Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I apologise for not being here earlier. I was at a shared island conversation organised by Young Fine Gael. I thought it was a brilliant conversation and the more of these conversations we have, the better. I am not interested in shutting down these conversations. It is good that we, as an island, begin to really see and engage in conversations in the North and on what is actually happening in the North. That can only bring good things. The more we talk, the better things get.
The Cathaoirleach will know I have a saying that, for me, it is not if one wants a united Ireland but it is what kind of united Ireland one wants. That is one we work for, not one we win. It is on all of us to work for reconciliation, to work for the relationships that were there as part of the Good Friday Agreement and to work together.
I want to focus on how much we, as an island, need the protocol. It is worth fighting for. I remember, as a child, being confused by the expression that we cannot square a circle. When the realism of Brexit kicked in, that expression really haunted me. Ireland and the UK have gone from being partners within the European Union to redefining their relationship along the lines of EU membership, and then being a third country. It is incredibly difficult to recreate an interlocking and interdependent relationship based on that, such is the scale of the challenge with the protocol and the work that went into it. I know the Minister has been absolutely committed to that. The Good Friday Agreement found a way to square the circle. It was based on respect for each other, for different identities and for different goals, on parity of esteem and on the blurring of hard lines, whereas, time and again, Brexit and those who have supported the hardest of Brexits gave us hard and red lines. Unfortunately, at the moment, they still do. I do not mean any disrespect by that but it is hard to draw any other conclusion, whether it is the call to scrap the protocol after a week, triggering Article 50 without a plan, or a vote against the various solutions that were on the table.
We did not arrive at the protocol overnight. We got here for a reason. If there were better solutions, we had five years to come up with them. It is far from ideal but we have to protect the peace and we have to protect ourselves from the worst-case scenario, which is a hard border on our island, a visible trade border on top of an invisible border.
That is not to say I do not understand where unionists are coming from. I firmly believe the Minister also understands where unionists are coming from and that he approaches this with the flexibility and the compromise that is needed. I am sorry the Minister has been pinpointed or targeted over the last few weeks but I know he is committed to finding solutions, to making trade as seamless as possible for Northern Ireland businesses and to focusing on the vibrant future of Northern Ireland, and the opportunities that could be there for us in regard to having access to the Single Market and access to the Great Britain market as well.
Brexit changed everything, the protocol did not. However, some things will stay with us forever and that is the need for us all to get on and the need for relationships, whether they are east-west, North-South or in the North. Whatever happens, whether it is Brexit or constitutional change, that is just the way things are. It is sad to see that trust has been eroded and that people play politics with everything from bridges to devolution and from legacy to the withdrawal agreement.We still have to stand firm, know our own values and always try to build trust. I admire the Minister's commitment in that regard. He never gives up. Building relationships for the future is always first and foremost in his mind and I hope that is something we will all learn from.