Chairman (Deputy Brendan Smith): I thank the Tánaiste. I have a few quick comments in regard to Brexit. It is slightly ironic that the British Prime Minister entitled his letter “A fair and reasonable compromise: UK proposals for a new protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland”. In my view, what the British Government is now putting forward is neither fair nor reasonable, nor even a compromise. It is a considerable reneging on the commitments made by Britain and agreed with the European Union in the 2017 joint report.
Paragraph 49 of that report states: The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. […] In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
More and more people, particularly in the Border communities and the community where I live, feel that a hard, crash-out Brexit may be less than four weeks away. There is a great fear of that happening, as the Tánaiste is well aware. In regard to the Prime Minister’s proposals, the only political party in Northern Ireland supporting them is the Democratic Unionist Party.
Along with political parties in Northern Ireland, we have to be cognisant of the views of representative organisations that have voiced their strong opposition. They include Manufacturing NI, Retail NI and Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. What is proposed at present will damage the Northern Ireland economy and will also damage two decades plus of painstaking political and cross-community progress made under the Good Friday Agreement. What dam-ages the Northern Ireland economy damages our economy as well as, thankfully, both of our economies are so interdependent because of the most valuable development in the all-Ireland economy and the growth of business on an all-Ireland basis. If we think of the stark remarks of Manufacturing NI, it tweeted last night: “Frankly the proposals are worse than No Deal for Northern Ireland businesses.” Indeed I gather from some of the limited commentary I listened to at the Tory Party conference that some of the British Ministers saw Brexit as an opportunity for widespread divergence between Britain and the European Union in terms of standards and conditions. Hopefully that will not happen but if such divergence emerged, then communities such as those I represent would be deeply adversely affected. It would result in a clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
One comment that we must be mindful of and that I hope will be brought through right to the end of the negotiations was President Juncker’s statement in the European Parliament last April that the UK must fully respect the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. President Juncker’s stress on both the letter and the spirit of the agreement is greatly important and significant.
I sincerely hope there will be no deviation from that position and that EU solidarity with the Government’s position and the position of the Oireachtas will be maintained. I said at our first committee meeting after the Brexit referendum in June 2016 that for a person who grew up in the Troubles and lived in the Border communities, and who has had the privilege of representing two counties with a long land border, the psychology of going back to borders as part of our everyday narrative is terribly damaging. We sincerely hope that does not transpire. We wish the Tánaiste well in the continued difficult task he has in ensuring that Ireland’s interests are fully protected.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I thank the Chairman. I agree with every word he has just said. I am very familiar with paragraph 49 of the December 2017 agreement. I quote it all the time to people. We worked really hard to get it agreed. I think the then Prime Minister, Ms May, understood the complexity of trying to protect the Good Friday Agreement and relationships on the island of Ireland at the same time as delivering Brexit and, because of that, gave that commitment and the commitment in paragraph 50, the next paragraph, to try to reassure unionism. What Prime Minister Johnson has proposed falls significantly short of that commitment. That is why I have said that while I regard Prime Minister Johnson’s proposal as a serious one and an effort to try to move negotiations forward, there is still a need for another big step to ensure that an outcome here that we can all sign up to, I hope, is consistent with the paragraph the Chairman has just quoted and the commitments that have been made in the context of the backstop. If we are to replace the backstop with something else, it must do the same job, which is to reassure Border communities that they will not face Border infrastructure and the disruption it would bring in the future. It must also ensure that mechanisms in place in Northern Ireland to try to mitigate the damage of Brexit are not obstructed by a minority against the majority will. That would not be democratic or consistent with the Good Friday Agreement. The challenge for us is to try to find a way forward that unionists and nationalists, and members of the communities that are neither, can support. Ultimately, though, we must ensure we do not go back to a border on the island of Ireland being a political debating point and all that flows from that in terms of the corrosive impact on relationships and disruption to trade, which, as the Chairman knows, has been such a reinforcer of normality and peace in the Border region for the past two decades.
This is difficult stuff, but we want to work with the British Prime Minister, and of course we are working as part of Michel Barnier’s team. We will do everything we can to try to get a deal in the next week or so. It must, however, be the right deal in order that we do not let people down and find that the Border becomes the topic of debate in Ireland for the foreseeable future, with all the divisions that flow from that and the calls for more radical change and so in in Northern Ireland, which I do not believe we are ready for, and I think the Chairman is of the same view. These are difficult times. We are writing the history of what the relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the EU and the UK will look like for the next 20 years, and we need to get it right.
Chairman: On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the Tánaiste for his initial presentation and the very comprehensive manner in which he dealt with all the queries colleagues raised.