We need a Europe that allows people to believe once more
Issued 21 February 2017
Brexit represents a challenge as great to our nation as the economic crisis from which we are just emerging.
We face the prospect of a border being reintroduced on this island.
Some suggest we face the prospect of the ending of the Common Travel Area.
And we face a hit of 4% on our exports, according to the ESRI.
These are not small matters.
They are major, almost existential questions for our nation.
The thought of a border being reintroduced is anathema, I believe, to everyone on this island.
I grew up in Wexford, 150 miles from Newry.
But the cultural gap between North and South was much larger than could be counted in a number of miles.
The removal of the physical border changed everything utterly.
Once more, people could work on one side of the border and live on the other.
People could commute from Donegal to Derry for work, or for study.
Neighbours could call in for a cup of tea, without facing armed soldiers on the road.
The number of miles didn’t change.
But we certainly got closer to each other as an island of people.
The common travel area is just as significant.
It has existed since agreement between the UK and the fledgling Irish state in 1923.
That an open border, and a continuing common travel area are once more in question, is very worrying indeed.
I sat down with the ESRI recently, to discuss their research into Brexit.
They have suggested, as I say, that Irish exports could drop by up to 4%.
Now, that may not sound like very much.
But 4% is huge.
It would hit sectors of our economy with devastating effect – notably agri-food and tourism.
It would also disproportionately impact some regions of our country.
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.
Government a mess, Sinn Féin a mess
While we face these unprecedented challenges, our Government is frankly speaking, a mess.
A Government which has done almost nothing for the last few months, has now begun to do actual harm.
As we face into the final month before negotiations on Brexit formally begin, Fine Gael has embarked on an internal battle for leadership.
That is largely happening because of the debacle over the Maurice McCabe affair.
It does appear that the Taoiseach’s time is coming to an end.
In timing terms, that is unfortunate.
He is one of the longest serving heads of Government in the EU.
It is the European Council which will control the Brexit negotiations, and set the negotiating mandate.
And he knows everyone in the room.
But it is clear now that he won’t be in the room.
Fine Gael needs now to look to the interests of the country before all else.
Instead, Leo and Simon politely dance around the situation.
And Enda clings on – frantically manoeuvring himself to get one final visit to the White House.
In itself, a visit that he shouldn’t be making.
Our Taoiseach today tells us that he will make clear his intentions tomorrow.
He didn’t allow the issue to be discussed at Cabinet today.
He didn’t allow it to be discussed in the Dáil either.
Only the Fine Gael parliamentary party, along with Fiach Kelly live-tweeting the occasion, will know exactly what he says.
If those in Fine Gael are hardly taking Brexit seriously, Sinn Féin have even larger questions to answer.
They have plunged the people of Northern Ireland into an Assembly election.
And the prospect of reconciliation between themselves and the DUP seems limited.
So the people of Northern Ireland will be left without a voice to fight with Theresa May on their behalves.
Last week, the Dáil debated a motion on Brexit.
We discussed in particular the future of Northern Ireland.
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, Sinn Féin sat back and let it happen.
So, we face an enormous challenge.
The biggest nationalist party in the North did nothing to prevent it.
And the biggest party in the Dáil has moved its focus away from the issue.
But I do not mean to suggest that all is lost, nor that there are not steps we could take as a nation to better protect ourselves against the downsides of Brexit.
This morning, I met with Franz Timmermans.
He is a Dutch Labour politician.
And now he serves as first vice-president of the European Commission.
He pledged his full support for Ireland;
And he is absolutely confident that we can secure mitigating measures to counteract the effects of Brexit.
But to do so, he made clear that we must first make sure there is a full understanding among the 27 of the risks to Ireland;
And bluntly, he does not think that is currently the case.
It’s hard to argue with him.
The Visegrad group – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – has threatened to veto any deal that does not protect their citizens living in the UK.
With 850,000 Polish nationals living in the UK, that is hardly a surprise.
And every country and region within the EU-27 will bring their own priorities.
So, for all of the rhetoric we hear from the Government about their diplomatic efforts, it is clear that the Irish voice is not yet being heard, or at least not yet fully grasped
But it is also clear that once it is, it will be possible for us to get the sort of outcome we want.
From a Labour Party perspective, we will do everything we can to drive this message home.
This week, I will attend a meeting of leaders of socialist parties from across Europe.
We will gather in London, specifically to discuss Brexit.
As I have done several times already, I will argue for Ireland’s case to be recognised as a political priority.
I will stand alongside Colum Eastwood, and we will argue for ideas like the creation of a separate component or strand within the Brexit talks, to 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.
We will keep making short-term arguments for Brexit mitigation.
We will call for the Irish Government to provide the funds to the sectors and parts of the country already impacted by Brexit.
And we will call for the European Union to put in place the sorts of measures I discussed with Timmermans this morning:
Ideas such as releasing structural funds to support the areas most affected by Brexit, or globalisation funds to support those working in the sectors that will be worst hit for retraining and upskilling.
But we will also do a bigger piece of work – something that is necessary for the future of the EU as a whole.
We will argue once more for a better, more social Europe.
And for a reinvigorated social pillar, that would ensure decent working conditions, action against inequality, and strong social protections, including for the emerging gig economy.
Next week, I travel to Brussels to attend the first meeting of a network of finance experts and economists from across Europe.
They have been tasked with progressing my suggestion that it is time to change the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact.
I am sure that it will be difficult and technical work.
But what it would allow is simple.
A Europe that prevents countries from making investments in our societies cannot hold.
We need a Europe that allows people to believe once more:
To believe that their Governments can spend money responsibly to deliver better services;
To believe that the taxes they pay can lead to investments to make their lives better;
Put plainly, to believe that their futures will be better than their pasts.
We have a great deal of work to do.
But we in this Party are already hard at the task.