Speech by FF Leader Micheál Martin at “Brexit – Challenges and Opportunities”, QUB

Published on: 24 November 2016

I am very happy that this evening is part of a much wider ongoing programme of work on Brexit.  Queen’s is taking a lead in promoting public engagement and understanding on what is one of the most important political, economic and social issues of our time.

Brexit is not business as usual.  It is not an ongoing repetition of old arguments.  It is also not something we have the luxury of taking our time to work through.

Something all sides can agree on, and perhaps the only thing any side agrees on, is that Brexit has profound implications for the future of this island, Europe and potentially the wider world.

When I accepted the invitation to speak this evening and when the title “Brexit: Challenges & Opportunities” was agreed, I expected to be able to address the London government’s vision for a Brexit agreement, or at very least some concrete proposals for defining and addressing major elements of an agreement.  Things haven’t quite worked out as anticipated.  The challenges have mounted and the opportunities have seemed less credible by the day.

We are now five months on from the confirmation of the referendum result.  There was a rapid change of administration in London and the three core departments of state responsible for delivering Brexit were placed in the hands of people who had campaigned with force and eloquence for departure from the EU.  They told referendum voters not to worry; Brexit would be easy and largely risk-free.

And yet there is today no evidence whatsoever that there is a credible plan for what happens next.  As if channelling Humpty Dumpty, the Whitehall position appears to be ‘when we use the word Brexit it means just what we say it means – no more and no less’.

In the daily ebb and flow of coverage it is easy to miss the sheer scale of the contradictions in what ministers have said.  To mention just the highlights: they expect access to the single market and customs union as well as no access to the single market and customs union; protection of current economic flows as well as their replacement with new trade relations; the end of any role for EU regulations in the UK, full sovereignty for the UK parliament in all matters, no role for the European Court of Justice, limited residence rights for EU citizens in the UK with continued EU residence rights for UK citizens, and respect for the devolved administrations with those devolved administrations being denied any right to vote on decisions of the UK government.

This only covers matters where they have gone on the record.  The off-the-record briefings have been even less coherent.

As the Foreign Secretary so concisely and appropriately put it, they are “pro having the cake, and pro eating it”.

Even with the best will in the world there is no way of describing the Tory government’s action on Brexit during the last five months as strategic or even competent – which would indeed be funny were it not so serious.

On the other hand many of the main constraints on what can be agreed in the Article 50 talks have become clearer and the specific threats to this island have started to be considered in much greater detail.

What we know for sure is that the period from now to March 2019 is a historic moment which will define our future direction for decades to come.  It will set a context for our political culture, our economic progress and our broader society.

Today that context contains mainly deep threats.  Our first duty is to understand them and to try to quickly move to a constructive discussion of specific proposals.  And within this we have to set out our long-term objectives rather than just how to get through the next few years.

I and my party are absolutely clear in our starting point – we believe that rule-bound, independently-enforceable cooperation between nation states is the only means of securing high-living standards, peaceful relations and the ability to respond to the many challenges of globalisation.  For us, the European Union has lost none of the urgency which propelled its founders to sign the Treaty of Rome 57 years ago.  It is no doubt a slow moving and imperfect entity, but its achievements are profound.

A Europe of competing nation states offers us nothing but a return to a cycle of destructive competition.  Because we oppose a race to the bottom and because we want a place at the table to influence our opportunities and international affairs we are absolutely committed to continued full, active and constructive membership of the European Union.
What I would like to do this evening is to examine what we know about different key elements of the immediate and long term situation as they impact on the EU, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK.  Then, bringing together what we already know, I will suggest ways forward.

We can mitigate many of the effects of Brexit and we can protect important progress. This said there is no evidence that we can achieve more than to neutralise the worst impact of a decision which I believe will go down in history as one of the biggest mistakes of a modern European democracy.

And pointing to the threats posed by Brexit does not make you a ‘Remoaner’, it makes you somebody who cares enough about the future not to lightly abandon sincere views and mounting evidence.

Before getting in to the detail I would like for a moment to address the issue of the conduct of the referendum and the motivation behind the majority’s decision.  This is necessary to do because it is entirely legitimate for the outcome and intent of that referendum to dominate the negotiations.

Last Sunday I said in a speech that Ireland has no intention of joining “the English in an attempt to repeal the twentieth century”.  Later that evening I received a lengthy and hurt email from an Englishman who I do not know talking about the fact that 47% of English voters voted Remain and that I was being unfair.

In reply I told him that I very much understand his position and the shock of those like him who have a different vision of both Englishness and Britishness.  However I stand by my comment because at the heart of the Leave majority was a desire to return to a conception of national sovereignty rejected by the great generation which built a shared peace and prosperity in Europe in the second half of the last century.

It is simply impossible to look at the referendum debate and the arguments used to promote Leave and miss the desire to recapture a vision of the past, with Britain being a buccaneering free-trader, seeing Europe as ‘them’ and proud to stand alone.  It was not an open and generous message.  The posters and endless front pages about hordes of refugees ready to swamp Britain were real.  The endless caricaturing and scapegoating of Europe was central to the campaign.  The crass and false claims about a funding choice between Europe and the NHS happened.

And it wasn’t an aberration – the political discourse in England has for over thirty years rested on a foundation of finding ways of describing the European Union as a conspiracy against English common-sense.  The bananas were never straightened but the myth of Euro-madness kept growing.

The pioneering work of Linda Colley on the origins of Britishness post the Scottish Union in 1707 talked about the centrality of ‘the other’ in shaping identity through a direct contrast.  While the other nations in the United Kingdom have evolved their nationalism in different ways, both the rhetoric and substance of English nationalism has a remarkable consistency to it.

In practical terms this is a distorted even pro-EU discourse. That’s how Euro-positive leaders like Tony Blair so regularly talked about how they were “resisting” and “facing-down” Brussels.

The majority vote was very clearly in favour of the idea that the UK should be able to set its own rules and it rejected the idea of shared sovereignty in critical areas.  It can of course be argued that people were misled or ill-informed, but this is not relevant to the issue of dealing with the outcome.

There are enormous challenges facing the world, and in particular facing liberal democracies.  The European Union is a unique organisation in world history which has created a multilateral organisation which ensures permanent engagement, shared rule-making, independent enforcement and strong institutions.

What the referendum result means is that an important and powerful country is stepping away from multilateralism and is seeking to reinvigorate an old, and I believe failed, model of weaker cooperation between states.  As I will say later in relation to London’s attitude to agreements concerning Northern Ireland, there is every reason to be concerned that UK policy is towards a more unilateral approach which carries with it many dangers.

EU After Brexit

As I’ve said, it is my position, that of my party and of an overwhelming majority of both members of the Oireachtas and the people we serve that Ireland must remain a member of the European Union.  Therefore the success of the Union after Brexit is a major concern for us.  We do not have the luxury of saying simply we want to mitigate the impact of Brexit on this island.  We also want to make sure that what emerges is a Union which is strong and effective.

An absolute prerequisite for this is that membership must have its benefits.  It is not possible to allow an exiting country to retain all of the benefits and none of the commitments made by the remaining members.  This is the core of the argument in relation to Single Market access.  That market is dependent on an approach to rule-making and judicial oversight which has been ruled-out by the UK government.

I don’t believe that the EU is being hard-line by setting out a position based on implementing the core principles contained in the Treaties.  And a country which has rejected these principles in the name of national sovereignty is in no position to attack others for freely accepting them.

The conditions for access to the single market and customs union are not credibly up for negotiation for the UK as a whole.  If they were then what we would be talking about is a complete rewriting of the Treaties – something which is not happening.

This said it is important that the EU find a means of actively engaging with the UK.  For all of the childish name-calling directed towards Brussels, the UK is an important economic and political voice in international affairs and it cannot be allowed to assume the position of just another non-member.  A formal structure for ongoing dialogue and negotiation is required.  This must involve more than an annual summit.  In fact there should be an effort to create formal and permanent ministerial-level engagement.

Within the Commission a new role for relations with close European neighbours such as the UK and those in the EEA should be created – and this should be mirrored in the Parliament and Council.
Everyone will lose if the UK just drifts off into the night and an air of suspicion and resentment defines the relationship between the EU and its former member.

The EU also needs to show more urgency and ambition in reforming its own workings. In the past the UK agenda of seeking to roll-back the Union led to risk-averse and limited discussions.  Following the recession only some elements of the deficiencies of the EU and the Eurozone have been tackled.  It must renew its commitment to giving each member a credible route to growth and assistance in achieving it.

This is a much wider issue which there is not enough time to go into in more detail this evening.

Ireland after Brexit

As I have said, there is a broad consensus that Ireland must remain a committed member of the EU.  However this relationship will change in light of Brexit for many reasons, with the economic impact of Brexit being the most immediate.

Yesterday’s Autumn Statement has confirmed the near uniform view that Brexit will damage the UK’s economy.  Longer term projections, using a range of scenarios from a ‘softish Brexit’ to a ‘WTO Brexit show a permanent average loss of 1.8% to 3.2% of national income – with the Chancellor’s immediate pre-negotiation and divorce settlement prediction of a major fiscal impact over the next five years.

The ESRI has taken the UK work and completed a substantial work in modelling the impact on the 26-county economy.  The results are depressingly similar – in fact slightly worse on average.  A ‘hard Brexit’ would, they believe cut nearly 4% from national income, 3.6% from wages and employment levels would fall by 2% if no significant intervention is made.

We can’t simply stand by and let this happen.  We need radical steps to tackle a dramatic threat of a permanent impact such as this.

I believe we have to do everything possible to protect economic integration on this island.  We have to seek special status for trade within this island and then develop a range of bilateral measures to protect the ability of people here to live, work and have full entitlements wherever they choose to live.  I will return later to the detail of what this might mean in practice.

As a continuing member of the EU, Ireland has a right to expect a substantial demonstration of solidarity from the other post-Brexit members.  We are faced with a profound threat because of the actions of another state on which we had no influence. We are showing solidarity with the European Union and it must show us the same.  In addition, and far more practically, the EU cannot afford to let members suffer for remaining true to the Union.

This means first of all a willingness to find ways of reflecting the special needs of this island in the final Brexit agreement.  Comments made by Mr Barnier on how he sees the impact of the Border as a priority in the negotiations is a welcome first step.

What has yet to be formally raised is that whatever deal is agreed there are certain negative impacts of Brexit which will be unavoidable.  Many businesses and communities are already suffering from the dramatic fall in Sterling’s value and the likely long-term volatility of the exchange rate undermines their current business model.

We have to be able to help them to mitigate the immediate impact and we have to be able to help them to diversify their markets.  State aid rules as they have traditionally been applied serve an important purpose in underpinning fair competition between member states.  However I don’t see how we can properly help those most impacted by Brexit within these rules.

I believe the EU should accept the principle that it must lead in mitigating the impact of Brexit on member states.  As part of this it should allow direct aid particularly to help companies through a period of transformation and to diversify their products and markets.

On a more national level Brexit makes the case for being much more aggressive in pursuing the knowledge-economy policies which have worked so well in the last decade and a half.  Investment in research and innovation has directly led to the creation of high-value, secure employment in sectors which remained vibrant during the recession. Progress in de-commoditising our trade has been swift and must now go much further.

In terms of our East-West relations we have to find new ways of maintaining them. There has been an undeniable drift in the quality of these relations in the last six years. In some ways the Strand 3 structures of the Good Friday Agreement have allowed a formal interaction replace what should be a more organic approach.

During my time as a minister, and in particular in the education and enterprise departments, I maintained regular visits and policy exchanges with London counterparts independent of Strand 3 and independent of exchanges at EU Council meetings.

On a more basic level, East-West interactions are a core part of both of our cultures.  It is decades since someone other than an Irishman presented the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC.  West Cork’s own Graham Norton and Bray’s Dara O’ Briain remain unequivocally Irish and an integral part of British life.  The seamlessness of movement back and forth across the Irish Sea has benefitted us both and must be maintained once the protection of EU law is removed.

The building of respect and understanding between us was facilitated by the fact that our leaders met regularly at EU meetings and worked to a shared agenda.  This relationship cannot be taken for granted.

Northern Ireland Post-Brexit

A more immediate and urgent issue is the impact which Brexit will have here in Northern Ireland.

The decision of a clear majority to vote Remain is not something which can be lightly dismissed.  Unfortunately there has been effectively no acknowledgement of this, or of the Scottish Remain vote, in statements from ministers in London.

Secretary of State David Davis made a lengthy statement to the House of Commons in September in which he made only one passing reference to Northern Ireland which did not acknowledge the result here.  This month another lengthy statement referenced Northern Ireland only insofar as it rejected the idea that Northern Ireland has any distinct rights to challenge or delay London’s approach.

It is true that most senior government members have said that Northern Ireland is a priority and the recently announced regular meetings are welcome.  Set against this though is the exclusion of the Northern Ireland Secretary from permanent membership of the key negotiations committee.  In contrast the Tory party chairman is a member – indicating that managing the internal Tory debate is a more permanent concern that managing the impact of Brexit on devolved administrations whose people voted Remain.

What makes this a particular concern is that Northern Ireland is the region which is most exposed to post-Brexit impacts and is the least diversified in terms of its trade.  As the only independent review of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland has said, there is currently no positive scenario for the economic impact of Brexit and many which are extremely negative.  The closest to a neutral scenario is one where Northern Ireland has liberal access to the Customs Union.

There are, of course, also important implications of the Brexit process for the post-Good Friday situation.

We have two starting points in relation to Northern Ireland’s position post-Brexit.

First, the will of the people of Northern Ireland must be reflected in the final outcome. Imposing the full impact of hard Brexit on Northern Ireland is unacceptable.

Second, Dublin must promote and support special status for Northern Ireland in whatever way possible consistent with our remaining full and active members of the European Union.

Following Brexit, Northern Ireland residents will retain their full right to EU citizenship through their right to hold Irish citizenship either jointly or as a sole citizenship.  This is recognized in a binding international treaty between Ireland and the UK and is reflected in EU law.  This will not change and will apply equally to those born well after Brexit takes effect.

This being so, Northern Ireland will contain the largest concentration anywhere of EU citizens living outside of the boundaries of the EU.  It is an absolute obligation on the EU to reflect this unique reality with a special status for Northern Ireland – and it is also an absolute obligation on the UK to reflect this unique reality.

We will never support proposals which reduce access for Northern Ireland residents to the basic rights of EU citizenship – and we will oppose any agreement which seeks to do this.  We will also oppose any proposal to force people to choose between EU and UK citizenship.  This would mark an unacceptable move away from the core principle of coexistence and respect which has underpinned the incomplete but still dramatic progress of recent years.

There are indeed enormously complex hurdles to be overcome, but Northern Ireland accounts for only 3% of the population and 2% of the GDP of the UK.  A special status for Northern Ireland would not undermine the core negotiating objectives of either London or Brussels.

It is also important for us to acknowledge that the position of the UK government does impact on the solemn agreements which underpin institutions and relations within this island and with our neighbours.

Without getting into the substantive issue of how Article 50 is triggered and the right of UK MPs and citizens to vote on a final deal, the Northern Ireland Office’s submission to the High Court in Belfast in the Agnew & Others case is a serious concern.  It reveals an attitude to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly which is a serious concern and confirms a number of potential absurdities post-Brexit.

The legal submission made in the name of the Secretary of State sought to effectively define EU-related provisions of the Northern Ireland Act and Good Friday Agreement as being largely irrelevant.  It accepted that they “assumed” ongoing membership but insisted that they did not “require” membership.

I am particularly concerned that the NIO argued not just that legislative consent is not required but more particularly that the Northern Ireland has fewer rights in this regard than other devolved assemblies.  The submission states at length that the devolution of certain legislative authority is a mere convention rather than the stronger provisions for Scotland and Wales.  A principle of no obligatory consultation and no legislative consent is not consistent with the spirit or intent of agreements.

What is also striking is that the NIO has acknowledged that EU law will continue to have a role in Northern Ireland.  In the Agnew submission it stated “it is accepted that the legislative and executive competence of the Assembly and Ministers is limited by the requirement to act [in] compatibility with EU law.”

In addition, it accepts that coordination of relations with the EU is included in paragraph 3 (iii) of Strand Two on the working of the North/South Ministerial Council.

So Northern Ireland will, post-Brexit, have institutions which ‘assume but do not require’ membership of the EU, which are required to act in compatibility with EU law and are tasked with coordinating with Dublin on relations with the EU.

I believe the only fair reading of this, taken together with the EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents and the Northern Ireland vote for Remain, is that the UK is obliged to seek and the EU is obliged to support a generous special status for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

I should also say that the Irish government carries both obligations and further must respect the vote of its citizens in the 1998 referendum by protecting the agreements which now for part of our constitution.

As a final related point – the right of Northern Ireland residents to the protections contained within the European Convention on Human Rights cannot be unilaterally removed by London without abrogating existing agreements.

The rage of mostly right-wing voices against the Convention and the European Court of Human Rights is a rage against the idea that states can hold each other to account for failing to honour shared values.  It is part of a wider rejection of multilateralism and one which must be opposed.

The Convention pre-dates the EU and is a Council of Europe initiative which seeks to define the values of democracy and human rights in Europe.  Quite apart from the fact that the UK is obliged to maintain the Convention’s force in Northern Ireland, stepping away from the Convention would mark a dark moment with the UK taking a position it would share only with increasingly authoritarian governments.

In this speech I have deliberately avoided party politics or any commentary on the ongoing work on the Executive and Assembly in other matters.  There are two points though which I feel I must make.

First of all the continued failure to have a proper civic dialogue is a clear breech of commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and it is at moments such as this that its absence is most felt.  Northern Ireland is a divided and increasingly diverse society.  A complex challenge such as this needs the legitimacy of ongoing civic engagement – something even the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would admit has been lacking.

Second the partisan posturing of Sinn Fein is helping no one.  Sinn Fein is this island’s most consistent anti-EU party.  It opposed membership and opposed every EU treaty. When it speaks up in defence of EU citizenship it is demanding rights which it campaigned against.  In the European Parliament it sits with an extreme left group which attacks the EU every day – even refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion and partition of a European country while supporting a motion blaming the EU.

If that party is now a sincere supporter of the benefits of EU membership it needs to explain itself.  Unless it does this people have every right to be sceptical of a position which opposes everything to do with the EU but demands that Northern Ireland be in it.

Moving Forward

In moving forward what we know now is that, on the not necessarily secure basis that the Supreme Court and Parliament allow it, Article 50 will be triggered within four months.

While there is much posturing about not negotiating before then, the evidence of recent weeks is that some information is being exchanged and both sides are talking tough.  An agreement on core principles will be required sometime next year if there is to be an Agreement finalised and ratified in time for the March 2019 deadline.

We are therefore already in a critical phase where we need to push from vague generalities to specific commitments concerning the post-Brexit framework.

The most important development for Ireland would be for London to acknowledge that Northern Ireland is a special case and that it will seek special arrangements for it. Inevitably this will involve an element of Northern Ireland seeking the best of both worlds – and so be it.  Given the long-term social and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland it deserves such a priority.

Our European partners must also accept the principles that countries which stand by the EU need to be protected from the impact of Brexit – and the EU must protect the rights of what will be the largest concentration of EU citizens outside its borders.

The scale of the direct economic, social and political threats posed by Brexit far outweighs any opportunities.  It is one of the most important challenges ever faced by governments on these islands.

I believe we can overcome these challenges and we can ensure that all parts of our island secure long-term progress.  For this to happen it requires everyone involved to acknowledge a unique situation and to respond with deeper engagement and generosity than have been shown so far.

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