Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Withdrawal Agreement Between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Motion
That Seanad Éireann: agrees that:- the Withdrawal Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union entered into force on 1st February, 2020 and has legal effects under international law;notes with concern that:
- as of that date, no party to the Agreement can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret or disapply it anymore;
- the Northern Ireland Protocol forms an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, even though the relevant substantive provisions are only applicable from 1st January, 2021;
- the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, is a legal obligation under international law;
- violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations;- comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 8th September, 2020, that the United Kingdom Government intends to ‘break international law in a specific and limited way’;further notes that the Internal Market Bill published by the United Kingdom Government on 9th September, 2020:- explicitly allows (in section 45) certain provisions of that Bill to have effect even if inconsistent or incompatible with the Withdrawal Agreement, notably the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland (‘The Protocol’) and European Union law made applicable by the Withdrawal Agreement;welcomes:
- allows the United Kingdom Government (in section 43) to adopt regulations disapplying or modifying certain provisions of the Protocol, including by providing that those shall not be interpreted in accordance with European Union law or the case-law of the Court of Justice;
- permits (in section 43) to abolish domestic remedies and enforcement procedures in connection with rights under the Protocol;
- declares (in section 45) any relevant international law as irrelevant for the lawfulness for the sections regarding the Protocol and gives priority to this Bill over inconsistent or incompatible international law obligations;- the statement by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives that Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland and that the United Kingdom must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the European Union to ensure the free flow of goods across the border; andcalls for:- the United Kingdom Government to withdraw from its Internal Market Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month those provisions that breach the Withdrawal Agreement;
- the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland; and
- the European Union to take all appropriate measures to ensure the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brexit is firmly back on the agenda after what may have felt like a break these past few months. The pandemic has forced us to focus elsewhere but time still ticked on and yet another Brexit deadline is looming. Yesterday marked 100 days to Brexit, when the transition period will officially come to an end.We have been here before, approaching the cliff edge and every time we have managed to avoid going over but right now there is nothing to suggest that we can avoid this fast-approaching deadline and we cannot be complacent. I had hoped the UK Government would have done the sensible thing and extended the transition period by another year to give time for more meaningful negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, but it was intent from the outset to guillotine its own negotiation, presumably in the hope the additional pressure would work in its favour. This tactic does not appear to have worked for it. I would have thought that the crisis that has gripped the world - not just the UK but across the globe - would have allowed it to think again and give more time to all sides for further negotiations. At the end of the day a deal is the best outcome for all involved. We in Ireland want to see a good deal for the UK because a good deal for it is a good deal for Ireland.
The withdrawal agreement which was negotiated, agreed and adopted jointly by the EU and the UK contains the very important Northern Ireland protocol. The purpose of this protocol is to prevent a hard border on our island and importantly to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Such was the difficulty in agreeing the protocol on Northern Ireland and the long and protracted negotiations surrounding it, it could not reasonably or credibly be suggested by those on the UK side that they did not fully understand what they were agreeing to, that they were somehow bounced into agreeing to it or that a different interpretation of what was agreed could be applied. What was agreed at the time was very clear given the amount time we spent discussing it and both sides were very clear at the time that it was signed.
The withdrawal treaty, including the protocol on Northern Ireland, is binding under international law. Any attempt to unilaterally walk away from that is a breach of international law. Nobody could have foreseen the UK Government bringing forward domestic legislation blatantly designed to breach the withdrawal treaty and break international law. This, even by Brexit standards, is an extraordinary development and one which threatens to undermine the relationship between the EU and the UK, and also the relationship more directly between Ireland and the UK. It also threatens peace on this island and the Good Friday Agreement, which none of us here can countenance or stand for. It is difficult to understand what exactly the UK Government hopes to achieve by these actions or what advantage it thinks it might gain. I cannot see any.
The UK Internal Market Bill, which gives British Ministers the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol is a complete breach of the withdrawal agreement they signed up to. It is a breach of international law and must be withdrawn in its current form. This is what the Fianna Fáil motion calls for today. We are under no illusion and know that we in Seanad Éireann have no way of forcing the hand of the UK Government. We cannot stop it from passing this legislation. I note the Bill has passed the most recent Stage in the House of Commons without a single amendment from the Opposition, despite the best attempts of many MPs to make changes to the Bill. We know that this motion is only about putting it on the record and hoping that it may fall on the ears of somebody who can do something about it.
I find it remarkable that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been quoted as saying that the Internal Market Bill does "break international law in a very specific and limited way". It is extraordinary that a British cabinet Minister has said the Government of which he is a member is going to break the law. The UK Government also seems to be attempting to spin that the withdrawal agreement was subject to the condition of a future agreement being reached. This is an absolute fabrication and utterly untrue. As the UK Government knows well, it is designed to operate in all circumstances, including in the absence of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Following the publication of the UK's Internal Market Bill on 9 September, the Taoiseach raised Ireland's grave concern regarding the Bill directly with the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, on that same day.The following day, on 10 September, Ireland also took part in an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK joint committee on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement at senior official level as part of the EU delegation. This meeting was also attended by representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive. At this meeting, the EU and Ireland made clear to the UK Government our very serious concerns about the UK's Internal Market Bill. European Commission Vice-President, Mr. Maros Sefcovic, stated after the joint committee meeting that if the Bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an "extremely serious violation of the withdrawal agreement and of international law".
Right across the European Union and beyond, pressure is mounting on the UK Government to pull back from what it is doing. The UK Government is under no illusion as to the seriousness of its proposed actions and the impediment it may present in negotiating a future trading agreement between the UK and the EU.
What is at stake here for Ireland is extremely serious. The prospect that we may not have a free trade agreement with the UK leaves Ireland in a precarious situation. We know from much research that has been done in this area that even with a free trade agreement, we are looking at GDP being 3.2% to 3.9% lower by 2030 than it would have been without Brexit. That is with a deal in place.
The negative impacts will be strongly felt in those sectors with strong export ties to the UK market, particularly, areas such as agri-food, manufacturing and tourism. The impact will be particularly noticeable in regions with a reliance on these sectors. I think, particularly, of my own region in the west of Ireland where agriculture and tourism are major employers and a major part of our local economy. Further to this, given Ireland's unique macroeconomic and sectoral exposure to the UK, these impacts would be disproportionate relative to the rest of the EU.
The economic shock of a no-deal Brexit on top the severe economic implications of Covid-19 would be devastating. When we started this process and these negotiations we did not foresee the global pandemic that has hit our country and every country in the world. We are already dealing with the economic fallout of that. On top of that, we are facing into the prospect of a no-deal Brexit or even a weak-deal Brexit because that is what is on the table here. It will be absolutely devastating for our country. There is a limit to what we can borrow and how much we can fend off the eventual impacts of both of those massive shocks happening to our economy at the same time.
It is worth acknowledging and noting that it is the same for the UK. It also finds itself in a situation where it is probably less able to countenance a no-deal Brexit than it was a year ago, again, because of the impact the pandemic has had on its economy. Yet, for some reason, it seems intent on pursuing a policy domestically that threatens the real prospect of any deal taking place between the EU and the UK. I note there is currently no application for an extension to the transition period. I would, however, hope and plead with the UK to consider allowing more time for the negotiations. More time is always a good thing because going off the cliff together is no place for any country to be. There is still time to pull back from the brink of this and get a deal done. We always hope and show positivity that something can happen.
It is sad to see Great Britain, once considered a great superpower internationally with one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world to which many nations have looked for leadership and that has always set the standard in terms of the rule of law and how it operated on the international stage, find its reputation dwindle and become so damaged in such a short space of by such a small number of people. It really is a sad moment. Any hope we held that it would have pulled back from this is fast dwindling.
I have no doubt that tonight in discussing this motion there will be widespread support across the Chamber and we all agree that the UK needs to pull back from this. I note that the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, leader, Mr. Colum Eastwood, when he commented on the Bill in the House of Commons, acknowledged, obviously, that the Government conceded one change. It was not an Opposition request, but a change from the Government that a parliamentary lock would be in place to stop the UK breaking international law and that it could only happen with the assent of Parliament.Mr. Eastwood started by saying the Bill itself was unfixable and amendments would not fix it. He went on to say:
Only last week this House voted in full knowledge to allow this Government to break international law. It has voted down every single attempt to prevent this Government from breaking international law, so Opposition Members will be very cautious about waiting around for this Government to check back with this Parliament as to whether or not they are going to break international law.
Mr. Eastwood issued that caution right across the Parliament. He was asking how anyone could trust that the lock would be adhered to or respected, given that the UK Government is not currently holding any respect for the withdrawal agreement that it negotiated just a year ago. I also take on board the comments of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that the parliamentary lock is not sufficient and does not ease the concerns of the Irish Government or the Irish people.
I am warmed and heartened to hear the comments from across the water. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, clearly stated that if the UK Government does anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement or breach the withdrawal agreement in such a way as to undermine peace on this island, there will be no agreement from the US Congress to a US-UK trade deal. The same sentiment has been echoed by potential future US President, Joe Biden. It is encouraging to see that the Irish lobby in Washington is strong, that our connections with the US are strong, and that we have friends in the US who are willing to back us publicly and tell the UK strongly that if it breaches international law, threatens peace on this island and looks to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, pressure will be put on it not only by Ireland and the European Union but also by the United States. That is welcome.
A strong message must go from this House that we will not accept any attempt to unilaterally walk away from the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland. Those negotiations were entered into in good faith. Both sides made concessions and nobody walked away from that negotiation getting everything they wanted. An agreement was reached and signed off on and everybody who signed off on it knew what they were agreeing to at the time. I plead with and ask the UK to pull back from the Internal Market Bill and not to pass domestic legislation that would breach international law. It is bad for Ireland but it is also bad for the UK and it would be extremely damaging to an already very damaged reputation.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the first Private Members' motion of the sitting of the Seanad. Senators will all agree that it is timely. Brexit has unfortunately been a word that has haunted us Border and northern people for years now. We have been tortured by the what-ifs. What if there is a hard border? What will be the consequences and what will happen? After years of talk and discussion, of books written, lawyers paid, Prime Ministers sacked and new Governments put in place, we still have those questions.
One of the many things that is hard to take as an independent country is that, after 100 years away from British rule, we are again at the liberty of decisions made in the House of Commons. As someone who, like many other Members of this House, has lived with the consequences of political decisions made in Westminster, it is hard to take. The debate over a hard border, soft border or no border is not an academic study or strange concept, it is our reality. For too long, the flippant decisions of Westminster have had a negative impact on our day-to-day lives. We believed we had a deal, that Brexit was done, oven-ready. Then this bombshell dropped when the Internal Market Bill was published. It is like a bad drama. We found out that the provisions of the Bill will erode and disregard the protocol on Northern Ireland.
In responding to a question in the House of Commons on 8 September about the rule of law and potential breach of international obligations, Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated that the Bill breaks international law "in a very specific and limited way". This is absolutely shocking in the sense that the UK is admitting to bad faith towards Ireland, although it is not shocking that it has that attitude. It is a clear breach of law and good faith and discredits the UK in the eyes of the world. The UK wrote the Magna Carta, the basis of which is that everyone is subject to the law and is seen as the first step towards parliamentary democracy. To publicly and proudly renege on an international treaty is truly damning.
Thankfully, over the past weeks, we have had real solidarity with our European partners and across the Atlantic in America. Our partners are standing up on our behalf and clearly stating that they support our island and that any acts that put the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy are not acceptable.This is a relief but, unfortunately, it does not solve anything. This support did not come by accident. It is down to 100 years of diplomacy and building relationships. To put it in context, our Government travelled to France in 1919 in order to have Ireland recognised among the nations of the world after the First World War. This attempt to gain recognition of our independence by way of appeal at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles is one of the many neglected aspects of our history. We had asked Europe and America to respect us and regard us as an independent people but, owing to the British influence at the time, they ignored us. Therefore, we went it alone and succeeded in achieving partial independence. After 100 years of diplomacy and building good relationships through our exemplary permanent diplomatic staff and leadership, mostly under Fianna Fáil-led Governments, we are now thankfully reaping the rewards of these acts. Europe and America are standing up for us. They did not do so in 1919.
As already stated, however, support does not solve anything. We are walking on a tightrope. What is happening has the potential to bring us back 30 years to relive the horrors of our dark past. We have 99 days until the end of the transition period but, more importantly, we have five weeks until the end of October. This is the real deadline. Mr. Michel Barnier believes a deal is not impossible but not looking good. He notes that a unilateral breach of the withdrawal agreement has damaged trust and that if the British continues with sections of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the European Parliament will not ratify any agreement on future trade deals with the United Kingdom.
If there is no deal, there will be more control and tariffs. All products entering the Single Market must be checked from 1 January onwards and could be coming into Northern Ireland from anywhere in the world. We, as a member state, have a responsibility to enforce EU law and respect the integrity of the Single Market. I ask the UK Government to implement the withdrawal agreement in full and enact the legislation that is within the laws it helped to draft and on the basis of which it won an election. I ask it to take out the illegal parts of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill so all the proud people on this island can, with the full implementation of the protocol, breathe a sigh of relief.
I join Senator McGreehan in seconding the motion. I am delighted to see the Minister present. We all agree he is very strong on this and represents us well. I am very confident in him, the Taoiseach and others. With the respect we have in Europe, we will win this battle.
In a very short space of time, the UK will be outside the EU Single Market and the customs union. Regardless of the outcome of the future relationship negotiations, the provisions of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will apply. This protects the peace process and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland while preserving the integrity of the EU customs union and Single Market and Ireland's place therein. Under the protocol, the Union customs codes and the other provisions necessary to preserve the integrity of the Single Market will continue to apply to and in Northern Ireland. This ensures that Northern Ireland also will have free and open access to the EU Single Market. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which gives British Ministers the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol that was agreed to avoid having a hard border across the island of Ireland last year, is a complete breach of the withdrawal agreement and international law. It must be withdrawn in its current form. That is what this motion calls for today. We will have a unified approach to this across this Chamber. Everything we are doing here is to help the Government and Ireland. This is an appalling set of circumstances for Ireland to be caught in.
Senators Chambers and McGreehan both spoke about what a breach would do to all of this country, particularly places like the west, where I live, the north west and the area along the Border, where agriculture and tourism are so important. We had made so much progress in recent years.
Mr. Michael Gove stated today that Irish trucks would get through the port in Dover but that there could be a two-day delay. We depend on agribusiness and export so much. What will happen to produce if there is such a delay? It is intolerable. What Britain is proposing must not happen. It simply must not happen.
The Minister and the other members of the Government have my full support. We are in this battle together and I am confident we will win it.
I would normally only intervene after a number of other speeches were made, but I have legislation in the Dáil as well at about 6.20 p.m., so for that reason I am anxious to try to contribute to both debates if I can. There will be a Minister to replace me for the end of this motion.
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad and to express the Government's strong support for this motion. The solidarity and support of the Oireachtas in recent years has been an important part of addressing Brexit's challenges. Although we may differ occasionally in matters of approach or emphasis, the priorities Ireland has pursued have been supported across both Houses and all parties.
As Members will be aware from the interventions and engagements by members of the Government in recent weeks, we share the concerns outlined in the motion. The British Government's approach to the recently published Internal Market Bill is deeply concerning.
It is okay. Clearly, any unilateral departure from the terms of the withdrawal agreement is not acceptable as such a departure could seriously erode and damage political trust in Northern Ireland, if it has not already. It also seriously damages the trust needed to deliver a successful outcome to the future relationship negotiations. The Commission has clearly stated that violating the terms of the existing withdrawal agreement would put at risk the ability to put a new agreement in place. I was particularly concerned at the UK's suggestions that its unilateral approach is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, the protocol itself was specifically designed by both the UK and the EU together to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the peace process since then, including avoiding a hard border on this island.
The negotiation of the protocol was lengthy and detailed and it represents a fair and balanced outcome for all parties, with compromises on all sides. It must be implemented in full and in good faith. Clarity and stability are vital for businesses and people in Northern Ireland right now. This can only be achieved through full implementation of the withdrawal agreement that virtually everybody had accepted until a couple of weeks ago. The Taoiseach put these concerns directly to Prime Minister Johnson on the day that the Bill was published. He also discussed these issues with the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and with Commission President von der Leyen. We raised the same points during the extraordinary meeting on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, which met on Thursday, 10 September. At that meeting, Commission Vice-President Sefcovic urged the British Government to remove the problematic measures from the Bill by the end of this month.
I attended the General Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday where the state of play on Brexit was discussed. I also met bilaterally with both Michel Barnier and Maros Sefcovic. We agreed that our collective focus should continue to be on achieving a successful conclusion to the future relationship negotiations and on continued engagement through the mechanisms provided for under the withdrawal agreement to resolve outstanding issues. I had a range of other meetings and contacts relating to these issues while in Brussels, including with Vice-President Sefcovic, whom Members are aware is the Co-Chair or the EU-UK joint committee, which is specifically responsible for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, not its renegotiation. We remain in close contact with all of our EU colleagues.
As Members of this House will be aware, we have urged the British Government to step back from its deeply concerning approach and to work now both to repair the trust that has been damaged and to implement the withdrawal agreement and protocol successfully and faithfully. A positive resolution to this issue is in everybody's interests.
It is worth reflecting on where we are at this point in the negotiations. The withdrawal agreement, of which the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is an integral part, was agreed by the EU and the UK in October of last year. It was approved by the Heads of all EU governments and received the assent of the European Parliament. It was signed and ratified by the UK Government. Legislation implementing it was passed by the UK Parliament at the beginning of this year.The withdrawal agreement is a legally binding international agreement between the EU and the UK and it is not even 12 months old. From the beginning, Ireland's approach has been guided by the principle of securing a deal that worked for Northern Ireland and for the island as a whole. The protocol includes provisions that avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, that recognise the common travel area, protect continued North-South co-operation and protect the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. It maintains commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It maintains the single electricity market and reaffirms the commitment of the EU and the UK to the PEACE PLUS programme. Let me be very clear. The protocol agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement is designed and empowered to operate in all circumstances, including in the absence of an agreement on a future relationship between the EU and the UK. Some people seem to misread that point. As I said earlier, the protocol is specifically designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the peace process since then. The withdrawal agreement affirms in black and white the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. This is set out in the very first article of the protocol. The Internal Market Bill, if it were implemented in its current form, would undermine the certainty and stability that is so vital to protecting the Good Friday Agreement. Injecting uncertainly and confusion at this point of the process is not acceptable.
In looking at the current phase or political discussions, it is also important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The EU and UK have been working closely together over recent years to try to agree a broad and comprehensive future partnership agreement. Eight formal negotiating rounds have now taken place. Unfortunately, nowhere near sufficient progress has been made. Significant gaps still remain on key issues, in particular on the level playing field, governance to ensure that any future agreement will be enforced and disputes can be resolved in an appropriate way, and of course an agreement on fisheries, which we all know is a very difficult thing to achieve. These fundamental issues must be addressed to secure an overall agreement. As set out in the political declaration agreed in October of last year, the EU-UK future relationship must encompass "robust commitments to prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages." We want to see this commitment followed through on. The next negotiating round will begin next week, on 28 September. Time is short, but we should not forget that it is in everyone's interests for a deal to be reached. Any deal must respect the EU's long-term, core economic interests. Michel Barnier and his team have done enormous work representing the interests of all member states, including Ireland. They have our full support as we enter into this next crucial stage. As the motion states, the full implementation of the protocol is a legal obligation for both the EU and the UK. I would stress that this obligation sits separate from the ongoing negotiations and must be honoured regardless of their outcome.
I also want to take this opportunity to update the House on the Government's readiness work for the end of the transition period. Given the limited progress in these negotiations to date, the Government is now taking forward our readiness work on the basis of two possible scenarios. The first is that of a limited free trade agreement, FTA, with a fisheries agreement and on the basis of a level playing field. The second is a hard Brexit, with the EU and UK trading on WTO terms from 1 January. We continue to support the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK. However, it is prudent plan on the basis of these two scenarios to ensure we are ready for the end of the transition period at the end of this year. Regardless of the outcome of the EU-UK negotiations, a number outcomes are already very clear, the most significant of which is that in less than 15 weeks the UK will be outside the EU Single Market and customs union. This means that any business that moves goods from, to or through Great Britain will be subject to a range of customs formalities, sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks and other regulatory requirements that do not apply to such trade today. Failure to engage with and implement these rules will prevent businesses from trading with Great Britain.It could lead to significant delays in moving goods to, from or through Great Britain from 1 January next. I urge Members of the House to take every available opportunity to reinforce to stakeholders, particularly in the business community, the urgency of preparing for the end of the transition period.
To this end, I draw the attention of Members to the Government's updated Brexit readiness action plan published on 9 September last and to the associated Government supports, which are significant. The action plan is being accompanied by a major national communications campaign. It includes a nationwide communications campaign and outreach by a number of Ministers to stakeholders in the weeks ahead. Work is also under way on drafting the 2020 Brexit omnibus Bill, and I expect it to be brought before the Houses later in the autumn. Some Members will remember only too well dealing with the last Brexit omnibus Bill which, effectively, was legislating to ensure we could do all we could domestically to protect Ireland from a no-deal Brexit as the situation was then. It is now about protecting Ireland from a no-trade-deal Brexit.
With 99 days to go until the end of the transition period, it is essential that we redouble our Brexit readiness efforts for the substantial and lasting change that will occur on 1 January next, regardless of the outcome of these negotiations. We are at a crucial juncture in this process and time is growing short. It is in Ireland's interest that we maintain a strong and constructive bilateral relationship with the UK. We want to strengthen this relationship, which is one between neighbours, trading partners and co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Our bilateral trade with Britain is worth over €1 billion per week and our people-to-people relationships are almost unique. Close co-operation into the future is clearly in the interests of our citizens.
Just as the future shape of the relationship between the UK and the EU will be decided in the coming months, we must continue to develop Ireland's bilateral engagement with the UK outside the EU. We need to develop a new framework for British-Irish engagement for the coming years. We must develop structures for regular meetings at Heads of Government, ministerial and senior official levels. It will be important to enhance the roles of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Working through these institutions will help to ensure that our interests are protected and advanced. In this regard, the continued effective operation of the common travel area and the safeguarding of reciprocal rights in social protection, education and healthcare will remain a priority on my agenda. Ongoing contact across Government with the UK on our responses to Covid-19 will continue to be essential over the coming months. We are investing in the British-Irish relationship and specifically our presence in the UK. The Government is committed to opening a new consulate in the north of England, a region linked to Ireland by history and our diaspora, and which offers significant commercial opportunities.
I wish to express again the Government's support of this motion and our appreciation for the solidarity shown by this House throughout the Brexit process so far. This unity of purpose has, in no small way, helped us to respond as robustly as we have to the challenges posed by Brexil thus far. For our part, we will continue to inform the House regularly. I am happy to come to the House at any point to answer questions and to be part of ongoing Brexit discussions as matters develop, as they will in the weeks ahead.
-----as Minister with responsibility for foreign affairs and defence because we need both now. Undoubtedly, the UK Internal Market Bill is the most controversial legislative measure ever put forward by the UK Government. It can be challenged on many legal, constitutional and political fronts. I fully support the measures outlined in the motion from Fianna Fáil, but we must be realistic as time is of the essence here. As a former member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I can attest to the commitment of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland to the peace process, but also to the fragility of the peace should the Border be reinstated.I have to put on record my deepest regret that Ian Marshall is not a Member of this House at this time because we needed somebody of his calibre here and I hope the Minister finds a role for him in his Department.
Here in the Republic of Ireland, we will be forced to implement a border should this deal go down. The Brits will have no interest in putting a border in place. We will have a Turkey-Greece solution. The Turks do not care how many trucks go across their borders. The Greeks have to protect the Single Market. The same will apply here. While the EU could pursue a number of legal routes to force the UK to comply with the protocol, it may conclude the UK's latest moves pose a threat to the Single Market. If so, the politically sensitive question, one which brings security risks of a border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, will have to be reopened. Once again, Northern Ireland finds itself at the centre of Brexit negotiations and once again it appears it is being used as a political football. I regard what is happening as thuggery. I believe that whoever came up with this idea is playing chicken and it is a very dangerous game. The UK Government's motivation may not be clear but there can be no doubt that breaking international law risks serious consequences in Northern Ireland, and if the UK Government wants to protect peace in the region, it should seriously rethink its moves.
I am delighted to see today that my own university, the London School of Economics and Political Science, has warned Boris Johnson that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, they are likely to suffer three times the impact the pandemic will cause in the near future over the long term. I hope Boris Johnson thinks carefully about that.
As a nation, we can use every diplomatic and intergovernmental avenue to limit the effects of the UK decision, and it may be successfully resolved before the year's end. At this point we must immediately start looking at direct routes to Europe. My colleague, Senator Byrne, is present and I am sure he will have something to say about that. We need to develop Rosslare Europort, Waterford and Cork and have direct routes to Europe. The misconception that has existed in this House throughout the previous Government was that the British Government would provide a single carriageway that would allow Irish trucks to drive across Britain unimpeded. Wake up and smell the coffee. We are not dealing with people who are capable of making any such commitment, even if their own population would serve it.
We cannot let a hard border be re-established in this country under any circumstances but if we are forced to do it, let there be no doubt in this House, it is the Irish Government on behalf of the European Union that will have to implement a hard border. The British will have no interest. Why would they care? We will find ourselves in that situation.
This brings me on to the lack of preparedness in this country. Our Naval Service has three of nine ships tied up without enough crew. All of our military are in the southern half of the country and we have closed barracks right across the north. We have no customs post and no trained customs people. We have no Garda Síochána on the Border, and my colleagues from the Border region will speak about that as I know they are more concerned about it than probably anybody else because of the dangers they face. They have lived with smuggling ever since the peace process. When there was no need for guns to be run across the Border, we ran diesel, drugs and anything else one cares to think about. Who will protect our fisheries? Who will look after our seafaring people? When the British navy with all its might will protect their seas, who have we got to protect ours?
I appreciate being given the time and I understand my colleague, Senator Norris, wishes to speak. There is much more I want to say on this but I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing forward this Private Members' motion because it allows us to discuss this in the open and I hope somebody relates to Mr. Cummings, the real Prime Minister of the United Kingdom-----
I am very grateful to my colleague, Senator Craughwell, for giving me this opportunity. It would be a good idea if the Government sent a copy of this important debate to the British Government so that it can see the strength of feeling in this country. I feel particularly strongly because my father was English. He was an honourable man. He won the marine VC in the First World War. He got a knighthood in the Second World War for his services. He always said that an Englishman's word is his bond. We also have the French saying, la perfide Albion. As a result of this action by the British Government, I am rather inclined to side with the French.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brandon Lewis, said in the House of Commons, "I would say to my hon. Friend that yes, this does break international law". What an extraordinary thing. What a pity they did not think about this cavalier approach to international agreements in 1914. We could have avoided the First World War if they had done this. We are now confronted with the prospect of the law of the jungle. The lawmakers are becoming themselves the lawbreakers which is a shocking prospect to consider.
Maroš Šefovi, vice president of the European Commission, called for an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK joint committee and stated that "if the Bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law." What an extraordinary thing to say in Parliament. Five former British Prime Ministers from across the political spectrum have expressed their absolute horror. Yesterday the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion objecting to this.
They are trying to place Her Majesty the Queen in an extraordinary position. The UK Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, tried to get her involved in proroguing Parliament illegally, forcing the Queen to break law. Now he is trying to get her to break international law. I hope to goodness she stands up to him and if the Bill is passed refuses to sign it. It is a most extraordinary thing to have happened.
I express my complete and absolute condemnation of this action by the British Government and call upon it to withdraw its position immediately.
At the outset I welcome my colleague and friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy. I congratulate him on his elevation and wish him well in the Ministry. I know from his radio interviews that he has a very high level of competence, which, no doubt, will reflect itself in this Department also.
One of the great problems in recent months has been that the entire Brexit debate has been overshadowed by the Covid pandemic, which has taken the Brexit issue away from the media. All focus has been on Covid as the source of all ills. Masked within that is the very real Brexit issue. The two together are an absolute horror. It is a real difficulty.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill has been well discussed here. It is clearly a breach of international law. It sends a shocking signal to the citizenry of the UK and must undermine faith in democracy and in the rule of law. It is interesting that in places where the UK would expect to find allies, such as in America, it has been condemned outright by American lawmakers, indeed as it had been by British lawmakers. All living former UK Prime Ministers have condemned it, as have the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the putative US President, Mr. Biden. It has not gained acceptance anywhere.
I have no doubt Senator Ó Donnghaile will be very quick to make this point about the peace agreement.Leaving aside anything about trade, money and commerce, the serious thing about the Good Friday Agreement is that we are talking about lives, parity of esteem, and the real lives of people. A hard border in Ireland will be a catalyst for future violence and will set the peace process back enormously. That is a shocking reality. To use the cliché, it is an appalling vista we do not want to contemplate but it would be a dreadful by-product.
I have always had a level of optimism about Brexit on the basis that British self-interest would ultimately prevail, and that whatever clear and open contempt - very sad, though not universal - certain elements of the Tory party might have for the well-being of this island and its people, their own self-interest would prevail. Coupled with the pandemic, it threatens the UK economy hugely. The London School of Economics calculates the UK would have to get five times the trade out in the old Commonwealth to compensate for the loss of trade with the mainland of Europe. It is madness from an economic point of view and they have a very challenged economy as it is. I hope that in the remaining 21 days that that kind of self-interest will prevail.
We should alert any interest in the UK to that in any way we can. When, as a member of the Council of Europe, we had bilaterals with the UK delegation to get this done on an informal basis, I used to go to great trouble to say to them that their self-interest was at issue as much as ours. It is a point that was not lost on a number of them but, sadly, there are elements there who are ignoring it. If we can yet get a free trade deal and sanity prevails, these issues would be resolved and the stand-off would end. The Internal Market Bill would be an irrelevance at that point. If we could get a no-tariffs trade deal, it would have huge implications.
I addressed the peace element a minute ago and the lives of people, which are of paramount importance, as they are with Covid. Similarly, a hard border has huge implications for the Border region and for agriculture and agriculture-related businesses such as Silver Hill Foods, which have talked about a 40% drop. It would be devastating all across the Border region. It has the capacity even to dislocate businesses like Lakeland Dairies, which is the crucial employer in my own home town. The potential to do devastation is enormous.
In that context I will be saying to our Minister that, God forbid that the doomsday scenario would prevail, which is such an insane prospect that eventually some level of sanity will enter and we may at the eleventh hour come back from the brink, but if we do not and we have something akin to a hard Brexit or even a partial deal, then we will have to get a serious solidarity package from Europe to keep cohesion in the economies of Europe and keep the Border region and all of this country functioning. I say to the Minister of State there must be preparation to negotiate that and working towards it has to be paramount. Just as we must have Brexit readiness, as the Minster alluded to earlier, we also have to be ready to negotiate and get a solidarity package. It will be necessary that we get such a package to maintain the cohesion of the EU. Otherwise we will become very impoverished, dislocated and have mass unemployment and societal breakdown as a result. We must get such a package should that situation arise.
I was always a believer in the half-full glass rather than the half-empty one. I welcome the motion, which is good and timely, and it is an important debate. I agree with Senator Norris that the Official Report of this debate should be sent to all interested parties in the UK in the hope that it might influence somebody. There is no reason it should not.The debate is good. The motion is excellent and timely and I support it, but I still believe the UK will not allow its economy to be destroyed. Another corollary is the break-up of the union. It would be a shocking irony or paradox that a Tory Prime Minister would supervise that. One has to pray that some level of reason will prevail at the eleventh hour.
Yes, we will take four minutes each. I thank the Minister of State for representing the Minister here today and I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for bringing this important motion before us.
We are at a rare moment in the evolving political history of our nation, one which encompasses centuries of history, centuries of injustice, centuries of interference in the affairs of our people, centuries of betrayal by British Governments motivated by the most base of instincts, self-interest, which has resulted in a litany of broken promises and broken treaties between the people of this country and the British Government.
Boris Johnson is but the latest occupant of 10 Downing Street to indulge himself in self-serving politics at the expense of the people of Ireland, irrespective of their political allegiance. It matters little to Boris Johnson, and those around him, that his actions are undermining the most important peace treaty that has ever been signed by the representatives of the people of Ireland and the British Government. It matters little to him that peace in our country, which is now a way of life, especially for the people of the North, is threatened by his actions as he systematically, through the Internal Market Bill, strips the withdrawal agreement back to the bone and in doing so endangers the very existence of the Good Friday Agreement. Boris Johnson and his ilk have no sense of the difference the Good Friday Agreement has made to living in the North for me and my generation compared with my parents' and grandparents' generation who lived constantly in fear of the armed forces of the state and their proxies, and the humiliation of being treated as second class citizens in the land of their birth.
The Good Friday Agreement not only brought peace to Ireland, its political structures, the all-Ireland ministerial council; the Executive and Assembly and the east-west institutions are creating a new political culture where dialogue, discussion and compromise are centre stage. This new political culture faces erosion if the British Government is successful in its attempts to either renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and protocol or crashes out of the European Union. What the British Government is seeking in its negotiations with the EU, a uniquely privileged non-membership trade deal without responsibility or costs, is simply not on offer. The British Government's Internal Market Bill does not just threaten the Good Friday Agreement and the withdrawal agreement, it also breaks international law and violates international treaties and it does so in a very public way as we saw with the British Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, in the House of Commons just a few weeks ago. The Bill also represents a serious attack on the powers of all the Good Friday Agreement institutions strands 1, 2 and 3. It invests these powers in the British Secretary of State, thereby creating an undemocratic environment in which the British Government can unilaterally and arbitrarily impose its rules and regulations, regardless of the democratic decisions of the Assembly and Executive.
Boris Johnson's parade of unchecked power at Westminster has provoked a storm of international criticism, including in the US, the EU and here at home. The response to the motion before the Seanad from Fianna Fáil should reflect the united opposition Boris Johnson is facing in the US, the EU and elsewhere. This Government, the Seanad and the Dáil need to be constantly alert to the deceitful and devious manoeuvres of the British Government when it comes to Irish affairs and act as one in response. As rightly stated earlier this week by Senator Norris, the Assembly in the North passed a similar motion calling for the withdrawal of the Internal Market Bill and adherence to the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocols.
The British Government has been whittling away at the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement for years while deliberately refusing to fully implement it. The Irish Government must continue to mobilise support in the US and in the EU with vigour and determination. In doing so it will have Sinn Fein's support in the Oireachtas and elsewhere. Nobody can afford to take their eye off the North until the Good Friday Agreement is safe, secure and fully implemented and the Internal Market Bill is binned. We must always remember that there is a way out of all of this. There is a way for the North to get back to the EU. That route is laid out in the Good Friday Agreement, which everyone rightly supports and argues we must defend and protect to the hilt. If that is the case, then we must protect, defend and implement all of the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement did not settle the constitutional question. Rather, it asks us the constitutional question. To pursue this legitimate and democratic pathway off the disastrous Tory Brexit agenda, back into the EU and determining our own future ourselves should never be branded as "divisive". It is the opposite. It is healthy, it is positive and, my God, it has never been more necessary.
This Private Members' motion is both timely and absolutely necessary. It is timely because friends of Ireland across the world in America and in Europe are standing behind us, united as one, to try to protect peace in our country. It is necessary because the British Government must feel the pressure of a united front defending the peace process and all of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a united voice in sending a very clear message to the British Government. It is also a very simple message; hands off our Good Friday Agreement. It is time for the British Government to honour its international obligations to all of the people of Ireland, and to Britain, by protecting the peace process and the political changes that have been brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.
For the past three years, the British Government has pursued a selfish and self-centred approach to its plan to leave the European Union. Ireland, our people and our economies, North and South, are to be the collateral damage of this plan. The British Government must end the uncertainty. It must bin the Internal Market Bill and accept a sensible negotiated departure from the EU as per the withdrawal agreement. Sinn Féin, along with other parties in this Chamber, has fought hard in Europe, in America and across the island to ensure that the withdrawal agreement had at least some protections for Ireland, North and South. Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement was hard-fought for and hard won so any deviation between either of those will have devastating consequences for us all.
This is a time of great hardship for many across the island. People are trying to deal with the so-called new normal and families and workers across the island are having to adjust their lives with huge challenges. The threat of a no-deal scenario or the implementation of the Internal Market Bill is adding phenomenal pressure, unnecessarily so, to Ireland, its people and our businesses. Almost everyone will be affected in this scenario but the people who will be most affected already find themselves at a disadvantage simply because of where they were born. People who live in Border constituencies will, without a doubt, be most impacted in any scenario.
Two weeks ago, the British Government told the world that it intended to break the law. Many were shocked. I was shocked that people were shocked.
One might ask "Why?". It is because the British Government has been breaking the law in Ireland for centuries. It should come as no great surprise to anyone in this Chamber that I have very little faith in the British Government acting in good faith for Ireland or its people, North or South. Westminster never has and never will serve in the interests of anyone in Ireland. Conferring powers to the British Secretary of State, which is what is being proposed in the Internal Market Bill, would be a disaster for Ireland and its people. It diverts significantly from the Good Friday Agreement and, in particular, all three strands - 1, 2 and 3. Allowing the British Government to unilaterally remove powers to the devolved institutions in the North is a huge breach of strand 1. There is a very real and strong fear locally that the Bill could potentially undercut local standards and jeopardise the world-class farming and agrifood industry in the North. It also undermines strand 2 and completely undermines North-South co-operation by sidelining North-South co-ordination. The Bill ignores strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement, which is the obligation of the British Government and the Irish Government to discuss, consult and use their best endeavours to reach agreement and co-operation on matters of mutual respect.
The Good Friday Agreement and the withdrawal agreement are international treaties that not only must be maintained but protected to prevent a hard border across this island, protect our all-island economy and the integrity of the devolved settlement and, ultimately, our peace process.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I also thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which has given us an update on and very informative assistance with this motion. I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for proposing the motion. We in the Labour Party will support it at what is a very difficult time, but we feel we need to address a number of other important points, which I will outline later.
The simple facts are the outright failure of the British Prime Minister to uphold the withdrawal agreement he signed on behalf of the British people and the disingenuous, utterly dishonest and fundamental breach of faith on the part of the British Government. Boris Johnson wants to tear up this deal and replace it with his Internal Market Bill. There is no doubt in my mind or the minds of many people watching this unfold that the British Prime Minister is simply hoping and positioning for a no-deal Brexit.
We are all heartened by the support of major political figures in the US for the withdrawal agreement. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who it is to be hoped will be the next US President, warned that the 1998 peace agreement could not become "a casualty of Brexit". In a recent tweet I read, he quoted a copy of a letter sent to Boris Johnson by Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the trade deal-approving House Committee on Ways and Means, and three other prominent US members of Congress with a very similar message. We also welcome recent comment from the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who repeated that there would be no US-UK trade deal if the Belfast Agreement were compromised, warning London, "Don't mess with the Good Friday accords."
However, the political opposition to the position Boris Johnson has adopted is not confined to the US. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said the EU will "never backtrack" on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. In a strong intervention during her state of the Union speech, President von der Leyen told the European Parliament:
[This withdrawal] agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it. Line by line, word by word.
And together we succeeded. The result guarantees our citizens' rights, financial interests, the integrity of the Single Market - and crucially [and most importantly] the Good Friday Agreement.
The EU and UK jointly agreed it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland.
And we will never backtrack on that. This agreement has been ratified by this House and the House of Commons.
Thankfully, she concluded:
It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This is a matter of law, trust and good faith.
We also heard last week that the appointed finance ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have warned of "collective concerns" over the impact of the UK's Internal Market Bill on funding for the devolved administrations. They said the Bill allows the UK Government to undertake spending in devolved areas, including for replacement EU funding, without any engagement with the devolved nations and this could have an impact on future consequential funding agreements.
The Internal Market Bill, which passed committee stage in the House of Commons yesterday, gives the UK Government the power to change part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a move, as colleagues have said, that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, said would "break international law", although, as he stated, in a very specific and limited way. At the last count, five former British Prime Ministers have come out in opposition to the Bill and the road Boris Johnson is trying to take the British people down.
We must do more than agree to condemn the British Prime Minister for attempting to break international law. The Government must not leave our State isolated and ill-prepared for a no-deal Brexit or any version of the international agreement the United Kingdom may want to impose. We are just over three months away from the proposed start date of the withdrawal agreement. Time is against us, and the Government and this country must be prepared.
As some colleagues have said, the Government must invest immediately in direct routes to countries such as Spain, France, Belgium and Holland. The possibility of a no-deal Brexit or a limited trade deal agreement would be catastrophic for Irish exporters and importers and all associated businesses.
Within the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund there is a specific connectivity fund which we should be using now to develop immediately direct sea routes from the island of lreland to continental Europe. While most of the infrastructure has been built in Dublin, Cork and Rosslare Europort, capacity has not been built or kept up to the same manner. We need additional providers and more vessels to develop new routes, and the Government needs to focus all its energy on developing that vital link now. We cannot wait until the UK land bridge is closed or contemplate the possible or the undoubted delays that will come with a no-deal Brexit or a limited trade deal. Such delays will make conducting business almost impossible.The president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, Eugene Drennan, recently outlined that 150,000 Irish lorries used the landbridge every year. Almost 40% of Irish exports and 13% of imports, in terms of value and volume, pass over this key transit route every year. More than 80% of roll-on roll-off lorries using Irish ports every year go through UK ports, with the remainder going on direct routes to continental Europe. The value of the trade crossing the landbridge was €18 billion in exports and €3 billion in imports in 2016, according to a 2018 report compiled by the Irish Maritime Development Office. Given the pandemic and the need to export Irish manufactured goods and get vital imports in, we can only assume that this figure has increased substantially. We call on the Government to use this Ireland Strategic Investment Fund now. Let us develop these routes and keep Ireland's trade lines open, rather than adopting a wait-and-see attitude when it could be too late.
We must also look at the consequences of a no-deal Brexit on our position on the edge of Europe, and the important role our Defence Forces, particularly the Naval Service, will have to play in protecting that. I also read the article in the Irish Examinerto which another Senator referred and which indicated that because of the continuing manpower crisis in the Naval Service, a number of ships were delayed in putting to sea because of a shortage of specialist crew members. The most recent episode in this regard involved the LÉ Niamhand occurred two weeks ago. As an island nation, we cannot have a situation whereby our Naval Service is not able to put its vessels to sea and continue the great work it does in protecting our coastlines and our State.
The Minister must address the continued exit of personnel from the Naval Service. Reports in the same newspaper indicated that more crew members are considering their futures. The importance of the job that our Naval Service means that there must be urgent intervention on the part of the Government. The important and additional work that the Naval Service, and our Defence Forces in general, will be expected to do in the case of a no-deal Brexit or one that involves a limited trade deal must be urgently considered by the Government. It is simply beyond time that the pay and conditions of the members of our Defence Forces are addressed.
The current line from the British Prime Minister that there was a misunderstanding about the contents of the withdrawal agreement, specifically in the context of state aid, and the need for customs declarations on goods coming in to Northern Ireland, is disingenuous to say the least. When he endorsed the deal, it was explicitly understood that in order to preserve the uniqueness of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, goods coming into Northern Ireland would need to be the subject of some form of checks because they are effectively coming into the EU Single Market. There can be no doubt that this is a deliberate ploy by Boris Johnson to collapse the ongoing trade talks in the hope that this unprovoked provocation by the
Government he leads will cause the EU to simply walk away.
We support the motion. We all know that a no-deal Brexit or a compromised trade deal will have serious economic implications for the UK and, more importantly, for Ireland. It is not enough for us to just condemn this madness. The Government must prepare to deal with the fallout from the madness of the UK Government and deal with it urgently.
I welcome the motion and I am delighted to be back in the Chamber. We should not be partisan on this issue, and I have said consistently that we need to give credit where it is due. We have strong debates and disagreements in this House, but it is important that we always recognise the huge amount of time and energy that has been put into Brexit, by the Minister, the entire Department of Foreign Affairs and our diplomatic staff. I thank them for that.
I would like to speak on the setting aside of some of the provisions of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the European Union, and its impact on Irish citizens. A key part of the withdrawal agreement, which is now an international treaty, is the Northern Ireland protocol. The latter is designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland. The Internal Market Bill proposed by the UK Government would override that part of the agreement in the context of goods. The full implementation of the agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is guaranteed under international law. Like my colleague, Senator McCallion, I am amazed at the level of surprise being expressed by politicians here to the effect that Britain is preparing to renege on parts of this agreement.The history of our country should have taught us that agreements entered into with Britain can be unilaterally broken if and when it suits the UK.
On 8 December 2017, the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, assured the people of the North that they would never again be left behind:
To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.
I am sure the current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, as leader of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, would echo those sentiments. Now is the time when the rights of Irish citizens are being threatened, and we must stand up for them. Let us be honest here today. The solution to avoiding a hard border is the reunification of the island. The Irish Government should be playing a leading role in discussions on shaping a vision for what a new Ireland would look like. We have an obligation to plan and prepare for what a shared Ireland would look like and a Citizens' Assembly could be a way to examine this issue.
The statement by the British Secretary of State that the British Government's intention is to break international law is telling the international community that Britain does not feel obliged to honour its commitments in any treaties. The Bill is currently being considered by MPs before it is expected to go to the House of Lords. Politicians from Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance, alongside their counterparts in Cardiff and Edinburgh, have voiced concern about what they regard as the Bill's encroachment on devolved powers. Niall Murphy, who is the secretary of Ireland's Future, has called for the Bill to be withdrawn on the basis that it undermines the Irish protocol, the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing institutions. Britain has become a pariah state and feels unaccountable for its actions. The seriousness of this breach of international law was highlighted when Seamus McAleavey, who is the chief executive of Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, the umbrella body of the north's third sector groups, said his organisation was "extremely concerned" about the potential impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill on the "future peace, stability, and economic well-being of people in Northern Ireland".There can be no questioning again of our right to call for a border poll. The people of the North have the right to be protected by international law.
Those who continue to label this process divisive and dangerous are simply encouraging the spread of fear and anxiety. It must be remembered that the majority of the people on this island voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to this island. This was an agreement based on international law. The union with Britain since 1998 is maintained as a result of a commitment to international law and majority consent. Britain is prepared to break international law and the consequences of this are that the Good Friday Agreement and peace on this island are fundamentally undermined.
The Good Friday Agreement provides that Irish reunification is a matter for the people of the island of Ireland. The right of self-determination has been given effect in the Irish Constitution and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Reunification can be achieved through positive votes in concurrent referendums in both jurisdictions on the island. The votes should follow political and civic planning and preparation. Those eligible to vote in these referendums and everyone affected by the outcome must be clear about the constitutional, political, economic, social and cultural consequences in advance.
I am heartened by this motion, which highlights the importance of all states abiding by international law. However, I am confused by the protestations of some of our leading politicians regarding the breaking of international law when it affects Ireland, but are quite prepared to ignore breaches of international law when it comes to the rights of the Palestinian people.
This Government has the ability to stand up for international law by passing the Occupied Territories Bill, which imposes sanctions for breaches of these laws. It is time for consistency and all breaches of law must be condemned. I am confident that the Irish Government and its EU partners will remain strong in their promise that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland. The support for the Good Friday Agreement from influential people in the US will also help to ensure Britain honours its obligations under international law. I commend the Minister and his staff on their work on what is probably one of the most serious issues facing this country.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, and acknowledge the contribution of the Minister earlier. I welcome and acknowledge the solidarity in the Chamber. That solidarity should be a source of strength, not just for people in Ireland but for those throughout the world who value and uphold the rule of law. I also welcome the approach of the Government to date. It has resisted going down the road of Brit-bashing and has instead been resolute and forthright in its response to an extraordinary development whereby a celebrated country of western democracy has decided to welch and renege on an international binding agreement.
The concerns of the House have already been well ventilated in this debate. Reference was made to all living Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom who have put on the record their concerns. I think of those who have left this mortal coil, such as Churchill, Attlee, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. Many would consider Thatcher to be no friend of Ireland, but I do not believe she would renege on an international agreement and cause the resulting fallout for so many.
With 99 days left, we should ask ourselves what we can do to try to stay positive. We should reassure ourselves that we have excellent negotiators. The Minister briefed us not so long ago. The Green Party received a briefing from the Department of the Taoiseach last week. The Green Party is foursquare behind this solidarity and we speak with some authority as an all-Ireland party and a European grouping. The Green Party leader in Northern Ireland is part of many in an alliance that are appalled by the attitude of the British Government and the lack of respect for an international treaty. We should reassure ourselves that we should stay positive because we have excellent negotiators. As a House, we should urge the EU, including Michel Barnier, to stand firm. We need the EU now more than ever before. We should continue to emphasise what awaits all of us if the infrastructure of a hard border is restored on the island of Ireland. Not so long ago, the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, reminded his European colleagues of fatalities in the context of customs and the mayhem and potential recipe for criminality that could arise as a result of the unwelcome restoration and reinstallation of a hard border. What else can we do? I commend the Fianna Fáil Party on introducing this motion.What else can we do? We should urge our very strong lobby in the US to hold firm and they have done that at this time.
Finally, we must remain strong because permanent damage will be done. We must repeatedly warn people about the potential to reverse the hard won peace, that the peace process is an ongoing project and that it would be so wrong to take the peace process for granted. I was born and reared in a Border town so I saw division every day from my early days. There was disruption at school sports events when school buses travelled north to play a team in the province of Ulster that was only a few miles away. I am acutely aware of the situation, as is Senator O'Reilly from Cavan. Although I am long since happily ensconced in Kildare, I have a very serious concern about how that hard won peace could be jeopardised. If this is game playing then it is so tasteless. Certain people have done permanent damage to their reputations if they are playing poker and this is all part of ratcheting things up. It is disgraceful behaviour by our neighbour, a country that is purportedly respected and celebrated throughout the world for upholding democracy and the rule of law, with the exception in the North of Ireland. America has its problems but its population might correct them if there is a certain outcome in the presidential election in November. There will be far more serious problems for Great Britain if Brexit comes to pass and that does not bear thinking about. Even though it was hard I have outlined some positive steps, attitudes and stances that we can adopt in Ireland.
It is very late so perhaps it is about time that we faced the harsh reality. People do not want to talk about the issue and do not wish to countenance it but we have to accept and recognise a doomsday scenario where we will have, if things pan out in a way that no one wants and it will be no fault of ours, a Border infrastructure. Make no mistake about it, the Republic of Ireland will be pushed into being a rogue state within the EU if one has a seamless unregulated frontier of the EU, and we are the way in. With a Border structure one might play it quiet and hold back for a few months but that is the harsh reality of our celebrated membership of the EU. It is a membership that no greater man than John Hume spoke about as being the key to peace on the island of Ireland, as the key to peace around the world, when he reminded Irish people that life is not orange or green and we live in a country called Europe. His words were liberating and people could see the bigger picture. The EU played a crucial part in the negotiations, as did the US lobby.
In conclusion, I want to acknowledge, on behalf of the Green Party, how pleased we are to be part of this unified approach. I know that the unified approach, in respect of the pandemic has fragmented in recent weeks, which is unfortunate. No one is playing politics with the issue as it is so serious. I urge people, as I know they will, to stand firm as a country and as a body politic. We will do our best and fight to the very end to make sure that a doomsday scenario does not happen on the island of Ireland.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the allocation of time to discuss this very important motion. As Senator O'Reilly said earlier, but for Covid this issue would be the biggest issue for us to debate. It is essential that Brexit remains to the fore and that is why we have brought it forward, as a group, here this evening.
The cross-party support for the motion is welcome.We should also be heartened by the level of support we have received from our European partners and this has been referred to by a number of speakers. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, very specifically mentioned solidarity with Ireland in her state of the union address. We could not have wished for a better friend than Michel Barnier during the negotiations. Guy Verhofstadt has made clear that the European Parliament will not ratify a trade deal that breaches international law and fails to recognise and honour the Good Friday Agreement. People have made reference to the fact that in the United States, Republicans and Democrats have come behind this and said that if there is an effort to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which is also seen as partially a success of US support, it will not be supported in the United States. It is appropriate that the Minister of State thanks the officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including the Minister, Deputy Coveney. Over the years, the officials have used Ireland's soft power and diplomacy. People criticise the St. Patrick's Day trips but this shows Ireland's soft power in the circumstances.
Mention has been made of the late John Hume and we have also had his vision throughout. He saw the importance of Europe and the United States to Ireland and how we should be able to look at solving the problem in the relationships on these islands in a global context. He was the one who recognised the importance of Ireland's place on the international stage in trying to address many of these problems.
Senators Norris and Joe O'Reilly recommended that we send the transcript from this debate to the House of Commons and interested parties. I also encourage that we might consider sending it to the likes of the Daily Mailand the Daily Expressbecause these are publications that have become so inaccurate in their coverage of Irish and European affairs that they have almost become parodies of themselves. The message needs to go from the House that there is unity on Ireland's membership of the EU and how annoyed we are about the British Government breaking international law. The poor quality of journalism by these rags needs to be placed in contrast with what has been the mostly excellent journalism on the part of Irish journalists covering European affairs. I am thinking of the likes of John Downing, Pat Leahy and the irrepressible Tony Connelly. We are very fortunate that we have balanced and excellent coverage here. The debate in the UK has been poisoned by the poor quality of journalism and the polarisation that is evident in the media.
A number of colleagues, particularly Senator Wall with regard to the Defence Forces, have already raised some of the issues I wanted to speak about. I would like to deal with the fallout from Brexit in some specific and limited ways. I want to make particular reference to the fact that if we are dealing with a hard Brexit and the landbridge is no longer an option and, believe me, if the type of queues of trucks and other haulage vehicles that we are speaking about come about then the landbridge will not be an option, we really have to prioritise getting more direct shipping routes from Ireland to continental Europe. In this regard, the case of the capacity we need to build at Rosslare, our nearest point now to the rest of the European Union, cannot be underestimated. I would like to hear in his response some indications from the Minister of State as to how we will specifically do this with our ports and particularly Rosslare.
As Senator Martin said, we must look at the challenges we face but we must also look at the positive things we can do to deal with this. We have to look at how we can further build relationships on these islands, particularly between young people. I ask the Minister of State to consider re-establishing the Causeway exchange programme, which was a North-South, east-west exchange programme involving young people. Particularly if the UK pulls out of Erasmus, we need to look at ways for student exchange. I concur with the language strategy need for higher education links. However, in the context of the UK being out of Europe, we now need a bigger debate around Ireland's future relationship, with that being at the heart of Europe. This was very much shown in the vision of Seán Lemass when he talked about Ireland going into the Community, as it was then, and being central to the decision-making processes and helping shape the future of the Continent. It was shown when Jack Lynch and Patrick Hillery signed the accession document to bring us in.
I am very proud of the fact that my party, the Minister of State's party, and others have always favoured closer co-operation in Europe. We have had a consistent position of supporting all of this island having membership of the European Union. We believe that continues to be very important. In that debate about Europe, we need to talk about putting forward republican values, Irish values, and values around free and fair trade, around human rights and democracy, something which are not being respected by the UK Government but which are, however, core Irish and European principles, and around solidarity and co-operation. In this motion, we must look not only at the immediate impact of what is happening to our trade and to our Border communities, as has been so eloquently expressed by colleagues, but also at the whole of this island and our future relationship in a post-Brexit Europe.
Again, I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, which I am sure the Minister of State will relay to him. He has been performing particularly excellently in his handling of this. When he appeared on "The Andrew Marr Show" on BBC, people thought that when he spoke, he spoke for the whole island. We know that solidarity is felt right across the European Union. We need to come out of this House, and indeed these Houses, tonight to show there is cross-party solidarity, that Ireland and Europe stand united, and that we do not accept a breach of international law.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is good to see him here and it is lovely to be in this Chamber for the first time. I thank the Fianna Fáil Party for proposing the motion.
Breaking the law, bending the truth and acting in bad faith are not words that any modern democracy should want to be associated with, and yet here we are debating the actions of the UK Government doing just that. The withdrawal agreement was signed less than a year ago. Implementation of the provisions of the Internal Market Bill will turn lawmakers into lawbreakers. It will damage the UK's reputation and credibility internationally and bring potential legal action in the European Court of Justice, while potential trading partners and signatories of future agreements may view negotiations under a cloud of suspicion.
These, however, are the UK's concerns, not ours, and they are cold comfort to us right now, we who could be staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit or a return to a hard border in a matter of months, to Northerners who fear the end of the status quoof a living agreement based on compromise, consent and choice, with reconciliation as both its work and its prize, to be replaced by fears of the past, "what ifs", and "it does not bear thinking about", to Border counties and businesses whose livelihoods depend on the prosperity that comes from peace and all-island economic opportunities. Instead, after four years of uncertainty there is more anxiety, there are more questions and, unfortunately, more ignorance of the fragility of reconciliation in Ireland.
I welcomed the joint television address last night with the First Minister, Ms Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, about the alarming spread of coronavirus in the community. Working together against Covid-19 is imperative right now, especially when the two leaders did not share the same platform for three months. Anyone who is a stakeholder of the Good Friday Agreement must put reconciliation first. When identity politics is played, locally or unilaterally, everyone loses. This is well-rehearsed but it is worth saying again until the penny drops. The Good Friday Agreement is the textbook and the framework for building relationships on these islands after decades of division across communities in the North, North-South and east-west.Brexit utterly undermined and undermines these relationships, but we cannot allow it to undermine the principles of the agreement itself.
Mr. Boris Johnson and Mr. Brandon Lewis claim the UK Internal Market Bill protects all the communities of Northern Ireland. Where did this latest intervention come from? The businesses of the North sought clarity from the joint committee and through the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, not a collision course with the Northern Ireland protocol. All political parties accepted the withdrawal agreement. Even the First Minister accepted it, despite singular voices in her party who did not. There were no protests by communities or civic groups. We can only speculate as to whether it is buyer's remorse, a trade deal negotiation stunt, an escape route into a hard-deal Brexit, or internal Tory politics that is driving this irresponsible agenda, but we can safely say it is a world apart from that of our community, who never wanted Brexit in the first place. It is not for their benefit and it is not for the benefit of the peace process. Instead, the UK Internal Market Bill has reopened old wounds and brought back old words, exhausted rhetoric and polarised reasoning. Once again, it has pulled apart communities - east and west, green and orange - in Westminster and Stormont. It sets us back when we should be looking forward.
The UK Internal Market Bill also seems to threaten the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement institutions, that is, power-sharing. Section 46 of the Bill would provide a mechanism for the UK Government to promote economic development and provide infrastructure, such as transport, roads, schools, health services and housing, according to its own agenda and not that of local communities. This is very unsettling.
Whether it is under Sunningdale or the Good Friday Agreement, power sharing is an essential part of reconciliation and building a shared future. Communities work together for communities, solving problems, creating opportunities, building the future and showing that democracy works. After three years of unnecessary deadlock and political impasse, it is vital that these powers be protected.
It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the British Government has anything other than poor regard for commitments to the North. It is undermining the Good Friday Agreement, overriding the withdrawal agreement and reneging on the Stormont House Agreement, but we must continue to work for a trade deal and all communities and continually commit ourselves to reconciliation. As parliamentarians, it is essential that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, in building relationships in the North and South and the east and west be prioritised and resumed. As parliamentarians, we should build awareness by building relationships with our UK and Northern counterparts. I urge this House to advocate for the institutions and the crucial interaction I have described.
Our Government stands in stark contrast with that of the United Kingdom in its preparation with the business community. The Brexit Readiness Action Plan, which the Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke about, helps businesses to prepare to reduce the impact of Brexit. We must continue to plan for every outcome.
Now is not the time to goad unionists or Conservatives about border polls. Only those who seek to harden positions on all sides would take such a stand. An imminent border poll would be a misstep for anyone committed to true and lasting unification and reconciliation on the island. When identity politics is played, locally or unilaterally, everyone loses. Breaking the law, bending the truth and acting in bad faith are not the actions of a democratic government. Instead, peace, stability, friendship, partnership, joint interests, certainty for our communities and businesses should be reflected in the words and actions of a responsible government committed to its obligations under law and its responsibility to all of its people.
I came in towards the end of Senator Currie's contribution. It was powerful and very much on the money.This is an appropriate and timely motion. Unfortunately, we are going through the worst pandemic in our lifetime or that of our parents. In terms of the public psyche, the problem is that there will be a loss of understanding of Brexit and of the stark reality of it because people are rightly caught up in managing their lives through this pandemic. However, Brexit is looming and it is most regrettable that the British Government is behaving in an aggressive, unparliamentary manner in its handling of this legislation. It goes against everything we stand for as a Parliament and everything most British politicians stand for. Most British politicians across the board are proud, honourable people who are in politics for the right reasons, that is, to serve their communities and make their country and the world a better place.
There is a cohort within the Conservative Party who do not think like that. They are deluded in the belief that the sun never sets on the British empire and in the attitude that they can negotiate trade deals with everybody and anybody and all of these parties will want to negotiate with the British Government. They may be in for a rude awakening because I do not believe they have the same standing throughout the world that they thought they had a few decades ago. They have certainly eroded any goodwill that may have existed towards them in other countries. The last thing that anybody internationally likes to see is the breach of an international agreement. There are what could be described as international understandings, international protocols and international decency and what is going through the House of Commons flies in the face of international decency and the realm of international law, doing the right thing and honouring one's commitments. In this country it is done by a handshake; internationally by signing agreements. Many of them are willingly and openly admitting that they want to do this, which flies in the face of all the type of behaviour that defines us and past generations and, we would like to think, the generations going forward.
We had in this Chamber a very good Brexit committee, chaired by our former colleague, Deputy Richmond. I am unsure if it is the plan of the House to reinstate this committee but I think it would be a good idea because this Chamber has always prided itself on debating such issues in great detail. We can play our part in the discourse on Brexit by reinstating that committee. With the Cathaoirleach's international contacts, particularly in the United States, we could look at bringing experts from abroad to help us, especially after 1 January, when we move into that new phase.
It would be remiss of me not to welcome my good friend, colleague and Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, who is in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I know he is working extremely hard, has a significant intellect and would be very much on top of his brief, particularly in the area of the diaspora. Deputy Brophy thinks globally, has a business background and is the right man to be in the Department with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, dealing with matters on behalf of the people of this country in what is probably the most difficult time in our international history in terms of trade and business.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. I also thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for being here.
It is clear that the message that will go out from this Chamber is that we are united in our approach to Brexit and the outcome that we believe to be in the best interests of all citizens on this island. It is rare in politics to find an issue that unites all parties. This is one of those issues. There has never been any wavering by any party in this State in terms of that united position. That is our strength. Let us be under no illusion: this is a grave threat to our country, economically and socially. It a measure that will change the interaction and relationship that we have with our nearest neighbour and closest market in the UK. In fact, it has already changed that interaction and relationship and that is regrettable. The UK has taken a different path and we are on our path.
As mentioned earlier, we are at the heart of Europe. We have always been and will continue to be there. Our path is with Europe, to be a strong voice at the centre of Europe, and to be at the table making decisions. From the UK's perspective, what it has given up is immense. It was one of the strongest and largest member states of the EU. It had a seat at the top table and it was listened to and looked to for leadership from many member states, including Ireland. Many will attest to the fact that very often we used the UK diplomatic service and civil service and we interacted with its Ministers and MPs weekly because they had more resources than we did. We worked together on many issues. They supported us in terms of our position on tax and on many other key issues on which we would not always have seen eye to eye with other member states. We will miss that camaraderie and that relationship, but that exposes the need for more resources around how we conduct our business at an EU level. We are going it alone now, we will no longer have the UK support, but it is okay that we are on a different path. For the first time in a very long time we are on a different path from the UK.
As I said, the UK has given up a lot for the romantic notion of a great empire that it is going to build. I listened to MPs trumpet that the UK had secured a trade deal with Japan, but it has only replaced what it already had. There are many more trade deals that the UK had as a member of the European Union that it now needs to renegotiate. The suggestion that the UK is somehow going to get a better deal on its own than it would have got as a member of the EU trading bloc is farcical but the UK is selling this to its people. When I listen to Boris Johnson making the numerous speeches he makes, backed up by - this is quite obvious and blatant - Dominic Cummings and a small number of people, I do wonder if he ever feels bad for the actions that he has taken as leader of his own country. He has taken steps, in the past year in particular, to make his people poor, damage the reputation of his country, and put himself, his Government and his country on the outskirts of Europe. Why any political leader would do that to his or her own people and country is beyond me. I would not sleep at night if I was at the helm having taken the decisions that he has taken.
Thankfully, we do not have that situation here in Ireland. We have good leadership here. We have a good negotiating team. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has done a good job, the former Taoiseach did a good job and the current Taoiseach is doing an excellent job. We have a good team. The Department of Foreign Affairs, our civil servants, diplomats and our ambassadors, who very often operate behind the scenes, are doing an amazing job. I welcome the opportunity to say that on the record of the House. The solidarity from the US and across the European Union is testament to our civil servants, ambassadors and staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs. It shows how strong our lobby is and how many friends we have made along the way that we have secured that support globally. Very few nations will enjoy the support that we have.
We are a small country but we always punch above our weight. I am proud that we always punch above our weight on the international stage. I agree with Senator Byrne that we often scoff at the visits of members of our local authorities, the Dáil and Seanad to the US and across the globe on St. Patrick's Day, but those engagements are important. They are about making friends and connections such that members can pick up the phone to somebody on a first name basis and ask for his or help on a particular issue. That is why we are in the position we are in today.As a country, we are respected, well liked and well connected. That is a positive place to be. This is a monumental challenge. I fear that we are on the cusp of getting a weak Brexit deal. I do not believe that the UK Government will walk away completely but I think it will sign up to an extremely weak deal that will amount, basically, to a no-deal Brexit. The UK Government will sell that to its own people as if it has won and done a good job. That is fine, and the rag newspapers about which Senator Byrne spoke earlier will sell that message for the UK Government and many UK citizens will not be aware of what has been done to their country in their name. I do not think a proper debate took place in the UK about what Brexit actually meant and what the people were voting for but that is done and in the past. We are where we are now.
What really annoys me, as it does everybody in this House, is that the UK Government is taking direct actions that harm our country and people. It has had no regard for the implications that a no-deal or weak Brexit will have on our citizens. That is regrettable because we are close friends and neighbours. I am sure that every Member of this House has family living in England and vice versa. I often feel when I go to England, as I have done on many occasions, that I am not too far from home. There is a connection that is unlike that with any other country. I fear that is changing, which is regrettable, because the UK Government has shown no regard for its closest friends and neighbours here in Ireland. We must make no apology for standing up for our people and country.
Brexit has already happened. There is another message for the UK people in that. The UK Government has sold the message that Brexit has already happened and is done. A lot of people in the UK think it has happened, nothing has changed, that everything is fine and has stayed the same. They will see the changes at the end of the transition period in January when the UK is out of the customs union and Single Market, queues are back at Dover and prices of goods and cars go up.
One thing I would like to put on the record is that I hope that if the UK changes its mind some day and would like to rejoin the European Union, the EU will have its arms open and will tell the UK that it can rejoin on the same terms that applied before it left. The best outcome would be to dispense with Brexit and have the UK back as a member of the EU with all of the agreements that were in place and concessions that had been negotiated over many years of membership still applying. That is our strength. We are not there to get one up on the UK. We do not want to oust or better them, we want a good deal and a good relationship. The best relationship of all would be if the UK remained a member of the Union but, unfortunately, it has made its choice.
I thank every Member of the House who contributed on this motion. I am glad that Seanad Éireann has had an opportunity to debate Brexit because it has been on the back-burner to a certain extent but it is a key issue that we will continue to debate. It is welcome that we had the opportunity to do that at the outset of this term.