Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil

Statements on EU Council meeting re Article 50 Guidelines

Dáil Éireann, Tuesday May 2nd 2017

It is unfortunate to say the least Taoiseach that you yet again have put media management ahead of having serious policy discussions.  The government’s decision to publish a document on the Brexit negotiations today, without any advance notice and without it being shared in time for us to consider it for this debate speaks volumes.

One hour and 45 minutes has been scheduled by the government for a debate on the Article 50 negotiations while the government is simultaneously launching its policy on the Article 50 negotiations.  This is absurd.

The Taoiseach has invited us to a meeting at 6.30 in which he will tell us about his government’s policy on the matter we are discussing now.

Yet again the government has shown that it has no real interest in having informed discussions or respecting its obligations to this house.

My party has been addressing the issue of Brexit for longer and in greater detail than any party in this House.  We have been constructive at all times and we have used opportunities in Britain and in Europe to promote Ireland’s position.

This should not be a partisan issue, yet Fine Gael is acting as if it is.

Quite frankly we have run out of patience with the refusal of the government to share even basic information and the offering of briefings which reveal less than is found in the media.

You must realise, that irrespective of how Fine Gael addresses it leadership issues, this arrogant behaviour cannot continue.  You are either interested in a national consensus on Brexit or you are not.  If you are, then you need to start having real discussions about basic information and objectives.

So far we have not seen a single piece of paper from government on a wide range of fundamental issues concerning Brexit.  Where are the sectoral economic studies?  Where is the legal work on defining the Common Travel Area?  Where are the detailed options not just for limiting border controls but for protecting highly integrated supply chains?

Where are the options for aiding market diversification and innovation?

Taoiseach, for 6 years we’ve a stream of so-called ‘game changers’ spun within an inch of their lives.  And yet time after time the hype has not been followed up with substance.

Remember when you came in here garlanded by the editorials lauding your skill in order to announce a €60 billion ‘game changer’ on debt?  In the end, when the spin had stopped the reality was not only that Ireland got nothing from that supposed victory we didn’t even ask for anything.

Brexit is much more important.  It is the defining economic and social challenge of more than a generation.  It will determine basic fundamental things about our future.  And yet you keep playing games, and focusing on the spin.

It may well be that the document you are launching answers every question and shows exactly what you think we can achieve.  None of the briefings we have received suggests that this is the case and my comments here are focused on what is known.

It’s time for us to get some proper perspective.

This weekend’s Council meeting was a short one which formally signed off on guidelines agreed in advance.  The unanimity of the decision is welcome and the guidelines are fair.  They represent a reasonable position by the European Union and a strong statement of a shared determination that the Union will protect its interests in these negotiations.

In relation to specific issues raised by different countries, the guidelines are very positive and there appears to be no area where a national concern has been ignored.

In relation to the provisions concerning Ireland, the strong support for Ireland which has been evident to all who have been lobbying has been reflected.  A number of crucial concerns have not been explicitly addressed in the guidelines, but the leaked content of the Commission’s separate Negotiating Directives document suggests that all specific requests have been responded to.

We welcome the inclusion in the leaked Directives that negotiators respect the continued EU citizenship rights of Northern Ireland Residents.  This is a matter we have raised since the middle of last year with our government, the Commission and the Parliament.

We welcome the reaffirmation of the position that Northern Ireland will be a full part of our sovereign territory should the people vote for it and that an integral part of this is that it will be part of the EU.  The fact that Secretary of State David Davis has said the British government has no issue with this is welcome.  It is to be hoped that those who claim to be Irish republicans but who opposed our membership of the European Union will have the basic grace to admit their error in trying to stop what is now a strong argument for those of us who advocate national unity.

What these guidelines do not represent is any form of a major breakthrough.  Much of the content reflects the inevitable or the obvious.  Because of the nature of these negotiations and the approach of the British government we are no clearer today than we were last June as to how the economic, social and political impact of Brexit will be managed.  As these negotiations head into what is expected to be an 18 month phase, we have as yet seen no details from either government as to what they mean when they refer to a soft border.

What we need is less hype and more substance.  We need to move on from the broad generalities to hard specifics about how we want post-Brexit arrangements to be on this island and between Ireland and Britain.  Most importantly of all we need to identify what form of relations fit within existing EU law and whether we will be seeking changes in EU law.

Since the Brexit vote Fianna Fáil has being proactive in addressing in detail the issues which we see as central to mitigating some of the damage from Brexit.  We strongly agree with the reported comments of President Junker that there is no way of making a ‘success’ out of Brexit – all that can be done is to limit the harm.

While we support the basic thrust of the negotiating guidelines we are concerned about the impact of the sequencing if too inflexible an approach is taken.

If we are to prevent a hard border or to properly address the unique concerns of Ireland, we need special arrangements which will be defined in terms of how they differ from the trade and personal rights provisions of the overall Treaty.  If there is no rapid progress on the financial settlement, or if there is no serious discussion of trade until after March 2019, this causes serious issues for Ireland.

Clearly if we are to avoid facing a cliff-edge we need to be in a position to have what are, in effect, close to final proposals ready for rapid negotiation.  How are we to do this?

There are many complex issues but the core two are North/South arrangements and the Common Travel Area.  Broader East/West arrangements are a serious concern as well, and I will return to them on another occasion.

There are mechanisms for discussion of detailed North/South arrangements, but unfortunately these are currently stuck in a political roadblock.

For nearly six months Northern Ireland has had nobody at the table to represent its interests in Brexit discussions.  Its political leaders have done nothing in terms of the hard work of producing detailed studies of Brexit issues and coming up with concrete proposals.  Incredibly, the political institutions in Northern Ireland have failed to even publish an up to date analysis of the economic impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland.

The continued failure to establish a working Executive and to allow the Assembly to get on with its business is causing real harm which goes beyond the cutbacks being implemented in health and education services.

As a result of the recent Assembly election the DUP cannot, even with TUV support, secure a petition of concern.  The Assembly could be doing a lot at the moment on Brexit, particularly following the helpful comments of the DUP leader that they too oppose a hard border.

On the CTA, we need to know what the two governments understand as the legal position as it relates not just to work, but also to full social and political rights.  Until we see this we can have no idea what remains to be done and what resources are required.

Both the Guidelines and the Directives state that everything that is agreed for Ireland must respect the EU legal order and conform with EU law.  Because there are no proposals we have no idea whether this is a major or minor limit on what is possible.

Ceann Comháirle, given the refusal of the government to make its plans available prior to this debate there is little more of substance for us to discuss.

Clearly we need to schedule a proper debate for next week.  Hopefully the government will approach that with a more constructive spirit and recognition that in facing this national challenge a bit less spin and a lot more engagement is what is needed.