No room for complacency in Brexit preparations – Brendan Smith

Brexit image– Businesses, farmers and peace process must be protected – 

Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan Brendan Smith has paid tribute to the teams of politicians and officials from the EU and Britain who have been working on the withdrawal agreement, but has described Brexit as “absolute political and economic folly”.

Deputy Smith was speaking during a Dáil debate earlier this week.

“This withdrawal agreement remains, at very best, the second-best available option. The best option remains Britain remaining in the European Union.  At this stage, we should not completely discount the possibility that a cross-party political consensus can be built in the House of Commons for a second Brexit referendum, a referendum where the option to remain within the EU is on the ballot paper.

“While the issue of holding a second referendum is a matter for the Parliament in Westminster alone to decide, we should not deny that we have a vital, national interest in that discussion and, obviously, in its outcome.

“Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has strongly argued, particularly in the past week, that the draft withdrawal agreement represents the worst of all worlds for Britain. He called it an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable as it tries to keep Britain in step with Europe’s trade rules while, at the same time, reserving the right to depart from them. Mr. Blair outlined the myriad complexities still to be confronted in everything from fishing to mobile telephony, and that is apart from the Government of the day dealing with its day-to-day challenges, and all of these problems are before we get to the issue of the Border and the backstop. Tony Blair and John Major, both of whom contributed so much to the peace process on this island, explicitly warned politicians during the referendum campaign that Brexit would have serious and damaging consequences for the Irish Border and the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement.

“The fact that both of these issues are comprehensively addressed in the withdrawal agreement and were not left to the negotiations on future arrangements should remind British decision makers of their massive importance to both us and the entire EU 27 and of their continuing centrality to the process.

“It is a credit to the work of civil servants here along with their counterparts across the European Union, especially in Brussels, that the Irish Border and the Good Friday Agreement were identified as one of the three key issues to be addressed in the first round of talks between the European Union and Britain. In my own work on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence and on the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I have, along with colleagues from all parties and none, engaged actively with parliamentarians from most of the other EU member states, and particularly with colleagues from Britain, on these critical issues. We have outlined the concerns of the Irish people, North and South.

“However, the fact that so much of the draft withdrawal agreement is devoted to these issues should not cause us to imagine that all is well and that all possible and potential concerns have been finally addressed. There has been much focus among pro-Brexit Members of Parliament and the media on a phrase that appears on page 302 of the draft agreement. That paragraph reads, “Recalling the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s intention to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.

“There is increasing chatter and commentary in the media suggesting that the British government may have some wriggle room around the definition of the phrase “alternative arrangements”. Some are saying that the Brexiteers within the British Cabinet see the lack of clarity about what this phrase may mean as allowing them to load expectations onto the words. One such expectation is a return to the nonsense talk of some months back regarding technological solutions and the infamous maximum facilitation, “max fac”. We in this House need to make it clear that the definition of “alternative arrangements” is not for the Brexiteer wing of the Tory Party to decide. It is a matter for the EU 27 and Ireland must be 100% satisfied about any alternative arrangements. That means no change from the current day-to-day operations of the Border, which is a border I cross many times a week as I go about my normal constituency activity.

“The reality is that there is no such thing as a good Brexit deal. The ongoing political instability in Britain, including the uncertainty of the political viability of this draft agreement, makes it absolutely essential that the government steps up its work to have detailed contingency plans in place for all eventualities. It is to be hoped those plans would never need to be operated or called into use.

“I agree with my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, that it is shameful that there is no voice representing the people of Northern Ireland. It is so regrettable that at a time when Northern Ireland needs a clear voice coming from an assembly and an executive, a government, such a voice has now been absent for most of two years. The political system in the Dáil and in this State has worked very hard, consistently, and constructively in supporting the Government in its efforts to ensure that there is a good deal and that we are not impacted adversely by Brexit”.