There has rarely been a time in history when the Members of one Parliament watched the actions of another assembly – the House of Commons is voting as we speak – with such profound frustration and sadness. Although all communities on the islands of Britain and Ireland, including business, farmers and civic society leaders, plead for some degree of certainty regarding the Brexit decision by the British people in 2016, the tortuous manoeuvres at Westminster and between the UK and the EU just go on and on. Of course, even the Theresa May deal only extends to December 2020 and we hear with dismay that major trade deals, such as that between the EU and the UK, may take up to seven years. This ordeal might continue throughout the 2020s.
Recently, there have been lots of reports about motorists needing a green card as proof of insurance to travel across the border in the event of a No Deal Brexit. The issue has been raised a number of times in the Dáil and the Taoiseach has said that there will be a grace period for people driving into this jurisdiction without a green card. However, as has been the case all along with the Brexit negotiations, we cannot provide for what will happen when the UK crashes out of the EU on March 29th and every necessary step must be taken to ensure that protections are in place where possible, for citizens living on this island.
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.
Today, during Leaders’ Questions, Deputy Broughan asked the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to confirm that no works of any kind are taking place anywhere along the border on roads or laybys to facilitate the installation of any border apparatus. Deputy Broughan also noted that much of the proposed Irish legislation, the Omnibus Bill, in e.g. health, education and pensions, protects the rights of UK residents and citizens in the Republic and asked, in the case of a No Deal Brexit, will there be similar UK legislation protecting the rights of our people in the North and in England, Scotland and Wales and whether negotiations to that effect are being undertaken with the UK.
Last week, as the Taoiseach will be aware, the European Medicines Agency said farewell to London and the staff are now moving to Amsterdam. Their departure reminds us once again that we are now only 59 days away from Brexit. I think we were all heartened over the weekend by the comments of the Tánaiste and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs that the agreed backstop will not be renegotiated. We also saw over the weekend the clear wishes, as expressed in various polls, of our people North and South that no kind of hard border will be allowed to return to this island. I note that the Tánaiste has indicated that a codicil might be added to the political declaration regarding the backstop. Can the Taoiseach confirm that the 21 articles of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement will be fully adhered to, especially given the presence of Articles 17 and 20? Can the Taoiseach also confirm that no works of any kind are taking place anywhere along the Border on roads or lay-bys to facilitate the installation of any hard border apparatus?
I attended the Committee for Budgetary Oversight earlier today and it was good to hear that the Minister for Finance is to introduce a Brexit package to support Irish businesses, exporters and hopefully the Irish farming sector. Witnesses at a recent Committee for Budgetary Oversight, including the Irish Tax Institute, IBEC and the chambers of commerce, all called for additional supports for companies that will be strongly impacted by Brexit whether in 2019 or 2021. I hope that any such tax expenditure will have detailed costings and that a time cap is put on whatever provisions the Minister will bring forward. Undoubtedly some supports are necessary for Irish industry and agriculture and the EU 27 should contribute heavily to their funding. I welcome that the Minster for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, inaugurated the stakeholders’ forum. The reality of the vital necessity to protect the North of Ireland and its people, in respect of Brexit, came home to us recently when the UK Office for National Statistics, in conjunction with Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and Ireland’s Central Statistics Office showed us quite clearly the incredible amount of interaction between the North and the South. There are 110 million Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland crossings back and forth annually and a huge number of rail passengers.
I welcome the opportunity we will have later in the week to hear directly from Mr. Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom. Last month, I spoke again of the need for Ireland to have direct representation at Brexit negotiations given the serious impact the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have on this country, first and foremost the North-South relationship but also the east-west relationship in the areas of trade and business. I have also called throughout for the appointment of a dedicated Brexit Minister. We were assured by the Taoiseach that he was best-placed to act as Brexit Minister because of his role in the European Council. It appears, however, that he will not be Brexit Minister for much longer.
The Taoiseach referred to the EU negotiating guidelines and to how the negotiations would proceed. Ireland needs direct representation at those negotiations because the sad Brexit decision by the UK is so significant for us. The Taoiseach said negotiations will take place under Michel Barnier and his team, who will report back to councils, but they will not necessarily be responsive enough to the minutiae of negotiations. Our vital national interests are at stake. Countries on the other side of Europe, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, have fundamentally different interests from ours. It is on the line for us as this is the most serious thing to have happened to us since the Second World War so it is not enough to be one of 27, as the Taoiseach suggested.
Today, in his speech in Dáil Éireann, Deputy Broughan called for significant reform of European Union (EU) institutions following the shock result of the UK referendum to leave the EU. Deputy Broughan hoped for, and expected, the Remain side to win the referendum but by a small margin. He had hoped that this would serve as a wake-up call to EU governing bodies leading to reform. Now that a ‘divorce’ is certain, Deputy Broughan is urging all sides to proceed cautiously to ensure the best outcome for all involved while also introducing serious changes required to address the accountability and transparency issues with EU institutions.