Seanad debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Bill is an essential part of getting Ireland ready for the changes we will face when the transition ends in less than one month's time. Last year, this House considered the 2019 Brexit omnibus Act, which made provision to address issues that would arise should the UK leave the EU with no deal. The conclusion of the withdrawal agreement meant that many provisions of the 2019 Act could not be commenced. Ireland strongly welcomes the certainty the withdrawal agreement brings. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. It avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, ensures that trade and goods will continue to flow freely on this island and ensures access for Northern Irish goods to the EU Single Market.

It is incumbent on all parties to ensure that the provisions of the withdrawal agreement and protocols, which were agreed less than a year ago, are applied in full. The withdrawal agreement provides structures for handling issues with the implementation of the protocol. These are the only appropriate way to deal with the outstanding questions. It is welcome that face-to-face talks continue in London. Ireland continues to support Michel Barnier and the task force in their work on concluding an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. The time to reach an agreement is very short but a deal cannot come at any price. To get a deal, there will have to be compromises on both sides. The EU approach has been very consistent: there must be a level playing field for open and fair competition for our businesses, and a fair and balanced outcome on negotiations relating to fisheries. We have also been clear that any requirement requires the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement. I am in ongoing contact with Michel Barnier and Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who is the EU co-chair of the joint committee overseeing the implementation of the protocol. Both remain acutely aware of our positions, I can assure the House of that.

Even if a deal is concluded, however, the end of the transition period will bring significant and lasting change for citizens and businesses. From 1 January, the UK will no longer apply EU law, which will significantly change the way in which the EU and the UK engage into the future. We used the transition period to recalibrate and refine the readiness work carried out ahead of the possible no-deal Brexit in March and October 2019 and in January 2020. In September, the Government launched its Brexit readiness action plan, which sets out the actions the Government will take, and that businesses and citizens must also take, to address the changes arising at the end of the transition period. Probably the most significant of these changes will be the UK moving outside the Single Market and the customs union. This means new controls and procedures must be applied to any goods moving to, from or through Great Britain, processes that do not apply today. Perhaps the clearest example of what this means is that Revenue estimates that import and export declarations could increase from 1.7 million a year to 20 million a year next year.

The action plan has been accompanied by an intensified programme of trader engagement. Since it was launched, more than 50 separate ministerial engagements have dealt with Brexit. These were supported by a range of official meetings and briefings. We are using a multitude of virtual tools, from webinars to instructional videos, to assist businesses in preparing for the new realities they will face next year. The Tánaiste has sent a Brexit readiness checklist to 225,000 businesses registered in Ireland. Revenue, separately, has written to more than 90,000 businesses trading with the UK and followed up with more than 14,000 phone calls. We have made a range of financial, upskilling and advisory supports available to businesses. Budget 2021 allocated €340 million to Brexit-related measures. In response to a specific demand from industry, the July jobs stimulus package included a €20 million ready-for-customs package to assist with hiring and training staff in the customs area, where so much work will be involved in getting ready.

Preparations in our ports and airports are also well advanced. In addition to the new infrastructure, we have invested in new staff and ICT systems. Some 1,500 additional staff will be engaged in supporting and carrying customs, sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, and food safety checks and controls. In Dublin Port alone, we have spent more than €30 million to date on physical infrastructure, preparing for the new realities. We are working closely with the European Commission to ensure that the €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve will target the sectors and member states most disproportionately impacted by Brexit, and that certainly includes Ireland.

Senators will be aware of the complex issues that will arise for citizens and businesses post transition. The Government's readiness approach comprises a range of policy and economic responses and targeted Brexit-related resources. Primary legislation is again required to support a number of these measures. As was the case last year, an omnibus Bill is considered the most effective mechanism to address the legislative needs. The 2020 Brexit omnibus Bill before the House contains 22 Parts under the remit of 11 Ministers, and I am again the overall sponsoring Minister for this legislation. While similar to the 2019 Act, this Bill has a different point of departure. The 2019 Act catered primarily for the possibility of a disorderly UK withdrawal from the EU, whereas this Bill deals with the permanent changes that will take effect from 1 January 2021. We have a deal on Brexit that has facilitated the exit of the UK from the EU; we do not have a future relationship or a trade agreement that can manage that future relationship.

This is a diverse Bill, but its overarching purpose is to protect citizens, consumers and businesses. It aims to reduce the possibility of serious economic disturbance and to facilitate the sound functioning of a number of key sectors. Equally important, it is also contains a number of provisions that support aspects of the common travel area, CTA, and North-South co-operation. Protecting citizens, North and South, is at the heart of the Bill. It makes provision in very important areas as varied as student grants, social welfare payments, divorce arrangements, cross-Border bus services, defamation and the national childcare scheme. It will protect employees in Ireland if their employers become insolvent under UK law. A number of provisions also seek to protect and maintain the common travel area and broader UK-Ireland relations. It will support ongoing co-operation in healthcare between the UK and Ireland. Furthermore, in case access to the European health insurance card, EHIC, programme is not addressed in any future partnership agreement, Part 3 of the Bill will provide for the introduction of an EHIC-like scheme for people in Northern Ireland. Parts 16 to 18, inclusive, deal with a range of justice and immigration issues, including provisions for extradition on the basis of the 1957 Council of Europe convention, exempting UK citizens from passport checks within the CTA and the designation of safe third countries for the purposes of returns of applicants for international protection whose applications are deemed inadmissible and where appropriate safeguards are in place, in line with international law. We are keenly aware of the impact the end of the transition period will have on businesses. Several parts of the Bill seek to minimise disruption to our economy and business sector. Part 8 includes a number of measures in respect of taxation that will allow businesses and citizens to continue to access measures and reliefs as today in areas such as income tax, capital gains tax, corporation tax and stamp duty. Specific anti-avoidance provisions are also included.

The Bill includes provisions to introduce postponed accounting of VAT to alleviate potential cash flow issues by allowing businesses trading with the UK extra time to make their VAT returns. This measure has been requested by a number of business representative bodies. Changes will also be made to the operation of the VAT retail export scheme. In response to requests to consider the threshold for the scheme, the Government amendment at Committee Stage in the Dáil reduced that threshold from €175 to €75. That was a particular ask from Opposition parties and was a concern raised within Government as well. I hope that reduction of the threshold will be welcomed.

There was confusion in the Dáil debate regarding an amendment that the Labour Party tabled in Deputy Howlin's name, which was supported by Sinn Féin, seeking a review of that measure in a year's time to see how it is working. That amendment was not accepted but there is a commitment from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to carry out that review. I reassure Senators that the Government will undertake that review over the next 12 months to see how that is impacting on the retail sector, trading and so on. I give that commitment on the floor of the House because it will be difficult for the Government to accept any amendments at this point without having to go back to the Dáil. Unless there is something really exceptional, it will be difficult for me or other Ministers to accept amendments. That was the only amendment there was any real disagreement on in the Dáil and the Minister for Finance has given a commitment to doing that review. Hopefully, that will allay concerns as we move to Committee and Report Stages on Thursday.

Part 11 makes a number of amendments to the Customs Act to support the operation of the customs online roll-on roll-off service. This new service will be required to handle a substantial increase in non-EU trade from the end of the transition period, coming from the UK.

The Bill also deals with issues relating to existing insurance contracts, settlement systems for financial services contracts and the employment permit scheme. It contains provisions on technical issues relating to professional qualifications in specialized fields such as fluorinated greenhouse gases and harbour pilotage services, as well as for market surveillance in the field of construction products. This is trying to ensure that we anticipate trade disruption as best we can and legislate for it where we can and where we have a national competence, rather than an EU directive. The provisions in the Bill will be complemented by a number of measures in secondary legislation, that is, ministerial orders, which will also be adopted before the end of the year.

In 30 days' time, many aspects of our relationship with the UK will change fundamentally and permanently. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, we remain strongly committed to protecting and strengthening the relationship with our closest neighbour. Our immediate priority, however, is to prepare for the changes that will arise on 1 January. This includes passing all Stages of the Bill in a timely fashion to be ready for enactment and commencements before 31 December. After Second Stage today, Committee and Remaining Stages will take place this week on Thursday. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will be here for the debate because I need to be in Paris on Thursday.

I want to thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators for their co-operation in facilitating the passage of this Bill and the timetable that we have asked them to accommodate. I thank them also for their co-operation, assistance and support throughout the Brexit process to date. I remember bringing a similar piece of legislation to this House in 2019 and got extraordinary co-operation and we had a good discussion and debate on it. I ask for that co-operation again. This is important stuff and 1 January is going to bring about some fundamental change and disruption, for which we need to be as prepared as we possibly can. We owe that to citizens, businesses, consumers and to many people that effectively are stakeholders in the British-Irish relationship in terms of the business that they do, the family circumstances that they have and many other relationships that will be affected by the end of transition at the close of the year. I thank Senators for their co-operation and I hope I can continue to rely on it as we conclude the debate on the legislation this week.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and acknowledge his personal commitment to getting this right and the skill he has brought to that. In these elected assemblies of the Oireachtas, we can sometimes allow the negativity from outside to impact on us and sometimes become unwittingly and wrongly self-critical because of it. We should be collectively very proud that one of the great achievements of our political system, the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Government of the day has been the way we have dealt with the Brexit challenge and its potential to damage our country and our relationship with the UK and to cause huge economic and social dislocation and many problems. It is a success for Government in the way it was handled but it is also a success for the entire Oireachtas in the way that there was a co-operative spirit and a willingness to work together to achieve that outcome. We should take collective pride in that. It has been one of the great successes. When we are confronted with negativity, as we often are and to which we often allow ourselves wrongly to succumb, we should hold our shoulders high and stand tall and proud of what we have done. It is one of the great successes of contemporary times. It had enormous potential to destroy us on so many fronts and still presents huge challenges, obviously.

As the Minister stated, the omnibus legislation from last year put in place contingency measures to address issues that would arise if there had been no deal. Since then, we have had the withdrawal agreement and the protocols on Ireland, all of which brings about the avoiding of a hard border, which is the success I alluded to earlier. It allows access for Northern Ireland goods to the Single Market. The UK Internal Market Bill offends and challenges that but we have to hope and work to ensure that sanity will prevail in the end. Let us pray that we have an agreement. I am confident that we will have an agreement on the premise that self-interest on both sides of the Irish Sea dictates the need for an agreement. The results of a non-agreement have huge negative economic implications for the UK, as they have for this country. That collective self-interest will have to prevail. Our self-interest is being negotiated by the EU team and the UK are negotiating their own self-interest. Sanity will have to prevail. I know from reading about it and informally chatting to the Minister as we entered the Chamber that fishing remains a very big issue. It is big for this country but we have to pray that a compromise will be reached. The Government is preparing for two scenarios, that is, a limited agreement and a hard Brexit. A total free trade agreement with everything agreed would be the optimum outcome but it may be more limited.New controls and procedures will be necessary. A good deal of preparatory work has been done, all of which has been detailed by the Minister, but it is being supported strongly by the Government with the €20 million in the July jobs stimulus package and the budget 2021 commitment in excess of €300 million. There are 1,500 additional staff at airports and ports, which is a significant change and investment.

The omnibus Bill, which I am proud to support and hope, as the Minister does, will receive the support of the House on patriotic grounds, has 21 Parts. The withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland already deal with many of the issues but the fundamental purpose of the Bill is to protect our citizens, consumers and businesses, reduce the possibility of serious economic consequences and look after key sectors. The Bill will allow for co-operation in healthcare between Ireland and the UK, which is very important, and in terms of student mobility, which is welcome. I have many examples of that, which all Members could cite, such as the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants to students studying in the UK and UK students studying here. Social welfare is important because many emigrants who have returned from the UK are on social welfare payments and many citizens in the UK are on various social welfare payments so a continuity in that regard is crucial, as well as reciprocity. That is achieved by the Bill.

The insolvency issue is important for workers here because many people go abroad for insolvency purposes. Mutual recognition in the annulments and divorce area is very important. The childcare provisions and the taxation measures set out are important also. It is welcome that we have the extra time to make VAT returns. The support for the customs online service and the cross-border bus services is welcome also.

I would like the Minister to respond on the fear around congestion. Before I came into the House, I read some newspaper extracts from recent weeks. One of the issues cited in newspaper articles is the risk of congestion at our ports. At present, 6,000 heavy vehicles go through Dublin Port every day. At peak times in the morning, 400 heavy vehicles go through the port tunnel. That has the potential for major congestion and the possible back-up of traffic to the M50. Assurances from the Minister on that in his concluding remarks in terms of a strategy to deal with it would be appreciated.

I ask the Minister to respond to another issue I came across as I read a few articles before coming into the House for the debate. It is the risk to the existing health arrangements whereby the now famous buses bring people to the North for various surgeries under the cross-border healthcare initiative. It has been a very successful scheme and I would be interested to know whether there is a threat to that. If so, are there contingency plans in place and what assurances can he give in that respect?

All of us are conscious of the famous fish and chips issue that came up last night and the threat to Irish chips. One could look at that in a light-hearted fashion but it is indicative of the level of interaction, threat and danger the entire Brexit process brings and its potential to cause upheaval here. That is a serious issue also, certainly for that sector.

I am delighted that the Bill sets out to protect our citizenry to the maximum degree possible, in other words, to maintain the status quoto the greatest degree possible and to avoid threats. There were existential threats at the outset to agriculture, food and the Border community. I could go on about that. Senator Craughwell, who is present, and I were on the previous Brexit committee together and we invited in all the sectoral interests at that time for meetings. That was a previous special committee and the next one will get under way under Senator Chambers. I look forward to working with that committee. All the issues arising in this debate will arise in that forum also. At the committee of which Senator Craughwell and I were members, the sectoral interests appeared and outlined their troubles. Effectively, it was a type of Armageddon in its worst form. That is the reason this Bill is so important.

There is not much more to be said other than that I am enthusiastic about the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response to the few issues I raised. I am glad that we are putting money and staff into this project to try to make it work. We have to hope. As I have done in many instances at the Council of Europe and through informal contact with members of the UK delegation, we should appeal from this Chamber to our friends in the UK to please do a deal on this one and try to maintain normality, not only for us but for their own citizenry.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I believe this is the first time I have met him in this House as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Ordinarily, I would be screaming to the high heavens as we try to rush Bills through the House but I fully understand where the Minister is coming from on this one. At the outset, I wish to pay him a compliment personally. Every time we have hit a bump in the road, he has been available to the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky News. He has been steadfast in his support for Ireland, the Republic and Ireland, Northern Ireland. He has worked with everybody to keep this ship on the road and I compliment him on that. In doing so, I also wish to compliment Michel Barnier, whose ear the Minister clearly has, as Ireland's interests are at the centre of everything he tries to do. I was most impressed by him on this issue the first time I met him about four years ago and he has remained steadfast with the Minister all of the way. The Minister is to be complimented on everything he has done on this issue. I would not say that about everything he does but in this particular case, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, he has stood for Ireland and he will be remembered for years to come.

I want to thank the Minister's officials also. The omnibus Bill that is before the House involved a massive amount of work. It is highly technical and there are more Bills to come. His officials have been doing what they do best for Ireland. Sometimes, we overlook the fact that civil servants work late into the evening to get things right. Civil servants advise Ministers and we see that even at this Stage, as the Minister is willing to listen to the Opposition with respect to a small change that needs to be made to the Bill. I want to compliment the Minister on that.

My main concern is about Part 11 of the Bill on the customs arrangements and how it will deal with the massive increase in customs controls that will be required at ports and traders' premises arising from the end of the transition period on 31 December. Skillnet Ireland, local enterprise offices and Enterprise Ireland have been running courses for Irish companies to help them manage the new regime. However, I am aware that agents responsible for processing customs declaration forms are very concerned that the small and medium-sized companies are not ready to cope with the volume of import and export declarations that will be required. Last week, the Taoiseach said that we will go from customs declarations of approximately 1.5 million to 20 million per annum and he urged Irish exporters to do their paperwork in advance. That is a monumental leap for even the most efficient and well-prepared companies, given the scale of the plans the Government has in place to help deal with that. The UK has decided to offer a six-month deferral of Brexit customs declarations until 30 June 2021. I believe a corresponding deferral on this island, although I appreciate that may be difficult with our EU partners, would assist us in getting over the hill, so to speak.Last year, we were told that 400 additional customs officials had been hired and trained by the Revenue Commissioners. Could the Minister confirm exactly how many have been taken on and trained with respect to dealing with the future problems?

As the Minister probably knows, I am the convener of the German-Irish parliamentary friendship group. I have been the convener for the past four years and I am delighted to be convener again. Yesterday, the German-Irish Chamber of Industry and Commerce celebrated its 40th anniversary in Ireland. The Germans have been particularly helpful in supporting Ireland all the way through the negotiations. There are, however, a number of concerns that the Germans and I share.

I compliment Wexford County Council and Rosslare Harbour, which have laid on facilities for customs checking. One of the facilities is slightly outside the town of Rosslare but I believe that will be managed. While I see the preparations in Rosslare, I am not so sure that there are similar preparations in the UK. My colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, just referred to the issue of congestion. When I see the backlog of trucks running for several miles, particularly at Dover, I become somewhat concerned. In the previous Seanad, one of my colleagues told me it would not be a problem and that the British would lay on a single carriageway for Irish trucks to go from Pembroke straight down to Dover and then straight across the channel, and that they would not be stopped. Let us face it: we know that is not going to happen. Perishable goods comprise the big issue if using the land bridge. I am aware that the sea bridge has started to open up. I was delighted to see last week the opening of the new service to Dunkirk, which is a bit of an irony in itself. We need to get farther into Europe, probably up into Duisburg or the Hook of Holland. I wonder what plans exist to support additional deep-sea vessels, even though we understand that the deep-sea vessels that will be travelling will take considerably longer to make their journeys.

My next point, on the exploitation of future opportunities, particularly in mainland Europe, is probably not related to the Bill. We have been reliant on Britain for many years with respect to activities such as drug importation. It would be great if we could move to a German or French supplier in this regard. It would be great to determine what opportunities exist. When I was in Germany last year, we were examining Irish trade with Germany. There are significant parts of Germany in which we do not currently trade. The Minister has been working on that, as has his Department. I see great opportunities.

Ultimately, we have to turn Brexit into an opportunity, North and South, for Ireland to box above its weight in Europe. We are lucky Europe is prepared to support a peripheral island like ours.

I am not sure what the position is on fisheries today but fisheries have been a major concern for Irish fishermen who fish off the Donegal and east coasts and, I am sure, off the Galway coast. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give us a little bit of information on this.

I am not going to waste any more of the Minister's time. He has done a sterling job. I look forward, with some excitement, to how we are going to exploit the opportunities available owing to Brexit. Senator Chambers, as Chairman of the new Brexit committee, will examine these issues as the committee sits. We could not have a stronger person in place. I congratulate her on her appointment to the committee as Chairman.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I will not be doing anything to obstruct his Bill as it goes through. I hope to see it go through fairly sharply on Thursday.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I call on Senator Chambers. I wish her all the best in her new role as Chairman of the Brexit committee.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators Craughwell and Joe O'Reilly for their kind words. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I am sure he will find cross-party support in this House for the Bill, as on the last occasion. It is rare that an issue unites all parties across the Oireachtas, but this is one of them. It is a testament to the strong and resilient Parliament we have and to the fact that Members of all parties and none ultimately have the best interests of the Irish people at heart. That is borne out when it comes to Brexit.

Four weeks from Friday next, the UK will exit the transition period and finally be outside the EU's Single Market and customs union. From 1 January, how we trade with the UK will be dramatically different. Even if a free trade agreement is concluded between the EU and UK, there will, of course, be significant and lasting change. It is vital that all businesses focus on Brexit preparedness as circumstances will not stay the same and as we move into the final stages.

The principal aim of this wide-ranging Bill is to tackle the range of complex issues that may arise for our citizens and businesses after the transition period. This legislation is part of the Government's work to prepare Ireland for Brexit. It will seek to protect our citizens and consumers as much as possible and reduce the possibility of a serious disruption to our economy. I hope it will ensure Irish businesses are not affected too severely.

The negotiations on the EU-UK future trade agreement have really been stepped up in intensity since 21 October, with negotiating teams on both sides working almost daily. Credit is due to the teams on both sides for their work in this regard. We hear a lot of talk about landing zones. We really hope they find those zones in the coming days.

The key issues remain. They include: the level playing field provisions to ensure fair competition; governance; and fisheries. The issue of fisheries is of key national interest to Ireland. Any deal must involve compromise on both sides, as we all accept, but it must not be at any cost . We must maintain the integrity of the Single Market and protect the Good Friday Agreement. Importantly, the deal done must, on the face of it and in its detail, be just and fair to all involved. As has been said from the beginning, there can be no cherry-picking of the Single Market, and it cannot be better to be outside the club than in it.

Mr. Michel Barnier has been fundamental to the unified and consistent approach of the EU 27 throughout the Brexit process, including at its most critical moments. As a country, we thank him and his team for their work. It is important to acknowledge the steadfast and unwavering support and solidarity of our EU partners. Other member states have stood squarely behind Ireland and have demonstrated, throughout the Brexit process, that they recognise the unique ways in which Ireland, North and South, is affected by Brexit. I believe strongly that this very clear and explicit display of support from other EU member states is crucial to the longevity and survival of the EU. It is a show that support and loyalty that members can expect from other member states, even if small. This is important at a time when the geopolitical landscape is particularly challenging for the EU and we are dealing with the considerable blow that Brexit has dealt us. As a union, we needed to come out strong and united. We have done that, much to the dismay and disbelief of others. Regardless of the outcome of the talks, we expect the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Northern Ireland. This remains a key concern for Ireland, given recent legislative proposals brought forward by the UK Government that directly sought to undermine that agreement and provoke mistrust. It is important that we continue to remind the UK that the agreement is a legally binding international agreement and that no part of it is optional. The UK must fulfil its obligations, to which it willingly signed up. The protocol on Northern Ireland is explicitly designed to operate regardless of whether an EU-UK future relationship agreement is in place.

As we approach the end of the transition period, there are still many unknowns. We have seen fishing rights come to the fore in recent months. This issue remains a key sticking point that is potentially blocking the ratification of a deal. The Taoiseach has said he believes a practical, commonsense approach is required to finalise agreement. He said, "I have pointed out to [the] British prime minister this idea of dividing lines across the seas and saying, 'this is our fish and that's your fish' – I mean, the seas don't operate like that." We are aware that many fish spawn in Irish waters and are caught at their most valuable stage after migrating north to UK waters. The Taoiseach is of the view that Britain and Ireland share those fish stocks and that we have to be sensible about it. I certainly agree with that position.

There is also concern over small businesses' level of preparedness for Brexit and the flood of new customs declarations required for shipping goods to, from and through Britain.Even with a benign Brexit, there will be very significant change in the level of bureaucracy and businesses have to try their best to prepare for that. It is important in these final weeks that we get that message out there and help businesses as best we can, each of us, in our communities. However, I fear there is a level of complacency that things will simply be all right on the night. This is, in part, because we have had many previous deadlines and cliff edges, where in the end nothing happened. This time, however, it is a different story. We will really see significant changes coming into effect from 1 January, even though we are hoping for some flexibility at the borders for the initial weeks. There will be no more delays this time and the road has to end somewhere.

Things will become very real if no deal is reached. We see the recent stories of potential sausage wars and not having enough potatoes to supply the chippers in Ireland. These are the things that exercise people because they impact on their daily lives. Is there a product on the shelves today that will not be there in the middle of January? Will it affect supply chains? Will businesses be able to trade and get goods in and out of the country? There is an element of waiting to see what might transpire before people fully realise the impact this will have on our country.

Brexit will become a reality and we will deal with it. On a more positive note, as we come through to the other side of Brexit, we will adapt and things will settle to accommodate the new trading environment. We will move on. There are considerable Government supports in place to help ease the burden for businesses, farmers and citizens alike, and we will continually assess how they are working to ensure they remain effective. I would see it as part of the work programme of the new Seanad Brexit committee that we look, post 1 January, at the supports that are in place to assess whether they are working and fit for purpose, and whether we are, as best we can, supporting our businesses and citizens through this difficult phase.

As a committee, we will also look at alliance building. We will look to reach out further to the US, to the Scottish Parliament, to Northern Ireland and, of course, to other EU member states. Most importantly, we will look at what kind of structures we will put in place to maintain that very important relationship with the UK. I also think it is positive to look at how we have worked together as an Oireachtas on the issue of Brexit. While there may be times when we challenge one another on how best to do something, the overarching purpose across the board was and is to do all we can to protect Ireland and her interests.

We must now look to a post-Brexit future and immediately go about putting a new structure in place to maintain our close and special relationship with the UK. Away from the EU institutions and mechanisms that we have come to rely upon, we will need to put in place a new structure for engagement and co-operation between our two Governments. We should view this as an exciting new chapter in what has been a long, varied and sometimes testing story between our two countries.

I look forward to working with the Minister and the rest of the Government to ensure we get this legislation through the House and that, as the Seanad Brexit committee meets tomorrow with the Minister, we look forward to doing our work in the Upper House to ensure we do our best to protect our citizens, businesses and farmers.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for his considerable work on Brexit and on behalf of the Irish people. As the Minister confirmed, this Bill involves up to 11 different Departments. The purpose of the Bill is, of course, to address the many issues that will arise out of Brexit and to do our best, with all our abilities, to try to negate any harm a Brexit deal or, indeed, no deal will do to this country.

As outlined by my Labour Party colleagues when this Bill came before the Dáil, there are two basic principles that will continue post Brexit and these are underscored in every aspect of this legislation. The first is the maintenance and continuation of what is known as the common travel area, which has been a feature of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom since the inception of Ireland as an independent country. Of course, the term “common travel area” has so much more importance to our relationship with our nearest neighbours than first inspection of this commonly-used phrase might seem to suggest. It involves so much more interaction, including the rights to housing and health access, and even the right to vote between our two countries. It has, I am sure, been a difficult road to incorporate long-standing agreements and relationships into legislation but we feel it has been completed in a positive way that will observe our many obligations to our EU partners and our fellow EU citizens, while, we hope, maintaining that strong relationship that is the common travel area, and our important relationship with our nearest neighbours.

The second principle is the issue of North-South co-operation, which is fundamental to us all. It was built upon the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, which must be the cornerstone of our approach to any agreement with the United Kingdom and how we continue to interact with one another, politically, economically and socially.

As has been said in this debate, it is important to acknowledge the support we have received from our European partners in offering protection and supporting this agreement. It may have seemed apparent to some, particularly those in the UK, as I said previously in debate in this House, that we would not receive this support, but it has allowed us to formulate a very strong negotiating position. It is also important at this point to acknowledge the support we have received from the United States, in particular the continued recent support of the President-elect, Joe Biden.

I want to acknowledge the Minister's acknowledgement of the review of the VAT retail export scheme that he announced today and which Deputy Howlin had brought before him in the Dáil. It is an amendment we have proposed for the next Stage of the Bill in the Seanad. I look forward to the Government accepting that amendment, which proposes that we would have a review of this scheme. Notwithstanding that amendment, like my Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil, I want to raise the proposed provision in the Bill put forward by the Department of Finance.

The Department of Finance has proposed to amend section 58 of the Finance Act 2010 by including a new section, section 64, on page 42 of the Bill before the House. We feel this is totally unnecessary and it would have an extremely negative effect on an already under-pressure industry. Following amendments by the Government, this section would raise the minimum expenditure required to qualify for the VAT retail export scheme — that is, tax free shopping — from €0, which is the current figure, to €75, with the Government having initially proposed €175. This means that to qualify for the tax-free rebate as a tourist, one has to spend at least €75. This will have the greatest impact on small retailers and those that are currently enduring the greatest hardship under the Covid pandemic restrictions. Small shops and jewellery stores selling Irish jewellery, Irish knitwear and crafts and other Irish products and souvenirs will be the worst hit. After the enactment of this legislation as now proposed, the minimum requirement will be that tourists who wish to qualify under the scheme will have to spend €75 in these shops. Recent analysis shows that will exclude 50% of current expenditure in them. It would be disastrous for them. I again ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Finance to examine this proposal. The ending of tax-free shopping at a time when we are looking for every incentive and assistance to be given to the small and medium-sized traders who need it most is unacceptable and unbelievable. I wanted to raise that with the Minister and, as I said, we will be coming back to it on Thursday of this week on the next stage of the Bill.

Following recent conversations with PDFORRA, I also wish to raise a very important matter that has been raised by other colleagues today in regard to the cross-border health directive. I am sure the Minister is aware, as we all are, of the benefits of this scheme to many citizens but this scheme has had a major benefit for those serving in the Defence Forces. The PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, known locally as PMAS, was set up by PDFORRA in 2018 due to continued lack of investment and withdrawal of the medical services available to members of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA set up a separate company, which operates the scheme using the cross-border directive to provide medical treatment to members of PDFORRA for a subscription of €1 per week. To date, PDFORRA has invested €150,000 into the scheme to support injured members. Since 2018, the PDFORRA company has sent nearly 200 members to Kingsbridge Hospital, Belfast, for treatment, with more than 100 of those going on to surgery. This has had a twofold benefit of, first, removing members of the Defence Forces in the scheme from the public waiting lists and, second, allowing serving members to return to work quickly, thereby assisting the Defence Forces in regard to retention, allowing for overseas service and promotion.

The impact of Covid has created a waiting list of a further 100 members who are awaiting referral. With Brexit looming and no clarity yet about retention of the EU cross-border health directive in Northern Ireland, this places the PMAS scheme in jeopardy, as any future cross-border treatment scheme will need to be performed on mainland Europe. It is, of course, the question of the time involved, the language barrier and travel post surgery that makes the benefits of the EU cross-border directive much more attractive in Northern Ireland than travel to other EU countries for the treatment that will remain post Brexit.

To be fair, the Minister has continually raised this important directive but, given the experience of PDFORRA and the benefits of the directive for the Defence Forces and many other citizens, I ask the Minister to ensure that this directive remains in any post-Brexit agreement. I would also like to raise again the important role the Defence Forces, and the Naval Service in particular, will have in protecting us in any post-Brexit scenario. We have all read the articles in newspapers in recent weeks about a retention crisis and a continuing manpower crisis in the Naval Service, resulting in a number of ships being delayed in putting to sea because of a shortage of specialist crew members.

As an island nation that is now standing without the back-up of the EU membership of our nearest neighbour, I am sure the Minister will agree this cannot continue. From a fisheries protection point of view, we recently learned that our Naval Service carried out 1,000 patrol days in 2018 and 2019. This has fallen to under 600 in 2020. We simply cannot afford any loss of days. This would seem to be a worrying figure, given the importance of our fishing industry in negotiations, as other Members have said. I am sure the Naval Service will have an enhanced role in the new year, protecting our waters from a number of threats. We must address the continued exit of personnel from the Naval Service, the importance of the job performed by the Naval Service means there must be urgent intervention on behalf of the Government. The important and additional roles that the Naval Service and the Defence Forces in general will be expected to carry out post Brexit must continue to be urgently considered by the Government.

As a member of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, I look forward to working with Senator Chambers over the coming weeks. I also look forward to the debate here today and later on in the week. Unfortunately, this Bill is a result of the UK's exit from the EU. We have to make provisions for that and make sure we try to ready ourselves and those who will be most affected as best as possible.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Tá fáilte roimh an Aire don phlé seo. Mar atá ráite cheana, tá an Bille seo thar a bheith tábhachtach. I thank the Minister for outlining the key aspects of the Bill for us. Like other colleagues have said, Sinn Féin has also rightly committed to working with a cross-party approach on this Bill.

It is vitally important to ensure that Irish interests across our entire island are protected throughout the Brexit process and we must continue to work in unity of purpose to protect the people, North and South, to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to protect the Irish protocols. This approach has been supported by our EU partners, as other colleagues have said, and the Irish interests have been put at the heart of the EU's stance on Brexit. A lot of that is down to the Minister's work so we are grateful for that. It has also been heartening to hear figures such as US President-elect Joe Biden show his support and commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement. This has taken a great deal of meitheal and support, domestically across the entirety of Ireland, throughout the EU and throughout the world. Many hands have been involved in ensuring Irish interests were put to and have remained at the fore.

As the Minister will know, Boris Johnson has consistently been obstructive to the negotiations. He has deliberately sought to undermine the Good Friday Agreement at times and was even willing to break international law. Thankfully, the Internal Market Bill was rejected in the British House of Lords but still we see that we must be ever alert. We cannot be sure but we hope a deal will be done. It seems the two obstacles to a deal are fisheries and the level playing field and these are still the major stumbling blocks that need to be overcome Time is running out and the game of brinkmanship being played by the Tories ignores the high stakes for everybody involved, not least for the British themselves. As always, Ireland will pay a high price for the foolishness of the British Conservatives in the event of a no-deal scenario.

This Bill helps us to prepare the relevant sections of the economy for Brexit, within the parameters laid out in the withdrawal agreement. Sinn Féin will be submitting an amendment on one issue, which is in respect of VAT returns for tourists. While this issue was debated in the Dáil, I hope the Minister will reconsider his position on it and my colleagues and I will speak to that on later Stages.

As the Minister knows, I have campaigned for our people in the North to be able to access the European health insurance card and I welcome the progress and commitments made on this, as outlined by the Minister today and on other occasions. We must endeavour, however, to create mechanisms that will protect the rights of the people in the Six Counties throughout this process. As we know, there are approximately 30,000 cross-border workers who live on one side of the Border and work on the other side. It will be crucial to work with the British Government to establish a frontier workers' scheme to protect the livelihoods of those who cross the Border every day, mostly without even noticing or paying attention to it, until such time as their phones alert them to changes in the mobile service.

If the Minister has ever believed in a united Ireland and that it was the best way forward, he must see that it makes sense now. Covid-19 and Brexit are a double whammy for the people of this island. Both issues have brought to the fore the failures of partition. All-Ireland approaches make sense. Despite all good intentions to have an all-Ireland approach to Covid-19, sadly it is clear that the differences in the two systems made and make this difficult. As I have said many times, Ireland works better when we work together and when we work as one. It is time for all-inclusive planning and working towards the reunification of our island. I feel passionately about the injustices of Brexit and partition. I rapped doors, spoke at press conferences and gave out leaflets in shopping centres and on the street. Alongside many others, I campaigned against Brexit and to remain. Ultimately, I also cast a vote to remain. It is always important to remember at every juncture along this journey that has been forced upon us that there is no consent to Brexit in Ireland and that at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is the principle of consent.

This legislation shows that we can prepare for fundamental changes to things that people thought were always to be set in stone. It shows us that we can manage changes in dynamics and relationships. I appreciate the Minister's individual work and leadership on the Brexit issue and like other colleagues, I welcome the cross-party support and approach to this important legislation. It is a crucial time for us and for our country. I do not need to remind the Minister or my colleagues of that. It is also a time of great concern, nervousness and trepidation for a lot of people across our economy and society, right down into our communities. We have done well in the circumstances and we have done the best that we can, given the absolute recklessness, foolhardiness and dangerous nature of the Brexit agenda being forced upon us. I welcome the legislation. As I have said, we will work constructively with the Minister, his officials and other groups in this House to ensure that it comes to pass. In so doing, we then have to ensure that this legislation is effectively enabled and delivered to ensure that people are protected and that Ireland is protected.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I have not had the opportunity to speak to him ever before. I have to say I do not always agree with his politics but in this case he is doing stellar work.

I want to mention a few matters around the SME sector as I am the Green Party spokesperson for enterprise, trade and employment. On 9 September, the Government published the Brexit readiness action plan. It provides clear and concise advice on steps that need to be taken now by businesses and individuals in order to prepare for the end of the transition period on 31 December. As of 1 January 2021, the UK will be outside the EU's Single Market and customs union. This will have significant implications for every business that moves goods to, from or through Great Britain. All Departments, Government agencies and regulatory bodies are preparing for the end of this transition period.

I welcome the new measures to help businesses to get ready under the Brexit readiness programme the Government has implemented. These include a new €20 million ready for customs support scheme. This financial incentive of up to €9,000 is available through Enterprise Ireland. Skillnet Ireland has also launched a free online customs training programme called Clear Customs. The clear message from all of these groups is not to wait but it act now. For microbusinesses, on 23 November the Tánaiste launched a new Microfinance Ireland Brexit loan scheme of up to €25,000 for those likely to be impacted by Brexit. Enterprise Ireland is running an online customs insight course. The local enterprise offices are running a second phase of their successful one-to-one Brexit mentoring and training, called Prepare Your Business for Customs. Businesses also need longer-term funding for investment purposes and the Government has expanded the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, future growth loan scheme up to €800 million.The Government wrote to all 225,000 businesses through the Companies Registration Office setting out the full range of business, advisory and funding assistance available. The Taoiseach visited Dublin Port and saw first hand the preparations under way. It is vital that all businesses that trade with Great Britain or use the land bridge ensure they are ready to complete customs and regulatory declarations from 1 January or are ready to switch to direct sailings. We know this is an extremely challenging time for businesses across the country. The Government will continue to provide support and guidance to reduce the impact of Brexit as much as possible.

I wish to briefly refer to local enterprise offices. I have talked to the president, vice-president and some of the CEOs who all agreed that, in fairness to the Government, there has been significant support and expertise available to them but they wished there was more uptake by businesses. I encourage businesses to visit localenterprise.ieand preparingforbrexit.combecause it would be a shame if businesses did not prepare by availing of information and supports.

It is important that we consider our imports from the UK. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Teagasc meeting. One figure that stood out was the volume of animal feedstuffs that are imported from mainland Britain with 56% of our imports based around animal feed. I hope to speak to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Minister of State who has responsibility for land use about animal feed. I hope that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, as a former Minister for agriculture, will lend his support because the less dependent we are on imports from England, the more resilient we will become as a country. There is lots of land that is under used here and I would like some of it to be used to create our own Irish animal feeds.

Finally, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association has done amazing work and provides a one-stop-shop for all small businesses. It is time now that businesses look at all of the supports that the Government has put in place. I cannot fault the Government as significant work has been done by all Departments. For example, two years ago the staff at the ports examined what needed to be done. That plan has been implemented and the infrastructure is in place, as mentioned by the Minister. Go n-éirí leis an Aire agus tá súil agam go mbeimid in ann seasamh ar ár gcosa féin tar éis Brexit.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his work. I also thank the officials in his Department and, indeed, other Departments for their work. We are extremely fortunate in this country to have such quality diplomatic staff and, indeed, public service when dealing with a complex challenge such as this one.

I note colleagues, including Senator Chambers, talked about the unity of purpose in this Chamber and, indeed, across the country in dealing with this matter. I hope that when the Daily Mailor The Expresscome up with their latest story about splits in Ireland, or anywhere else in Europe, that they pay attention to parliamentary debate and understand our unity of purpose.

I support this legislation and, once enacted, I want us to consider the four specific areas: transport, education and research, data privacy and future post-Brexit relations. On transport, I welcome the comments made by Senator Craughwell when he praised for Rosslare Europort and Wexford County Council for preparing Rosslare. He will be very much aware that there will be a new direct sailing between Rosslare and Dunkirk. We need more direct sailings from this island to continental Europe. It is essential that, as a Government, we work to promote that. I ask the Minister, given the fact that the volume of freight that will travel through Rosslare will continue to increase, to give serious consideration to ranking Rosslare Europort as a tier 1 port. That will be essential given it will be the nearest port to continental Europe.

I have a specific concern about airports. In a post-Brexit scenario, the Boris Johnson Conservative Party, as everyone will know, is not the free market, free trade Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher. Has the Government considered what will happen if the UK Government decides to heavily invest in regional airports such as Glasgow, Birmingham or wherever as they will unfairly compete with our airports in Shannon, Cork and, in particular, Dublin? If the UK Government changes its policy, what preparation has been made regarding air transport?

On data privacy, the UK has agreed, for the moment, to adopt the provisions of the general data protection regulation or GDPR so it has UK GDPR. In the future, EU decisions on GDPR will not apply to the UK and the UK has the independence to keep the framework under review. What provisions the Government put in place if decisions on data privacy are made at an EU level, if the UK decides to diverge from that? We are moving towards tighter regulation on behavioural advertisements or micro-targeting, in addition to algorithmic auditing and content curation. If there is divergence between EU regulations in this area and what happens in the UK, that will have significant implications in Ireland, particularly as we share data with our nearest neighbour a lot of the time. What preparations are in place if that happens?

Brexit has caused many problems but in the area of education and research there are major opportunities. We need to avail of those opportunities and continue our very strong relationships in higher education and research. We have a common peer review culture, a quality assurance culture and student and staff exchanges, which must be continued. We must also consider the opportunities that Brexit presents. Ireland will be a much more attractive country for UK and international academics so we need to develop a programme to attract them here.

It is an enormous pity that the UK has decided to withdraw from the Erasmus+ programme. Currently, Ireland only sends 3,500 students on the programme every year and 8,000 students come in from continental Europe.Normally, the UK receives 32,000 students from continental Europe. Ireland will be a very attractive place for those students when they can travel again. I do not believe that we have given enough thought to the possibilities that will arise as a result of Brexit.

The research budget at European level will be €80 billion although the final figure has not been agreed. With the UK not taking part, there will be significant opportunities for Ireland. It is essential that we have people in Brussels but partnering with European universities and other institutions to avail of any opportunities.

I will conclude by discussing our post-Brexit relationships and long-term relationship with the EU. The Brexit debate forced a very healthy debate to take place in this country and an understanding of the European Union, and the closeness of our relationship. In an increasingly G2 world dominated by the US and China, we need another strong voice at the table. I know that the Minister recognises that in the European Union. We need to redevelop our education programme to highlight the importance of Europe domestically. We also need to talk about European values, including the rule of law, and we can debate what is happening in Hungary and Poland again. Having a debate as part of the Brexit process has been important but it should not now stop. The benefits need to be more effectively communicated domestically and continue the debate about Ireland's part in Europe.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for being present during this important week. We have discussed and debated Brexit for four years and finally we are almost at that point. Four weeks from Friday, the UK will be outside the EU Single Market and customs union. From 1 January next, how we, as a country, trade with the UK will be dramatically different.Considering all the valuable work the Minister, Department and EU are doing, I hope that the circumstances after Brexit, while different, will not be as negative as could be the case. Even if a free trade agreement is concluded between the EU and the UK, there is no doubt but that there will be significant and enduring change. We are all aware of how difficult it is for many sectors in society to absorb change. An important message, which the Minister gives all the time, is that it is vital that all businesses, regardless of whether they are small, medium or large, focus on their Brexit readiness because circumstances will simply not be the same. That is the one thing we know. Being prepared is critical.

The principal aim of this wide-ranging omnibus Bill is to tackle the wide range of complex issues that may arise for citizens and businesses after the transition. At all costs, we must protect citizens and consumers. We have to reduce the possibility of a serious disturbance in the economy of our State and facilitate the sound functioning of a number of key markets, sectors and fields. We must also ensure that Irish businesses are not seriously affected.

Coming from Kildare, I am concerned about the agriculture industry there. I am referring, in particular, to imports from the UK and exports to the UK from Kildare and the rest of the midlands. I am also concerned about the thoroughbred industry. As we know, Ireland is recognised throughout the world for this industry. The impact of Brexit on sales, breeding and racing could be significant, particularly in the context of the relationship that has existed between France, England and Ireland. We want to ensure as minimal an impact as possible.

Regarding tax-free goods, I understand there was quite a lengthy debate in the Dáil last week and that the Government has agreed to lower, from €175 to €75, the value in excess of which someone from a non-EU state may get tax back on purchases. This obviously includes the UK. It also includes a sizeable number of visitors who come to my county to shop in Kildare Village. Seventy-five euro is quite high. A sum of €35 or €50 would be far more acceptable to the sector and encourage people to shop while they are here. I understand there was the possibility of a clause within the legislation before the Dáil last week stipulating that this arrangement might be examined in 12 months' time but I believe it was not pursued. If the Minister could consider this, it would be really appreciated.

The previous education committee analysed the impact of Brexit on students. Approximately 12,000 students from the Republic study in the UK, including Northern Ireland. The relationship between UK and Irish educational institutions has always been really strong. There have been excellent partnerships, particularly in respect of attracting research funding. I am aware that an agreement was reached in respect of students who have already started their courses at third level institutions in the UK. That is important. We all realise there are issues with capacity in our third level institutions. Notwithstanding the substantial funding given this year, absorbing another 12,000 students could be very significant, and it could be very difficult, indeed, for our own institutions. However, there may be potential to attract additional research funding. That our technological universities are coming to the fore is important in this regard. I hope an opportunity will arise.

I wish the Minister and all those on the negotiating teams well. This is a crucial time for our country. I really hope that matters will go the right way in the next few days.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Ahearn.

I welcome the Minister. As a former Vice Chairman of the European affairs committee, I recall that in 2014 or 2015, on being asked by the then Taoiseach, the committee carried out a job of work on the possible impact of Brexit on the Irish economy and society. It was before a referendum was formally announced or decided upon. We were pre-empting at lot at that stage. Unfortunately, we know the result. The matters we discussed at the time are matters that eventually became part of the more formal discussions after Brexit. Having served as Chief Whip in the previous Dáil, I recall dealing with Brexit omnibus legislation of 2019. I am only too aware of the scope of the legislation and the details we are considering today. I acknowledge the work of the Minister, his officials, the Office of the Attorney General and the drafters in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for their forensic work on producing a broad, in-depth Bill dealing with circumstances that nobody in this Chamber wanted and that the vast majority of the public on the island did not want either.

It is only when going through the Bill section by section and provision by provision that we realise how enmeshed the Irish and British economic, social protection, health, migration, transport and childcare systems are. They are so intertwined. We have connected economies. It is difficult to provide for all the changes that Brexit will bring. On going through the legislation, it is not possible to get away from the thought that Brexit is a very sad and backward step from the very close relationship that existed when the UK was a partner in the European Union. We must, however, make the best of the circumstances we are in.

The future relationship between Ireland that the UK will be multilayered. On one level, we will be dealing with the UK within Europe but we will also be dealing with it in its capacity as a former member of the EU and as a third country. On another level, we will be dealing with the UK as our closest neighbour, with a shared, if somewhat troubled, history dating back 1,000 years. More important, we will be sharing this island together. This will make for a very complex but, I hope, rewarding relationship. This will be new territory. We have never been economically or politically separated to such an extent. One hundred years ago, we began a new stage in our combined histories, yet we remained incredibly closely linked to terms of trade, transport and the economy. We joined the European Economic Community together in 1973. While we have taken separate steps on the exchange rate mechanism and euro, the step we are now taking is larger. It is important that we continue to foster bilateral arrangements that serve both jurisdictions well in terms of their shared future. I look forward to seeing arrangements in place that will benefit all citizens of both countries.

The provisions in this Bill reinforce many of the important, worthwhile measures put in place by Ireland the UK over the decades. This is in the context of our new relationship from 1 January. We have very close co-operation in healthcare. I am very pleased to see the measures concerning European health insurance card rights and the arrangements for Irish, British and EU citizens resident in Northern Ireland, who will receive treatment in EU states in respect of unplanned care. This will give confidence and comfort to the many people who travel to Europe as tourists or students in the coming years.

In the area of social protection, the measures of the Bill ensure that people in both jurisdictions of the common travel area will continue to enjoy flexibility and eligibility regarding social protection. This is so important given the constant toing and froing of people north, south, east and west for work reasons, thereby continuing a long tradition of movement of citizens between both countries.

Under the immigration heading, I am pleased that UK citizens will receive special status following Brexit. At the same time, provisions are being made to continue the process of extradition since the European arrest warrant process will no longer apply. The combating of crime is obviously very important. The mobility of criminals cannot be allowed to create a haven in either jurisdiction.

In the context of childcare, it is proposed that, as for social protection, there will be provisions made for the eligibility of UK citizens. This, too, is important. There are many other provisions in the Bill that will make life easier for people in terms of work, life, security and finance. These are vital for our economies.There are many other areas of the Bill which will make life easier for people in terms of work, life, security and finance, which are vital for our economies. We have an opportunity now to build a relationship on old tried and trusted foundations. It will not all be plain sailing but the Minister has developed solid relations with the UK and with our European partners to deliver the best deal for Irish people and the Irish economy.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. After the past six weeks and the struggles businesses across the country have faced, it is ironic to go from being locked down to now discussing what they would view as the next potential crisis coming down the tracks. It has been an extraordinary year for businesses of all types. I wish the Minister and the Department well. It is welcome to see that there is confidence and support from all sides of the House for this Bill.

I will focus on business in the time I have to speak. As he said in his contribution, the Government has launched its Brexit readiness action plan, which sets out the actions the Government will take and that businesses and citizens must take to address the changes arising at the end of the transition period. One of the biggest is probably that the UK will be outside the Single Market and the customs union. That means there will be new controls and procedures to be applied to goods moving to and from the UK that were not in place previously. Revenue has estimated that the import and export declarations could increase from 1.7 million a year to 20 million a year next year.

The Minister has been working hard on informing businesses. He has written to 225,000 businesses registered in Ireland. Separately, Revenue has done the same. The Houses agreed many financial and upskilling packages of approximately €340 million available for businesses that were announced in budget 2021. The July stimulus measure included a ready for customs package of €20 million.

Businesses have been preparing for Brexit for the past two years because of the guidance the Government has been giving and the roadshow on getting Ireland Brexit ready. The Minister came to Clonmel to speak to businesses about what they need to do to get Brexit ready but that works both ways. Businesses have to be prepared also. However, the Minister might be aware of something that happened about two weeks ago, which I will be discussing with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Revenue sent out a letter to many businesses about changes and arrangements that will be made for imports and exports of duty suspended from 1 January 2021. It stated that all movement of excisable products to and from the UK will be treated as a third country consignment. The new changes will be that traders will also be authorised as registered so that they can have internal movement of excisable products under duty suspension on arrival in the port to a tax warehouse. My inquiries revealed that they will have to submit trader notifications to Revenue via the Revenue online service, ROS, of duty suspended imports and exports. There will be a discontinuing of the current form, the SME 1/01/21 arrangement, and a streamlined process to facilitate trade flows and prevent blockages at ports and airports.

Businesses have been preparing for the past two years to be ready for Brexit but this letter was thrown at them, so to speak. Many have said they were shocked by this requirement and requested that the Minister for Finance look into it, and perhaps the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in terms of the requirements being made for businesses come 1 January 2021. I am aware some of them are being looked at and possibly changed. We are trying to get businesses to do everything right. I have been talking to a number in Clonmel, and from the very start they set up Brexit teams in their own businesses and departments. They meet daily and monthly to discuss all the changes that happen. The Minister is aware of that from speaking to Bulmers, in Clonmel, a number of months ago, which is very concerned about changes in excise duty for its business. Real challenges are facing a number of businesses and the easier we can make it for them the better, including Revenue being clearer on what it expects in terms of the changes that will come in January 2021 and not shocking them with six weeks to go. My colleague in Clonmel, Councillor Michael Murphy, has been working very hard at a local level but the European Committee of the Regions should try to emphasise the challenges businesses in Tipperary are facing.

I wish the Minister well for the next number of weeks. It is a daunting process but he has the full support of the Members of this House in that regard.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Tá fáilte a chur roibh an Aire. The Minister is very welcome. Ireland's membership of the EU since 1973 has brought about a gradual reduction of our economic and political dependence on the UK. We ended pegging the level of the punt to the pound sterling, joined the euro currency and participate in a number of criminal justice matters which the UK opted out of, all without significant disruption. Having some clear blue water between ourselves and the UK has proven to be good for Ireland in many ways but Brexit is an entirely different story. Sadly, however, the public discourse on Brexit here has often gone too far in adopting an unpleasant anti-British tone with those who voted for Brexit in the UK being portrayed as Neanderthals, anti-European and anti-Irish. Some of that is akin to the type of ugly propaganda that was put forward during the economic war, which was launched with Jonathan Swift's sardonic slogan, "Burn everything British but their coal".

We all have reason to regret the British decision on Brexit. UK voters may turn out to have been terribly mistaken in the decision they have taken, even in their own eyes, but they were always entitled to make their decision and they have to be presumed to have done so for what they thought to be honourable reasons in their own national interest. Britain is fully entitled to seek the best outcome possible from the ongoing talks, as we would in their position, but that is all the more reason for us to be grateful to the Minister, and to our diplomats and civil servants, for the extremely hard work being done in this very complex time we are living through.

The Bill before the House is to be supported. It aims to mitigate the damage that will be done to this country at the end of the transition period when we face into a new reality of Britain outside the customs union and the Single Market. The complexity of the issues facing us is clear, from even a cursory look at this Bill.

I want to make some general points about agriculture. There is nothing in the Bill that specifically relates to it but I want to put on record some of my concerns. Any time there was anything other than effective free trade between Ireland and the UK the result has been a disaster for Irish farming. During the economic war, tariffs decimated our exports, with the beef sector being particularly affected. In the absence of a trade deal being agreed, it is impossible to know what a future British Government might do. Our beef sector cannot afford to be at the mercy of any future tariff regime after a hard Brexit. Prices have already fallen substantially, with factories pricing in the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in the knowledge that the loss of British market share will allow them to push prices down even further.

There is also scope for huge damage to be done in other areas. Some 40% of our food exports go to the UK, with a vast number of jobs relying on these exports. I understand 170,000 people are employed in the food sector. I welcome, therefore, as we all do, the willingness at EU level to allow state aid rules to be eased somewhat over the coming period to allow the Government to assist Irish exporters who may be disproportionately affected due to tariff changes or currency fluctuations.

If I may be allowed to be a little reflective for a moment, I could not help thinking last evening of the irony of there being a very interesting documentary from RTÉ about the potato famine on the very same day the news emerged that we were going to be in trouble in our dependence on the British potato supply, particularly for use in our chippers.If ever one were inclined to be chipper about Brexit then that story would have given one pause. Many people would have been taken by surprise that we were so dependent with 80,000 tonnes of potatoes being imported every year. It was news to me that our chippers seem to depend in particular on British potatoes because of the sugar balance involved and their flavour. Only about 10,000 tonnes of the 300,000 or more tonnes of potatoes produced in Ireland were being used in making chips. I did hear Mr. Thomas McKeown of the IFA potato committee put an optimistic twist on the issue when he said that he hoped that this would be an opportunity for Irish growers, and we would see more homegrown produce being used by Irish businesses and in Irish homes. I also saw that a consequence of the British reciprocating, in terms of not taking in potatoes, would be that other EU markets would seek to find other markets thus leading to a fall in prices here. It is a case of out of the frying pan, as it were.

On health matters, section 4 of the Bill repeals Part 2 of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019, which included an extraordinary provision allowing the Minister to publish regulations that may, "make such adaptations and modifications to the Health Acts 1947 to 2019 or any regulations made under those Acts as the Minister considers necessary for the purpose of bringing those Acts or regulations into conformity with this Part". That provision allowed the Minister to amend the Health Acts at the stroke of a pen, which is something that I thought was almost certainly unconstitutional. If I am right in that, then I would certainly welcome the removal of that law from the Statute Book. I am curious to know what has happened here because the last Government maintained what I would have regarded as the embarrassing fiction that this sweeping provision, that I have just mentioned, was constitutional on the basis that the former Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe, now a nationally known name if ever he was not before, had signed it off. I would humbly suggest that a new broom at the Office of the Attorney General has quietly binned that rash advice that is at the back of this repeal. Perhaps I am wrong but the Minister may be in a position to confirm or clarify this matter.

On specific health matters, I am particularly concerned about a situation where for whatever reason reciprocal healthcare arrangements break down post-Brexit and how the treatment abroad scheme might operate in that instance. As we have seen, we need to be prepared to think the unthinkable and we cannot necessarily rely on the goodwill of future British Governments. If reciprocal arrangements should break down it would be preferable that Irish people requiring treatments would receive them privately in Ireland rather than in the public or private systems of another EU member state on the Continent. That was the context for my suggesting an amendment to the 2019 Act, which would have sought to address that potential risk by allowing the Minister to make contingency arrangements in the event that reciprocal arrangements failed. Unfortunately, at that time the amendment was ruled out of order. Perhaps the Minister is in a position to address this point this afternoon because I certainly do not think it is entirely clear what would happen in such circumstances.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. This is not his first time to be here since we have been open, engaged and in this term but it is my first time to address him. I begin by thanking him most sincerely for the exceptional work he has carried out on behalf of our country over the last term and this term in bringing us to this point. We are in his safe hands in terms of leadership on this issue.

I want to address two areas. My colleagues here have been very eloquent in their needs and talked about imports and exports. The first basic area I wish to mention is British citizens living in Ireland who may have been here for a long time, been taxpayers in Ireland and have no Irish antecedents. At this point in order for them to get an EU passport they are exposed to considerable expense. I have had quotes from people in the constituency of Dublin South-Central that when they applied for citizenship but do not have an Irish parent or grandparent there has been a follow-up charge of €950, which seems disproportionate. If they merely travel or holiday within the EU they must use different channels separate from their families. I know this is a basic matter in the grand scale of all the things the Minister must deal with, but it affects some people who live in and have contributed to communities for a very long time. I ask him to examine the matter.

My main point concerns the considerable expense that businesses will be exposed to in the context of data and compliance with the general data protection regulation, GDPR. I have always been of the view that the Information Commissioner's Office, ICO, in the UK is a fantastic data commission, fantastic overseer of data compliance and certainly, along with our own Data Protection Commission, would have been standard setters across the European Union and quite influential in our compliance with GDPR. It is a personal sadness for me that the ICO will now be out of it among all of the other things that we need to think of. While it has been said that there will be onward adherence, at this moment in time we do not have an adequacy decision by the European Data Protection Board in terms of what happens in the UK afterwards in the absence of an agreement or deal. So the only thing that we can assume, come 1 January and afterwards, is that we will be reliant on either binding corporate rules or, which is much more likely, the standard contractual clauses as we become data exporters.

Many of the businesses in Ireland are inextricably linked with UK businesses. Many of the recruitment agencies in Ireland are reliant on using Bullhorn software as a method to manage their data records. That is a UK company, is UK overseen as well as being American. At this moment in time, our businesses face into dealing with Brexit but also dealing with the aftermath of the Schrems decision. I am consulting the European Data Protection Board about ways to put in a system and regime that businesses must apply on a case-by-case basis for every data process. It would mean that businesses for every client, service and supplier must on a case-by-case basis data map and verify what data transfer tool will be required. They must also consider accessing the law and practice in the country to which they export data. They are also obliged to consider the future departures from law or compliance with European law in that country. All of that work is fine for a big company that has an inhouse legal practice or advisers but many small companies do not have that luxury. The hidden cost for onward compliance can very easily be overlooked with all of the other things that we must deal with at the moment and that is certainly of concern.

The Data Protection Commission has been very good and supplied standard contractual clauses to assist data transfer and data export. However, we must bear in mind that there are now additional obligations on companies that will arise if we have a no-deal Brexit and because of the Schrems decision. We have provided so much support and information to businesses but this is a last minute issue that businesses must be aware of. Everything else appears to be in hand, as my colleagues have said, for which I thank the Minister.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I want to address the change that was made in the Bill through the amendment in Dáil Éireann that refers to the long established zero or 1 cent threshold for tax back on purchases by citizens resident outside of the EU who then export the product or bring it home with them.They then export the product or bring it home with them. The Minister is aware the scheme also concerns gifts or personal purchases made by tourists in the State. The Government proposed an amendment to its own provision on Committee Stage in the Dáil so the limit now stands at €75. I am conscious that Jim Power conducted research on the scheme and concluded that €44 million was spent by tourists under the proposed €175 threshold. The figures for the €75 threshold would surely be much better. We do not have a figure because the €75 limit is completely arbitrary. It could just as easily have been €50 or €100. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the Government arrived at the €75 figure. The measure will impact on an industry that is shut down at present and I hope the Government has taken the time over the past seven days to assess fully what impact this will have on businesses in the tourism industry who are weighing up very difficult decisions this very day.

The issue has been discussed extensively in the Dáil but there is still confusion. Most of the Opposition parties had agreed on an amendment that would have seen the Government furnish a report to the Oireachtas after 12 months on the effectiveness and impact of the scheme on the tourism sector and the Exchequer but the Government pursued its own amendment. Sinn Féin remains unconvinced by the arguments put forward by the Government parties that more revenue would be raised through the €75 threshold than would result from increased tourism and economic activity if left at the previous level. When businesses connected with tourism fail and employment ceases then all revenue connected with that business ceases, including moneys to the Exchequer, and it will then be too late. As with many other sectors, the investment in tourism needs to be now. In this case, maintaining the 1 cent threshold is the right investment to make. We can put money into a business that has folded. We look forward to tabling further amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad to press the point again that this is a regressive measure not backed up by evidence that will impact a sector already hit hard and facing an uncertain future.

I want to speak about higher and further education and I welcome some of the measures in the Bill allowing students to carry their SUSI grant as they pursue higher education in a relevant specified jurisdiction. Equally welcome is the provision that will allow the Minister for Education to prescribe British citizens as eligible for SUSI grants to pursue courses here. Progress is needed on making it easier for those who want to carry their SUSI grant to pursue further education in the Six Counties. There is a crisis in third level education now which, if left unresolved, could have a major impact on students coming to study in this jurisdiction. The Minister for Education needs to meet the Minister with responsibility for housing to solve urgently the crisis in student accommodation, whereby students have been forced to pay for accommodation they cannot access.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is very welcome and I stress at the outset that we will support the Bill. I recognise the very hard work the Minister has been undertaking for some time now on this issue. I want to take a couple of minutes to speak about Brexit itself. Far too often when people speak about Brexit we hear a simplistic narrative that pits a wholesome European Union with its much vaunted values of decency and democracy against the dark forces of British politics. While the xenophobic, backward, empire nostalgia of the Tory party certainly make for excellent pantomime villains the truth is there really are major problems with the current model of the European Union. Britain is not alone in seeing the rise of the far right from the fringe to power. We see it throughout Europe. It was mentioned earlier with regard to Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria. They are already in power. We can see in Spain, Italy and France where they are threatening to come to power. An honest analysis of this is required and we need to address why it is happening. I suggest the decades long policy of neoliberalism and the impact of this on political life throughout the continent is at the heart of a real difficulty of the European project.

I point to the excellent work done by Irish academic, Emma Clancy, who has examined the role of the unelected European Commission in imposing austerity throughout Europe. Just one example is the fact that between 2011 and 2018 the European Commission insisted on 63 separate cuts to public health services throughout Europe. All of these cuts and forced privatisation were to achieve targets set out in the Stability and Growth Pact, which was a hugely retrograde aspect of the European Union fiscal treaty of 2013. It is significant that even IBEC has questioned the appropriateness of being tied to such tight limits in recent years. While the Stability and Growth Pact is currently on hold, which is very welcome, I am concerned that the Minister for Finance continues to be a champion of this particular pact. There needs to be a big conversation on the direction of the European Union. The left has been very poor in this regard. I do not expect conservative parties to make these arguments but all of us on the left need to be more honest about the real pitfalls of the current direction of travel for the European Union and insist on an honest and open debate.

What is very clear from the whole Brexit debacle is the absurdity of partition, and the idea that one part of this island can be inside the EU while the others outside is ridiculous on so many levels. The protocol is an essential bulwark against this happening but it can be regarded as at best an interim solution. Business owners, and particularly sections of the agricultural economy in the North, are now open to a discussion on an alternative future as part of an all-island economy. We need to have this national conversation and begin to put building blocks in place for referendums that will surely happen later in this decade.

I want to raise the issue of energy. With the closure of Moneypoint power station and the Kinsale gas field ceasing production in July we appear to be ever more reliant on this island on imported gas from Britain. The British energy regulator, Ofgem, announced changes to its charging regime. Irish regulators and utilities asked for certain modifications and dispensations from Ofgem. These included a specific Ireland security discount intended to help security of supply. Ofgem rejected the suggestion, effectively stating it was not prepared to make a special case for Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will have an opportunity to speak about what our plans are to ensure we move away from this huge dependency at present on Britain.

I also express some concern about shipping. At present, 150,000 Irish freight units cross Britain every year, which is approximately 3,000 lorries a week. This has developed into an essential route. Approximately 83% of our roll-on, roll-off rate leaves Ireland via Dublin. There is quite an imbalance there. Our trading has been centred in one part of the island and in one direction. I know there have been changes recently, and a Danish shipping company announcing new routes from Rosslare last week, but clearly a lot more needs to be done and I would like to hear the Minister's views on this.

I have particular concerns about the agricultural sector, which Senator Mullen also mentioned. It continues to be a significant part of our economy. I welcome the fact the Government will plan to give support to the sector but I have to say I have real concerns with regard to the red meat sector in particular. As someone who has worked closely in that sector as a trade union official I have real concerns with regard to the welfare of the workers, the very poor rates of pay and the anti-trade union attitude, which is to the forefront of so many of those companies. I ask that when we support the industry we insist on decent terms and conditions for those workers and that we insist in particular on their right to be represented by trade unions.

I have a concern, as many others do, that once Britain embarks on its new future it may move towards a Singapore model, whereby it will move to very low rates of pay and terms and conditions, and effectively tries to undermine decent terms and conditions in this country. We need to be very aware of this. There is very important role for social dialogue in this regard, in particular to include our trade union movement in a quick response method. We do not really know what will face us in the early months of next year and I would like the Minister's opinions on this.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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The Green Party also supports the legislation. On behalf of the Green Party I thank the Minister for his sterling efforts. It was a time for diplomacy and calm heads and he demonstrated these in bucketfuls. There was a temptation to go down the road of Brit bashing and we would have lost heavily if we had fallen for that temptation. I am glad to say we have not done so.

I concur with Senator Warfield's remarks in making education as accessible as possible. Education sets one free to choose, to think and to create. It is through this environment, particularly on the island of Ireland, that further reconciliation takes place. I saw it first hand.I am one of the many in the Upper House who were student union leaders in a past life. I passionately believe education is a key to solidifying peace, healing, truth and reconciliation. Senator Garvey, my fellow Green Party Senator, covered much of the territory, as did other Senators, so I will try to stay on different topics. It is great to have the Minister in the House this evening.

There is a golden opportunity, not necessarily in the Bill, to capitalise on our newfound status as an English-speaking common law jurisdiction in the EU. What exactly will we do to capitalise on that? I believe investment is already moving into the Republic of Ireland. I would love to hear the Minister's plans in relation to that and on having a task force. It will be a whole new world.

On a sad point, we are all aware of the response yesterday of the British Government to the call for an independent public sworn inquiry. It is obviously a despicable and reprehensible act to gun down a lawyer, be it Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson or Edgar Graham, or any loss of life for that matter. With Britain outside the European Union, does the Minister believe we will have a greater influence on Britain and will the British listen to us? Notwithstanding the might of the EU and America, Britain did not listen to them on an issue as serious as the Pat Finucane case. What is the Minister's approach, apart from his diplomatic skill set, which is to be admired? What do we do in cases and times of challenge and crisis? There should be much more bilateral communication.

We have a special relationship with Great Britain, as two English-speaking countries. The UK is our nearest neighbour. There will be a practical working out of the new post-Brexit world which will not be in the Bill before us. Our new North-South arrangement will have to intensify. Citizens in Northern Ireland will not have an elected representative in the European Parliament. Can we not strive to give them a voice in the Seanad or work harder for the people in the Six Counties, who will hopefully have the best of both worlds? They do not have a voice in the European Parliament. Perhaps we should make arrangements in the Seanad so that voice is heard in the Republic of Ireland. There is an opportunity to intensify east-west relations. How will do that in a post-Brexit world? The British are our nearest neighbours. We want to work closely and positively with them, as best we can.

Is the Minister satisfied that, given the unique relationship by which we are inextricably linked, North-South and east-west, we got enough special concessions? The Northern Ireland protocol is the best of both worlds and brilliant if it happens but have we secured derogations, dispensations, call them what one likes, for the Republic of Ireland? Our culture and agriculture are inextricably linked. Consider going to the mart or horse racing. So often in Downpatrick or Down Royal one hears accents from the Republic of Ireland. Likewise, at equestrian sports and horse racing in the Republic of Ireland, is it not lovely to hear a strong Ulster accent? How welcome people from the North are to inject support into in the Republic of Ireland. It is a mutual arrangement.

I am concerned about the special arrangement. I believe much of this is around the corner and we cannot see it yet. It is unforeseen and one would need 20-20 vision. A simple example is the Bosman ruling in football. Mr. Bosman is best known for the court case rather than his football skills. The ruling relates to freedom of labour and how, when professional soccer players are out of contract, they can move on. In Northern Ireland, we have Derry City, and we have teams in the Republic of Ireland. George Best once graced the League of Ireland. Dennis Tueart, the Manchester City centre forward, played a few games for Derry City in the Brandywell. This is a micro-example. Will we get special allowances for our inextricably close sporting and cultural ties? Will the EU be generous, as I think the UK will be, on so many challenges and opportunities were there are cross-sections?

I will give my own opinion but I am not the only person who holds it. I believe the killing and maiming of people put back possibility of a united Ireland by decades upon decades. Ironically, Brexit, be it a hard crash-out or a soft Brexit, could lead to the people of Ireland getting on better. There is an opportunity to turn a disadvantage into an advantage, a challenge into an incredible prospect where the people of Ireland become closer and get on better, economically and culturally, than ever before.

A former Taoiseach, now deceased, said he would not see a united Ireland in his lifetime. The Minister is a proud Fine Gael Party member. His president and party leader occasionally speaks about a united Ireland. Sometimes Fine Gael is called the UIP or United Ireland Party. There are so many initials. There is the UUP, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the UIP, United Ireland Party - by peaceful means, of course. The violence was counterproductive. Is the Minister ready to seize an opportunity which will fast forward healing, reconciliation and truth and bring this island closer together, respecting the different traditions? Maybe one day, and I say this as a constitutional republican, they will come together in the form of a united Ireland. That is not in the Bill, which we are giving a Second Reading today. Peter Barry is a respected member of the school of constitutional nationalism and might be a hero of the Minister's from the rebel county. There are good nationalists and republicans within the Fine Gael family. The Green Party, North and South, supports this legislation. Clare Bailey, MLA, said the Green Party is an all-Ireland party and we understand how critically important it is to get on together on this small island. Part of that will be the mutually beneficial intensification of the relationship with Great Britain. I would love to hear the Minister's views and responses on some of the issues I have raised.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Currie has ten minutes.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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We will be here all night. I will share time with Senator Dolan.

I thank the Minister for his relentless work on Brexit and its impact on relationships as we know them on these islands. It is always worth mentioning that Ireland never wanted Brexit and, in many ways, aspects of this Bill underline the absurdity of it all. Why replace convergence with divergence or seamlessness with separation? I know the Minister is doing his best to deal with what we call the interdependence and interlocking nature of the relationships, North and South, east and west. These relationships are the basis of the Good Friday Agreement and of something that is deeper and more meaningful than trade and neighbourliness alone. So much more is at stake. The Minister is dealing with the complexity of the arrangements based on those relationships and is unweaving and weaving them back together as best he can.

I am appreciative that the Bill aims to protect citizens, consumers and businesses, the common travel area and North-South co-operation. Despite all this work, it is a pity we are here at all. The omnibus Bill is one part of the jigsaw but so too is the future relationship deal and the vital implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. There can be no wriggle room or wriggling out of that. It has to be said that the Minister and Government have stepped up for people across the island of Ireland, North and South, when it has really mattered, as have people like Claire Hanna, Colum Eastwood and Stephen Farry, to protect lives, livelihoods and ways of life. These are the bread and butter issues we take for granted because of cross-Border freedom and the Good Friday Agreement.I recognise the Minister's commitment to ensuring that the common travel area will be maintained in all circumstances and that reciprocal rights will be safeguarded. Being Brexit-ready is incredibly complex and detailed, and that is reflected in the significance and the size of the Bill.

As someone who obviously has very close ties to the North, the importance of access to healthcare North and South, the European Health Insurance Card for residents of Northern Ireland, the Erasmus programme, third level education fluidity, access in Northern Ireland to Horizon 2020 funding, social welfare arrangements, pensions, childcare, bus services, and relationship statuses cannot be underestimated. I know that the Minister is working relentlessly on these issues, but if he has the opportunity, he might address the issue of the Erasmus programme and the Horizon 2020 funding.

We await further news on the future relationship, but regardless of the outcome of the talks, the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, is the only way forward, given the protocol provides that there will be no dilution of the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provided for the people of the North, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. I particularly look forward to working with the Minister on that. The rights of EU citizens in the North are specifically addressed in the Bill and it confirms that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy, exercise and have access to rights, opportunities and benefits that will come with EU citizenship.

I wish to reinforce the issue of Northern Irish inputs to EU exports as part of the future relationship. The dairy and Irish whiskey industries are integrated all-island industries with seamless cross-Border supply chains. There are Northern Ireland inputs into EU exports such as milk and dairy products finished and exported from the Republic and Northern Irish whiskey included in Irish whiskey blended and exported from this State. I believe these products will no longer have EU originating status, because they contain non-EU inputs, and will potentially lose existing access to zero or reduced tariffs in markets for free trade arrangements. Businesses, therefore, are anxious that a resolution to this issue is found, and rules of origin and future post-Brexit free trade agreements are changed to allow Northern Ireland inputs in EU exports to benefit from them.

In conclusion, I want to highlight that this has always been, and will always be, about relationships. As parliamentarians, we must reinforce our commitment to building those relationships that have suffered because of Brexit, and the fall of the Executive, and we must remember the importance of the three strands. I know that the Minister is utterly committed to that and he is doing a fantastic job. Hopefully, we will see significant progress in the next few weeks.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. He has worked tirelessly with the EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, and a trade deal is necessary, but not at any cost. The willingness to compromise has to be demonstrated by all sides.

The vote on the Brexit referendum in 2016 left the world in shock, and it left me in shock. The historic result of 51.9% to 49.1% changed the future of engagement between the UK, Europe and Ireland. However, our previous Government and Departments immediately stepped up with a Brexit readiness plan. Dedicated ministerial teams took part in all the engagements that the Minister mentioned earlier. Now we are so thankful for the support of President-elect, Joe Biden. Up until Covid-19, this was the largest challenge facing the Irish people and economy, and the previous Government put urgent measures in place once the Brexit vote happened.

I attended the University of Ulster, Coleraine to undertake a postgraduate course, I completed modules on the EU and I worked in the European Commission office in Belfast for a number of months as a student intern. I met many international Erasmus students there, I lived in Portstewart, I worked in Dungannon, and some of my best friends live in Northern Ireland. Ireland has strong links with the UK and many Irish people live and work there and vice versa. We have a shared history, which I have studied, and now we are entering into historic and unprecedented times. This Bill will have a significant impact on how we engage with the UK and Northern Ireland for students, friends, families, work and travel. As Senator Currie stated, the Good Friday Agreement must be protected and there must be a level playing field in respect of engagement between the EU and third countries. We need to have strong transitional plans in place.

From 1 January 2021, the rules for the EU Single Market will not apply in the UK. This will have a drastic impact on sectors in Ireland, particularly, the farming and agrifood sectors. There are sections of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine dedicated to supporting farmers in preparation for these changes, but coming from a farming background, I am very worried. Teagasc has recently reported that a no-deal Brexit will result in a €690 million drop in farm incomes, and according to the report it published today, the average farm family's income will potentially drop by 18%.

The actions over the next few days need our full attention, and there must also be a focus on supply chains and road haulage. I commend the Minister and his officials on the investment being made in our ports to prepare for import charges. More than 1,500 staff will be hired and €30 million is being spent on customs and safety checks in Dublin Port alone. In budget 2021, in excess of €340 million has been set aside for Brexit-related measures. I appreciate the efforts by the Revenue to contact more than 90,000 businesses and to make more than 14,000 calls. The efforts that are being made to ensure that we are prepared for what will happen at the start of January are incredible. This work has been ongoing over the past few years.

Regarding access to the €5 billion EU Brexit adjustment reserve, which is going to be crucial, particularly in farming, how will we be able to draw down on this reserve in 2021? We are building a plan for the future and we are laying new foundations with the UK based on this new reality. The Bill focuses on protecting the common travel area, mitigating impacts to our economy, the Good Friday Agreement, medical and social welfare, immigration and many other issues, which illustrates how entwined we are with our nearest neighbour.

I pay tribute to the Minister and to all 11 Ministers and officials involved in this omnibus legislation. Cross-party support is so welcome at this challenging time, and is particularly important to ensure that this legislation is in place by the end of December 2020, and that the Cabinet, Government and all parties here are ready and resilient, particularly to support people and livelihoods from January 2021. I wish the Minister the strongest resolve as the representative in the people of Ireland in these final days of negotiation with the UK. To all the Ministers and negotiators involved, I say, Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I was thinking earlier about the term "the patience of Job", and I wondered what it meant, and who Job was. I googled it and found the following definition: "Job is presented as a good and prosperous family man who is beset by Satan with God's permission with horrendous disasters that take away all that he holds dear." I cannot help but think that some sort of analogy could be drawn with the patience that the Minister has shown in dealing with Brexiteers and the British Government, which seems to have a different plan every week, or no plan at all. That is a fair analogy to draw.

The issue I wish to raise concerns something to which I refer often, namely, the social fabric of the Border area. I only two miles from it, as the Minister will be aware. What I mean by that is that our communities are very intertwined across the Border, and have been able to become even more intertwined and prosperous as a result of the Good Friday Agreement over the past 20 years. That point is consistently lost on the British Government, the British media and people in the UK in general. They have little or no conception of what the social aspect of the Border is, and the social fabric that exists, from Omeath, County Louth all the way up to Donegal and right along and in between. The type of social fabric that I am talking about could include anything, whether it is being married to someone from across the Border, the kids going to school in north Louth but playing football in south Armagh, or living in south Armagh but working in Dundalk.I also want to make reference to how reassuring President-elect Joe Biden's views on Northern Ireland are. He has had a long-lasting and consistent view on it and it is a breath of fresh air compared with we have experienced. That has to make No. 10 Downing St. think about the approach it has taken towards Ireland, alongside that of President Donald Trump, over the past couple of years. That is reassuring.

Irrespective of whether we get a deal, these will still be issues in the Brexit debate. The first issue is customs, and we will have to examine what happens east to west. The second issue is standards, regulations and licences. The third is logistics and transport. There will be indirect impacts under all three of those headings that a lot of businesses and Border communities will not fully understand or grasp the effects of until quarter 1 of next year. That could involve customs or licensing issues or product standards. In terms of logistics and transport, in the case of perishable goods, for example, if logistics require an extra day or two and the shelf life of products is shortened that will reduce people's earning capacity. Those are the issues which I want to put on the record and which need to be examined. Whether we get a deal, they will still be serious issues that we will have to countenance and deal with.

The withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol put Border counties like mine in a much stronger and more comfortable position than they were two-and-half or three years ago before they were put in place. At every turn, the Minister and European Union have stood up to the British Government. They have told it that it has entered into a withdrawal agreement in good faith and that there can be no renegotiation whatsoever. That is the bottom line. It is important that we maintain that stand, and I know we will.

I also want to make reference on a more local level to the work of local enterprise offices, LEOs, in making sure that businesses in Border areas are prepared to be Brexit ready. I have seen the number of workshops and seminars businesses in my area have been doing. Those in business in a Border community need to ask themselves, if they have not done so already, the extent to which their businesses are exposed to Brexit and what the scale of that will be. Brexit will turn some businesses upside down. Others will be marginally impacted upon. It is up to businesses to determine what the scale of the impact will be.

I had a wonderful conversation with Thomas McEvoy, who is in charge of the LEO in Dundalk. I do not want to be parochial but I want to speak to what I have knowledge of, which is my area. Mr. McEvoy said that businesses in Border region, particularly in the Dundalk area, have been on the frontier for 40 years in terms of the Troubles and Brexit. He went on to say that at every stage the resilient business people in the area have been incredible. They have had to deal with the Troubles, the cheaper Sterling exchange rate, which meant that people shopped in the North, economic recessions and now Brexit. There is a huge resilience within Irish people and our business community.

I am very confident that no matter what comes along in terms of Brexit next year they will be able to do their very best to overcome it. They will use the same level of ingenuity that they have always had to use. Much of that is down to the supports the Government has put in place. There have been significant financial supports to get businesses Brexit ready. A great deal of information has been provided. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

I read a wonderful article by the late A.A. Gill in The Sunday Timesabout a week after Brexit. He said he felt sorry for the younger generations in Britain who had such a bright future ahead of them as members of the European Union and that future was taken away by their parents' generation, which has an idealised view of what Britain was like in the 1940s and 1950s that is not relevant today. I hope that at some stage a new generation of British people will be able to vote to rejoin the European Union and that the United Kingdom will be able to come back and be at the heart of the European Union where it should be. That may be two or three decades away, but I for one will look forward to being able to welcome it back at some stage in the near future.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I, too, welcome the Minister and commend him on the work he has done, not just in recent weeks but also in recent years, on Brexit. As we all know, Brexit is a serious, tricky and complex issue for Ireland. It challenges Ireland more than any other country. It is a daunting challenge and we are in uncharted waters. We do not know how it will affect us, but we know that it will. It is a problem and a difficulty. Like many other problems our small island has faced over the years, we will deal with it head on.

It is only fair and appropriate to say that this Government and previous Governments have been involved in micromanagement levels of preparation for this day as it approaches. Even if there is no deal, we are as prepared as we could possibly be in light of the work that has been done in the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach since the awful referendum happened in 2016. We were not behind the bush when it came to realising the seriousness of the situation, the difficulties that it presented to us and the difficulties that it would present to the Irish business community, especially the export community.

I regret the fact that many people did not realise the seriousness of the situation, and still do not. Two or three years ago, people saw this as something that would happen in the distant future as opposed to realising that we are on the eve of something very serious. When it happens, they will wonder why they did not realise it was so serious. Due to the fact that Brexit is one step removed from people, they did not seem to realise it will have a direct impact on their lives. Much of the work that happened across Government for the past two or three years was to try to negate that impact.

People did not consider Brexit an issue in the general election because it did not get their children a mortgage or do A, B or C. Brexit will not put food on the table or ensure that people can buy new cars. Those who have been close to and have monitored the process know that it is an issue. The future effect of Brexit is what has preoccupied the Government for the past three or four years. Trying to protect our citizens in the Brexit future is what has preoccupied the Minister, the former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste and others.

That said, a number of factors have played in our favour, not least that there is a new President-elect in the United States of America who, unlike the man he will succeed, is not in favour of Brexit. That has tilted the balance in favour of Europe in these tricky, complex and detailed negotiations.

To some extent, the pandemic has focused minds because there is now an element within the United Kingdom which realises that it is not really possible to exist as an island. We are a global community and are interconnected. We are better off being properly, appropriately and cohesively interconnected as opposed to what is going to happen soon. Those factors will possibly help in terms of securing a deal.There have been challenges with fisheries in recent times and they are complex. Claiming territorial waters is always difficult. For the past decade, there have been negotiations about fishing quotas Christmas after Christmas and we have always done well. The Minister was part of those negotiations when he was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, flying over to Brussels a few days before Christmas to try to get the fishing quota deals done, and they were challenging.

In my area of Clare, tourism is our main source of income after agriculture. I am concerned that we will be hit in terms of agriculture, particularly in respect of agricultural exports to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that much of the work done over the years to open and develop other markets will help. Many people might not realise that the United Kingdom is one of our principal inbound tourism markets. The number of people who come from the United Kingdom to Ireland for weekend breaks is significant. The city of Dublin has benefited enormously from many people coming from the length and breadth of the United Kingdom for weekend breaks and that has percolated throughout our country, not least in Clare. Significant tourism promotion needs to be conducted to protect that market. There is no reason that it should not develop. We may have difficulties in the next couple of years but when things are bedded down we will, hopefully, see that.

The roll-out of additional embassies and consular offices throughout the world was a clever, appropriate and necessary move. Improving diplomatic relationships goes hand in hand with having the IDA develop economic relationships and trying to get foreign direct investment. One cannot just rock up to a city and get foreign direct investment overnight; one has to build diplomatic relations and get to know the culture in various countries. The budget in that regard was ramped up significantly in recent years and it is money exceptionally well spent.

I do not envy the Minister in his work but he is the right man in the right place to do it. He has the experience, having developed it since 2011, when he took over as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This is a pivotal period in our history. It is only in the future that we will realise how important this period is, and doing it against the backdrop of a pandemic makes it all the more difficult. I wish him well, as does the country. I have no doubt we will emerge from this as a stronger country and nation with, hopefully, a protected economy that we will rebuild not just from a Brexit perspective but also in the aftermath of a pandemic.

Our position in the European Union has been significantly strengthened because of the work that has been done over recent years. That we have had Europe at our back throughout this period of uncertainty is deeply appreciated by many Irish people. I sincerely hope that in the European narrative going forward, a Eurosceptic attitude will never develop in the Irish psyche. We should remember that two European referendums were lost in this country and had to be run again. I hope that type of mentality will not exist in the future and that people will appreciate the benefit that Europe has provided to our people and how it has stood by us in our time of need. I have no doubt we will emerge and go forward stronger, better and more determined as a country and people.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can. There is a meeting of the Seanad special select committee on Brexit tomorrow, where I will be able to go into more depth if Senators want me to in any area.

I will now deal with some of the themes that arose. A number of Senators raised concerns about the need for direct ferry links to deal with congestion in ports. The concern is based on the fact that about 85% of all goods that come into and out of Ireland come via the UK land bridge. As a result, there is a potentially significant point of disruption for goods trade to and from the rest of the EU Single Market, particularly for time-sensitive goods, such as perishable goods, chilled products and so on. We have worked with shipping companies, hauliers, exporters and importers to encourage them to consider contingency plans and use the capacity that is there already and is increasing all the time in the context of direct ferry routes. Even in the past week, the Rosslare-Dunkirk daily ferry service was announced last Friday, while Cork-Zeebrugge was also announced quietly and without too much fuss. A number of new routes over the past 18 months have been announced by various shipping companies, which foresee an increase in demand for direct ferry routes, and that has not happened by accident.

On the current direct ferry routes, however, less than 50% of capacity is currently being used. People talk about the capacity issue and worry that if there is a need for a significant shift away from using the current land bridge route through Holyhead and through Dover to Calais, there may not be sufficient capacity on direct ferry routes. However, we have a great deal of additional capacity, which has increased and continues to do so. We also have the potential for shipping companies to shift capacity off the Irish Sea route to consider greater direct ferry route capacity should it be necessary. While there is a good deal of capacity, we have been encouraging importers, exporters and haulage companies to carry out that contingency in advance and to test those new routes to ensure they work, and to use December to do that, rather than waiting for an emergency-type situation potentially to develop at Dover in a month's time, if and when there is significant congestion. Even when the French tested some of the new checking systems for passport checks alone, there was a 5 km tailback in Kent on the way into Dover. We are starting to get a sense of what we may face in January in the context of delays and disruption.

I cannot recall which Senator mentioned it but there is certainly no chance of the UK providing some sort of green lane for Irish trucks to skip to the front of a 5 km, 7 km, 10 km or 15 km queue. When our lorries are coming off ships at Calais and other EU ports, a green lane operation will separate Irish-origin trucks from the UK traffic because, of course, the checks will not be the same. They will be goods that have originated in the Single Market coming back into the Single Market and using the UK as a land bridge facilitated by the UK signing up to an international transit convention that effectively means that if a container is sealed in Dublin, and if the UK land bridge is crossed to return to the Single Market in France, the seal on the container does not need to be broken as long as it does not involve live animals or other certain food products.To be fair to be the UK, it has signed up to the convention. It has, in fact, been very helpful in the context of facilitating the future use of the land bridge but it is certainly not going to be able to deal with the potential disruption in its own ports and give Irish trucks preferential treatment by comparison with its own. That is potentially a recipe for a lot of tension. That is a contingency we have been planning for and working on. The conversation will continue with shipping companies right until the end of the year, through the transition period and into the new reality we are facing.

Regarding our own ports, there has been a lot of planning involving the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, my Department, the Department of Transport, Dublin Port and, of course, the shipping and haulage companies. There will be a traffic plan for Dublin in place reflecting the new realities. Some of the shipping scheduling poses genuine challenges because large vessels come in at more or less the same time each morning. Many of the goods are demanded at certain times of the day, and shipping companies respond to that demand, particularly in terms of accessing retail outlets early in the morning and so on. Therefore, there will need to be efficiency in the management of that traffic, but I am reasonably confident this is being achieved in a comprehensive way. Of course, there is no perfect solution but there is certainly an enormous amount of contingency planning taking place to secure the smooth running of Dublin Port.

What effectively will happen is that when trucks come off ships, they will either be in a green lane, an orange lane or a red lane. If they are in a green lane, they will go straight through without having to be checked at all. If they are in an orange lane, they will require some customs checks. If they are in a red lane, they will require a much more substantive inspection process. They may have perishable goods and they may need to unload goods for a more detailed inspection. As a result of that, Dublin Port has really been transformed over the past two years in terms of extra parking bays, inspection bays, live-animal stabling, cold-storage facilities and much more. It is worth visiting. Perhaps the Chairman of the Seanad's Brexit committee could take its members to see the port's operations. I expect we will see pilot testing of the systems in the month of December to make sure they are fit and ready for 1 January.

Rosslare has been quietly doing a huge amount of work to get ready. I was really pleased to hear last Friday the announcement about the direct ferry link to Dunkirk because that really means the infrastructure put in place is going to be used. I envisage Rosslare getting busier and busier and potential further routes developing in the time ahead if we see permanent reliance on direct ferry routes rather than a land bridge for many products. That is quite possible because the paperwork involved, the associated delays and the preparations companies will need to make to bring goods across the UK land bridge are quite significant and potentially quite costly. It is doable but it involves hassle. If the goods are not time sensitive, it may well be cost-competitive for people to look for direct ferry routes.

I was glad to hear Mr. Michel Barnier's name mentioned in the House today. There was a lot of support and praise for him. He has done a phenomenal job as a negotiator for the EU. He has shown a capacity to understand and take the time to really read into the vulnerabilities of the island of Ireland as a whole owing to Brexit in a way that many people could not have expected. He has also taken the time to come here on multiple occasions in this regard. When people rightly say the UK has the right to decide its own future, even if we do not agree with the decision or fully understand why, they should note that the UK does not have the right to vote for Ireland's future in terms of where we stand, our place in the EU Single Market and our involvement with it in a peace process on this island.

There is not an anti-British bone in my body but I have an obligation, during this process, to ensure Ireland's vulnerabilities are understood and that we put in place agreements that can protect against the exposure of those vulnerabilities. We need to protect the peace process throughout this period of disruption, and I believe we are doing that as best we can. It is not perfect and it has caused some tension but I believe that, by reaching an agreement on the protocol on Northern Ireland in the context of the withdrawal agreement, we now have protection in international law for a protocol that the British Government has a legal obligation to implement. This is not a political agreement any longer; it is the law, and that is why the response from Ireland and others across the EU to the UK's Internal Market Bill, which essentially threatens to break that law, was as direct and blunt as it needed to be. I say that as a candid friend of the UK, as someone who has benefited from the British education system, and as someone with many family members living in the UK and who has worked in Scotland. Like many in this House, I am in many ways a product of the Anglo-Irish relationship. I believe, however, that Ireland has a responsibility to call this situation as it is because there are many who are trying to warp the messages and the understanding of what Brexit means. We need to try to make sure that we remain respectful, but consistent and firm, in the context of protecting Ireland's interests through a very challenging and potentially very disruptive period.

There are a number of other questions I want to make sure I answer. One concerns the contentious issue of tax rebates, which is going to involve an amendment from the Labour Party on Thursday and, I suspect, a similar one from Sinn Féin. We are not going to accept the amendments but I want to give reassurance here. The initial proposal from the Department of Finance was that it would be appropriate to introduce a threshold of €175. In other words, if a non-EU citizen or someone from a third country, which Great Britain will be, spends over €175, he or she will be able to claim VAT back. What the Department was trying to do was recognise the fact that there will be millions more people coming from the UK into Ireland and that the cost of the bureaucracy of managing the scheme for small amounts of money would be significant.

Deputy Howlin and others made the case that the threshold should either be reduced significantly or done away with altogether. The Department of Finance responded to that by reducing the threshold significantly, to €75 rather than €175, which means much more expenditure will now be subject to the VAT rebate scheme. This is good for retailers. There was a judgment call that I assume the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will have an opportunity to talk about when he is in the House on Thursday. Many EU countries apply thresholds that are much higher than €75. What we are trying to do here is provide an incentive to spend money while in Ireland and to do so in a cost-effective way in the context of a VAT return scheme while also trying to recognise that if there is a significant increase in the numbers availing of the scheme, there will be a cost to managing it in respect of small or relatively small amounts of money. That is essentially what is happening. Some have said this measure is not linked to Brexit it all, that it is a separate issue and that it will apply to people coming from the United States. It will but it is linked to Brexit because so many of our tourists are British. This is super and we want to keep it that way but it means the numbers will increase significantly. Therefore, it was deemed appropriate to respond. Having said that, I believe it is not unreasonable to state we need to assess, after the first 12 months, whether the €75 threshold is the right one and whether it should be less, more or done away with altogether.I know the Minister for Finance is open to that but we are not proposing to put the requirement in the legislation. I am stating on record that the Government is committed to doing that review and the Department of Finance will do it. However, it would not be good practice to include in the Bill a commitment to a review because it is not normal to do so in legislation. I am not asking Senators to withdraw their amendments, but to reflect on that. To finish this legislation in a timely manner, it would be really useful if we could get this done this week. I hope that my giving the House a commitment on the review, which I am sure the Minister for Finance, or whoever speaks on his behalf on Thursday, will also make, will be sufficient for Senators.

I take the point made about cross-Border health but I must be honest with people. The EU cross-border health directive will no longer apply to Northern Ireland because it cannot apply. It is not that we do not want it to apply but that it cannot apply. Northern Ireland is no longer part of the European Union and, therefore, an EU directive cannot be enforced in Northern Ireland. What we will do is replicate the directive by agreeing, insofar as we can, bilateral arrangements with the UK to protect cross-Border health. We are pretty confident we can make sure that continues for the people from Donegal who access healthcare in Altnagelvin Hospital today, the children who travel from Belfast to Dublin for specialist paediatric treatment and others, including members of PDFORRA, who access health treatment in Belfast. The Minister for Health has committed to the seamless continuation of cross-Border healthcare. We will work to try to achieve that and the Department is very focused on doing that. The formal application of the EU directive will not be possible in the same way that it was when Northern Ireland was part of the EU.

I take the points made about the Naval Service, which I answered in some detail in the Dáil. We have taken considerable action over the last three months to introduce a going-to-sea allowance, effectively an incentive, of an extra €10,000 over two years as long as people commit to going to sea for that period. I hope that will be one of a number of measures that will ensure we are more successful in recruitment and retention in the Naval Service. I promise that this is a big priority of mine. I live next door to a naval base and I have a pretty good understanding of the challenges that we face. We must overcome them and not shy away from them.

Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the VAT issue. On the frontier workers' scheme, I can be more positive on that. To be fair to Sinn Féin, it has repeatedly raised this issue. In May 2019, David Lidington, on behalf of the UK Government and I, on behalf of the Irish Government, signed a memorandum of understanding on the common travel area, CTA. Irish citizens, including frontier workers, do not need to take action to continue working in the UK. In other words, an Irish or British citizen can, under the CTA arrangements, continue to work in the other country and access healthcare and social welfare benefits, study, take pension entitlements and so on. The CTA in many ways provides a recognition of citizenship in each other's countries. That is not entirely the case but it is not far off that. We will continue to try to protect that.

The position is much more complicated if one is a frontier worker in Ireland or Northern Ireland but not an Irish or British national. Under the withdrawal agreement, EU nationals living in Ireland but working in Northern Ireland or Great Britain before the end of the transition will be able to continue working as a frontier worker but must apply to the UK Government for the settled status scheme to protect their rights. There should not be a problem with that. Obviously, I cannot fully answer for the British Government but from our perspective, I think the frontier worker issue should be okay.

Data and GDPR is a huge issue for businesses and one of the reasons we need to get a deal. People have talked about fishing and a level playing field, which are two outstanding issues that have not been resolved yet. I hope progress will be made on them this week. As I speak, however, they have not been resolved and the gap is still very wide in the case of fishing. There are many other issues, including aviation, road haulage, data, services, financial services, banking, judicial co-operation, security co-operation, defence co-operation and climate co-operation. Eleven different work streams were negotiated and brought forward in parallel. The EU has always said this about agreeing a deal across all sectors and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Energy markets is another good example, which I often use. The UK wants to access the EU's energy markets for free. In return, we are saying we would like to access the UK's fishing grounds. This works both ways and both sides can benefit as long as there is reasonable give and take on both sides.

I take the point made about data. I hope we will know an awful lot more if and when a deal emerges in the coming days, I hope, because we are running out of time. If we do not get a deal, data will become a very big issue and managing it will become part of EU contingency planning. If there is no deal and if there are emergency contingency measures that are facilitated by the EU and the UK, it will be pretty bare bone stuff around things that are pretty fundamental to the facilitation of movement and trade. That is why the stakes are so high in the context of what we are attempting to agree at the moment between the EU and the UK. As Senator Conway said, many people have no idea of the level of disruption that we will have to manage as a country in the absence of a deal and, indeed, the UK even more so.

On more positive areas such as Erasmus and research, we have said in the context of Northern Ireland that we would like to get a deal on access to the Erasmus scheme for UK citizens and, obviously, Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. If that is not possible to negotiate with the British Government and the EU, Ireland and the Irish Government will pay for students in Northern Ireland to be able to access the Erasmus scheme. We will put a system in place of registering through Irish universities to facilitate that, if necessary, because we believe it is such a fundamental student opportunity for people in Northern Ireland. Likewise, with the European health insurance card, EHIC. We cannot replicate EHIC exactly for people travelling but we will put in place a scheme to allow people from Northern Ireland who are holidaying or travelling around the EU and may have to access EU healthcare to get a rebate through the Irish health system when they return. Again, we have said we will pay the cost of that if we have to, which is about €4 million. I am very hopeful that Irish taxpayers will not have to pay for this, certainly not all of it, and that we will have an agreement that involves the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to facilitate those kinds of schemes, so that we can follow through on the commitments in the protocol to protect people's rights, as well as economic opportunities that come with EU membership or extended EU membership. People in Northern Ireland have a right to be British, Irish or both and if one has a right to be Irish, one has a right to be European or an EU citizen, I should say. We are all on European, thank God; Britain has not left Europe yet. It is important that the Irish Government goes beyond the limitations of the protocol and is generous in that regard, which I believe we will be. The future was raised by Senator Kyne and others. Britain is our closest neighbour. We have so many responsibilities that we work on together, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland. We need a relationship post Brexit that is different but is equally important. I spent some time today with our team talking about the kind of infrastructure that may be needed and designed between the British and Irish Governments in terms of how we might do that in the future. I have on a number of occasions proposed that in a practical sense, that would mean an annual UK-Ireland intergovernmental summit, which would not only be about the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach but would involve multiple Ministers - up to six, eight or ten Ministers - which would require our Departments to put agendas together and plan for those agendas, and that we would have face time with our counterparts in the British Government to get to know them to create relationships. One of the great values of the European Union is that one meets colleagues all the time. In Strasbourg, in Brussels and in Luxembourg, one solves problems with them around the table. One has political discussions and debates on policy as to what the EU should be doing together. One builds relationships. Those kinds of interactions simply will not happen unless we make them happen in the context of future political engagement with the UK. That is why it is important that Irish Ministers know and understand the perspectives coming from their British counterparts. They might not always agree but they need to be at the end of a phone. Rather than allow those relationships to break down or to become more formalised and too structured, particularly when we have to deal with crises together when one relies on trust and relationships to find a way through, I believe we have a responsibility to try to make sure that we design structures that can work under the new realities post Brexit.

Senator Mullen talking about potatoes was a new departure for me. The Senator is correct. The potato industry will have to change as one of the many industries that will be forced to change as a result of Brexit. Who knows? We may be able to negotiate in the future veterinary agreements and food safety agreements that can allow us to import seed potato from third countries such as the UK but for now, we cannot. Whether it is seed potatoes or whether it is the varieties of potato that suit for making chips in Ireland, the 80,000 tonnes of ware potatoes that are produced for chips are unlikely to be coming from the UK from 1 January and those supply chains will have to be redesigned and restructured. Incidentally, there are many other countries across the European Union that export potatoes and, therefore, there are other options. It is an example of the kind of reality change that we will be experiencing. It will not only be potatoes. There will be many other areas where supply chains and normal trade will start to look different. It is not all downside, by the way, but it is different. We have to plan for that and make sure that businesses are planning for it too.

Senator Seery Kearney raised the question of British people in Ireland getting an Irish passport and the cost of so doing. I will look into that issue. The Senator mentioned it to me a week or so ago. It is an issue I am a little uncomfortable with. If somebody is a British citizen living in Ireland under the common travel area, CTA, and that person wants to change his or her citizenship to become Irish, we should not be making it difficult for him or her to do that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We should not be charging them any more than it costs to do it either.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Welcome them with open arms.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I say that as somebody some of whose family has very much been in that category. I want to give a commitment that we will certainly look at that issue. As I say, if a British person living in Ireland wants to get an Irish passport and he or she has been living here for years, that person is more than welcome to become an Irish citizen and we will facilitate that in as seamless a way as possible, both from a timeline and an expense perspective.

I am conscious I need to wind up. It is a little unfortunate that some in the debate today decided to use the opportunity to have a go at the so-called faceless, unelected Commission making decisions and so on. Let us not forget it is the Commission that is focusing on protecting Ireland right now. There is a Commissioner who has been texting me while I have been here in this debate looking for me to call him in the context of the implementation of the protocol and making sure that Ireland's interests are fully understood in terms of compromises that are being looked at. These unelected faceless Commissioners are deeply interested in Ireland's welfare in the context of the EU protecting one of its smaller member states amid its vulnerabilities, as these negotiations hopefully close out. Such sloganisation of language is not appropriate today.

The same Senator raised a very relevant point in relation to energy and our reliance on the UK, in particular, for gas importation. He is correct on that. We have an agreement as part of the protocol for an all-island energy market, which is really important, particularly for Northern Ireland, given how reliant it is on the management of the electricity grid south of the Border. It is important that we protect those interests to make sure that there is not a significant disruption to energy supplies and electricity supplies on the island of Ireland as a whole.

In terms of the Green Party contribution, I do not want to go into the Pat Finucane case in this debate. It was hugely disappointing yesterday. I am really disappointed for the family in particular. This was a missed opportunity, in my view, for the British Government to do the right thing and to send a signal to all families of victims in Northern Ireland that we are moving into an era of establishing truth even if that is awkward and dark, and difficult. It is unfortunate that they have not taken that opportunity. Having said that, the Secretary of State has made it clear that this is not the end of the story. They have not ruled out a full public inquiry but they have decided not to do it for now. We will continue to advocate for that course of action and, hopefully, achieve it at some point in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, this case will be discussed and raised in the Council of Europe this week. I signed off on the contribution that we will be making to that debate earlier today.

In response to Senators Currie and Dolan, I have mentioned the issues pertaining to EHIC, Erasmus and cross-border health. Senator Currie has raised with me on numerous occasions this issue of businesses in Northern Ireland being able to benefit from EU trade agreements. It is an important issue. It is a problem. Frankly, because of the country of origin rules in the European Union, goods that are produced in Northern Ireland are not considered EU origin - they are UK origin - and therefore do not benefit from EU trade agreements that require EU origin goods. I have been advocating on that issue to try and accommodate the concerns of businesses in Northern Ireland and I will continue to do that. It is not easy to solve. Essentially, existing trade agreements - there are approximately 60 of them - would have to be amended individually, one after the other, which would have to get the agreement of the third party, in other words, the other country, in order to add Northern Ireland to the EU in terms of country of origin for those trade agreements. That would take time. We can continue to advocate for that, even after the end of the transition period. This is something that we can resolve, I hope, over time. It will not be done immediately because if one seeks to change a trade agreement with a third country, it may well look for a counter-change that it wants. These changes are not done quickly or easily.It is important to be honest about that. It is an issue that we will continue to pursue.

We must not forget that businesses in Northern Ireland have the extraordinary benefit in the protocol of being able to sell into a market of 450 million people across the EU. The protocol effectively creates a de facto extension of the EU Single Market for goods and applies it to Northern Ireland. It is a phenomenal agreement and business opportunity because Northern Ireland will also have unfettered access to Great Britain. Most of the focus on the protocol to date has been negative and has involved checking systems, issues around mincemeat, sausages, potatoes and so on. Where there are difficulties we need to try to help to resolve them for supermarkets, supply chains and so on. There is, however, a significant upside to the protocol, apart from preventing the need for Border infrastructure on the island, helping to protect the peace process and so on. Traders or exporters in Northern Ireland can sell into the EU Single Market as if they were part of it. They can also sell into Great Britain as part of the UK. It is only when people are importing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland that the goods have to be treated as if they are coming into the EU Single Market and, therefore, there are some checks. There is a significant upside to the protocol that I believe business interests will take advantage of over time.

People have asked when we will get the €5 billion Brexit adjustment fund. It is for all EU countries, not just Ireland. We will receive a significant portion of it. There has been negotiation on it. I do not want to start declaring figures, but the House can rest assured that Ireland will get significantly more than any other country despite the fact that we are much smaller than a country like France, which will also have to manage quite a lot of disruption due to Brexit.

In the European Commission, which has Ireland's interests at heart - the fund was put in place for countries like Ireland - there is a recognition that we will get significantly more than any other country. We will not get all of the fund; it is a €5 billion fund for 27 countries. The countries and the sectors within those countries that will be most disrupted will be those which can access the lion's share of that fund.

It will not be used as some kind of fisheries compensation fund. It is important that I say that. Fisheries are an important issue and some compensation may be linked to whatever final deal is done, although I am primarily interested in access to fish rather than to funds. That is the approach we are taking in the negotiations. I am assured that the fund will be available early after the transition period ends. In other words, we should be able to access it, or at least a portion of it, early next year to help us fund the transition and supports that we may need to put in place for some sectors that will be significantly disrupted.

We should not forget that the Brexit adjustment fund was put in place on the assumption of a deal, rather than there being no deal. If there is no deal, the level of supports will need to be even higher. I suspect we will get flexibility in the context of the application of state aid rules and so on to be able to respond accordingly, should we need to.

I have answered most of the questions. I thank Senators for taking such an interest in Brexit and working with me. This is not the normal way to deal with legislation. We are introducing a Bill with 22 Parts and which involves 11 different Ministers. They will come to the House, one after the other, to deal with their sections on Thursday. That is not the normal way to legislate but we need to get this done in order that it is enacted well in advance of the end of December. To do that, I believe we need to conclude it this week. The number of amendments we had in the Dáil are an indication that parties do not have a huge problem with the Bill. There were very few amendments and I suspect it will be the same on Thursday.

I again thank Senators. I will not be here on Thursday, but my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will be here for Committee and Report Stages. He is very familiar with the sections, so there should not be a problem.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for addressing the individual questions raised by Senators across the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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Next Thursday.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 3 December 2020.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 December 2020.