Tuesday, 28 June 2016
United Kingdom Referendum on European Union Membership: Statements
I thank the Senators for attending this important discussion, which takes place less than a week after the most recent Seanad debate on the UK referendum. I have been heartened over the past few days to witness the shared sense of determination across political lines to meet the challenges and uncertainties of the period ahead. We must work together to further, and safeguard, Irish national interests in the months and years ahead as we forge a new framework for maintaining the strongest possible relations with our European Union partners and with the United Kingdom.
There are three things I wish to emphasise to Senators during this time of change. First, Ireland will retain its close relationship and alignment with both the European Union and the United Kingdom. Ireland will, of course, remain in the European Union and in the eurozone, while we will also endeavour to protect our political, economic and human ties to the United Kingdom.Second, the ongoing work to support stability, reconciliation and prosperity for the people in Northern Ireland remains a key priority for me and for my Department, and tomorrow I will travel to Belfast. Third, we must all bear in mind that the United Kingdom is not leaving the European Union immediately and that all arrangements, rights and facilities linked to EU membership still apply in full. A negotiation process will get under way and will take a minimum of two years prior to a UK exit under the terms of the Lisbon treaty. During that time the United Kingdom remains an EU member state and among the many rights this brings, its citizens will retain free right of movement across the Union.
In terms of immediate next steps, the Taoiseach is in Brussels today for a meeting of the European Council. In Brussels, he will clearly set out Ireland's national position and will ensure that our particular national interests are fully respected as we prepare to enter negotiations. Ireland is in an important position given the strength of our relationship with the UK on the one hand and our connectedness to the EU on the other. First and foremost, our primary goal is protecting and promoting Ireland's national interests and that goal will be foremost in any discussions with the UK, with our EU partners and between the EU collectively and the UK. These negotiations may not start formally for some months yet, and will take a considerable amount of time to complete. The Taoiseach, I and the Government will play our full part, while everyone in both Houses of the Oireachtas can and will make a valuable contribution.
I will set out my plans regarding diplomatic efforts over the period ahead. The results of the referendum pose serious challenges to the European Union as a whole but because of the unique nature of our relationship with the United Kingdom we face unique challenges, which we sought to anticipate in the pre-referendum period. My Department has begun to implement the detailed contingency framework we had prepared in advance as part of Government-wide work. Last week I briefed all the EU ambassadors accredited to Ireland, explaining our Government's priorities in case of both possible outcomes and, in parallel, my Department was briefing the Irish ambassadors and consuls general across the world. I have spoken with a number of EU Foreign Ministers in recent days. When the result was announced on Friday I spoke with political leaders in Northern Ireland, including the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, as Northern Ireland is, as ever, one of my core priorities.
Ireland will use all of its resources in responding to the challenges ahead. Last Friday, I wrote to all members the Global Irish Network to share with them the Government's approach to this issue and to seek their engagement where helpful with our work. I have also reiterated my thanks to members of the Irish community in the United Kingdom, who made such a valuable contribution to the debate in the months and weeks preceding the referendum. I assure them that the Government is very aware of their concerns and that we will continue to advocate for and defend their interests, particularly regarding the common travel area. The Government and my Department will continue to make it our priority to carry out the work needed to protect and sustain trade, business, tourism and investment flows within this island, as well as with Britain, the European Union and across the world. Our embassies will support and co-ordinate this work on the ground and the Export Trade Council, which I chair, will guide our efforts at home in that regard.
I am very aware of the serious implications of the referendum result for Northern Ireland, which the Taoiseach and I drew full attention to during the referendum debate. I wish to reassure everyone that Friday's result does not affect the Irish Government's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, of which we are a co-guarantor, or its institutions, values and principles. When I spoke to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last Friday, we both agreed that this Agreement remains the basis for the two Governments' approach to Northern Ireland. Since the result of the referendum became known, some have proposed holding a Border poll to ascertain whether a majority in Northern Ireland wish to remain under British sovereignty in light of the changed circumstances. This was mentioned by a number of Senators in the debate last week and I will take this opportunity to offer my considered view on the issue.
I can fully understand the motivations of those who call for the holding of a Border poll, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. However, for such a poll to be held the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must judge it likely that a majority of the electorate would opt for a united Ireland. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that such an outcome would occur. The fact that 56% of those who voted in Northern Ireland on Thursday chose to remain in the EU does not mean that a majority of its electorate would similarly vote for a united Ireland. These are two very distinct questions. While such a poll in the near future would therefore be very unlikely to alter the constitutional status quo, it could nonetheless prove to be a very divisive referendum, polarising communities on the zero-sum question of sovereignty and placing huge pressure on the cohesion of the Northern Ireland Executive. Rather than take such a high risk course, the better strategy is to work urgently and intensively with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to see how, collectively, we can ensure that the gains of the last two decades are fully protected in whatever post-exit arrangements are negotiated.
All three Administrations share the common objective of wanting to preserve the common travel area and an open Border on the island of Ireland. This work has already commenced through a round of telephone calls that I undertook on Friday. The Taoiseach also spoke by telephone yesterday with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and I expect to meet them tomorrow in Belfast, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Next Monday's plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Dublin, which the Taoiseach will chair, will provide an opportunity for the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to have a strategic discussion around how we are going to work together to protect the interests of all our citizens on the island of Ireland.
I will briefly address the issue of Irish passports. The strong increase in interest in Irish passports in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere since the result of the referendum became known points to concern among some UK passport holders that the rights they enjoy as EU citizens are about to come to an abrupt end. Let me be very clear - this is not the case. While the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, it has not left yet, and while it remains in the European Union its citizens continue to enjoy fully the rights of EU citizens, including free movement of people across the European Union.
Regarding the timeline of a UK departure from the European Union, Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty envisages a two-year negotiation process once the Article is triggered. However, many have speculated that this process could take even longer. Accordingly, there is absolutely no urgency for UK citizens, who may also be Irish citizens, to apply now for Irish passports. Of course, there is no change to our passport entitlements and I urge interested parties to consult the detailed advice on my Department's website and to use the island-wide post office network when applying.
In conclusion, I welcome today's debate which comes against the background of an outcome that those of us debating this issue in the Seanad last week had hoped would not come about. We now face a challenge. We must, and we will, rise to that challenge, as we have risen to other challenges in the past. This is about protecting and furthering the peace, stability and prosperity achieved across this island over recent decades, goals which every Member of this House fully shares.
Last Thursday, more than 33.5 million people turned out to vote and took the remarkable decision for Britain to leave the EU. Although their decision has shocked and disappointed me, I entirely respect their democratic right to make that decision. When the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, put the question to the British people, they were absolutely entitled to give him and other "Remain" campaigners an answer they did not wish to hear, but it is a decision I fear they will come to regret deeply. It is also a decision that I and the Fianna Fáil group in this House regret. I believe many people, for much of their lifetimes, will remember where they were on Friday, 24 June, when they heard that the British were leaving the European Union. The coming days, weeks and months will be some of the most important in the history of the European Union. The question of what type of Europe we want must be to the fore of the decisions and discussions that take place in the short term. Fundamentally, I believe that the British decision to be the first member state to break away from the Union undermines and weakens Europe.
The origins of the European Union date back to shortly after the Second World War and the Union proved successful in bringing warring nations together, where they could enter dialogue about the issues that were of concern to them. It has been a Union that, for most, has been built on mutual respect and co-operation for the greater good. It is important that we look closely at the positives that the European Union has brought to member states. The negativity that was fostered towards the EU in the United Kingdom was often misplaced.I, for one, am a very proud European when I fly into other countries and benefit from that ease of access. The European Union was far from a perfect project but do Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson honestly believe they can have the best of both worlds? Do they believe they can have all the benefits of a Common Market and get rid of any of the negatives? If that is an honestly held belief by the "Leave" campaign and those who voted to leave, then I believe they will get a rude awakening. Being part of a Union means there has to be compromise. No member state should feel entitled to pick and choose the part of the terms and conditions it agrees to and what it will ignore.
The decisions that are taken in the short term to deal with this decision will have a profound effect on how the European Union does its business for many decades to come. That is why it is of the utmost importance that careful consideration is given to how best Ireland should proceed. I, and Fianna Fáil, remain deeply committed to the European Union and firmly believe we should be working to be at the heart of Europe with other member states.
I want to spare a thought for our fellow Irish men and women in the Six Counties, who voted decisively to remain within the European Union, and also for our friends in Scotland who voted to remain by a substantial margin. They, like other European Union members, now face a very uncertain time.
I raise the uncertainty that is now affecting very many Irish citizens living and working in the United Kingdom about what the future holds. Last Friday, David Cameron sought to reassure Britains living in other European countries and European citizens living in Britain that there would be no immediate change in their circumstances. In the negotiations that follow in the coming weeks and months, the Government must seek to urgently clarify the potential implications for Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. I was told this morning of reports that post offices in Northern Ireland have run out of Irish passport application forms, which gives an insight into the concern people there have regarding what the future holds and how they will be able to travel across Europe.
It is incumbent on politicians to be responsible and reasoned when they enter a debate on something as important as the referendum that took place last Friday. Scaremongering and mud-slinging does the people a disservice. We have already seen the "Leave" campaign rowing back on several promises it made regarding funding, most notably the promise that the £350 million being sent to the EU every week could be diverted to the NHS.
The coming years will be challenging for the European Union but we will have to work with our colleagues across Europe to ensure that Europe remains strong and united. We also must seek to urgently clarify the type of relationship we have with Britain. We are in uncharted waters and clearly have much work to do to ensure that we play our part in navigating the next steps so that Europe's strength, peace-facilitating vision and core values are not being eroded by political instability. I thank the Minister for addressing the Seanad.
I thank the Minister for coming into the House to speak on a very important referendum in the United Kingdom which has sent shockwaves through the economic and political systems in Britain, Ireland and Europe. The decision is truly the biggest ever challenge facing the UK, Ireland and Europe in the past 50 years. Economically, these are very worrying times for our close neighbour. Until now, 45% of the UK's trade was with the European Union, courtesy of its access to the Single Market, which is free of tariffs and border controls. In addition, 200,000 Irish people are employed in this country as a direct result of exporting Irish goods to the UK, accounting for approximately 10% of all employment in Ireland. In 2015, 3.5 million UK tourists visited Ireland, while 2.6 million Irish tourists visited the UK.
Tragically, there appears to be evidence of deep regret being felt by many "Leave" voters in Britain who now feel duped by some of the untruths and propaganda circulated by the "Leave" campaign, but whether another referendum will be held on the issue remains to be seen. I fervently hope that whatever transpires under the new arrangements for the UK it will continue to have access to the Single Market because, critically, that will allow Ireland to continue its valuable tariff-free trading relationship with our near neighbour.
I was in the UK in recent months working closely with the Irish4Europe group. I would like to thank its members for the work they have done to articulate Irish concerns on a possible Brexit which, unfortunately, has happened. I told them that people in the UK were not familiar with referendums and that sometimes, without any reflection on them, people do not vote on the question that is put to them. They may dislike the Government of the day. They may have a problem with issues such as water services. In the UK it was immigration and money going to Europe.
This result has huge implications for Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Europe, and we see the fallout. Prime Minister Cameron has resigned. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has lost a vote of no confidence in him by 172 to 40 in the past half hour, and the implications of that are profound and very worrying.
I repeat that we must work with all the stakeholders to try to ensure we get a satisfactory resolution for the country I represent, the Republic of Ireland. We have to ensure we are taken care of as well. The Minister for Finance said that this country could lose €3 billion between 2017 and 2018. I do not believe people fully realise the implications of that for our health services, and all our services. I thank the Minister for the work he has done and wish him well.
This country must look for every opportunity to enhance our relationships with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain. This day last week I stated that I felt we needed a debate on Ireland looking to rejoin the Commonwealth, which comprises 2.2 billion people. Hundreds of thousands of citizens living here are from the Commonwealth countries. Some 70% of people born in Ireland but residing overseas live in the Commonwealth, and I believe it would be a worthwhile initiative to open up that debate.
Ireland was an active member of the so-called British Commonwealth until 1949. The King was responsible for all external treaties and accreditation of all ambassadors. In effect, we had power only over internal affairs. In 1949, John A. Costello declared a Republic true and proper, which effectively ensured that the President of Ireland carried out those duties from that time onwards. In doing that we left the Commonwealth. Ten days later, the London declaration declared that republics such as Ireland could join the Commonwealth. Now is the time to open that debate. We talk about uniting our people. There should be one Ireland, an Ireland together. We talk about an all-Ireland soccer team, which would help. In that regard there are thousands of active members of inter-government, civil society, cultural and professional organisations. We need a debate on that as well.
Aire, tá fáilte romhat. If ever we needed a steady hand at the tiller, we need one now, and the Minister is the right man for that. I am delighted to see him back in his current position.
There have been many calls for a second referendum following the decision of 52% of the 72% of the UK electorate that cast their votes. This is a matter for the Government of the UK and I do not believe we in Ireland should try to impose our multi-referendum process - keep going until you get the right answer - on any country. Ireland's focus now must be on re-establishing our centuries old pre-European communities relationship with the UK.
There are three key areas the Taoiseach must seek to address at the European Council. He must immediately determine the options for a free travel area and if the UK is willing to allow a travel area for all EU citizens. He must establish a clear position on whether the North-South border or an all-island border control is preferable.He must set out a clear plan of action for trade, agriculture and customs and excise. If there are to be Border controls, the Taoiseach must place the full cost implications at the door of the European Union.
The Taoiseach must calmly lay out Ireland's priorities with our partners in the European Union and how Ireland, as a sovereign State, will handle the issues of travel and borders within Ireland and the UK. What was clear during the lead-up to the Brexit referendum was that the UK wanted to strengthen its borders. If this remains the case, we must be prepared for it and we must put our own plans in place. The closure of Army barracks and under-resourcing of security forces around the Border mean Ireland is unprepared for the reality of a new situation, and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency. We must now ask whether, if we had the choice today, we would close the Army barracks in Cavan. We have lost much of the corporate knowledge required to manage borders should this eventuality arise. Our Defence Forces stationed in Border areas are stretched to the limit, with literally hundreds of troops moving back and forth across the country to meet duty needs in Dublin. Troops are travelling from Finner Camp in Donegal and from Dundalk to carry out daily duties in Dublin.
What, if any, contingency planning has been conducted by the Department of Defence and the Department of Justice and Equality with regard to the potential re-establishment of a hard Border? It would be difficult to believe that this scenario has not been war-gamed in the lead up to Brexit in order to inform the Government of the range of capabilities and resource commitments required. Informed contingency planning by the Defence Forces will be key to securing Ireland's borders for both economic, or trade, and sovereign security. I believe that the cannibalisation of the Garda and Defence Forces by successive Governments will have an impact on both forces' ability to adequately mitigate identified and unidentified risks in this context. Currently, based on issues identified by the various representative associations, these forces do not have the capacity or organisational structure to adequately address these latest developments. We have problems with the junior officer ranks, and the number of young officers who are retiring early or leaving the Defence Forces is a serious issue. I ask the Minister if today he can offer any reassurance that these issues have been planned for and are being addressed.
Trade and agriculture will be hit very early on in any Brexit deal. We need to have clear plans and costings to bring to the EU as regards the risks for business due to differing VAT rates and customs and excise. We will need controls to stop businesses from being damaged by this. Britain will, of course, no longer be bound by State aid rules either. Agriculture is an island activity, and food processing, disease control and trade are hugely dependent on an agreed approach.
In order to establish a position at the start of preparations, we need to get some details agreed as soon as possible. The first of these is a question for the EU and the UK: the extent to which a free travel area is possible for EU citizens. Ireland is not part of the Schengen Agreement but we must still allow free travel for EU citizens. If there are to be tighter controls, Ireland must quickly state whether North-South or all-island controls would be preferable. North-South controls would represent a huge cost burden on us and generally disrupt trade and progress on the island.
An all-island control with checkpoints established on entry to the UK would prevent this disruption but also carry the risk that Northern Ireland would become an Ellis Island for people going to the UK or trying to get into the EU. We need resources to deal with this issue. Calm heads are required to see how this situation can be managed.
It will require very careful planning, and the Government will need to move quickly if it is to position Ireland well. We need to get an agreed approach on the table quickly and lead discussions rather than letting them lead us. If we go to the European Union with a definite agenda of points to be addressed-----
I welcome the Minister back to the House. When we discussed this matter last week I expressed my desire for a repeat of this discussion after the poll in order to allow a slightly more reflective debate. It is, therefore, with great disappointment that I speak to reflect on the decision by the people of the UK to leave the European Union. We now face into extremely uncertain times as the true ramifications of the Brexit vote become clear. It is vital that Ireland play an important role in the ensuing negotiations and the timing thereof. Having been involved in politics at various European levels I have seen, through working within the European People's Party, EPP, what European politics without the UK looks like. Despite being the largest political body in the EU, the EPP does not have any British members. I have participated in numerous debates within the EPP in the past two years about the looming prospect of Brexit and I was continuously shocked by the at best indifferent attitude of many EPP colleagues to the UK's status within the EU. As a result, I have warned countless times that we must be wary of a vengeful European Union in the wake of a Brexit. Already we have seen the Polish MEP Danuta Hübner declare incorrectly that English will not longer be an official language in a post-Brexit EU. However, I was also disappointed to see the foreign Ministers of the original signatories to the Treaty of Rome announce a joint statement at the weekend. Brexit is an issue for all of Europe to tackle.
After 43 years of positive membership of the European project, Ireland cannot be a passenger in the coming weeks, months and years in negotiation. Thankfully, we know that in future negotiations Ireland will not be alone. Among the other 26 member states, there will be a number of others who, like Ireland, will be especially anxious to see a positive outcome. I urge the Government to quickly identify these possible partners. Building on our strong partnerships and political relationships, and using our teams of experienced officials in Dublin, Brussels and the other EU capitals, the Government can ensure that the EU approach to these negotiations takes account of Ireland's special concerns and interests.
Ireland has a strong record of performing at a European Council level, with consistently strong attendance figures from our Ministers, particularly the Taoiseach, who now has six years of Council experience and 14 years of leadership experience within the EPP under his belt. Only Angela Merkel has had longer to build the necessary relationships.
Bad decisions are often made in haste and when pressure is applied. Indeed, David Cameron's main decision to have a referendum in the first place was a rash one, made in light of pressures being applied internally by his own backbenchers and electorally by the monster that is UKIP. I fully agree with the Taoiseach's opposition to the attempt to force the UK to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and begin negotiations in a rushed manner. We have the most to lose if EU leaders chose to punish the UK for its democratic decision, no matter how tempting it might be to punish them. Despite much rhetoric, there are no legal measures that any other European member state or institution can take to force any UK Prime Minister to expedite the process by which he or she formally notifies the European Union under Article 50 of its intention to exit the EU. It is important to bear in mind that it is the European Council alone that has overall political control of this process. Therefore, calls from various European Commissioners, including Ireland's own nominee Phil Hogan, as well as the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, for a speedy notification and negotiation are both unwelcome and redundant.
In our previous debate last week I made it quite clear that the EU drastically needs to reform itself. Even with that, the European project has still been the single most positive influence on Ireland since the foundation of the State. We have grown as a young nation economically, socially and politically. The Ireland of my generation is an outward-looking, positive Ireland, unrecognisable from the backward and protected Ireland of comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. For evil to triumph, good people need to do nothing. In the UK, we have seen a victory for nationalism, xenophobia and ignorance. For David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn to go out and try to keep the UK within the EU, having spent decades criticising and lambasting the European project, often incorrectly and often for cynical political gain, was an extremely difficult sight to see.
We as politicians must realise that our rhetoric and our actions cannot be made in a snapshot of time. Everything we do and say has a consequence. Ireland's future is at the heart of Europe and it is time that those of us who have benefited from Ireland within Europe started to stand up and be counted. Let us take on the knockers and simplistic detractors at home and let us champion the reforms within the EU. In a poll commissioned by European Movement Ireland last month, 81% of people stated that they wanted Ireland to remain in the EU even if the UK leaves. Some 87% believe Ireland has benefited from membership, and this rises to 91% for those under 24 years.The time for navel gazing and sighing on foot of the referendum result is over. We need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get ready to work. Ireland must negotiate the terms that are most beneficial to it. We cannot allow the decision taken by the people of the UK to draw a wedge between our two islands. We cannot allow the decision to alter Ireland's place within Europe. Let us underline now that Ireland's place is at the heart of Europe.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House. We attempted to recall the Seanad on Monday, but the request was refused because no Minister was available. It is disappointing that more Senators are not present for such an important debate.
The Brexit decision will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish people North and South in terms of trade, work, education, shopping, health, agriculture and many other areas. Brexit will physically reduce the market within which our businesses function and will reduce opportunities for all of the people on the island. To protect people North and South from this damage, the Government has a moral responsibility to institute the necessary changes to build the all-Ireland economy.
In the same way as it is unacceptable for Scotland to have its democratic will obstructed, it is unacceptable for the North of Ireland. This is a once in a century opportunity for all of us on the islands to redesign our constitutional future. We should grasp this opportunity with both hands. We need a Government that will be ambitious, bold and creative for all of Ireland. Naturally, this result intensifies the case for a Border poll and a referendum on Irish reunification. We should never be afraid of asking the people a question and never assume that we know what the outcome will be. If anything, what we have learned from Brexit is that we should not make assumptions about how people will vote.
There are some opportunities. There is an opportunity to address regional imbalance and the economic divide between the east and west. We have an opportunity for increased foreign direct investment, but this must be directed to the west using our taxation system for tax designated areas, broadband, telecommunications and providing the vital infrastructure that is needed. I ask the Government to bear that in mind.
There is now a need for maximum co-operation between the Stormont Executive and the Irish Government to minimise the consequences of the Brexit vote. The Taoiseach must focus on promoting the interests of the whole of the island, particularly the North. There is also an onus on Executive Ministers to ensure that all matters of mutual benefit to people in the North, in particular the Border counties, such as the agriculture and business sectors, are actively defended and promoted as we enter uncharted waters.
We in Sinn Féin will continue our opposition to the unacceptable and undemocratic aspects of the European Union. We will continue our policy of critical engagement with the EU, including a more robust and less compliant approach. The urgency of reform of the EU has never been greater. The outcome of the Brexit referendum should encourage such a process and it should be undertaken with the urgency it demands.
On this island, notwithstanding partition, we should accept the vote in the North. People voted to remain within the EU, a decision which should be upheld. The Irish Government has a major responsibility to think nationally on an all-island basis. The Government, as co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, also has responsibility to defend the Agreement and its political institutions.
The Irish Government must work to promote the interests of the whole of Ireland, North and South, in future talks at EU level and support the rights of Ministers in the North to deal directly with EU institutions. This can be achieved, as I said, by maximum co-operation between the Executive and Government in Dublin in upholding the vote of the electorate in the North. In the time ahead, this should include a referendum on Irish unity. The task of everyone, therefore, must be to agree policies and strategies that can minimise any problems that will arise as a consequence of Brexit and use it to create a new Ireland and new EU.
Next Monday's North-South Ministerial Council meeting comes at an important point in this process and people will look to our leaders to rise above differences to meet the challenge of the time. This is not and cannot be business as usual. This is a time for real transformational leadership. Sinn Féin will play its part once again. Our Deputies, Senators, MEPs, MPs, MLAs and all other elected representatives will play their part in providing this leadership at a very important time for our country.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to the House. Last Friday night, like many others, I watched the BBC news at midnight. I assumed I would watch the programme for ten minutes and go to bed, but I suddenly found I was still watching it at 2.30 a.m. because of the way the vote was unfolding. It was a stark reminder to all of us and to the European project that we have to reflect and at all times take heed of what ordinary people are thinking and how they believe Europe impacts on their lives.
There was a complete polarisation of the vote in England where, in effect, London and its greater suburbs voteden masse to remain in the EU, while the north east and all other areas outside Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to leave. One has to ask why, but a number of issues have arisen. Immigration is the elephant in the room and it needs to be examined at a European level. I abhor racism, but it was clearly a factor in the decision taken by the UK.
A lot of it is about perception. I was told by a friend earlier today that he met a friend in London two weeks ago who had been waiting three weeks to see a GP. That type of experience feeds into the process. There are issues that need to be examined. In the wider context, we need to address immigration to ensure there is no possibility of racism arising. If people have issues about the transparency of our system, they should be able to articulate it. Europe needs to reflect the views and wishes of the people and how they directly affect their lives. If people think Europe is detached and bureaucratic they will vote against it, and that is something we have to take on board.
Brexit will involve three stages. The most important thing is that there is no sense of panic. I very much commend the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on their approach. I am looking at things in an Irish context. The more immediate issue for us is the sterling to euro exchange rate. Many small businesses export to the UK. Some 17% of exports go to the UK - the US is our largest exporter. If we drill down to the small family-owned businesses that are exporting, the figure is far higher than 17%.
The exchange rate today is about €0.82 or €0.83. In November, it was €0.69 and it rose to about €0.79 last week. If the rate rises to €0.85, businesses will be under pressure. If the rate rises to €0.90 a lot of them will be out of business. I very much welcome that the Government is using Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Transport, Tourism and Sport to ensure that measures are introduced to protect the interests of businesses that are exporting. I include in that category the tourism sector. Some 400,000 people are employed in the tourism sector in Ireland. One of the largest category of visitors to our shores are those from the UK.
Other issues involve practicalities. We needed to reassure people in Ireland that if they have sons or daughters in third level education in the UK, fees will not rise next year. If people are ill, they need to know that their health requirements can be dealt with within the EU.It is also key that the position with regard to energy interconnection be made absolutely clear.
The second issue will be the negotiations between Britain and the EU. I hope that common sense and reason will prevail. Britain is better off inside the EU. If it were to remain, it would be better for Britain, the EU and Ireland. There will probably be a new UK Prime Minister within the next six months. A period of reflection needs to take place and this should not be rushed. If there is any way at all that a new form of referendum could be run within the UK to ensure it stays within the EU, that would be better than effectively trying to reinvent the wheel.
The turbulent period will be post-exit. This is critical. If one considers certain moments in history, this is probably the most significant development since Ireland joined the then EEC in 1973 in terms of the impact on Europe. We must tread very carefully.
Ireland is separate country Britain and we must exploit business possibilities. The CEO of IDA Ireland has been talking to companies in the UK. It is extremely important to ensure that Ireland's legislation in respect of financial services and other matters is fit for purpose in order that Ireland can attract companies to Dublin, Limerick, Cork and other centres rather than to Frankfurt. That is extremely important. Ireland is both an English-speaking country and a gateway to Europe.
I will speak for three minutes and give two minutes to my colleague.
Many of us have shared some of the disappointment and shock - I am sure Members have received personal communications from friends and colleagues across the UK - with regard to the referendum decision. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge and respect the decision that was made by voters in the UK. However, I echo what colleagues have said in that Ireland also needs to acknowledge and respect the decisions made by voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and to recognise the message those voters have sent. This also needs to be reflected in our response to the vote on Brexit.
I congratulate the Minister. It was positive to see the Government publish, so immediately, some of the information relating to contingency planning. The plans that have been made cover many, but not all, of the areas at issue. It was the kind of positive signal that we needed. Unfortunately, it seems that many who drove forward the campaign for Brexit within the UK did not have contingency planning in place and have certainly not been in a position to put forward the kind of clear planning, message and thinking that will be needed.
I am of the view that many people across the UK have lost out on foot of this referendum. It is important to remember that Europe has also lost because it failed to effectively make the case. It is unhelpful that Europe, accused of being bureaucratic, should be making inaccurate statements regarding English as a language of the European Union. It is unhelpful that when it should be broadening its level of engagement and showing that it is a space of many voices, the EU is narrowing its focus. In that context, it was unfortunate that representatives from the founding group of six member states met at the weekend. That is not the signal we need to be sending right now across Europe. It is fundamental that the EU does not act as if it has somehow won or as if it is in a position to visit consequences on the UK. Rather, it needs to be said that this is a challenge for the EU in the context of how we see ourselves moving forward and how we shape the debate about the Union. Ireland has a fundamental role to play in that regard. I welcome that Ireland has been asserting that it will have a key part in negotiations and planning for the exit and that we will not be pushed into short-term decision-making. Analogies, such as that relating to divorce, which have been thrown around are unhelpful. We are talking about multiple, complex parties and many actors. We are talking about the Irish-----
Apologies. Fundamentally, there are two key messages that Ireland needs to send out. The first is that relating to how we view immigration. The response must not be that immigration is a problem. The EU needs to send a signal from the top that immigration is something with which it, as a huge body, can deal in a calm and responsible way. When we held our referendum on citizenship , we discovered that when immigration is used as a political calling card, it leads to consequences and to direct racism within the classroom. The position in the US is similar, where Latino children are being subjected to racism in the classroom. The key message needs to be a positive one in respect of migration. Ireland can lead in this regard by promoting a positive message on migration. We also need to show that Europe is responsive with regard to some of the issues, such as TTIP-----
I thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. The term "political earthquake" is often used to describe moments of great upheaval in domestic or international affairs. Never has a term been more appropriate in the context of describing the outcome of the UK referendum. We are all still reeling in shock at the consequences. By and large, the people did not expect the outcome. I refer to the people of England, Scotland - which our good President is visiting at present - Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and other countries throughout Europe. I empathise very much with the instability felt by many Irish people living in the UK.
Already we are seeing backtracking from prominent "Leave" campaigners on the key referendum claims. Some of them have a sense of confidence that the UK will have an association with the EU on their exclusive terms - àla carteso to speak - and that Britain is somehow in a strong position to demand all the benefits of EU membership without any of the responsibilities. That is a complete fantasy.
Given that I have a short time in which to speak, I am going to cut to the chase. I read this morning, and I find myself agreeing with her, a piece by the UK Green Party's Caroline Lucas, MP. She said that whatever the political path forward for Britain, it is now time that Europe started to think beyond just a common market and started working on strengthening the social and environmental functions of the European Union. Ireland should be seeking a stronger European Union and a transformational evolution of the latter's functions, guided by the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and taking account of the Paris climate deal.
I thank the Minister for giving of his time today to debate this important matter.
One of the views that has been expressed is that England did not plan for this decision, which may be a misreading of the facts. There has been some work done in the UK with regard to how it would manage this exit. I have in my possession a report from the House of Lords which was sent for printing on 28 April 2016. That House examined the issues that would arise if the result of the referendum was in favour of leaving the EU. It is interesting to note some of the issues that were highlighted and what would be required. While the House of Lords identified clearly that the UK would, quite clearly, remain a member of the EU during the withdrawal negotiations, it also pointed out that the UK's credibility - as a member of the Union - would be severely undermined and that a policy of selective disengagement from some areas of EU policy might be necessary. So the authorities in the UK were already identifying this even before the referendum was held.
The UK is scheduled Presidency of the EU's Council of Ministers from July 2017. Questions now arise as to what is going to happen in this regard and when a decision will be made.Usually, when a state is due to hold the EU Presidency, a great deal of forward planning is required. The European Union will have to make a decision at this stage as to whether Britain will take on the Presidency in July 2017. That is an immediate issue that must be examined.
Ireland will be affected in a large number of areas. The area on which I have focused over the past few years is health care. We have a huge connection with the UK in medical services, with nurses and doctors going back and forth to work in both Ireland and the UK. What changes will now occur in that regard? There is also the fact that many services are provided by the UK health system to Irish people. How will we deal with that? It is a very important issue. One of the areas in which I was involved when I was a Member of the European Parliament was the introduction of a right for people to travel to another member state for health care if they cannot get it in their own jurisdiction. There was a benefit for Irish people in the new policy that was adopted at EU level and which was transposed into Irish law. Under the right to travel to another member state for treatment, most Irish people seeking health care outside Ireland would tend to travel to the UK. That is a huge change.
Another important area is patent law. Rather than companies having to travel to each of the 28 member states to register a patent, it was agreed that one could register it in the UK for all of Europe. That is another issue we will have to examine now. It was a huge advantage for Ireland to have that based in the UK, from the perspective that common law would decide on any dispute. How will we deal with that issue? It is an important matter as it ensured that red tape could be cut by having a single registration that applied to all 28 member states. This area must be examined immediately.
Our country faces many challenges with this. However, we have a huge number of Irish people working at EU level both for the Irish Civil Service and also within the European civil service. It is important that we secure the best deal possible for Ireland in the negotiations, particularly for our exports. Approximately 37% of all our exports go to the UK, so they must be protected in the best way possible. I thank the Minister for taking the time to deal with this matter today.
I am sharing time with Senator Humphreys. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan. It is clear from the debate today that many of us feel a profound sense of bleakness and sadness at the result in the referendum last week. It appears that Britain has turned its back on Europe and already we have seen immense fragmentation as a result of the vote. It also appears to mark a victory for emotion based argument over rational argument. One could call it a victory for hate and arguments based on hate over arguments based on hope. That characterisation of the vote has affected us all deeply, at a visceral level, as highly disappointing.
At a practical level, we have seen cataclysmic results with the plummeting pound, political chaos in the two main political parties in the UK and a shock to international markets. There is also the real uncertainty and instability for many thousands of EU citizens living in Britain and the thousands of British people resident in other EU countries. These very disturbing consequences are coupled with a rise in hate crimes since Friday, with incidents of racist graffiti and so forth.
Rather than respond with despair, it is important that we move on and see the vote as a wake up call to all of Europe that its citizens are not satisfied with business as usual. To paraphrase the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, we must emphasise the Europe of kindergartens and museums, not the Europe of banks and bureaucrats. In short, we must embrace the idea of a social Europe built on values of inclusivity, pluralism and solidarity, with a social welfare system and equality laws that set us apart from the rest of the world. Reform is required to restore this vision of Europe. I echo the remarks of the Labour Party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, in the Dáil yesterday, that Europe must serve its people more clearly and demonstrably if it is to prosper and survive. Indeed, Colm Tóibín wrote yesterday about an eroding sense of connection between the European elite and the European population. This must be addressed.
Apart from the need for reform at EU level, we must also focus on what must be done now at a practical level. The Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, will be at the European Council today in Brussels. It is vital that he represents the unique case of Ireland. It is also vital that we do not join with other European nations that appear to wish to punish the UK. It is noteworthy that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in particular, is being more circumspect in her public pronouncements, in contrast to the peremptory tone taken by Jean-Claude Juncker. We must allow the UK to have a breathing space and time to deal with the political vacuum that has arisen. I note the confidence vote in Mr. Jeremy Corbyn MP is taking place today in London. We also need clarity about what type of arrangement the UK will seek from Europe. The best vision I have seen put forward in recent days is that of Labour Party MP, Yvette Cooper, who has called for a special relationship between Britain and the EU that includes access to the Single Market and a plan for immigration reform. There must be breathing space for that to evolve and develop.
From our perspective, the Irish Government's first concern should be to ensure that British-Irish relations continue to flourish and that North-South relations are not compromised in any way by this vote. This is no time, for example, to rush into a Border poll. Instead, the priority must be to preserve good relations across borders and to build on the 18 years of peace in Northern Ireland. The Government's summary of key actions, and I thank the Government for publishing it, provides a blueprint and preservation of the common travel agreement would be a key priority. While we must work together to ensure a minimal impact as a result of this vote on the people of our island and beyond, clearly we are all going about our business profoundly disappointed at the result and deeply concerned about the ongoing implications.
We should hope that hate does not prevail over hope. As the late Jo Cox MP so memorably said, what unites us must be stronger than what divides us.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. Like many Members, I was deeply disappointed with the result of the referendum in Britain. There are significant challenges for our small and medium sized business sector, our tourism and the agriculture sector.
One thing I very much fear is that "Project Fear", run by the right wing Tories in Britain, was based on misinformation. So far, our Minister has displayed calmness and a steady nerve, and I commend him for that. On Monday morning I was fearful when I saw the misinformation blaring from the front page of the Irish Independent, stating that if the EU came after our tax system, we would leave too. That is reckless and unhelpful, to say the least. Our tax system is based on treaties. If our tax system is to change or to be moved, it would require a referendum. The statement by the former Minister of State, Brian Hayes MEP, is very unhelpful and must be challenged clearly. Boris Johnson would have been delighted to see such a headline across a national Irish newspaper. He and his colleagues seek the dismantling of the EU project.
There is an onus on every Member of the House and on the Minister to state the facts. Our tax system is not under threat. We, and especially the Government parties, must speak with one voice. The Minister must have a heart-to-heart conversation with the MEP concerned about his reckless statement. It is not helpful for Ireland or for the EU project. "Project Fear" would be delighted with such statements.
After the dust has settled on the Brexit vote, so to speak, and on the water fight on the Thames as it was called, there are many questions to be answered. We are at a point where we are trying to come to terms with what it all means, the enormity of the implications of the vote, what has happened, why it happened, what it means for us and for Europe into the future and so forth. The outcome of the vote, and we are specifically concerned about the immediate implications, will be analysed probably as much as any Shakespearean drama, except this is real life, not drama.I was struck by an article in The Sunday Timeslast Sunday by the journalist, Robert Harris. The headline was "Here comes a national nervous breakdown." I wish to quote in part from his article on his response to Thursday's events. He said that what is certain is that Thursday's result marks merely the start and not the end of the most divisive, depressing and duplicitous period he can ever remember in British politics, brought upon us entirely by Cameron's glib resort to a device inimical to parliamentary democracy. We must look beyond the economic ramifications and how we get to the point where people, not just in the UK, want to get out of Europe, and have voted to get out of Europe. Without a doubt we had a lacklustre campaign. There was no real message but I do not believe the British are just to blame for that. Europe as a whole, the European Union and all its representatives and agents have an issue to tackle. This is the red flag.
We must ask, “How did we get here?”. Why do people so often view Europe as rigid, bureaucratic and inflexible? Ultimately, many commentators view the European project as a bloaty, bossy and bureaucratic creature, dishing it out without facing the electorate. Too often, Members and others, including the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, stand in this House and their only answer is that Europe says we have to do it. That is a very simplistic response and sometimes it is said in order to divert attention from our participation and why certain laws are required, especially in the environment area. Nonetheless, this has resonated with people and, to coin a phrase from another drama, resistance is futile. It seems that is the depressing vista facing us.
There seems to be no positive message about Europe. Much of what was said was scaremongering but that happened on both sides. Why do we always say that people who have concerns about immigration are in some way bigoted? Ordinary people can have valid concerns about immigration, how it is handled and the implications for them. Why can we not answer them satisfactorily not just in terms of the people in the UK, but also those in Ireland and across Europe, with similar questions? That does not take from the fact that we must be responsible.
I dare say that if in the morning we were to have a referendum in this country, we could have a substantial number of people who would vote to leave the European Union. That scenario could be repeated across Europe. We need only look to the North where 45% of people voted to leave, notwithstanding their awareness of the consequences for farming, trade and free movement, but that did not appear to bring a halt to their intention.
Similar to the general election in this country, the proponents of the leave campaign had all the answers. In the general election, the opponents of the then Government had all the answers on how to run the country, which begs the question as to why we have a minority Government today and why the same people did not put their shoulder to the wheel and set up a Government.
The time flew. Senators should please not say anything to the contrary.
The buzz phrase for a long time was, “It’s the economy stupid”. The architects of the economy are displaying their stupidity when it comes to the ordinary people and how disenfranchised they are. The situation gives us all pause for thought not just in the UK, but in Ireland and across Europe, on the European project.
The Minister is due to respond at 6.40 p.m. and we have five speakers. I ask Members to confine themselves to five minutes each and then everyone will have an opportunity to speak, which is the fairest approach. I call Senator Robbie Gallagher.
I welcome the Minister to the House. The UK's decision to leave the European Union is deeply disappointing. The referendum result is one the vast majority of people in this country did not want. If one lives in a Border town such as Monaghan, Letterkenny, or in Sligo or Louth, something fundamental changed last week. On Thursday night, most of us went to sleep thinking the result would be close but that everything would be okay in the morning. When we woke up to the shocking news, everything changed fundamentally in our lives.
As I said last week, families, farms, businesses, towns and villages straddle the Border with Northern Ireland. Primary schoolchildren, post-primary schoolchildren and young adults do not recall the hard Border that once existed. To them, customs are something one only sees at an airport or sea port. At a meeting I attended in Monaghan town last night, the phrase “uncharted waters” was repeated by speaker after speaker. No one has any doubt that the shockwaves and consequences around Brexit will resonate for years to come. The financial markets have been volatile and there are political events coming down the tracks that some say have the potential to create more problems. Spain has started a general election cycle while the largest five euro area economies, Spain, Holland, France, Germany and Italy - along with the United States - will go to the polls in November or over the next 18 months or so.
It appears that many people in Britain, who normally do not vote, voted in the referendum and they probably voted to leave the EU. Whether it was for reasons to do with globalisation, immigration, inequality, poor economic growth or a combination of all of those reasons, it is clear there was a reaction in certain socio-economic groups, the ones who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have the least to lose as they are disenfranchised anyway. We must ask ourselves whether enough has been done for those who feel left out in society not just in the UK, but in this State. If we, as a society, do not support those communities, should we really be that surprised that the voices of discord get a hearing?
If we do not educate children and people with respect to choices and real consequences in a clear and truthful manner, should we really be that surprised if they choose protest over debate or remonstration over respect? That is also the reason any posturing by the powers that be in the EU that suggests bullying, impatience or disrespect, in particular for democratic decisions, could make a bad situation worse. Thankfully, to date, the response of Chancellor Merkel has been more measured than most. The British people have spoken and their wishes must be respected. We must now move on in a calm and measured way and work towards negotiating an exit that protects as much as possible Ireland’s interests and the ongoing unique and special relationship between this island and the UK.
Separating the UK and the EU will be difficult but it will be in everybody’s interests to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. The tone of the negotiations will be crucial. The European project will thrive only if it re-establishes itself as a union of equals. Despite anxiety in Brussels and the member states to get discussions under way, nothing will happen until the Conservative Party selects its new leader, that leader is elected as Prime Minister and he or she selects and wins the approval of a new government. It will probably be October by that stage and political turmoil in the UK could also trigger, and quite likely will, a general election.
During the referendum campaign, no clear model for the UK’s continuing relationship with the EU was determined. In other words, they did not know what they wanted. Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty might not be triggered for some time. That does not mean the coming months should be a period of inactivity or that a vacuum should be allowed to develop. There are plenty of issues that require attention and that can be addressed before the opening of withdrawal discussions, including the role of the UK in EU institutions.
The disenchantment with the EU needs to be addressed. The gulf between those who lead and the citizens of the Union has become too wide. It is not enough to be frustrated by campaign lies, racism and nationalism in its worst guises, all of which threaten democracy and human rights across all of Europe. We must move forward into those uncharted waters and make the best for all our futures. I will conclude with a quote from Charles F. Glassman, who said: "The danger of venturing into uncharted waters is not nearly as dangerous as staying on the shore, waiting for your boat to come in."
I know we are in safe hands with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, at the helm during these very important discussions. I ask him to the ensure special emphasis is given to communities along the Border, stretching from Letterkenny to Dundalk, and to those who trade along the Border and whose livelihoods depend on that.
I thank the Minister for giving his time because he has a busy schedule. In preparation for the debate, I visited the library to look through some papers, including a report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the conduct of business throughout the island of Ireland. The committee was chaired by Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, who is now a Minister of State. The report made substantial recommendations, including fostering greater links between the island of Ireland, and highlighted great opportunities for the beef, pork and poultry sectors and a range of agricultural and horticultural produce on the island of Ireland. It referred to the green origins of Ireland and how we could market Origin Green, the Bord Bia policy, across Europe and beyond. That was only in January this year. Where are we now?
Reference was made earlier to political leadership. This crisis will be testing for new politics, the Government and, even more so for the principal party supporting the Government, Fianna Fáil, and for us on the Independent benches and in Sinn Féin. Are we prepared to make the choice in the national interest to support the current regime in its efforts to steady the ship, to be responsible and to advocate for the island of Ireland? There are enormous challenges, particularly for our corporation tax rate. Clearly, the Government is at odds with the view of the European Commission. I wish the Taoiseach well in his discussions today and tomorrow as well as other Government representatives who will make a strong case. The entire debate has focused on the Republic of Ireland but we should refer to the island of Ireland. It is about the unity of the minds of the people and business. That is what brings people together and unites and sustains the peace process. The important issue for all politicians is to work closely with Stormont, Westminster and Europe to defend our interests. This presents a tangible and practical way of showing solidarity with our Government, the Dáil, Stormont and Westminster and the European Parliament. I ask the Taoiseach to impress on the Commission the great ramifications of this referendum for the island of Ireland because of our unique geography but also the implications for the Good Friday Agreement. We must stand in solidarity.
The Minister will be aware from his own commitments and from his own strong engagement with people, North and South, across the water and in Europe that if we are to sustain our country and unite our people, we need to be a sustainable and prosperous country and the emphasis has to be on what is best for the island of Ireland and its future.
Unfortunately, this result did not come out of nowhere. For many years, people expressed concerns about the direction the EU was moving in referenda, not only in Ireland but elsewhere. The people of Ireland rejected the Nice treaty and then the European constitution was rejected by the people of France and Holland before we, in Ireland, rejected the Lisbon treaty. Again and again, people were not listened to.
Then we had the response of the major European states and its institutions to the economic crisis that unravelled across the continent. We witnessed the treatment of our own people, in particular, but also those of Portugal and Spain and, most egregiously, the people of Greece. The European institutions and those in political leadership in the EU have much to reflect on and they cannot divorce their actions and their agenda over recent years from the result of the British referendum and the unfortunate impact on Northern Ireland and Scotland, which did not vote in favour of pulling out of the Union.
The comments of the Scottish First Minister, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, regarding the likelihood of another independence referendum in her country and her wish to engage and negotiate directly with the European institutions in Brussels and elsewhere have not been opposed or criticised by any political leader on this island, yet when we in Sinn Féin stated our belief that under the Good Friday Agreement the people of the North of Ireland and the Twenty-six Counties should have their say and there should be a poll on national unity, we were roundly criticised. The Minister should make sense of that.
We need to have a debate about Irish unity. Senator Boyhan referred to a excellent report by the jobs committee during the previous Dáil, which examined the potential for an all-Ireland basis for business. The obvious gains economically for our public services from unity need to be debated. We need to have our say on that matter. I am not afraid of having a debate or losing that debate but let us have it. Once it takes place, there has to be a poll every seven years. That process needs to be put in place. That is why I cannot understand the round rejection of that suggestion. The Scottish people should have their say on independence in response to this crisis but we should not. It does not make sense and I do not understand this. Those who say we must wait are conceding to a Unionist veto for God knows how long into the future. We will never come to the point of having a practical debate with a vote on this matter. I am not afraid of losing the vote but I want to have the debate. I am confident in the arguments my party and I will put forward on the matter.
With regard to the short-term fallout of the referendum, currency fluctuations will impact on agriculture and business, particularly small businesses in this State that export to Britain. We have called on the Minister and the Government to seek support at European level for our agriculture sector and for small business to deal with the impact in the short term. Particular attention needs to be paid to the Border area. There is considerable concern among cross-Border workers, small businesses and people in the agriculture and tourism sectors, which will undoubtedly be affected by this decision. The Government needs to address these concerns in a tangible way. Its contingency plan states it will monitor the impact in the Border area on those sectors but it will need to be willing to adjust budgets and seek European support. Nerves need to be steadied in a clear way.
We must examine whether the European project should be re-imagined in response to the referendum. We need to fight for a social Europe, a democratic Europe and a Europe that ensures decent pay and decent work, rebuilds our public services, invests in public infrastructure and ensures fair and just taxation to win the hearts and minds of our people. If we do not go down that road, more states will step back from this project and this opportunity.
I welcome the Minister for this important debate. The vote by the British people is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. I have not been as depressed about a political event in a considerable time. It proves that if one decides to focus one's attention on a disenfranchised or disconnected group of people and tells them anything one wishes to conjure up in one's head and point at another group of people and say they are the problem, one can secure a political win.I fear for politics internationally. Austria came within an ace of electing a far-right President. We can see in America and even here that the centre ground is being hollowed out and the people and the political discourse are going to the far left and far right. It seems anything can be said and a victimhood mentality rules the day across Europe and in Ireland.
Much of the debate centred on immigration. People in this House do not have any right to be sniffy or to pretend that such a debate could not happen here in Ireland. The very first election I ran in was the local election in 2004 which coincided with an unnecessary referendum on citizenship promoted by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats and supported by Fine Gael which brought out some pretty nasty emotions. We have not had any general election centred on the issue of immigration but let us not pretend that cannot happen in the future because it happened on that occasion.
I worry about the European project because it was a collection of European nations standing together to collectively face the issues of the world, issues that affect the global South, climate change and the refugee crisis, for example. The British people have effectively said they want to turn their back on those issues. How can we now face these world issues collectively and effect some change? It is devastating and disappointing that this has come to pass. British politics is in terminal decline. Both mainstream parties are in a massive state of disintegration. Now is the time for us, while talking about commerce, trade, tariffs, exports and imports, and financial considerations to do so on a humanitarian basis. The EU was founded because the people of Europe said they could not let the continent descend into war again but we have returned to a situation where extremist rhetoric is winning the day, where the emotions of people who feel disaffected with mainstream society can be stirred up and a faceless enemy can be identified and becomes the basis for a political win. Victimhood is winning the day. There are very serious questions to be answered and reflection to be had about what we stand for in this Republic. If the only rhetoric we come up with is based on tariffs and trade, economics and money, we have missed the point because the European project was born out of a sense of despair about where humanity was going. I have that sense of despair now so can we please readjust our rhetoric to talk about humanity and our collective response to the global issues of the day and stand up for what is decent and right? Ireland is in a particularly good place to do that.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. This situation means that Ireland has to reimagine its future. The ramifications of Brexit will magnify not lessen as time goes on. Over the next two years those in Northern Ireland who are in the UK face a challenge they have not faced in the past 100 years: they must imagine that they must leave the UK. The future of Northern Ireland must be viewed through an economic lens, not through the political or religious one. We need to have an informed discussion on the best future for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people of these islands as the Senator from Dublin has pointed out.
The status quowill not be allowed to remain because Northern Ireland, according to the United Nations, UN, human development index ranks 44th in the world, the Republic ranks sixth. The index measures health, education and income. We are equal to Germany, are one ahead of Canada and the United States and the UK is 14th. Northern Ireland will now slip below the 50th ranking which will mean it will join the likes of Romania and Kazakhstan. It is quite obvious that if we reimagine the future of Ireland together and bring it up to where we are, the future of every citizen in the North would be better if we were together. The Good Friday Agreement allows for this and while we might differ with colleagues on this side of the House on how we achieve the outcome, the outcome we in Fianna Fáil would like to see is a united Ireland but it has to be by agreement. The challenge is how to reach that.
While others would anticipate a demographic tidal wave and that parity would be achieved with a convergence of the two communities in the next few years and an overwhelming majority by 2030, that is too simplistic a way of seeing it when 20% of Catholics in the North would vote to stay in the UK but 12% of Protestants in a Belfast Telegraphpoll said they would like to see a united Ireland in the next 20 years. It is a question of how we reimagine the future of Ireland together because what the UK has done to itself, what opportunities it has foregone, are hard to imagine. As Scotland looks towards a renewed independence debate we have to consider the opportunity that Germany did not have in terms of time and space and the democratic structure under the Good Friday Agreement to have that debate on how we can have a better future on this island together.
I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Senator Daly, for sharing time because I had rather expected to be punished by being done out of the debate for declaring my independence. The vote is a tragedy. Cameron is a nincompoop, I do not know what on earth possessed him to hold a referendum but then Britain was never fully in the European Union. I remember it did not want to negotiate in the beginning or be part of the foundation. It was always having caveats and opt-outs and it never really endorsed it.
Many countries in Europe - France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Holland - had empires and have got over that. I am sorry to say it looks as if Britain has not quite got over that yet. There is a nasty racism about the whole thing but British people by and large are fairly politically illiterate, thanks to Mr. Rupert Murdoch. Where is Michael Gove now? Where is Mr. Boris Johnson? They have scuttled off into a little tunnel dug for them by the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. Where are they with their programme for what to do with the result that they argued so viciously for? They are now in the extraordinary situation that the best they will get is the Norwegian situation where they will have to pay for it but will not have a seat at the table. Well done, lads, quite brilliant. I could not have thought of anything better myself.
Of course, there is a lot wrong with the European Union. Look at the way it has treated this country, Cyprus and Greece which has been shoved into a situation out of which it can deliberately never get in order to punish it for being independent.What happened to Goldman Sachs, that wonderful, pure aspect of capitalism, which forged the books for them? It is off making further billions around the corner somewhere. Mr. Juncker's comments were completely unhelpful. But in this country the people are sovereign; in Britain, Parliament is sovereign. It does not have to do what it is told. The referendum was consultative. Parliament can tell them to bugger off and think again. That is what I would do if I was there. The Parliament should think about the welfare of its country first, and not the kind of half-literate electorate it has let loose. The disintegration of the United Kingdom may very well happen, which would be a further tragedy. As of yesterday, 3 million people were looking for a rerun of the referendum. That is a hell of a lot of people.
My final point is that I do not believe that this country has made any real preparations. I would be interested to hear them, but I do not think we really have. We are in the dark. Everybody here - and I include myself in this - was taken by surprise.
While we might have been taken by surprise, I do not think Senator Norris can deduce from that that we are in the dark. We have a contingency. I acknowledge what Senators have said in commending the publication last Friday evening of part of our contingency planning. I ask Senators to keep in touch. I undertake to keep Members of the Seanad fully informed on our planning and the implementation of our plan. I acknowledge that over the last couple of hours almost a third of the Seanad has made a contribution. I have no doubt that this has brought some valuable thinking, in the context of yesterday's Dáil debate as well, as we set about the most important work for our country. It is a great challenge. I have no doubt that the scale of the challenge that lies ahead requires a collective cross-party determination to work together over the next few months and, indeed, years, to ensure that our national interests are very much at the heart of the upcoming EU negotiations. The determination of both Houses has been very much apparent this week, as it was during the referendum campaign, when Members across the Oireachtas played their part in ensuring that Irish people in Britain, and indeed in Northern Ireland, were fully informed of the debate.
The decision made last Thursday by a majority of the UK electorate undoubtedly will leave a lasting legacy. Its impact on the future of these islands will emerge over the coming months and years, but our task now is to ensure that we can help shape that legacy in a way that, above all, protects our interests. As I mentioned at the outset, the Taoiseach is currently in Brussels to begin the process in the European Council, providing the first opportunity to underline through all our EU partners our unique interests and concerns, and to make clear our national position following the events of last Friday. It is the European Council, under the leadership of Donald Tusk, not any other EU institution or subgroup, that has overall political control of the process of negotiations to come.
Ireland's starting point is straightforward: a stable, prosperous and outward-looking United Kingdom is clearly in our interests and those of the European Union as a whole. The closer the UK is to the European Union, the better it is for all of us and, above all, for Ireland. In the European Union, Ireland will argue that the negotiations should be conducted in a positive and constructive frame, but this will also depend on the approach of the United Kingdom. The Taoiseach will encourage the next British Prime Minister to set realistic and achievable objectives, while noting that it is in nobody's interests for the United Kingdom and the European Union to have anything but the best possible and positive future relations.
It is only a matter of days and it is probably true to say that the dust has not yet settled as the rubble of the earthquake is sifted through, but so far a form of consensus has already emerged around a number of key points. First, Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is the only legal framework that can be pursued. Second, it must be triggered explicitly by the United Kingdom. Third, no negotiations can take place until this has happened. Fourth, negotiations should begin as soon as possible, but some time is required for the political situation in the UK to settle down, and a new Prime Minister must be in place. Fifth, the process will be led by European Heads of State and Government. Over the next couple of days a strong message of unity at the meeting of the EU 27 will be hugely important. Ireland, for both practical and strategic reasons, will support that view.
I acknowledge what Senators have said. I have taken notes. I very much value Senators' contributions and I have no doubt that we will have further opportunity to engage. I am very encouraged to hear that Senators and Deputies are willing to use their influence through party affiliations across Europe to ensure that our position is understood clearly. I acknowledge the contribution of Senator Ó Ríordáin. He is right: it is important that the debate should be framed around more than just issues of economy and trade. Indeed, their are four pillars to Ireland's position over the coming period. The first is our economy. The second is Northern Ireland, the peace process and British-Irish relations. The third is the common travel area and our shared land Border. In this regard, I was very struck by points made by Senator Craughwell and others. The fourth is the role of the UK in Europe and its strategic value to Ireland in that context. On Friday we published the outline of the contingency framework prepared on a whole-of-government basis, within which key strategic and sectoral issues that could arise for us if the UK were to vote to leave the EU were elucidated and prepared for. I will have a copy sent to Senator Norris.
This will be used in key areas, such as trade, energy, interconnection, agriculture and food, social welfare arrangements, education and research co-operation, and will extend right across each and every Department. Above all, our contingency management arrangements will prioritise the key political and strategic issues arising from the implications for Northern Ireland, the common travel area and the Border. The detailed contingency planning for a UK exit is particularly challenging due to the uncertainties that lie ahead in the negotiation process when that process is ultimately triggered. The EU needs also to reflect on its own future as an aside to the particular UK negotiations.
From our perspective, building on our strong partnerships and our strong political relationship, using our teams of experienced officials in Dublin, Brussels, London and across the EU capitals, the Government will ensure that the European Union's approach to these negotiations takes account of Ireland's unique concerns and interests, including Northern Ireland. I addressed the matter of a Border poll earlier. I listened to Senator Mac Lochlainn, who accuses the Government of stifling debate. He calls for a debate, but his party leader last week called not for a debate but for a poll before any debate. As far as I and my Government are concerned, we stand firmly by the terms and conditions, the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. A Border poll at this stage would be divisive and unhelpful. We can come back to that at a future date. I will be in Belfast tomorrow, and within hours of the result being announced I spoke with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and the First Minister, Arlene Foster.
In conclusion, I reiterate the important point that while the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, it has not yet left. Until it does, following the Article 50 negotiations, it remains a full member, with its existing rights and obligations. There will no immediate change to the free flow of people, goods and services between our respective islands. I and my Government colleagues look forward to working closely with Members of the Seanad over the time ahead.