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Statement by Tánaiste at Dáil Debate on Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

 

Ceann Comhairle

 

As the Taoiseach has said, Ireland and the UK share profound and strong ties, across so many areas, which have benefitted greatly from both countries’ membership of the EU. 

 

There could never, therefore, be a positive outcome to our closest neighbour and friend leaving a European Union we joined together in 1973. That remains the case today – while we respect the UK vote, we think it is bad for Britain, bad for Europe and bad for Ireland too.

 

Since the decision was taken in 2016 however – and even before it was reached - the Government has sought to ensure that we, in Ireland, can minimise the negative impacts of Brexit for this island. We have had clear objectives throughout, centring on protecting our peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and our Common Travel Area, and avoiding any return to the borders of the past.

 

We couldn’t expect all EU governments would be familiar with these concerns. But we did feel they’d listen. And in truth, they have gone on to do so much more. Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers took the time to visit the border for themselves and to see how it facilitates peace, North-South cooperation and our all-island economy. And the solidarity that flowed from these visits and meetings became a powerful shared bond across all 27 Member States in Brussels.

 

Michel Barnier channelled that shared outlook and determination with great skill and subtlety throughout. He has been a formidable Chief Negotiator for the EU, leading a highly talented team that we have got to know well.

 

Over the past two years, the complexity of the UK’s departure from the EU and the scale of the challenge it presents have become all too clear.  The draft Withdrawal Agreement which has been achieved by both sets of negotiators represents real compromise by both sides. It provides the best way of ensuring that the UK’s departure can happen in an orderly manner, avoiding the UK crashing out, with all the severe consequences that would bring.

 

The Withdrawal Agreement covers all elements of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.  This includes the protection of UK and EU citizens’ rights, as well as protecting the current EU budget. It provides for the orderly winding down of current arrangements across the broad spectrum of EU cooperation, as well as the governance structures for the implementation of the agreement. It also includes Protocols on Gibraltar and the British sovereign bases in Cyprus.

 

Importantly, the Agreement provides for a period of transition, up to December 2020, during which EU rules and regulations will continue to apply to the UK.  This will allow for the negotiation of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, which we hope will be deep and comprehensive. The transition period should also provide certainty to citizens and business, as we continue our preparations for a new relationship with the UK outside the EU. It is welcome that the agreement now includes an option to extend this transition if more time is needed to complete negotiations and conclude a future agreement – something I have long argued may indeed be necessary.

 

Ceann Comhairle

 

Crucially, this draft Agreement meets Ireland’s key objective of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, with a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, to address issues specific to this island.

 

The Protocol underpins, in a dynamic way, continuing North-South cooperation and the all-island economy.

 

It acknowledges the Common Travel Area, whereby Irish and British people can live, work, study, and access healthcare, social security and public services in each other’s jurisdictions.

 

The Agreement includes important commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens. This will remain a significant priority for the Government throughout the Brexit process – we will do our utmost to ensure that the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland are protected to the fullest possible extent.

 

The Withdrawal Agreement provides for continued support for the North-South PEACE and INTERREG funding programmes. It also preserves the Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland.

 

Vitally, nothing in the Agreement will prejudice the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. This is explicitly laid out in the very first clause of the first Article of the Protocol.

 

Ceann Comhairle,

 

Most importantly, the Protocol includes a backstop to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on this island in all circumstances.

 

The backstop is an insurance policy, which we hope will never have to be used. It remains our priority to achieve a future EU-UK agreement that can in its own right maintain an open border, while protecting North-South cooperation and our all-island economy.  The Withdrawal Agreement itself includes a ‘best endeavours clause’ that commits both sides to pursue this.  Over the next two years we will be working closely with our EU partners to meet that commitment.

 

However, if this is not possible within that time, the draft agreement provides for the transition period to be extended, once, for a limited time.  If there is no subsequent agreement at the end of transition, then the backstop will apply.

 

The UK-wide customs territory which would apply under the backstop will involve no tariffs or quotas, and includes well-established rules with regard to ensuring a level-playing field. Northern Ireland would remain aligned to those rules of the Single Market that are indispensable to avoiding a hard border.

 

A review mechanism for the backstop allows that these provisions can cease to apply, in whole or part, once a better solution has been found. The Agreement makes clear, however, that this decision cannot be taken unilaterally but must be taken jointly by the EU and the UK.

 

This translates the UK’s political commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland into a legal guarantee. I would like to pay tribute to Prime Minister May in following through in full on this important commitment.

 

Ceann Comhairle

 

The focus now is to ensure that the agreement will be endorsed by a special meeting of the European Council on 25 November, together with a political declaration on the framework for the EU-UK future relationship.

 

The European Parliament will also have to provide its consent, before the EU formally conclude the Withdrawal Agreement.

 

At the same time, the UK must ratify the Agreement according to its own constitutional arrangements.

 

All going well – and I accept that is a significant caveat - from 30 March 2019, we will start the considerable work of negotiating the future relationship. Our goal has always been for this to be the closest possible partnership. The draft Political Declaration expresses the hope of all sides that it should be as deep and comprehensive as possible. In doing this of course, we must also maintain the integrity of the EU Single Market.

 

Unfortunately, however, as we know very well, developments over the coming weeks cannot be taken for granted. The Government therefore continues to advance extensive and detailed Brexit preparedness and contingency work across all Departments and State Agencies. This addresses the full range of Brexit scenarios - to make sure Ireland is ready no matter what and come what may.

 

The Government has focused on preparedness measures needed on an East-West basis, preparing our ports and airports. The first phase of a recruitment programme of approximately 1,000 staff, for customs and SPS controls, in addition to ICT and infrastructure measures is underway.  This initial phase of recruitment will see staff in place by the end of March next year.  The intention is that further recruitment will take place during the transition period. Planning is also in place to allow for these measures to be accelerated or adapted in the case of no deal.

 

In a number of key areas, it will be at the EU level that the appropriate response and mitigation will be needed. We have also actively engaged with the European Commission, and its Brexit Preparedness Unit, on areas where the lead policy role lies with the EU.

 

For instance, we are working closely with the Commission, and other affected Member States, to ensure continued effective use of the UK landbridge. This includes preparing EU ports to facilitate transit of EU products through the UK, once it leaves the EU. In Ireland, a cross-Departmental landbridge project group, chaired by my Department, coordinates our approach.

 

This is a priority given its importance in getting Irish products to market in Europe, in particular with regard to the agri-food products. This work is intensifying and good progress is being made.

 

The importance has been recognised and agreed in the Protocol to the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which reaffirms the commitment of the UK to facilitate efficient and timely transit. I welcome the UK’s formal notification of its intention to join the Common Transit Convention. which would play an important role in ensuring Irish access to EU using the landbridge.

 

In our last two Budgets, we have already announced a wide array of supports for business. To better inform business and the public at large, the Government has also overseen a coordinated communication and outreach campaign through the Brexit website, social media and public events. The Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign has seen very successful outreach events held throughout October in Cork, Galway, Monaghan and Dublin, with further events this week in Limerick and next week in Letterkenny.

 

In conclusion, Ceann Comhairle, we are grateful for the support and advice received from all sides of the House. We need to sustain this effort now – leaders and spokespersons with sister parties in the UK need to ensure our British colleagues are fully seized of the protections for this island and our peace process in the Agreement currently on the table. And I am on the record as stating that parties with a vote in these landmark decisions should use that franchise in the interests of all people on this island.

 

As Theresa May has acknowledged, these are now difficult days as she tries to gain support in the House of Commons for this hard-won deal. We can only hope the arguments which hold sway in the coming weeks are economic, practical and aware of our shared history, rather than forgetful of all we’ve overcome.

 

Support of this house for the draft Withdrawal Agreement will send a strong signal ahead of the European Council this Sunday that Ireland is behind this deal. I therefore ask the Dáil to support the motion.

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