on an energy like never before. Thankfully, the assertion that is discussing Irish reunification is divisive is being discredited.
The Taoiseach's shared island unit is to be welcomed. However, there is an urgency in planning and preparing for the inevitable Border poll. I am heartened by the call from Fianna Fáil's Deputy James O'Connor, who represents Cork East, for a special Minister for State to be appointed to co-ordinate the work of the unit. As Fianna Fáil's Deputy Jim O'Callaghan said in his address to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge last week, a huge responsibility rests on civic groups freed from the constraints of party politics to propose, discuss and debate what a new Ireland may look like and how it may operate. However, I am concerned that civic society is moving faster than the political parties and that the research and planning that can only be undertaken and funded by Government will not be ready for the electorate to make an informed choice when a referendum is called. I am also concerned that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the power to call a referendum at any time, but is not prepared to divulge the criteria he will use to make this decision.
An issue that seems to worry some publications in the South is the threat of loyalist violence. The latter is a concern. The threat of violence should never halt the legitimate discussion on the constitutional future of this island. If it does, then I believe the Good Friday Agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. Brexit was supported by many who are now objecting to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was a direct result of leaving the EU. The Good Friday Agreement, a fantastic agreement, allows the people of both jurisdictions on this island to democratically decide the constitutional future of the island. Many of the issues resulting from the withdrawal of the UK from the EU were addressed in the withdrawal agreement. If the terms of this agreement are adhered to the problems that are now being experienced can definitely be resolved.
I again thank the Minister and his Department for all of the great work they have done. I wish him well in continuing with that.