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

The answer in that regard is to alter supply chains, which is what has already happened.

Let us take the example of a box of corn flakes. Corn flakes sold in Ireland are produced in Spain, by and large. They go to a redistribution centre in the UK and are redistributed into the UK and Ireland supply chain from there. However, because they are repackaged and re-boxed there, a tariff applies. Retailers are looking at redesigning their supply chains in order to be able to source products in a way that does not involve tariffs. Nobody should be surprised that Brexit has meant disruption. Politicians do not have the capacity to remove all of that disruption. We are talking about a country that is considered, in legal and trade terms, to be a third country outside of the European Union. Regardless of how close we are and how much we want to reduce the disruption of it, there is only so much that we can do by way of law and with systems.

There is more that we can do, but the UK Government has to be willing to work with us. For example, if we could conclude a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement between the EU and the UK, it would significantly impact, in a positive way, in the context of reducing checks on live animals and food products, because we could see alignment around sanitary and food safety standards and issues pertaining to live animals, etc. We know we could do that, but the British Government has decided that it does not want to do it because it does not want alignment with the EU. We need a partner with whom we can negotiate and put common approaches and standards together to try to ease the burden for our traders.

The Brexit adjustment reserve, which many Senators mentioned, is still under discussion. We are pushing for this discussion to conclude, because the sooner it is concluded, the sooner the money will be made available and the sooner we can allocate it to the people, businesses and sectors that need it. It is essentially a fund which is split into an initial allocation of €4 billion. A further €1 billion will be allocated at a later stage. The initial proposal from the Commission was that Ireland would have access to over €1 billion of that €4 billion, which is one quarter of the overall fund, and was significantly the highest net gainer from this fund. Rightly so, because Ireland is disrupted by Brexit by a number of factors more than any other country in the EU, and has been in the past number of years in respect of uncertainty and disruption, both politically and economically. That is recognised. It is a recognition of the generosity of spirit and the solidarity within the EU that that proposal was made, that a country that has around 2% of the EU's population is being allocated 25% of the Brexit adjustment fund. Again, it reflects the understanding Ireland has received from the outset in the context of the disruptive nature of Brexit on the considerations we have to make.

That brings me to the relationship North-South and east-west. I must say that Senator Blaney made a most thoughtful contribution this evening. What he had to say reflected on the part of the country in which he lives and his understanding of the mindset of the relationships along the Border in the north west.Perhaps the most challenging element of Brexit for me as a politician concerns how we rebuild trust and relationships that have undoubtedly been damaged because of the way in which Brexit has been negotiated at different times. Stand-offs were resolved only at the very last minute, a trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, was finalised on Christmas Eve, and there was an decision on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol when many people had written them off.

This has not been an easy negotiation. How many Ministers for Brexit have come and gone in the British Government? How many Prime Ministers have lost their job because of Brexit? This has been a strain on the British system as well as on the Irish system, and we have to recognise that and work to rebuild those relationships. From my experience, good things happen in Northern Ireland when the British and Irish Governments work together with parties on divisive and difficult issues, whether that is legacy, implementing the New Decade, New Approach agreement or sensitive issues such as language legislation, which we have to find a way of doing because that is what we have committed to, and in many other areas as well. It could be managing centenary commemorations or celebrations, depending on one's perspective of history in the context of 100 years of Northern Ireland, just like we had to do here in regard to respectful commemorations in 2016. I hope this House as a whole can make thoughtful contributions on how we can build new, stronger and more constructive relationships in the context of speaking honestly to one another and of not hiding our own aspirations and dreams for the future. Just as it must be okay and facilitated for unionists to speak about why they believe in the union, it must also be facilitated and understood for people to talk about a different kind of future for the island of Ireland, which many people advocate for. How we manage that debate, in a way that does not simply drive people to tribal corners based on identity and a different version of history, is deeply challenging.

That is why the Taoiseach and the Government set up a shared island unit to push back against that separation that comes from anxiety, fear or aggressive advocacy. We have had three successful dialogues in the shared island process, the first of which was between young people, a direct and blunt debate with very different perspectives but it was respectful and worked well. The second was on the environment and climate, which Senator Black raised, and the importance of that area. It was a really interesting discussion where people were focusing on something that was not identity based but was a shared interest, that is, how we could work together on the island of Ireland to protect biodiversity and water quality and act together on the climate challenge and so on. Last week, we held the third shared island dialogue, on the role of civil society, and more than 100 civil society groups appeared on a video-streamed call with groups from north and south of the Border interacting with and challenging one another and so on. We will move on and have further dialogues on economic co-operation, healthcare and education. Hopefully, that shared island concept can allow for a sharing of perspectives and contribute, partly at least, to a rebuilding of trust in respect of some of these issues.

On the issue some Senators raised about the constitutional question, future border polls and so on, for what it is worth my view is we have to focus first on building relationships and trying to ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can function again because they are not functioning as they were meant to.They are just about hanging on. We have real work to do to use those structures and institutions that are linked to the agreement to best effect to rebuild relationships after a bruising number of years, in terms of North-South co-operation, relationships within Northern Ireland and also east-west relationships between Governments and political leaders. I assure the House that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister are also talking and thinking about what structures we can add to the current structures that are there to strengthen those relationships.

Nobody should deny that people are entitled to discuss and debate the future of our island as a whole. Nothing should be out of bounds in that discussion as long as it is done in a spirit of respect and generosity. That is the challenge. It is pretty hard to do that at the moment in the context of the pressures and polarisation that have arisen on the back of the protocol and the tension generally in society that the pandemic has caused over the past 12 months. I ask people to think about that.

There are a number of other issues on cross-Border health. The cross-border directive no longer applies because Northern Ireland is no longer part of the European Union and, therefore, EU directives no longer apply. We have to put in place new structures and systems. Not for the first time, PDFORRA has been clever and ahead of the pack in acting early to protect its members. I commend it on that. It has adopted an interesting model. The Government is committed to ensuring that cross-Border healthcare continues to function. We are also committed to trying to ensure that we also facilitate a recognition of qualifications on both sides of the Border. That cannot be done easily government to government in the context of a third country and needs to be done at a regulatory and professional body level, as is happening at the moment. We can do most of what we need to do through those bodies.

I am conscious, a Chathaoirligh, that I could go on about Brexit all night, as you know. I am not sure if I answered all of the questions but I believe I answered most of them.

I heard Senator Ahearn’s comments on Glanbia’s planning permission for a new cheese plant. This is an important project which is about diversification. However, as the issue is in the courts for decision, it would not be wise for me to comment on it. I certainly understand the frustration that the Senator outlined and I have heard it from Glanbia and many others.

On data, the EU will produce a data adequacy decision which will provide some certainty in this area. It will then be up to the UK Government to decide what it does and how it behaves. If it wants to fall outside of that decision, it will be a decision for a future British Government to make and one which will have a series of significant knock-on consequences. There is a timeline until the end of June for the Commission to provide further clarity and I hope it can do that well in advance of that timeline.

I will finish on this point as it is the one I started with. In terms of being constructive on the protocol, I believe we can move away from threats of legal action and get back to a partnership and discussion between the EU and the UK. Through the specialised committee and joint committee, that can work to get the protocol back on to an even keel in terms of a roadmap for implementation on what has been agreed. In return for that roadmap for implementation from the British Government, there is also perhaps an opportunity for more pragmatism and flexibility from the European Commission's side, within the confines of the protocol of course, to try to ensure that both sides are focused on making this work for everybody and building a partnership that recognises the challenges and pragmatism needed to ensure the protocol is robust and, most importantly, provides certainty for businesses in Northern Ireland into the future. I hope we can make some progress on that issue this week.


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