DÁIL STATEMENT ON NORTHERN IRELAND - Brendan Howlin

Issued 17 January 2017

Speaking in the Dáil on 'Statements on Northern Ireland' Tuesday 17th January 2017.

Taoiseach,

Last evening, the Assembly in Northern Ireland fell, and elections are now underway.

The political crisis over cash for ash has driven a wedge between the two governing parties.

Over recent weeks, we have seen a scandal caused by the DUP bring Stormont to a shuddering halt.

Sinn Féin, who were initially happy to stand back and let the rot fester, belatedly realised that Colum Eastwood was right to call for public accountability into a scandalous misuse of taxpayers’ money.

The increasing tension has now brought about an election.

For my part, I have pledged the support of the Labour Party to our colleagues in the SDLP, and look forward to campaigning with them over the coming weeks.

It’s worth putting on the record, that in my view, the commentary down here which says that an election will change nothing in the North is misguided.

An election that delivers no political change is unlikely to change much.

But as is the case with elections in every jurisdiction, change is always an option open to voters – a change in Government will always lead to other changes – for good or for ill.

The parties in the North will obviously campaign night and day over the coming weeks.

And for my part, I have made clear my Party’s determination to support the SDLP campaign.

Despite that, and despite the clear possibility of change that exists, there is at least a possibility that it will not be immediately possible to form a cross-community coalition.

Such an outcome would leave us facing, once again, the prospect of direct rule from Westminster – this time in the midst of the Brexit debate.

This morning, Theresa May made abundantly clear that her Brexit will be a hard Brexit.

Talk of staying within the single market is dead in the water;

A British exist from the customs union now seems inevitable;

And no assurances about avoiding a return of the borders of the past can be very reassuring in that context.

As Denis Staunton noted this morning: “Even along the border between Norway and Sweden, one of the most technologically advanced and co-operatively managed [borders], goods must be cleared for customs and lorries are checked as they cross from one country into another.”

Such an arrangement would amount to a hard border, no matter how you describe it.

The British approach to Brexit has now been somewhat clarified.

We now know that cutting taxes and workplace standards will be the weapons they threaten to deploy in negotiations.

I remain to be convinced that these sort of threats will be persuasive to the EU negotiators.

But at least we now have some idea of how the British government is going to approach the issue.

And I think it should give us all pause for thought.

The prospect of another ‘hung’ Assembly, leading to the suspension of devolved government and a return to direct rule, recreates a set of uniquely difficult issues as to how we in this State should respond.

Indeed it causes us to consider whether we have a constitutional capacity to adequately respond.

That is because the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, within Northern Ireland, North-South and East-West, are interlocking and inter-dependent.

And the package as a whole has been endorsed by the Irish people and become enshrined in the Constitution.

Fourteen years ago, the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act 2002 was passed.

It wasn’t dealing with the most significant consequence of the suspension of the Assembly and Executive.

It was simply providing an interim mechanism to ensure the continued operation of six all-island implementation bodies.

But the Act demonstrated that the suspension of the institutions has serious constitutional as well as political implications;

And it underlined that the Constitution restricts the response available to this Government.

The Act provided that it would expire on the earliest practicable day after the termination of the interim arrangements, “on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

The word “temporary” was used 11 times in the legislation.

Anything other than strictly temporary legislation would have raised serious constitutional questions about the abandonment or variation of the terms of the original British-Irish Agreement of April 1998 – part of the Good Friday package incorporated into Article 29.7 of the Constitution.

In November 2004 the Taoiseach told the Dáil:

“As the Deputy is aware, it was to operate for six months, or a maximum of nine months. Ultimately, if somebody was to challenge these issues, the present arrangements probably would not stand up and we are all aware of that … If it were to happen that we did not have an Executive or an Assembly, I do not doubt that it would be argued, by one side or the other, that we should not have the North-South body structures.”

The problem is that constitutional cover is not given to bodies that don’t have their origins in the terms of the original agreement, or are not operating in accordance with those original terms.

Hence the stress on the temporary nature of the arrangement.

In November 2004, when the institutions were still suspended, Gerry Adams gave a speech demanding that, “in the absence of a deal, the two governments bring forward proposals rooted in the Agreement to see its full implementation”.

He warned that direct rule was not sustainable in the long term and suggested that “the two governments look to formal institutionalised power sharing at government level”.

He seems to have forgotten that contribution now that the SDLP is making this case.

Now, this is not an easy solution to propose.

Any Irish Government will be limited by the extent to which it could depart from the terms of the original Good Friday package endorsed by referendum.

Even on an interim basis, and with a view to keeping institutions and bodies ticking over pending full restoration, this would not be unproblematic.

That being said, we clearly need a Government considering what actions they might take if no coalition can be formed.

At a time when we are moving towards the triggering of Article 50, we cannot under any circumstances allow the voice of the people of Northern Ireland to be suppressed.

The North must have special status when the UK exits the EU, due to the fact that every person there can apply and become an Irish citizen.

But this morning we have seen Theresa May move further, not only from the single market, but even from the customs union.

For the people of Northern Ireland, and for all of us on this island, there is a cold wind blowing.

And frankly, Taoiseach, I don’t get any sense that you are addressing this issue with the urgency it deserves.

More than two months have now passed since you committed to providing weekly updates to the parties in this House, but still we receive nothing.

If we are to act in a collective way and with common purpose – then we need to know exactly what is happening week by week.

If we are to be expected to pull on a jersey of some form, it would be nice to at least know what colour it’s going to be.

When Theresa May refers to “the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries”, she is referring to something all of us in this House know to be true.

It would be nice if our actions made that sentiment seem like more than just a soundbite.