Dáil Speech on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019
I am delighted to have this brief opportunity to contribute on the Bill. I commend the officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and nine other Departments on the work they have done in ensuring that we have some degree of readiness for a disorderly Brexit, which, of course, must be avoided at all costs. Like my colleague, Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, I welcome the decision by Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Labour Party to move towards a second referendum to prevent a no-deal Brexit. I commend the work of the Tánaiste in involving our Irish-American colleagues, particularly at national congressional level, and bringing in the important lever of the 30 or 40 million Americans of recent Irish descent to try to even up the disparity in power between us and the UK.
The Bill and the draft heads of the Bill bring home the dawning realisation of the profound damage a disorderly Brexit could cause to Ireland in areas like health, education, social welfare, justice, migration and our economy, especially agriculture. In particular, it could put at risk the incredible work done by so many people to progress North-South developments under the Good Friday Agreement.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which provided a very helpful digest of the general scheme of the Bill and an updated version on the Bill as laid before the House. I note some differences between the heads of Bill and the Bill as presented to the House. Where is the section of the Bill dealing with data governance? On railways, the draft Bill contained a section regarding the Dublin-Belfast line.
That is no longer necessary.
It also contained significantly more information regarding immigration data. The Tánaiste stated that 12 separate legislative proposals have been made as part of Brexit contingency planning, addressing areas such as aviation, road freight connectivity, fishing authorisation and so on. Does the Bill provide the whole story or are there significant areas which are yet to be addressed? I previously raised the issue of fisheries with the Tánaiste and was told that it could not be negotiated until the future relationship trade agreement was being implemented post Brexit.
As the Minister knows, east-coast fishermen are absolutely terrified at the prospect of not being able to fish in waters that have been EU waters but will become British waters. There are major problems. The Minister is very familiar with this area from his previous work. It has been mentioned that the Commission has published 87 notices on areas that require negotiation. Are all these included in the Bill? The Minister stated that there will be some amendments. Do we have all the information we need to protect the common travel area and the reciprocal rights and entitlements to public services across the two jurisdictions? It was stated during previous discussions that the common travel area long predates the European Union. The Minister indicated previously that bilateral negotiations were critical to the maintenance of an agreement, much of which is simply based on tradition and precedent considering that Ireland was once part of the United Kingdom.
On Part 2, as my colleague stressed, we have become used to European health insurance, the treatment abroad scheme, the cross-border healthcare directive and the range of initiatives that involve North-South collaboration. It is daunting to think all these are endangered by Brexit. I refer to the additional resources we received. Section 45 of the Health Act 1970 is to be amended by the Bill, which seeks to cover frontier workers, workers posted to Ireland and so on. Again, it is remarkable that we have to be doing this at this stage given that we have become so used to an EU health system.
The chief concerns in the post-Brexit world will include mutual recognition of qualifications in medicine and the supply of medicines. The former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, referred to the need for dialogue between professional bodies in the UK and Ireland on qualifications. There was a recent Bill in this regard. There is grave concern over access to medicine and treatments after Brexit. This week we will celebrate Rare Disease Day. All of us have been making representations on orphan drugs and drugs to look after a small cohort of the population. We have had very bad news in respect of one of those in the past day or so. It is critical to ensure that all the measures in the Bill will not have to be implemented since the kind of Brexit they address would be to the detriment of our people, North and South.
Part 3 is important. I welcome the allocation of additional financial resources and also the flexibility afforded to Enterprise Ireland, under its CEO, Ms Julie Sinnamon, in taking shares in companies, etc. We have had many discussions on getting the business sector ready for any kind of Brexit, particularly a crash-out Brexit.
We recall the creation of an all-Ireland energy market. It is one of the most historic developments of the past few decades. The threat to the single electricity market is very worrying. Part 4 is particularly important in this regard.
Part 5 is also important. It relates to SUSI. I noted media reports that there were approximately 10,000 Irish students in colleges in the UK but the Oireachtas Library digest states the number of students from Ireland in receipt of a SUSI grant in the UK is much lower, namely, 1,418. It states there were 213 students from the UK studying in Ireland and receiving the SUSI grant. It is important to make contingency plans for approved institutions, including Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Ulster, St. Mary’s University College, and Stranmillis University College. Without the changes in Part 5, students would be left in very dire circumstances.
As a previous speaker indicated, Part 6, which covers taxation, is particularly revealing because of the gamut of reliefs that operate across the UK and Ireland. The Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 is the principal Act referred to in the Bill in this regard. The Bill is informative for those who did not realise the sheer volume of interactions between investors and savers across both countries. Mention was made to postponed accounting under the Value-Added Tax Consolidation Act 2010, which is also important.
Part 7, which relates to financial services, is important. The Stock Exchange is now known as Euronext Dublin but we are deeply involved with the UK central securities depository. Back in 2017, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform was encouraging private entities to put in applications to establish an Irish-based central securities depository due to Brexit but we have not gone down that route so far. The Bank of England, along with the European Securities and Markets Authority, has agreed that we should still be able to use the EUI even in the event of a disorderly Brexit.
Part 8 is important in the area of insurance because of intermediaries from the UK or Gibraltar that operate in Ireland.
Part 10 provides for the changes needed to allow for third-country bus services and grants additional powers to the chief executive of the National Transport Authority. When considering this, it is interesting to note there are 300 bus journeys across the Border day in, day out. I am one of those who believe that a hard border should not return under any circumstances. In earlier discussions, reference was made to a border moving to northern France, including Calais, Cherbourg and the other ports, in the event of a cliff-edge Brexit. Clearly, we cannot be involved in implementing a hard border in any way in this context. It just cannot be on the table. I hope the recent moves in the UK Parliament by both major parties will be a step on the way to ensuring it does not happen.
Part 11 is important. A significant number of British and Irish citizens benefit from social protection allowances and benefits in the two countries. One of the issues raised with me, which has occurred to a number of pensioners, particularly those who worked for many years in the UK and who are enjoying a UK pension, is that in the event of a crash-out, with another decline in sterling, those pensions will be worth much less. The point was put to me that we are rightly stepping in to assist our farm industry and others. Are there plans, however, to protect the value of social welfare pensions from the UK in dire circumstances?
There are matters covered in the general scheme that are not in the Bill itself. Perhaps the Minister will explain this. I welcome the Bill and will be supporting it. It seems bizarre, however, that we are discussing such lengthy, detailed legislation to deal with something that may never happen. We all hope it will not happen. It seems the great majority of Members in our sister Parliament at Westminster do not want any kind of cliff-edge or disorderly Brexit. They will have their say. They feel an obligation to respond to the will of the British people, who did decide to leave the European Union but hope the whole European Union, of which Ireland is an integral part, will have the closest possible relationship with the UK.