Tánaiste's Statement to the Seanad on Brexit
Statement06 November 2019
I am grateful for the opportunity to update members of the Seanad this evening. Since I was last here, we have witnessed some important and positive developments in the Brexit process.
On 17 October, the EU and UK agreed a revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on future EU-UK relations.
As I have said before in this house, we were content with the Agreement both sides reached in November 2018.
However, we have always understood that a Brexit solution involves compromise.
When the earlier deal failed to pass through Parliament, the new UK Government sought a different solution. In a spirit of compromise, the EU engaged once again.
While Ireland supported this renewed engagement, our approach remained very firm and consistent. Any revised agreement must meet our core objectives, including protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union.
Our partners in the EU understood and supported this approach. Michel Barnier and the Task Force remained committed to finding a deal that worked for all sides: for Northern Ireland, for Ireland, for the EU and for the UK. We worked closely with them, and, when appropriate, engaged with the UK.
This new agreement has been reached after much discussion, compromise and flexibility. We welcome it, as it meets the EU’s, and our, core objectives
It preserves much of the original Agreement.
It secures transition, protects the rights of EU and UK citizens, and provides for a fair financial settlement.
It gives certainty to citizens and businesses, and allows us all move on, to develop a new, strong relationship with the UK post-Brexit.
It upholds measures to maintain the Common Travel Area, and continuing North South cooperation.
It maintains commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens.
So what are the changes?
The revised Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland sees the backstop provisions replaced with new Northern Ireland specific arrangements.
These provide a legally operable solution, and certainty that at the end of the transition period, the benefits of the peace process can continue to be enjoyed by all.
This has been a priority for the Government, and our EU partners, throughout the negotiations. Equally, business leaders and representative organisations in Northern Ireland have been clear of the need to ensure that arrangements protect the gains of the past twenty years, and promote economic stability and progress.
Customs and VAT provisions mean that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s customs territory, but continue to apply the rules of the Union Customs Code. EU customs duties will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland if those goods are at risk of entering the EU’s single Market. No customs duties will be payable, however, if the goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are not at risk of entering the EU’s Single Market.
Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, notably all rules related to goods.
This avoids any customs or regulatory checks or controls on the island of Ireland.
Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from any Free Trade Agreements the UK signs and will also have access to the European Single Market. This unique opportunity allows Northern Irish companies to produce goods for the UK and EU markets.
Some of the practical detail will be further clarified during the transition period by the EU and the UK, working together, in the Joint Committee.
Unlike the backstop, which was envisioned as temporary and an insurance policy, the new arrangements could have a more enduring nature.
However, no one wants to see Northern Ireland remaining in these arrangements, if it does not want to. Therefore, a role is provided for a majority of Northern Ireland’s elected MLAs to decide if the arrangements are to be maintained.
Some have asked if ‘parallel consent’ from unionist and nationalist representatives is needed, along the lines it is applied elsewhere to key decisions in the Assembly on devolved matters.
However, international treaties and international relations are not devolved matters. They are excepted matters which fall under the competence of the UK Government and not the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly.
Equally, it is important that no outcome provides one side or the other with a practical veto. That risks paralysis, and no solution at all.
So the process envisaged in the Protocol ensures that neither unionism nor nationalism has a controlling vote, or veto, or block. The vote of each and every individual MLA, and the views of their constituents, is of equal weight and importance.
The UK Government has also given a commitment that before the vote there will be proper consultation with business and civil society. It should be based on the lived reality and experience of businesses, farmers and citizens and not a proxy for any other issue.
Ratification of the Agreement by both the European and British Parliaments will be the green light for beginning negotiations on a broad, deep and flexible partnership between the EU and the UK – a partnership centred on an ambitious and balanced Free Trade Agreement.
The EU has indicated it is ready to open negotiations immediately after ratification and has created a new Taskforce for Relations with the UK, under Michel Barnier.
The timeline for completion of negotiations is very ambitious as the transition period lasts until the end of 2020. This may be extended once by 1 or 2 years if both sides agree, and a decision on an extension is needed by the first of July 2020. As Michel Barnier has said, the negotiations will be “demanding and difficult.”
These talks will cover a range of issues of importance to Ireland, so it will be vital to continue to ensure that our priorities and core principles are appropriately reflected. This will require a whole of Government effort underpinned by the same coherent, cohesive approach, that has characterised our Brexit strategy from the start.
Work is underway on identifying and elaborating on our priorities. Our approach will remain consistent – we want to see the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, while also ensuring adequate level playing field provisions to facilitate fair competition.
During this process we will build on our strong relations with the Taskforce and Commission. We will also continue to engage with Oireachtas members, domestic stakeholders and Member States
Substantial work will also be required, during the transition period, to finalise a range of sensitive issues arising in relation to the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement.
While the risk of a no deal Brexit on 31 October was averted, it remains a possibility for 31 January 2020, unless the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by the UK and EU.
As long as a no deal exit is a possibility, we must be prudent. The intensive work carried out already can be banked for future use, while the additional time available can be used to add to or refine our response measures. We will continue to prioritise certain key issues over the period ahead.
It is also important to take into account that some of the no deal preparedness measures already in place may also be relevant if and when a future relations agreement enters into force.
Brexit, in whatever form it takes, means significant change for the people of this island. As we move, hopefully, from ratifying and implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, to negotiations on EU-UK future relations, managing Brexit will remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are determined to rebuild, strengthen and energise relationships North-South and East-West, for the benefit of all our businesses, and all our people.
The Government will ensure that the intensive work continues to prepare Ireland for all possible outcomes and to make sure that we are best placed to advance Ireland’s interests in the next phase of Brexit.