THE CHALLENGE OF BREXIT AND NORTHERN IRELAND

Issued 15 February 2017

Speech on Private members debate on Northern Ireland and Brexit

This week, we have a Government in crisis - while the UK is just weeks away from triggering Article 50.

It doesn’t bode well for Ireland that the collective responsibility of our Cabinet has broken down, just as Ireland faces a challenge that will define us for decades.

It has become readily apparent over the last while, that the current Taoiseach may not be in place over the next two years.

For the last few months, the Dáil has been left in the dark on Brexit – this despite the Taoiseach having appointed himself the Minister for Brexit.

I requested months ago, and the Taoiseach agreed, that he would provide weekly updates to the House on Brexit.

That hasn’t happened. Indeed, it was only yesterday that I received my first briefing from his officials on our state of preparedness.

If our state of readiness can be questioned, things are arguably worse in Northern Ireland.

They have been plunged into an Assembly election, and the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein has become politically toxic.

That this motion has been tabled by Sinn Féin is in itself a bit odd.

It is despite the fact that Sinn Féin failed to campaign themselves during the Brexit referendum campaign last year.

The people of Northern Ireland clearly voted to Remain.

But the failure of the largest nationalist party to register for the Brexit campaign and mobilise their own supporters is a footnote to history that should not be forgotten.

To quote from Mick Fealty, registering with the Electoral Commission… ‘allows a party (or individual) to become a ‘registered campaigner’ letting them spend more than £10,000 on referendum campaigning during the referendum period.

Failing to register means they had no activists on the ground, and no party workers in the count centres watching the tallies.

In other words, for all their concern now, they sat back and let it happen.

On the North-South relationship

We in the Labour Party support the SDLP call for a ‘bespoke deal’ for NI, to address the following issues post-Brexit:

  • Strengthening of existing all-island institutions:
  • Continued cross-border co-operation:
  • Guarantees of funding for NI beyond 2020:
  • Recognition of the rights of the 200,000 persons resident on the island who are neither Irish nor British citizens.
  • The need for parity of esteem in human rights protections across the island.

My own colleague, Deputy Joan Burton has also called for the creation of a separate component or strand within the Brexit talks that deal only with the Ireland-UK matters.

It is an idea worth considering, particularly given that the EU Commission and Council seem to have already established an impenetrable structure for the negotiations.

I, like many of my colleagues am concerned that the impact on Ireland may become collateral damage to a wider EU row with the UK.

Sitting on the middle ground, we may become squeezed between the hard line Brexiteers, and the arch Federalists.

In their motion Sinn Fein are seeking special status within the EU for Northern Ireland.

I have yet to hear how this can realistically be achieved when the largest party in NI are happy to leave the EU.

More critically, while there is precedent in Greenland for an autonomous region to leave the EU while the parent state remains, there is no precedent for a state to leave but for one of its regions to remain.

The EU works on the basis of state, not regional, membership – at least so far.

The report by Danny McConnell in the Irish Examiner that the Government is examining locations for custom check points is a portent of what awaits us.

A border will be back in some shape or form. Outside of a fast tracked United Ireland that is the reality of what faces us.

Whatever status we arrive at, it is the turmoil that exit will create which is the real challenge for our politics and public policy.

As a Westminster committee was recently told – in future you will not be able to walk your dog on Slieve Russell unless you have a passport – for your dog.

The Interconnector

In truth though, the bigger questions Brexit is asking of us are questions to which we have not really worked out answers yet.

I have spoken before about one example of the complex situation we are facing – that of the North-South Interconnector which is being debated in this House this week for other reasons.

I choose this issue as just one example of the series of major issues that are confronting us, across many areas of administration, in nearly every Government Department.

Instead of grappling with the complexities of these issues, and seeking to chart national responses to them, our Government believes that doing a nationwide roadshow, and repeating the same set of slogans, will suffice.

They seek to reassure us that the big picture will be fine. But in truth, it is the detail that will bog us down for years to come.

Our aviation, shipping and other transport policies, our energy and energy network policies, even our broadcasting and telecommunications policies no longer make sense when there are 60 million non-EU citizens between us and the rest of the Union.

If the picture didn’t look alarming enough already, the evidence of the former head of the European Commission’s customs procedures to MPs two weeks ago was further reason to sit up and take note, when he bluntly stated that “if Northern Ireland is not part of the EU customs territory, then there is a customs border”.

Even more concerning, the ESRI has found that Ireland “would lose 4% of its total exports under the hard Brexit outcome.”

4% is huge.

It would hit most in job-intensive sectors, such as agri-food and tourism.

4% of our exports in 2015, would have amounted to four and a half billion euros.

As Ireland’s recovery takes hold;

As our people start to feel some relief after a mostly lost decade;

This couldn’t come at a worse time.

That is why we have argued for advance planning on the European side.

We argue for the expansion of tools such as the European Globalisation Fund, and for an expansion of the Social Pillar in a way that would reinvigorate confidence in the European project.

Our Government has been silent on these points.

It’s time for that silence to come to an end.