Ceann Comháirle, I would, first of all, like to join with the Taoiseach and Deputies who earlier today led tributes to Detective Garda Colm Horkan and to express our sympathy to his family and community.
In the days since Detective Garda Horkan’s murder people throughout our country have taken the time to show their respect for him and for the forces of law and order which protect us.
All who knew him have spoken of a good and decent man, rooted in his community and deeply proud to serve in the uniform of this free republic.
This terrible murder has reminded us all once again of the dangers faced by members of An Garda Siochána as they go about their business – and it challenges us never to take them for granted.
Ar dheis De go raibh a h’anam dilis.
Before I move on to the specific issues arising out of last week’s virtual summit, I would like to mention Ireland’s success in being elected to a place on the Security Council of the United Nations.
This is the fourth time we have been chosen by the other members of the United Nations to serve on the Security Council. It was an impressive and comprehensive campaign for which everybody involved deserves congratulations.
Fundamentally, just as has been the case each time we have received this recognition the foundation for this rests on the incredible work of the men and women of Oglaigh na hÉireann and our diplomatic service. Over many years they have shown unmatched bravery and dedication in the promotion of the visionary and humanitarian ideals on which the UN was founded.
86 members of Oglaigh na hÉireann have lost their lives while serving on United Nations missions, and every country which belongs to the UN knows of their heroism. It is right that we remember them, and we honour them for the high international standing which they have given to our country.
Equally we should acknowledge how our diplomats have an outstanding reputation for their ability to work tirelessly with others to bridge gaps and serve shared interests.
Our record of being an active and positive member of the United Nations was established within a few years of our membership in 1955. Whenever the U.N. has looked for countries willing to promote peace and to fight famine and poverty Ireland has always responded quickly. During Frank Aiken’s time as Minister and during our first membership of the Security Council, Ireland took a leadership role in vital issues such as non-proliferation and the test ban treaty. This has been continued over the years including the ban on cluster munitions which we negotiated in 2008 in an agreement which was concluded at a summit held in Croke Park.
This tradition of positive diplomacy, of promoting true multilateral cooperation must be as important to our work in our two years on the Council as they have been during our entire membership of the United Nations. At a moment in history when human rights are once again under threat throughout the world and where the need for cooperation and respect has never been clearer, an effective United Nations is desperately needed. Ireland must do everything it can to make a positive difference.
Last week’s virtual summit was clearly never likely to reach agreement on the core issues on the agenda. However, it does appear as if there is substantive engagement and that progress is possible next month.
The proposals for a major new recovery instrument to help members of the EU is very welcome. Twelve years after the absence of a larger fiscal capacity was exposed as a major flaw in the design of Economic and Monetary Union finally there are concrete proposals to create new funding programmes.
Over the last eight years and during the recent election Fianna Fáil has consistently supported calls for increasing the Union’s ability to actively support economic recovery, the transition to a low carbon economy and new opportunities for those being left behind, particularly because of technology.
President Macron’s speech three years ago calling for a transformation in the Union’s ability to deliver collective action was unfortunately resisted by many countries. That it took an unprecedented pandemic to shift the debate is a sign of the implacable opposition which these necessary developments have faced.
What is being proposed deserves much greater attention in public debate because it is a significant step towards delivering a European Union which can become a more active enabler of urgent change.
The Commission’s initial proposal is to effectively combine the standard multi-annual budget with new funding which will be a combination of grants and low-cost, long-term loans. At least initially, this new funding is due to help countries worst hit by the pandemic and the recession which it has caused.
In comparison to the agenda as it stood as recently as February this represents a radical change. Chancellor Merkel’s support has once-again shown her capacity for brave and ambitious decision making, while President Macron’s continued passionate advocacy for a Europe strong enough to take on the challenges of today has persuaded many former opponents of change.
My party welcomes Ireland’s decision to support the new recovery instrument in principle. It marks a move away from the position last year and it marks an important change of direction in our policy.
The proposal as it stands has serious problems with it. Far more work appears to have gone into the financial engineering behind it than ensuring a fair and effective allocation of the funding.
If the first priority is supporting sustainable recovery where the pandemic has had the worst impact, it seems foolish to try and decide allocation before the impact of the pandemic is fully understood. Data published yesterday in France was very encouraging, but it is completely uncertain what the medium or long-term impact will be. This is particularly true for economies where tourism is a major industry.
Before the current budget negotiations began it was agreed that measures must be taken to ensure that we end the practice of governments taking EU funding yet aggressively undermining the liberal democratic principle to which every member signed up when joining. It would be unacceptable for this new recovery instrument to be distributed without regard for respect for the rule of law, media freedom and the agreed sustainability objectives of the Union.
And in the context of the seven-year budget the continued attempt to take money away from certain areas in order to create space for others must be resisted. The only reason there is pressure on the Common Agriculture Policy is an ongoing zero-sum approach to negotiations. The move towards a CAP which encourages diversity of supply, rural development and environmental sustainability can only be achieved if the budget is protected.
The lack of a dedicated Brexit-transition support programme is a concern.
In relation to proposals to raise more dedicated revenue for the Union, this is something which we support in principle. However, there are real limits to what is acceptable. Under no circumstance should the need for these revenue options be mixed with the entirely separate and questionable search for harmonisation.
Any serious attempt to attach very different agendas to the recovery instrument will undermine its legitimacy and delay agreement.
In relation to Brexit, the lack of progress in trade negotiations is a major concern. The position of the London government has not inspired hope that we can avoid major economic disruption in January. At very least it does not appear to be accepting the agreements made last year as the basis for a permanent agreement.
There is no positive purpose to be served by spending time now questioning their motivation and tactics. What we can do is to state once again that the core principles adopted by the EU are founded on the perfectly reasonable basis that you do not get to pick and choose which elements of the Single Market you respect.
Now that the blockade of the Northern Assembly has been ended, the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have been loud and clear in calling for London to respect their wish for enough time and space to be allowed for negotiations. They quite rightly object to arbitrary limits on the transition being imposed by London.
In terms of our preparation for Brexit, the situation in January was that we were nowhere near being ready for a possible WTO trading relationship with Britain. In tandem with support for recovery from the impact of the pandemic we need an urgent programme for making sure that at the end of this year Irish companies are ready and supported to survive whatever happens once the transition ends.
This is a moment for the leaders of Europe to act decisively. We face historic challenges. We must help our economies and societies to recover. We must chart a new direction for the years ahead which delivers transformational change for our environment and our economies. We must show that free democracies can survive and succeed even facing the most extreme pressures.
This was not a decisive summit, but it is part of a new direction which Ireland must play a central role in supporting.