Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements


10:30 am

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

This has been a really good series of statements from Senators from all parties. The tone has been very considered and generous in terms of trying to link the challenges we face with the relationships we need to rebuild and manage. At times this is difficult, especially when people approach the same challenge from a very different perspective. Trying to reach a common understanding is often not easy.

I will now deal with a number of the issues raised. It is important to understand why the protocol itself is so important in terms of functioning.The idea that the protocol could simply be dismantled and removed at this point, now that Brexit has happened, would essentially have a consequence for the Republic of Ireland whereby we would effectively have two very unpalatable choices as a way forward. The first is to choose to protect our place in the EU Single Market by putting in place some form of Border infrastructure North-South, which I do not believe we could do politically or get agreement on doing politically. The second is that we would be taken out of the Single Market by default. The protocol is not just about Northern Ireland; it is about the island as a whole functioning as it needs to function in order to protect relationships and trade.

The way in which the Brexit debate developed meant that the protocol was not the first choice in terms of a solution to the very difficult island of Ireland questions that Brexit forced. Members should not forget that what we wanted in the context of the UK leaving the European Union was to talk about the potential of a shared single market with the UK outside the political union. That was rejected. We then looked at a shared customs union. That was rejected. We then looked at a temporary solution for all of the United Kingdom together, which became known as the backstop, while more detailed discussion took place around how the disruptive impact of Brexit could or should be managed in the context of relationships on the island of Ireland. The backstop was rejected. The then British Prime Minister lost her position on the back of that rejection. The kind of Brexit that was pursued by the British Government meant that we had to essentially tailor or design a solution specifically for Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom not wanting to be part of a shared single market, a shared customs union or a backstop-type of arrangement.

As a result, this arrangement was put in place whereby, in simple terms, Northern Ireland became a de facto extension of the EU Single Market to prevent the need for any form of border infrastructure, but the price of that was that there was some level of checks required on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland because, essentially, it is an entry point into the EU Single Market for goods. That is the backstop. The upside of that from a Northern Ireland perspective is that businesses in Northern Ireland will have completely unfettered access into the EU Single Market of 450 million people, as well as unfettered access into the GB market. It is only for product coming the other way that the EU has to understand what is coming in, in terms of standards and origin and so on, because, otherwise, there would essentially be an unguarded back door through Northern Ireland into the EU Single Market.

Senators should make no mistake about it - if the protocol collapses, Ireland will face some really difficult choices, politically and economically, forced on us by a choice that was made by the United Kingdom in the context of Brexit. This solution is not perfect, but it is certainly the best way we could have designed of mitigating the disruption of Brexit for the island of Ireland and the relationship between the islands of Britain and Ireland. It was designed as much in London as it was in Brussels, but many people seem to conveniently forget that. This was an arrangement and an agreement that was signed up to. It is part of an international agreement and it is international law. It was passed and ratified in the British Parliament as well as in the European Union and European capitals. It was campaigned on in a British general election which was won on the back of the message that Brexit was getting done and on the back of the withdrawal agreement which includes the protocol. We have to be honest about this because the narrative now around the protocol is that it is being foisted on Northern Ireland by the EU and the Irish Government.That is not the case. We are looking at pragmatic implementation and the realistic flexibilities that are possible to try to remove unnecessary disruption, while ensuring, at the same time, that the essence of the protocol remains intact in the context of being an entry point into the EU Single Market that prevents the need for Border infrastructure on close to 300 road crossings between North and South on the island of Ireland. If we were trying to do that on the Border, it would, let us face it, be a charter for smuggling and it would be impossible to deliver politically. Instead, we have limited checks in place at two ports and an airport.

I understand why many in the unionist community see this through a different lens, one that focuses on identity and a disruption of goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. That is why we want to try to limit the impact of those checks as much as we possibly can. We have to do that in co-operation and partnership. We cannot have a situation where one side, whether it be the EU or the UK, decides unilaterally to declare that it is going to implement the protocol in one way or another, in a manner that contravenes not only the spirit of the protocol but the legal obligation under the protocol as well. That is why the EU feels forced to resort to legal action if it cannot find a way of building a partnership through the committee structures that have been put in place to manage the protocol.

Let us talk about the facts and try to deal with the genuine concerns around how the protocol is impacting on Northern Ireland. I would be the first to try to do that. Despite the fact that I have become somewhat of a bogeyman for some people in the context of the protocol and trying to tell people the truth about it, the irony is that the Government, and my office in particular, has been constantly talking to the European Commission about the need for flexibility, the need to understand the tension in politics in Northern Ireland because of the protocol and its implementation, and the need for pragmatism in terms of implementation. We will continue to make those arguments and to work with people like Vice-President Šefovi, who has been extraordinarily understanding and has made himself available on many occasions to meet representatives from Northern Ireland and south of the Border. The protocol is there, it is in international law and it is not going to be cast aside, but we can, of course, work on implementation in a way that addresses genuine concerns.

Regarding trade disruption, the disruption is not only in Northern Ireland; it is very much south of the Border too. There is a whole series of grace periods that have made the disruption of Brexit far easier to manage in Northern Ireland, albeit the politics of it is much more difficult there. Those grace periods do not apply in Dublin and Rosslare in terms of product coming in from the UK. As I said earlier, the Revenue Commissioners, in particular, have done an extraordinary job in really difficult circumstances and on tight timelines. They are working and available 24-7 to try to help businesses make the adjustments that are needed. These are not Irish-imposed systems in Irish ports. They are EU requirements under trade rules with a third country. We are managing the integrity of the EU Single Market as well as managing goods coming into our consumer and retail base in this country. There are no grey areas. We are required to do these things as an EU member state under EU rules and laws. Of course we will try to do so in a way that is as streamlined as it possibly can be.

There are genuine problems with flour, cars and a number of products, mainly linked to rules of origin issues. For example, a lot of the flour that came into Ireland was milled in the UK but, in some cases, the raw material for those mills would have come from Canada and other parts of the world.If the raw material does not originate in the UK, then it is not considered a UK country-of-origin product and a tariff applies as a result. Even beyond that, if a product originates in the EU but goes to the UK for re-boxing or repackaging to then be sold into Ireland, tariffs may also apply. The TCA does not apply because the product did not originate in the UK and because it has been repackaged or re-boxed in the UK, it is no longer considered an EU product because we cannot guarantee its integrity once it leaves the EU. This means that, in a strange way, it is stateless.


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