Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

UK Referendum on EU Membership: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. In accordance with the order agreed to today, the debate will conclude not later than 4.30 p.m.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois, Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to be back in the Upper House to engage with Senators on what is, undoubtedly, the highest priority and biggest challenge on my desk as Minister - addressing the implications of Brexit. The Cabinet has been discussing the issue on an almost weekly basis since plans for a referendum were first announced. Yesterday the Taoiseach and I presented a memorandum to colleagues and a series of actions were agreed to. Following the meeting we released a detailed statement which I hope all Seanadóirí have had an opportunity to read.

Senators are well aware of the Government’s priorities on Brexit regarding the economy, Northern Ireland, the common travel area and the European Union. A huge amount of activity has been under way in government. Some of it has been very public, for example, the Taoiseach’s meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, Prime Minister May and President Tusk, as well las my bilateral meetings with EU colleagues, some of whom visited Dublin, including Minister Gentiloni, Secretary of State Davis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brokenshire and Minister Bert Koenders from the Netherlands. Behind the scenes, I have, in fact, had talks with all of my EU colleagues. In these discussions I have set out clearly the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. Most of my foreign ministerial colleagues are familiar with the success of the Irish peace process and the contribution of the European Union to it and all of them have agreed that the gains of peace must be protected. In this context, I have also, of course, engaged with all of the political leaders in Northern Ireland. In Departments, missions and agencies at home and abroad our officials and diplomats have been extremely busy in analysing, planning, engaging with counterparts and stakeholders and supporting the work of the Taoiseach and Ministers in a range of Departments. There has been considerable restructuring, particularly in the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade. My Department's EU policy function is being significantly strengthened and it will work alongside our Ireland, UK and Americas division. The Department of the Taoiseach continues its cross-governmental work and, in particular, supports the Taoiseach in his work on all dimensions of Brexit.

I take the opportunity to address calls made by some in the Opposition for a Minister with responsibility for Brexit. My view, informed by my deep engagement in EU matters, is that it would be a mistake to appoint a Brexit Minister. In the first instance, Ireland and the European Union are so integrated and our relationship with the United Kingdom is such that each and every Department is impacted on and we need each and every Department to engage with Brexit to ensure we mitigate and minimise its effects. Added to this is the fact that at political level, it is the European Council, of which the Taoiseach is a member, which will set the political direction of the negotiations. In turn, the Taoiseach chairs the Cabinet committee on Brexit which oversees the Government response in co-ordinating the work done throughout government.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will work closely with the Taoiseach and all of my ministerial colleagues. I have said on more than one occasion that no Department will not in some way be impacted on by Brexit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a unique role in co-ordinating our response to Brexit. As Senators know, the Department works closely with the Government at all times in all policy areas with an international or North-South dimension. Of course, the 80 strong mission network under the aegis of the Department has a crucial role to play, in the European Union in respect of our EU strategy and outside it in terms of our wider trade and other bilateral interests. In this respect, the missions in key capitals, including but not limited to Brussels and London, will be important players in the debate. All in all, I see no reason there should be a specially designated Minister with responsibility for Brexit.

I wish to update the House on some of the activity taking place at EU level, where the institutions are also taking practical steps to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. The European Council secretariat has established a Brexit task force led by Didier Seeuws, a former chief-of-staff to the previous European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy; the European Commission has appointed Michel Barnier, a former French Minister and former European Commissioner, as its chief Brexit negotiator; and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been named as the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament. I expect Mr. Barnier to be in Dublin in the near future and look forward to engaging with him.

The United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, whom the Taoiseach has met formally and I have met informally. There has been a radical Cabinet shake-up, with a number of new ministries.I have already had discussions with the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Johnson, and the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Mr. Davis, as well as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire. We share a common desire to protect the invisible border, the common travel area and the strong bilateral trade relationship. We are now faced with the challenging task of ensuring those goals can be achieved in the context of the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.

I wish to outline in more detail our approach to our key priorities: the economy and trade; Northern Ireland; the common travel area; and the European Union itself. In the run up to the referendum, the Government engaged in extensive contingency planning, and we continue to update and develop our analyses as circumstances change and evolve. The economy is naturally an area of core concern and the market volatility we have seen since the referendum, in particular in the currency markets, was unwelcome if, regrettably, not unexpected.

Let me summarise the key elements of the Government and State institutions’ response to the economic aspect of Brexit. First, I will address matters with my trade Minister hat on. Coming into office I inherited the Export Trade Council which draws together all senior Ministers with an economic focus, the heads of the State agencies involved in promoting trade, tourism, investment and education abroad with the support of the embassy network, and members drawn from the private sector. The Export Trade Council is a valuable forum. In the run-up to the referendum it facilitated useful discussions between Government, our State agencies and the private sector. That dialogue continues. We are also looking, in conjunction with IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland among others, at potential opportunities for Ireland arising from Brexit.

We are all acutely conscious of the importance of the UK market to Irish exporters. I intend to intensify our focus on other markets, near and far. I believe we have the capacity for much greater market penetration in other EU member states and I am focussed on that, but we are also looking beyond Europe’s borders. For example, the next Export Trade Council meeting will focus on Asia-Pacific. I have just returned from the UN General Assembly in New York where I had a series of bilateral meetings with countries from the Americas, Asia and the Antipodes.

I gave the strong message that Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe. We will continue to be an English-speaking gateway to a market of 500 million people; we will continue to offer a business friendly environment and a talented and adaptable workforce. I undertook a similar set of meetings at the Asia-Europe summit in Mongolia in July. I avail of every opportunity to promote Ireland as a country to invest in and to trade with. I intend to carry out a series of trade engagements within the EU, in the Gulf, and further afield in Asia in the weeks ahead.

In January this year, I launched an economic diplomacy strategy that seeks to build on the consolidation of the Department’s trade role in recent years by establishing a network of locally hired commercial attachés to extend the range and impact of our embassies’ activities in support of trade. In the coming months commercial attachés will be appointed in Mexico, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Bucharest and Jakarta. These are locations where economic opportunities exist to be explored and where either there is no State agency presence on the ground or a relatively light one.

I will continue to work assiduously to promote Ireland’s trade interests. In reference to next week’s budget, clearly, Brexit looms large. The Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Donohoe, will ensure that all aspects of the budget are Brexit proofed.

Obviously, a key concern for us all and, in particular, for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, is the potential impact of a UK exit for Northern Ireland and for the peace process. Overall, we will be working for special arrangements which take account of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. Our priorities in this area are to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and the overall balance of the settlement are not in any way disturbed by the UK’s exit from the European Union, and of course to maintain the open and effectively invisible border. The wider economic impacts for the all-island economy are, of course, also a concern as are the potential consequences for EU support under the PEACE and INTERREG programmes.

Last week I discussed the implications of Brexit for the Agreement and the peace process with the members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There was a shared sense that there are no guaranteed solutions to any of the issues arising for Northern Ireland. The Government and the British Government have reaffirmed that the Good Friday Agreement is the indispensable foundation for all engagement on Northern Ireland. This provides much-needed reassurance for people and the political system in the North, but I am under no illusions about the hard work needed to deliver it. As the Taoiseach and I have made clear, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is determined that its institutions, values and principles be fully protected throughout and at the end of the UK’s negotiation of its new relationship with the EU.

As an institution of the Agreement, the North-South Ministerial Council has a most important role in preparing for and seeking to mitigate cross-Border implications of a UK exit. Protecting EU funding, sustaining the economy and trade and maintaining the common travel area are priority areas where the North-South Ministerial Council plenary agreed in July that we need to work together.

It was also agreed that a full audit would be undertaken in all sectors of co-operation to identify the possible impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies arising in the phases preceding and following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. This work commenced immediately and is progressing across all of the North-South co-operation sectors.

The next North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting on 18 November will provide an important opportunity to build on the discussions between Ministers within the North-South Ministerial Council sectors and to explore further the agreed key priorities for both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in dealing with the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Having spoken of our economy and of Northern Ireland, I am acutely conscious that there is a need for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the referendum result for Ireland, North and South and for North-South relations. There are many organisations and individuals across the island of Ireland who must be given a real opportunity to have their voice heard. This is in everyone’s interest.

I am pleased that yesterday the Government approved a proposal that the Taoiseach and I convene an all-island civic dialogue on Brexit. This event will provide an opportunity to hear the voices of the people affected by the vote, both directly and through their representative groups. It will also provide an opportunity to map the challenges presented by Brexit and how they might impact on different elements of society and the economy on an all-island basis. The main output will be a report and recommendations which will be used to help inform the Government’s position on issues related to the exit negotiations.

Preparations for an all-day conference in Dublin on 2 November are now under way. Invitations will soon be extended to a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island.

Let me now turn to the developments which have been taking place in Europe. There has rightly been much discussion at EU level about the lessons that can be drawn from the referendum result. In that regard, it is particularly welcome that the Taoiseach and the other 26 leaders began an earnest process of reflection in Bratislava in mid-September. We are all aware that these developments come at a time when we in Europe are struggling with many critical issues, in terms of jobs, prosperity, migration and security - both internal and external. However, I am confident that the EU and Ireland will rise to this challenge.

I emphasise one very important point. Although much has been changed by the result of the UK referendum, one thing has stayed constant, and that is that Ireland remains absolutely committed to EU membership. Public support here for Europe and for our EU membership remains consistently high.

So, where exactly are we now? Recent days have brought greater clarity on the timelines we will be working towards. It is positive that there is no longer any uncertainty about the date by which Article 50 will be invoked - the end of March 2017 - thereby setting the negotiating process in train. This was in line with our expectations and our extensive contacts with UK and other EU partners.

The united EU position remains that there can be no negotiations before the formal notification under Article 50 is made. We continue to adhere to that approach, but it does not mean that we cannot have exploratory discussions on the important bilateral issues which will need to be sorted out.

This would mean that the UK could depart the Union in spring 2019. However, it remains to be seen how, and within what timeframe, the linked negotiations on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be taken forward. From Ireland’s perspective, we would like this relationship to be strong and positive. I believe that is a goal to which we all, in the European Union and in the United Kingdom, should be committed.

However, the British Prime Minister’s comments indicate that the UK will not seek a so-called soft Brexit under which it would seek a relationship with the EU similar to that of Switzerland or Norway.This would not be compatible with controls on the free movement of people, which appears to be a cornerstone of her position and runs contrary to the insistence of the EU on the indivisibility of the four freedoms which underlie the Single Market. I appreciate the factors underpinning the Prime Minister’s approach, although clearly it is not what we would have wished to see and will pose challenges all round. That said, the rather general concept of a hard Brexit allows for a range of possible outcomes on key issues and these will have to be teased out in detail, first by the UK itself and then throughout the negotiating process. We will work actively to ensure the best possible outcome for Ireland and the EU as a whole and, in particular, to ensure, as I said earlier, that our very particular concerns are safeguarded to the greatest possible extent.

The enormity of the Brexit challenge, combined with the question marks over how the UK will approach negotiations and where the landing zone will ultimately be, has given rise to a great deal of comment and some speculation. For our part, we are knuckling down and doing all that we can to ensure that Ireland defends and protects its own strategic interests in the time ahead. Having given an overview of where the Government currently stands, I now look forward to hearing the perspectives and analysis of Members of the House. I will have an opportunity to reply to issues as raised.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, to the House. I welcome the comprehensive and well-thought out statement he has made. This follows a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs yesterday with the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, in which he outlined other information regarding the future. The Minister makes a very strong case for not appointing a dedicated Minister. He is very persuasive. He has made a good case to be the lead Minister himself in this particular regard.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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We reserved that issue alright, contrary to what you were saying yesterday.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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Through the Chair.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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My apologies.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I felt that there was a case to be made for having one Minister in the Cabinet dealing with the Brexit issue. However, the Minister is making a very good case. It is a debatable issue. I am very confident in his approach to this issue after his statement here today. It was extremely comprehensive. In the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister has a tremendous amount of ambassadorial support represented in Europe. On the trade side, on which I served for a period as a trade Minister, he has tremendous backup. Those are two very important issues which affect the future of this country.

With regard to the negotiating team, all of the negotiators are civil servants as far as I can see. Those negotiations are going to be held in secret with the British Government. As the country most affected by the outcome of the negotiations, surely we should have a representative at those negotiations. Ireland is the most affected of the 26 other member states. We are the only country with a border with the UK and it is absolutely vital that we have an open border, as the Minister said. I fully accept what he is saying. I would like the Minister to comment on that. I might not be here because I am going to a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, of which I am the Vice Chairman, at 4 p.m. I may not be here for his reply and I apologise for that.

In the circumstances, I feel that our Government should make a very strong case for having a senior ambassadorial representative at the negotiations and discussions. No other country could challenge the fact that we are the most affected of all the 27 remaining member states. These negotiations are held in secret, like the negotiations on the trade agreements with Canada and the US where we were not being kept aware of the actual details of the implications of those agreements. Therefore, I believe it is very important. I know that the Minister might say that the Council of Ministers, the Prime Ministers and the Presidents of the EU will be briefed regularly on the negotiations. We also have the European Commission which I presume will also be briefed. We have an Irish Commissioner, though he takes an oath to the EU and I accept that. I know that Commissioner Hogan will be very knowledgeable on the issues involved and will certainly not forget his base in these issues.

At the Joint Committee on European Affairs, which is chaired by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and of which I am the Vice Chairman, we are taking the situation very seriously. We are involved with the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, in discussions on the MEPs and we are giving any opportunity we can to pushing forward the idea. It is a totally united approach. Every party and none must be together with the Government. This is Ireland's call and it is Ireland's fight. Nobody can use any issue for political purpose in this particular regard. That is why in the Joint Committee on European Affairs we are inviting - I put the invitation and I hope it will be accepted - representatives of all the European affairs committees in the other 26 countries to send a representative to Ireland and we will show them the Border we have with Northern Ireland. It is the most porous border in all of Europe. The effects of a hard border would be detrimental to the interests of the Republic.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is a vehicle as well. I welcome the Taoiseach's decision to have an all-Ireland discussion in November. That is positive. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly will have a meeting in Cardiff at the end of November and had a recent meeting in Malahide. It was totally opposed to any return to a hard border. That is very important. That came from both the Unionist and the Nationalist traditions in Northern Ireland. Nobody ever wants to see those borders again. That is an important forum. I hope the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade might be able to attend the assembly. I know his schedule is very tight and he has other meetings with Ministers from Northern Ireland. I feel that the Cardiff meeting will be very important because the issue is developing. Everyone of us - not just the Minister - who has any influence, whether it is in national or international organisations, can use it to ensure that we have a successful outcome to the negotiations between the UK and the EU in the best interests of Ireland. I have total confidence in the Minister's ability to ensure that this matter is dealt with at the highest level and in the most effective way.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I commend and applaud his very sure-footed and experienced handling of this issue. He is doing a great job. All of his professional and political experience is coming to bear on the way he is dealing with it. That is very clear.

I agree with Senator Leyden in that I believe there is a compelling case for a central position for this country in the negotiations. I know that the Minister will be attempting to achieve that. It would be interesting if he elucidates in his reply the various strategies he sees to keep Ireland central to the negotiating position. As the Commission team led by Mr. Michel Barnier negotiates, it is critical that it has an acute awareness of the special unique position of Ireland, that it is central, that there is visible evidence of it and that there is a direct link with the Minister at all times to ensure that the Irish case is strong. I agree with that and I believe it is very necessary.

I take the Minister's point that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has outlined a hard Brexit or has effectively said that Brexit means Brexit in her party conference speech the other day. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that. I still cling to the hope that ultimately the UK will want free trade, free movement of services and to maintain all the economic advantages of the EU.I would like to believe we could end up with something approaching the Norwegian model, that Britain would get some concessions on immigration, which I know is a red line issue, and that there would be an emergency clause to deal with specific situations but that essentially we would maintain the status quoon many levels. That has to be the Irish ambition. We should seek to ensure that Ireland has a central position in the negotiating team and that our interests would be paramount and be reflected in the negotiations. We should be going for Brexit "lite" in so far as we can influence that outcome. We should be softening the EU negotiating position.

It is critical that we maintain a "unified State" post-Brexit in the sense that we keep the soft Border, we keep the free movement of goods, services and people North and South, that we have immigration controls on all-Ireland basis, that we have a workable model of effectively a united country and that we would not have a cordoning off. A point that the Minister should make repeatedly, and I know he will be doing it, is that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. That should be reflected in the dialogue of the negotiations. That is a critical point that merits inclusion. We can achieve a situation where Ireland keeps the natural unity and does not go back to the hard Border. That would have security implications and would raise a number of tensions. I do not have to lecture anybody in this House on the negative implications of going back to a hard Border.

Unfortunately, it would be remiss of me not to mention the immediate impact of Brexit. The mushroom industry is in crisis. The fall in sterling and the prognosis that it will remain low into the foreseeable future is causing great difficulties. This presents huge challenges for our beef, dairy, pig meat and mushrooms exports and a number of these industries are on the brink of great upheaval. The tourism industry will be greatly weakened as the attractiveness of Ireland as a location for the UK tourist will decline considerably. These are the immediately impacts of Brexit.

On the upside, I was impressed by the way the IDA grasped this opportunity and I understand it has made contact with 1,400 companies internationally that might have located in the UK but now could be persuaded to think of Ireland. I would like to the assured that there will be vigorous and aggressive efforts, in parallel with maintaining our central position in the negotiations and maintaining unity of the country, to attract industry and the financial services to this country. The effort should be concentrated in the Border areas that will suffer greatly from the sterling factor. I think we have to grasp that opportunity and I would like to hear the Minister response to these points in his reply.

The big challenge is to keep Ireland central to the process, to ensure there is a soft Border, to ensure the greatest possible level of normality, to deal with the sectors, which are under immediate threat, in the upcoming budget and to cushion those sectors and to grasp the possible opportunity for inward investment.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I ndáiríre, tá freagra an Rialtais ar Bhreatimeacht an-easnamhach mar gheall go raibh an oiread sin ama ag an Rialtas i bhfad roimh chinneadh Phríomh-Aire na Breataine tús a chur leis an bpróiseas imeachta i mí Aibreán na bliana seo chugainn. Tá mo chomhghleacaí, Martin McGuinness, níos gníomhaí ar an ábhar seo ná mar atá an Rialtas anseo. Tá daoine ag impí ar an Rialtas Aireacht sinsearach a chruthú le dul i ngleic leis seo uilig. Dúradh linn go raibh fochoiste Rialtais ag déileáil leis seo, ach nár tháinig sé le chéile ach uair amháin ó bunaíodh é. Tá sé seo ag cur leis an éiginnteacht.

As the Minister is aware, my colleague, Martin McGuinness, is party to a case that is being taken against the British decision on Brexit to take the Six Counties out of the European Union against the will of the people. This is not something that just affects Britain. The majority in the Six Counties voted to stay in the European Union and they are looking to the Government here as well to show leadership in this regard. We are talking about Ireland in a very direct sense. Does the Government recognise and support the right of the people of the North to stay in the EU? Does it support the case that is being taken by those parties? The British Government's decision to move unilaterally has not been challenged by the Minister yet. It was summed up by my colleague, John O'Dowd, MLA, who said that if Theresa May wishes to take England and Wales out of the European Union, so be it, but she cannot ignore the vote in the Six Counties to remain. The Minister said that he has had discussion with David Davis, the Secretary of State for exiting the European Union, but has he had face to face meetings with him yet? If not, why not?

The pace at which developments are happening is frenetic. There needs to be an arm of Government that can respond speedily to these developments.

Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil imní ar lucht na Gaeilge maidir le hAcht na Gaeilge. Tugtar cosaint áirithe dóibh toisc gur chuid den Aontas Eorpach í an Bhreatain agus aithnítear cearta lucht labhartha mionteangacha sa chomhthéacs sin. Anois agus an Bhreatain réidh le himeacht, feictear iad ag cúlú ó leithéidí an Coinbhinsiún Eorpach um Chearta an Duine. Caithfidh an Rialtas an fód a sheasamh agus a mheabhrú dóibh gur faoi dhualgas na gcomhaontaithe seo atá siad i leith na Gaeilge, beag beann ar aon chinneadh inmheánach a dhéanann siad maidir le ballraíocht an Aontais Eorpaigh.

There also needs to be a refocusing of the arguments surrounding the impact of Brexit on this island. It will not only affect Border areas. For example, the agrifood industry has thrived due to access to the entire island and is a success story of the peace process. All producers will be impacted if there is an end to unfettered access to the island-wide market. Once again we in Sinn Féin have led on this issue. I am calling on the Minister to follow suit and be proactive. Our alternative budget has taken account of the impact that Brexit is likely to have on our economy. We have provided €20 million for North-South projects to offset the potential loss of €2.7 billion to GDP if Brexit goes ahead. We feel the Government is lagging behind. I note from the public discourse that the EU is saying it will not engage with Westminster until the button is pushed. What discussions are ongoing to defend Irish interests at a European level between the Minister and his European counterparts? Is the Government arguing the case for the Six Counties to remain in Europe and be given special arrangements to do so? Has the Government got legal advice on the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and the threat it places there?

I fear there will be a race to the bottom for the labour market if Brexit goes ahead. A Tory-led administration in Britain will put pressure on the labour market in particular, which will have a knock on effect on this country. We are crazy if we think it will not have an effect. What are the implications for ongoing co-operation in the health care area, where we have arrangements with hospitals in the North to treat Irish patients when they cannot be treated in the Twenty-six Counties? Tourism is similar.

I ask all parties in the House what they are doing about it. Sinn Féin has campaigned around Brexit. We are talking to all our grassroots membership on this. I note there is a day of action on 8 October around the Border counties and I would hope that Senators from across the House would support it. Will the Minister support that day of action?

Where does the Government stand on the Scottish Parliament's wish to stay in the EU? Does it support the call by Nicola Sturgeon, who also wants a special dispensation to stay within the EU? In the ongoing discussions we talk about the opportunities but I would like to ask about fisheries. There is a concern about the implications for fisheries in this State as Brexit may open up possibilities around renegotiating on quotas. We have been saying for a long time that Irish fisherman had got a very bad deal on fisheries quotas but this might open up opportunities to renegotiate the quotas. Is the Minister doing anything on the question of quotas?

The Minister said that in discussions with the Tory Government, it had a view that it wanted to keep a soft Border.However, he has not said whether his EU counterparts share that view. Economists have raised fears of potential black market activity in all areas, and particularly in commodities. We have seen a small level of black market activity in the past but if there are different tariffs and excise rates in the Six Counties and the Republic there is likely to be an increase in such activity.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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Senator Black has six minutes.

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent)
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I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach of the establishment of an all-Ireland civic dialogue on Brexit. My father came from Rathlin island, a small island off the coast of north Antrim, and if he were alive today he would have a lot of concerns. One of these would be over the Border becoming harder than it is at present. Some of the harder-line Brexiteers in Mrs. May's Conservative Party are already, reportedly, agitating to pull out of the EU's customs union, a move which could mean the imposition of customs checks on goods travelling between the North and the South. Does Brexit mean the creation of a physical international border between the North of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? The imposition of passport checks and customs posts will impact on trade and tourism. Will this be repartition?

The Brexit issue is highly politically sensitive for the political parties which are tied in to the efforts of building an agreed post-conflict society. Indeed, Brexit will help reinforce the division of the island. The 1998 Belfast Agreement was premised on both UK and Irish membership of the European Union. How far will Brexit impact on the North-South dimensions of relations between Stormont and Dublin? Although the UK provides a highly important internal market for Northern goods, European markets also matter. A Brexit might mean the UK no longer has access to the Single Market and, in the context of Northern Ireland, this is hugely important, because 55% of manufacturing goes to the EU, with most of that going to the Irish Republic.

Does a Brexit impact on competitive advantage in the UK? The North of Ireland is a border economy and anything that interrupts and hinders the free flow of goods and labour impacts negatively on the Northern economy. It has been estimated in a recent report for the Northern Assembly's enterprise committee that the Northern economy would lose some €1 billion per annum following a Brexit and would face a 3% decline in GDP. Is this sustainable? The operation of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy accounts for some 82% of farm income across the North. The figure of aid for the period 2014-2020 is estimated at some €3 billion. Is it to be expected that the UK Treasury will replace these funds with UK moneys following Brexit? If it does not do this, what will happen in the farming and related agrifood sectors? The North of Ireland has benefited considerably from Structural Funds and peace moneys. Indeed, some €2.4 billion was received from the EU in 2007 and 2013, with a broadly similar amount available between 2014 and 2020. This would stop following a Brexit so what would be the implications for Northern Ireland as it develops as a post-conflict society?

Getting any enabling legislation for Brexit through the Northern Assembly would appear to be extremely difficult, even if it could achieve a bare majority, which is not clear. The Nationalist parties would invoke the petition of concern mechanism to turn it into a cross-community vote, which they could then block. Westminster might decide to pass over the devolved legislators but that, in itself, is liable to change the terms of the political debate, all the more so because the convention in the North of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement has been that any significant change to institutions can only come about with cross-community support. The impact of the Border will become an issue again so what assurances can we get that there will be no return to a hard Border? The Nationalist people of the North felt abandoned by the partition of the island in 1921 and I would like to be sure they do not feel the same sense of abandonment now when they are forced to leave the EU despite voting by a majority to remain, and that the Irish Government will do all in its power to ensure that the will of the majority in the North will be upheld. This is important as one of the main points of the Good Friday Agreement insists that the majority in the North must vote for any change in the status of the North. However, their vote to remain in the EU is now going to be ignored.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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Senator Paul Coghlan has four minutes.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive outline of the situation as it stands. We have discussed this issue on a number of occasions and I am pleased it has received the serious attention it deserves from all sides of the House. When we last debated this matter the waters were still very murky about Britain's intentions to trigger Article 50 but we must now, at least, welcome the clarity the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has provided on that point. We now know it will be triggered before the end of March next year, which means the UK is set to leave the EU by mid-2019.

I had harboured hopes, especially for the sake of Northern Ireland and Scotland, that a second referendum would be held in light of the new information that has become available since they last voted and on the basis of new facts and a realisation of the dilemma they have created for themselves. Now that the British Prime Minister has veered towards a hard Brexit, the prospect of a second vote appears to be dead in the water. In The Daily Telegraphthis morning I read that, at a fringe event at the recent Conservative Party conference, a group of some 80 pro-EU Tories met and vowed to offer resistance to what they branded the reckless abandonment entailed by a hard Brexit. Pro-EU MPs have been urging Mrs. May to do everything possible to preserve access to the Single Market to the greatest degree possible, with many arguing for full access. I am pleased to see that resistance to a hard Brexit is also coming from the Liberal Democrats, who are portraying themselves as the party of the 48% who voted to remain. Unfortunately, the Labour Party in Britain is unable to offer any real opposition to Brexit as it is tearing itself apart.

I will turn now to look at Brexit from an Irish perspective. I have a long-standing interest in cross-Border affairs and I fully welcome the Government's plan for an all-Ireland civic dialogue on Brexit which will ensure the widest possible conversation by incorporating views from all sections of society on the island of Ireland. The cross-party engagement on Brexit has also gone from strength to strength. A number of Members of this House and the Dáil attended a symposium focusing on the economic implications of a UK withdrawal from the European Union. A new Cabinet committee on Brexit has been established, along with a strengthening of our embassy network abroad to focus on Brexit-related work. This is just a small example of the steps the Minister and the Government are taking to ensure Ireland withstands the fallout from Brexit. We are still at the very beginning of this process as a lot remains to unfold. However, I am happy that, so far, the Government has been incredibly proactive in tackling the aftermath of Britain's decision to leave the European Union. I welcome also the continuing engagement of the Taoiseach, along with the Minister and the Government, with other EU leaders and Governments and with its institutions, including the high-level Government meetings with Michel Barnier, the newly appointed EU Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, who is expected in Dublin within a few weeks, and the former Belgian Prime Minister who has been appointed Brexit negotiator for the EU Parliament.

The Minister hinted that, given our unique circumstances arising from the Good Friday Agreement, the bilateral arrangement which will be required between ourselves and Britain regarding Northern Ireland may be able to proceed in advance of the triggering of Article 50 and negotiations formally commencing. In due course, once negotiations commence the EU may formally give its blessing to any such arrangements. Perhaps the Minister might clarify that when he responds to the debate.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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The Senator's time is up.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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This situation is the most challenging and difficult one this State has faced since its foundation and I wish the Government well.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister. While many of us in the House may be very critical of Government policy in many areas, it should be commended for how proactive it has been in dealing with this issue prior to and since the referendum. The Minister's presentation is very welcome. I find the entire issue profoundly depressing because of what it says about modern politics, not only in Europe but also throughout the world. It is depressing how a minority view in one party can become the mainstream to drive the political agenda and split a country. The emotions and xenophobia generated since and because of the referendum are startling.

I am interested in hearing the views of the Minister on the future of the European Union because it has been a force for good. I am stunned to hear voices in the House, of members of parties which have resisted every referendum for decades on integrating more with the wider family of the European Union, now criticise the Government for what it is or is not doing on Brexit. Since it was founded in post-Second World War Europe, the European Union has allowed peaceful diplomacy to be the order of the day on the Continent. We can only deal with the great international issues of climate justice and the refugee crisis as a collective in the European Union. When one major member state decides to leave, what does it mean for the greater project? We must have a conversation in Ireland about the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The critical issue is the border with Northern Ireland. Communities in the Border region recently made a presentation to the Oireachtas committee on regional affairs. They are, rightly, very concerned about the impact Brexit will have in the coming years.

What does Brexit mean for the future of the European Union, diplomacy and discussions and the state of international politics? We know what is happening in France, Austria, Hungary and Germany. The political mindset which led to great men and women of the 1940s and 1950s deciding that they had to put the disasters of the past behind them and build a new future seems to be under threat more than ever. It is particularly worrying considering what is happening in the United States.

I commend the work done by the Government prior to and after the referendum. I found it astonishing at the time of the referendum that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had particularly taken a position in favour of exiting the European Union. I was astonished that somebody in her role, which is so critical to peace and prosperity on the island, representing the British Government in the Six Counties, would take such a position. I believe strongly that Ms Villiers was absolutely wrong to take a position on the issue. She was definitely wrong to advocate for what was clearly not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I wish the Minister well in his endeavours. As a pro-European party, the Labour Party will assist him in any way it can. I worry about the future of the European project and other member states and political parties looking at what has happened and seeing Brexit as a political opportunity. I worry about our ability as a collective to deal with the great issues of the day which can only be dealt with by the wider international community.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House. The European Union in itself is a peace process; it is probably the longest running peace process in the world and the project has been put in jeopardy by the result of the vote in the United Kingdom. Not only has the project been put in jeopardy but Northern Ireland and the peace process are also in jeopardy. Funding is one clear issue, as is a hard border being re-established. How it would look is hard to contemplate or understand at this juncture because approximately 30,000 people cross the Border every day on their way to and from work. A total of 1 billion litres of milk are transported across the Border every year. According to the chairperson of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, there are more border crossings between the North and the South than there are between the European Union and all of the countries to the east of a border almost ten times longer. When we put all of this together, we see the mammoth task in ensuring the stability of the peace process. There is also the lack of funding and the provision of EU funding that will be put in jeopardy. Its provision is now in doubt as the British Exchequer will not be interested in supporting subsidies for farmers in Northern Ireland in the long run. This is a concern because to ensure an ongoing peace process, we need stability and Brexit is the furthest point from stability. It is a decision that can only be described as mad. President Obama described the United Kingdom's position on Brexit. He said the European Union did not lessen the United Kingdom's influence but enhanced it. It is hard to know why a nation would decide to lessen its own influence.

We welcome the Taoiseach's decision to proceed with the forum. There will be full participation by everybody on this side of the Border. I hope others on the other side of it will decide to change their minds and participate in what is a worthy initiative to ensure the best possible outcome for the island. In County Donegal this year the Taoiseach said the European Union needed to prepare for a united Ireland. I know that this issue will be addressed as part of the overall settlement between the United Kingdom and the European Union and will be part of the clauses, as allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement allows. It is something which must be part of our concerns and the negotiations. The peace process is certainly a factor which the Minister and the Taoiseach can present to all other European countries. They may not understand the nuances, but they do understand a peace process is fragile. No doubt they will understand this because, as I said, the European Union in itself is a peace process. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and his work on this issue.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
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I join colleagues in welcoming the Minister and thank him for his remarks. Most importantly, I thank him and his colleagues in government for their ongoing engagement with the House on this most grave issue. It is refreshing to have such regular interaction with Ministers. It is to the credit not only of the Minister but also of the Government in how it is handling the crisis and it is absolutely a crisis in the gravest sense and we are starting to see the fallout. The champions of Brexit in the United Kingdom, with the usual suspects here who include David McWilliams and Vincent Browne, tried to convince us that the consequences would not really be that bad, but clearly they did not know. As sterling hits a 30 year low, we are starting to see the real impact on this small country and more widely throughout Europe of what was absolutely one of the worst decisions ever taken in the history of democracy, definitely in the United Kingdom. It is vital that the Government make every effort to insulate Ireland from the backlash and the fallout of Brexit.

I commend the Government for its efforts and thank it for the very detailed document sent to us yesterday on the plan being put in place. A plan is also being put in place at European level by the three negotiators from the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. We have yet to see a clear plan from the UK Government, although the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, has started to give us an insight into it, but it was not exactly an uplifting remark.Like Senator Ó Ríordáin I too am slightly depressed whenever I come to talk about Brexit, but I believe the Government can act in a number of areas now to insulate Ireland from the fallout both in terms of the economy and diplomacy. In his reply will the Minister respond on whether there is scope to expand the role of the British-Irish Council? The Minister referred clearly to the North-South dimension. The British-Irish Council meets twice a year. Prior to the accession of Ireland and the United Kingdom to the then EEC in 1973, our diplomats at best met once or twice a year and our relationship with the United Kingdom was as cold as it has ever been in the history of the State. When we fastfoward the 40 odd years, now it is probably the warmest relationship we have with any other nation on the earth. Back in the 1970s and 1980 the relations between our two countries was far removed from the present normal relationship. It is vital that if we are moving in a structure that is outside the EU, that we look to restore that diplomatic relationship with the UK, solidify it within the British-Irish Council. Perhaps the council could meet monthly. It does not have to be a collection of all Ministers, it could be sectoral, shadowing the European Council. At present Irish Ministers can meet their UK counterparts as part of a European Council or summit meeting but also bilaterally on the margins or as they see fit. That is an idea that could be taken forward now without having to wait until Article 50 is invoked or the negotiation process begins. In the financial area, there is the idea of attracting financial services, the so-called exiles from London bringing the European Medicines Agency, a topic I raised on the Commencement Matters today.

Brexit poses a significant challenge to the political leaders of Europe. It is time for the political leaders of Ireland and EU member states to take responsibility and if we truly believe in the European Union, we must on a daily basis get out and promote it. Senator Leyden made it clear in his contribution that conducting negotiations in smoke filled rooms is no longer acceptable. We have seen that with the debates on TTIP and CETA, matters we will deal with this afternoon, which have been completely kiboshed by the confusion, concern and fear that is generated by the fact that it is not an open process. We need to grasp that and bring it out into the open and get out front and centre to promote and sell the deals the European Union is negotiating. We cannot assume that people will go along with it for evermore.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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When I engage with the Minister and his colleagues in government on issues such as this, I do not do so on a partisan basis, but because of the very real concern that exists across this island on the vote by England and Wales to drag the United Kingdom out the European Union against its will.

The Minister conceded at a meeting of the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement committee that it may not be within our gift to make that decision, that it may rest finally with the other EU member states and what position they take on the matter. It is very clear from the remarks of the British Prime Minister Theresa May at her party conference that she is on a collision course with the rest of the European Union and to hell with Ireland, North or South, or that is how it seems. The Prime Minister is in favour of a hard Brexit. A hard Brexit means a hard Border and a hard Border means hardship for Ireland. The Minister states that the Government and the British Government have reaffirmed that the Good Friday Agreement is the indispensable foundation for all engagements with what he calls Northern Ireland. Given that it is a key component of the Good Friday Agreement and Senator Daly referred to it, has the option of a Border poll, where the Irish people united together decide their future in the European context featured in his discussions? If not, why not? Dr. Kurt Hubner will be in the city tomorrow. He is a co-author of a major piece of research into modelling Irish reunification, which has identified a saving of €36.5 billion within the first eight year of the existence of a reunified country. Perhaps that is a point the Minister could touch and take forward in future dialogue with both the British Government and the other EU member states.

Mura miste leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach, I have two more brief points. Will the Minister reassure the tens of thousands of Irish, UK and EU citizens who are travelling across the Border to work, do business, study or for any other reason that they will continue to enjoy uninterrupted this basic yet fundamental right? There were references by the Minister and other contributors to the invisible Border. Of course, I do not want to see a Border at all, let alone an invisible or visible one. In recent days in the North, if one were in Belfast or Armagh and heading back to Dublin, one might find that cars are being pulled in at Carrickdale hotel, this is certainly happening to a higher number of people who are travelling to the South from the North, and community leaders who disembarked from the flight from Belfast to London this morning were delayed while papers were checked and rechecked. This notion of an invisible Border is certainly being turned on its head in recent times because of the uncertainty and the very deliberate, concerted negative political stance that has been adopted by Prime Minister Theresa May and her government.

I presume Senator Ó Ríordáin was talking about the Sinn Féin Party when he mentioned people standing against previous European referenda. Of course, we did that because we stood for the interests of Ireland, not just a section of it, but Ireland in its entirety. It is great that Senator Ó Ríordáin would be a cheerleader for the EU in its entirety, but perhaps he will consider being a cheerleader for Ireland in its entirety.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour)
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The pronunciation is Ó Ríordáin.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I apologise, but I hope Senator Ó Ríordáin will consider the point that is being made as opposed to using this issue which is of such severity to try to score cheap party political points, he and his party will think first and foremost of what is in the best interest of Ireland.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I do not want to go over the ground covered by other speakers. I absolutely agree with them.

I thank the Minister and the Government for the level of work that has been done in the past year. This is like a slow car crash effectively.

I was invited last March to the House of Commons to help launch the Champ, Irish for Europe, calling on the United Kingdom to remain in Europe. At this event, organised by politicians and civic society, I said that we have had a history of 27 referendums in 27 years. Sometimes when a question is put in a referendum, the people who are sovereign do not answer that question because they do not like the Government, but answer something else. Unfortunately I think this is what has happened. The referendum was about emigration, xenophobia and many other things. The people have voted.

Two weeks ago I attended a committee meeting of the British-Irish Council in Liverpool for a hearing on Brexit. I urge anybody to look up Michael Dougan, who is professor of European law in Liverpool University. What he has said is absolutely stark. In regard to trade agreements and access, he states there are things that the EU cannot do effectively because it could take 30 or 40 years. I am very worried that the United Kingdom is sleepwalking its way along.

Yesterday, I attended a breakfast meeting on the EU in Birmingham. Arlene Foster, Kris Hopkins, the Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland office, Danny Kinahan, Ulster Unionist Party MP and Francie Molloy, Sinn Féin MP all spoke. It is quite obvious that Unionists are moving towards unionism and Nationalists are moving towards nationalism. I am very concerned that unless we look at different aspects of our role in Europe and different aspects of how we deal with the United Kingdom, we might lose our influence.The United Kingdom and Ireland have been great allies in Europe. It has worked vice versa. It has been like a big brother and we have been smaller but we have worked very closely together. We will miss the UK as an ally in the EU. There are 26 meetings every day with members from Irish and United Kingdom negotiating teams meeting. We will lose that and we need to look for different opportunities.

As I have said previously, we need to look at everything. We should have a debate on our role as working with members of the Commonwealth. It has the potential to further strengthen ties between our countries. The move could provide for greater collaboration, stronger diplomatic relations and greater co-operation between the two countries. We need to consider every action available to us to ensure we maintain the diplomatic and economic ties with our nearest neighbours and our largest market.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I join other speakers in welcoming the Minister to the House. I compliment him on his engagement so far on what is a very serious issue. Brexit and the proposed hard Border is probably the most serious item on the political agenda at the moment and how we deal with it will have a major impact on our citizens and society.

I wish to reflect more on the trade impact. There are many challenges for our food and drink sector. As the Minister and other Members are aware, the sterling exchange rate is one of the key factors affecting our trade with the UK. Today €1 will buy 88p, which is a dramatic change from 75 pence. It is heading towards the famous 90p figure. If it reaches 90p, IBEC has suggested it would result in a loss to the Irish economy of approximately €700 million and could cost 7,000 jobs in the food and drinks sector. That is a frightening statistic. That is where we are today. We are not waiting for the vote or waiting for the hard Border. That is the actual position for the food and drink industry.

The 41% of food and drink exports we send to the UK is worth roughly €4.4 billion. It will affect every county, every co-op, every farmer and every retailer. We need to work out how we will deal with sterling fluctuating more than previously, which is a significant worry. Let us consider the dairy industry and the meat industry. Some 55% or 60% of our beef goes to the UK and roughly 30% of our dairy exports go to the UK. Those are stark figures.

There are also cross-Border issues and how a hard Border would affect, for example, milk supply. Some of the milk in the North comes to the South to be processed and is labelled as European milk. We all know the reputation we have for producing the best quality infant formula in the world. How will we deal with those issues? There are so many questions and so few answers. The Minister will have a very tough task in coming years in dealing with these issues.

It is a fantasy to think that Brexit will be sorted by 2019 because so much social legislation needs to be put through so that the UK can break away from Europe in such a short timescale. If it does not happen by 2019, how will that affect issues such as the make-up of the European Parliament? Will it necessitate a reconfiguring of constituencies because more MEPs would come back into the system?

There are many questions but the big fear is what is actually happening now. It is not about when it happens; the real issue is that it is happening on the ground and is affecting the consumers, manufacturers and producers. In recent weeks, we heard the concerns of the mushroom industry that is producing for the market in the UK. That industry is struggling to the extent that it might not be in existence in 12 months’ time, even before the Border changes.

There are many issues and, from a trade point of view, this is the worst possible outcome. I know the Minister is very aware of it. Unless we put something in place and have some kind of flexibility I have great concerns that we could be facing into a real debacle regarding our industry and trade. I compliment the Minister. In many ways, he has been on top of his brief and has led from the front. I wish him the best in the future because we need to ensure we can deal with the issue. If we do not, it will have a major effect.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Members of the Upper House for their considered contributions to the ongoing debate. This is the first of a number of opportunities we will have in the coming years to debate this important matter. I assure Senators of my full engagement with them. I acknowledge their role, not only here in plenary session where I have had the opportunity over recent months to engage with them on a number of issues. I hereby undertake to continue that direct engagement which I always value and regard as positive.

A number of this afternoon’s contributions will inform me in the matter of my further engagements. I would be happy to relay the opinions and observations of the Members of the Senate to my Government colleagues. In this regard, I reiterate that every Department has a direct involvement in the matter of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. We are anxious under the leadership of the Taoiseach to ensure that every Department carries out its own detailed analysis and impact assessment. That will feed into the special designated Cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach which will have a very important role to play in the matter of co-ordination.

I will outline some of the key events in coming months which form a key aspect of the Government’s plan and strategy. This, of course, will be kept under constant review as we roll out our plan for Brexit. As I mentioned earlier, later this month, we will have a meeting of the Export Trade Council, which represents another strand of the Government’s work, on protecting and developing our economy and our trade relationship, the importance of which has been mentioned by Senator Lombard and others. Ireland needs to look at new global opportunities for trade and investment, building on our considerable success to date with the Asia-Pacific region, for example. That will be the focus of the Export Trade Council meeting the week after next.

In parallel with this, we will continue to work towards maintaining and further developing our existing trade relationship with the United Kingdom. I acknowledge the very serious situation the currency issue brings to bear on business. I reiterate the commitment given by the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Donohoe, that all aspects of next week’s budget will be Brexit-proofed.

I acknowledge what Senator Leyden has said and I accept the support he offered on behalf of his party. Ireland will be firmly at the negotiating table as an equal member of the European Union and we will be fully involved at all levels.I, along with my Government colleagues, will be anxious to keep this House fully informed of developments as they occur. At European level, we now know the UK Government's intention is to invoke the Article 50 procedure by the end of March of next year. It has given initial indications of its likely approach to the substance of these negotiations.

In parallel, the Heads of the other 27 Governments will continue to work on work that commenced last month in Bratislava. That work will continue to focus on concrete areas where the Union needs to do more to deliver for its citizens and address the concerns about the security and prosperity of its citizens. I acknowledge the remarks made by Senator Ó Ríordáin in that regard. I share his view that Europe has over the decades been a very strong force for good throughout the world, in particular within its own enlarging boundaries since the 1950s. It is a matter of regret that this aspect of European engagement did not appear to feature very much in the context of the debate in the United Kingdom.

The process of reflection will run from Bratislava last month up to the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on 25 March next. We will, in the meantime, continue with our contacts on a direct basis with our UK counterparts. As I mentioned earlier, the UK Secretary of State Davis was in Dublin a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity of engaging face-to-face with him at what we both described as the first round of talks. It will be the first of many meetings that we will have with our respective counterparts in Westminster. I also met the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. I expect to welcome him to Dublin very shortly. The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, was in Dublin a few weeks and I had an opportunity to meet him in the UK. Northern Ireland was a central part of the discussions with these Ministers. We will continue to stress the unique circumstance that is the Northern Ireland situation, having full regard to the fact, as has been acknowledged and is indisputable, that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain within the European Union. That, of course, will continue to be a central feature of our engagement.

It is fair to say that the Executive in Northern Ireland has a considerable amount of work to do in order to advance the matter of the engagement on what is an issue of huge strategic importance for the people.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Where does the Government stand on the issue?

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois, Fine Gael)
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The Government continues to make this point at every opportunity. Senators asked me directly whether a Border poll had been discussed with my UK counterparts. Yes, it was the subject matter of discussion. I do not expect a Border poll in the near future. I stand strongly by the letter and spirit and the terms and conditions of the Good Friday Agreement as far as that is concerned. I hope that the Executive in Northern Ireland engages in and embarks on a programme of engagement that will ensure they can play their full part in the discussions that have been promised with them by Prime Minister May and that I expect to take place before the end of the year.

I continue to engage, in the closest possible terms, with the new Secretary of State Brokenshire. I acknowledge, having regard to the fact that his appointment was only confirmed a couple of months ago, that he has spent a considerable amount of time on the ground in Northern Ireland and we exchange views on a most regular basis.

Some of the issues that have been raised here by Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others are of extreme importance. For example, he mentioned smuggling, the black market and racketeering. I wish to say yet again that the relationship between PSNI and the Garda Síochána is at its closest, most constructive and most positive ever. I believe that is important. My colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, continues to play a lead role in that regard. We have been in a position, following the recovery from our economic catastrophe, to make funding available in order to ensure that the Garda Síochána continues to be of full strength within the Border areas. In this regard, let me acknowledge today's decision by the former Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, Mr. David Ford, to announce his retirement as leader of the Alliance Party. I wish to acknowledge his great contribution to Northern Ireland politics, justice and security issues over a long number of years. I am sure Senators will join with me in wishing him well in his future endeavours in his retirement.

I will remain in direct and regular contact with my counterparts in the British Government and EU partners to ensure that the interests of Northern Ireland, and the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, are top of the agenda in our respective approaches. I will continue my close and positive engagement with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the leaders of all the other main parties in the North, all of whom I have spoken to directly since the referendum result was confirmed on 24 June.

As I said in my opening remarks, I will work towards and work for a series of special arrangements to take account of the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. I am mindful of what Senator Joe O'Reilly said that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain. That has been the subject matter of discussions and discourse.

I have already mentioned the important North-South Ministerial Council meeting that will take place on 18 November. I acknowledge what Senator Richmond said as far as the British-Irish Council is concerned. It will hold a summit meeting in Cardiff in November. This will be followed by a plenary meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I know there are Senators here who are members of that body too. It is important that we all make the best possible use of the engagement at these different forums to engage with our UK counterparts and to continue with the dialogue around Brexit and what it means for these two islands. There is the North-South parliamentary tier as well. It is another body that can probably exercise a level of influence on the debate that can be regarded by all as being positive.

I note that Senators have acknowledged that Brexit is not just a British, Irish or European issue but a global one. I spent last week in New York at the UN General Assembly where I had an opportunity to take the temperature of partner countries and that of Irish-American business and community leaders.

The engagement at political level is most extensive, thorough and sustained. It is my intention, and that of my Government colleagues, that it will remain that way. The same applies to community engagement. The Government is committed to holding inclusive all-island civic dialogue on this topic. We continue to engage with different sectors and communities in order to get the fullest possible perspective on these issues. I welcome the engagement by Senators and what Senators Leyden and Mark Daly have said about the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. I believe it is important that the committees of this House also use their experience, expertise and influence on this debate, so that we can ensure that we play our best possible hand in what is going to be a challenge, a fact we all acknowledge.

The Government is committed to working with the European Union and in our membership of the eurozone for a prosperous, safer and better future for all of our citizens. In tandem with this, we will continue to work to ensure that the positive links that we enjoy today, North and South, east and west, are protected and promoted to the best possible extent.I acknowledge what Senators have said about this. I thank them for sharing their time and expertise with me. I count this House as a great resource for the Government in responding to the challenge as it unfolds. I assure Senators of my continued engagement with them as we all deal with this issue in the best interest of citizens, North and South.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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We wish the Minister well.