In exactly 100 days from today the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union unless current UK law is changed. Without a transitionary period the impact on Ireland next year alone will be €3.5 billion. It is an unprecedented threat – and one which we are clearly not ready for.
Last week’s meeting of the Council was deeply depressing for anyone who seeks to limit the damage of a Brexit referendum which was secured using a combination of dishonest arguments and dishonest means.
It has long been commented that the EU is a formidably tough negotiator which stands by the interests of its members. However it is also, as an institution, formidably bad at politics. Certainly it is clear that Prime Minister May failed to propose specific measures which could be both agreed and ratified.
However it is equally clear that the EU itself failed to promote a constructive message and to refrain from the damaging perception of being dismissive to a person who appears to be the only party leader in Britain who is actually trying to get November’s deal ratified. Within hours of the Summit’s end leaders were briefing that they had made a serious error in the tone of the outcome and it is hard to disagree with them.
With time running out last week was a wasted opportunity to move something forward, even if it was only specific no deal preparations.
There are many possible outcomes to the crisis in Westminster and perhaps the most likely remains the November deal – but the reality is that we now have no option but to assume the worst and urgently prepare for a no deal outcome. There will be no clarity in the UK’s position until at earliest the vote scheduled for January 15th – which will leave only 73 days to Brexit. So the option of delaying Dáil action on a no deal scenario until after that vote is simply not an option any more.
And let no one be in any doubt – there is no evidence that planning for a no deal situation is anywhere close to where it should be with 100 days to go. If you compare it to the preparations by the Dutch government, what we see in Ireland are half-measures, secrecy and a ministerial complacency rather than action.
There has been an unwillingness to provide even basic briefing which goes well beyond the normally secretive and non-constructive approach of this government.
Over the weekend a number of journalists were briefed that a memo on Brexit preparations was to go to Cabinet yesterday. In the House yesterday the Taoiseach said that there is a package of measures which will be revealed on Thursday and legislators are welcome to attend a public forum and put up their hand to ask a question if they want to know anything.
This will, as has become standard practice from this government, almost certainly be given to a few journalists in advance to maximise the headlines and minimise the initial scrutiny.
And quite frankly Taoiseach, the political sniping which you send occasional Senators and backbenchers out to deliver on your behalf is petty and shows a government which is simply incapable of accepting legitimate concerns.
Taoiseach, you need to wake up and realise that your normal way of carrying out political business is not good enough as we stand 100 days away from an enormous threat for which our country is not prepared.
You said that there are 45 legislative measures required in the next 100 days. Some will be secondary legislation which will require scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee. Some will be detailed primary legislation which will have to pass at a speed faster than anything comparable for many years. And yet you think it is good enough to tell TDs to go along to a general forum and have offered no detailed briefings until the week the Dáil returns.
These are not the actions of a government which is confident that its preparations should be open to genuine scrutiny.
Yours is a minority government. You have been given a security to hold office during this period which no other government in Europe has received. Stop the messing. The government needs to put aside this dismissive attitude towards basic parliamentary scrutiny.
There is a rock-solid, constructive majority for managing Brexit in this House. But you have to show some commitment to working with us.
Let me be clear with you, we expect to receive detailed briefing papers on the legislative measures which you believe may need to be passed in the next 100 days.
The government needs to provide a timetable for this legislation and allow us to start preparing to the accelerated scrutiny which will be required.
In addition we expect that you will publish an update of Budget projections to at least inform the House of scenarios which might have to be addressed during 2019.
Given that the Estimates will be before Committees it the very least the Ministers can do is to include the proposed contingency funding within their presentation of their Estimates. If, as we have been told, there are detailed plans prepared concerning which facilities need to be built and which staff need to be hired, these details must be presented to the relevant Oireachtas Committees.
This is a parliamentary democracy. Your delay in providing information will not give you the right to try to force through in hours legislation which you have had two years to prepare for.
Yes it is true that the EU only finalised some no deal guidance this week – however most guidelines have been available for some time and we have been told repeatedly this year that preparations for specific actions like increased supervision at ports is underway. There is no excuse for refusing to provide information before now.
My party has repeatedly pointed to the government’s own statistics on the number of businesses who are not Brexit ready and who are threatened by sterling devaluation and disruption to supply chains.
The Taoiseach accepted that the target should be to have all companies Brexit ready and for this to happen we need a dramatic step change in activity immediately.
A defining characteristic of this government has been a chronic and growing delivery deficit. Major plans are launched and advertised regularly, but the on the ground delivery has been appalling. Only this week we have learned that the development plan which has been the main focus of government advertising this year has a massive hole in it due to overruns on projects which haven’t even begun. The gap between promises on housing and delivery has caused real hardship.We cannot afford this to happen on Brexit. We need a lot more openness and a lot less refusal to open plans to basic scrutiny.
We will entertain any reasonable proposal for reordering business in the coming months to enact vital Brexit legislation. We will support additional funding for key public services and businesses under pressure. We have already given the government a guarantee, which it initially dismissed as unneeded, that it can focus on tackling Brexit rather than continuing its much-hyped election preparations.
What we will not do is to accept the continued refusal to give this parliament even basic information about actions which may be needed over the next 100 days.
For the majority parties, the wider public and indeed the media there has been a reasonable agenda so far of ‘wearing the green jersey’. The focus of criticism has been on the shambles in London. This has been so much the case that the government has over-reacted to even the mildest questioning. This agenda of putting country first will continue for us and for parties here who have a real rather than tactical commitment to our place in Europe. But we have a right and a duty to demand that you respond with more than platform speeches and unchallenged statements.
If you genuinely believe that this needs to be a national effort then start acting like it and start engaging the majority in this House in meaningful and detailed discussions on steps to manage the immediate threat of Brexit.
I once again repeat that we will support any reasonable proposal agreed by the European Council which allows a no deal situation to be avoided next year and I stated very clearly to the prime ministers who attended last week’s meeting of the ALDE group that the Irish government has a secure parliamentary mandate on Brexit.
Finally on Brexit, it once again must be said how the absence of the Northern institutions continues to undermine the ability of the people of Northern Ireland to have their voice heard.
In the past week a succession of Sinn Fein representatives have been sent out to attack me and my party for saying this. They have gone as far as to imply that they are the only party in Dáil Éireann entitled to comment on the lack of a working Assembly or Executive.
I remember no such strategy on their part when they were calling on me and other Fianna Fáil members of government to help get the institutions established and re-established in the past – and they certainly never rejected our right to comment when we succeeded in getting the DUP to share power with them or secured the devolution of policing.
Our most consistent anti-EU party will someday accept the right of others to criticise it – and to point out how their attempt to link Brexit with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has undermined the attempts of others here to get unionists to accept Dublin’s good faith.
Last week’s summit also addressed, albeit too briefly, a series of other fundamental issues which would have been the primary focus in the absence of Brexit.
As Fianna Fáil has said repeatedly in the last year, we strongly disagree with the Taoiseach’s refusal to support a more ambitious reform to the workings of the European Union. Ireland should not be part of a group arguing against any increase in the Union’s budget when just such an increase is very much needed to address structural weaknesses in the Union and the Eurozone.
While we have reservations about some of President Macron’s reform proposals, Ireland should have given genuine support to his effort to set a new agenda.
We welcome the agreement to set up a new funding stream for helping Eurozone countries at times of crisis. The fund is nowhere near as ambitious as it should be, but it is welcome and it should be implemented as soon as possible.
We also believe that a new effort needs to be undertaken to address to critical Eurozone weakness in terms of deposit insurance.
The early discussions on the Multiannual Financial Framework are not encouraging. It appears that once again we will be caught in a zero-sum debates which sees pressure put on cutting effective programmes, especially those for rural communities, in order to create the space for expanding other essential programmes such as scientific research.
We believe that the Taoiseach owes it to the House to make a statement here early next year on exactly what position he will be taking on the new Budget as well as remaining points on the reform of the Eurozone. In addition he should outline his approach to the discussions concerning the Single Market which have been scheduled for the Spring Council.
The attack of populist parties and governments on the UN’s Migration Pact is a sad and disturbing development. The Pact is a reasonable attempt to set core principles. It is a small move forward and we must join those countries that are defending it. Fianna Fáil will support any steps which can be taken early next year to more effectively demonstrate Ireland’s commitment to the UN’s endeavours on migration.
The Summit briefly addressed the issue of climate change – action on which has been one of the standout failures of Fine Gael in government. Unless Ireland starts getting serious in 2019 we will continue to be one of the world laggards and we will have failed to join countries who are working hard to prevent an environmental, social and economic disaster.
Finally the summit discussed disinformation and attempts to interfere in elections in free democracies. The facts show a deep and ongoing commitment by one increasingly rogue regime to promoting division and extremism in Europe.
Russia-linked campaigns have spread racist fears of minorities, supported the far-right and far-left and have attacked parties who speak out for free democracy. As we can see in Hungary and too many other countries, this poses a potentially existential threat to core democratic values.
We support the Summit’s call for “swift and decisive action” – and we call on our government to move on from general reviews and round tables and to start making specific proposals for protecting our elections and our political debates from manipulation.
2019 will be a defining year for Europe and for Ireland. We need a new urgency and ambition from our government. We need a new commitment to work with others on urgent measures and to move from words to action.
When we return in January there will be no time left for political business as usual.