This is a defining moment in both European and international affairs. Every day we see more and more evidence of deep threats to social, economic and political progress. The cause of active, law-bound cooperation between states is being actively undermined and there are aggressive efforts underway to try and return the world to a failed model of competition which brought so much poverty and conflict in the past.
Because of the narrow majority in last year’s Brexit referendum Ireland finds itself at the very epicentre of the impact of these narrow, nationalist and populist forces. There is no possible positive scenario for Ireland from Brexit. The most we can achieve is to mitigate its impact as far as possible. To achieve this we need an unprecedented scale and urgency of activity by our government.
As the Taoiseach knows, Fianna Fáil has from the first moment after the referendum been actively engaged and constructive in relation to Ireland’s response to Brexit, following a more general response with two very detailed statements delivered in Belfast and Dublin last year. This is not an area for politics as usual – it is simply too important.
However Taoiseach, we feel that there is no way of avoiding criticism of a response which is simply not good enough. There is no doubt that there is a lot of activity underway. We acknowledge this and the work of those involved. But equally there is every reason to doubt that this activity is anywhere near the level we need.
It is, for example, unacceptable that we are about to enter into the active stage of negotiations where we need the widest possible understanding and support yet the Taoiseach has, as he said here yesterday, personally met only 6 of the 27 heads of government who will be involved.
Now is the time to build coalitions but the time is being wasted.
Equally there has been no detailed statement of objectives and, as far as we have been informed, no detailed proposal for handling many of the most important issues.
Prime Minister May’s speech last week and yesterday’s events in London have confirmed yet again that the UK government is pursuing an approach which will cause lasting damage to this island.
As far as anyone can tell, they have ruled out any special status arrangement for Northern Ireland. Yesterday the Brexit Secretary David Davis went as far as to say that his priority is to protect the “UK single market” rather than ensure that Scotland and Northern Ireland can access the EU single market. The same goes for the Customs Union.
Every single official and independent review of the economic impact of the end of the single market and customs union on this island has forecast major and permanent damage. There is already damage from the impact of Sterling’s fall, but the conclusion of this hard Brexit will be seen by closed businesses, lower employment and weaker public budgets.
The avoidance of queues at the border is something we have to aim for – but this is a tiny part of the wider issue.
Any final exit treaty will have to come before the Dáil for ratification. We believe that before the commencement of formal negotiations at the end of March or start of April a formal national negotiating mandate should be adopted. The government’s failure to move from banal generalities to hard specifics cannot be allowed to continue.
This mandate should reflect a consensus between pro-EU parties and the feedback from the consultative forums underway.
And to be clear on this, parties which have spent decades attacking the EU and which paint it as a dark conspiracy against the public must not be allowed to distract the pro-EU majority from promoting Ireland’s interests as country which will remain a full, active and permanent member of the EU. No one is being fooled by those who oppose membership and every single EU treaty, but are now screaming about how important maintaining membership is.
As far as Fianna Fáil is concerned, there are a series of specific elements which should be in an acceptable deal.
First, it must protect fully the rights of Northern Ireland citizens to EU citizenship through their right to Irish citizenship as enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann and the Good Friday Agreement. They must fully retain their rights to travel and live anywhere in the European Union and to the other rights contained in the EU treaties.
Next, we must not accept any changes to the 1998 settlement which alters in any way the core protections and safeguards outlined before the peace referendums.
Central to this is the inclusion of the European Convention of Human Rights on a statutory basis in Northern Ireland’s fundamental law and the ability of courts to enforce its operation on the UK government and the Northern institutions.
It should be noted Taoiseach, that in the House of Commons yesterday, three ministers refused to commit to the Convention’s continued enforceability in Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
It is important to repeat to you Taoiseach that we will vote against treaty, be it the Brexit Treaty or a new bilateral treaty, which reduces the EU citizenship rights of Irish citizens or which reduces the enforceability of European human rights law in Northern Ireland.
In relation to the role of EU law in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we would oppose any change which has not been developed through negotiations.
As we have said before, we believe that the unique situation of Ireland requires that Northern Ireland be given some form of special status. Yesterday Taoiseach you seemed to imply that no one has any idea what this might mean in practice. I don’t believe this is correct. In this you are wrong.
I detailed some of this in my speech in Queen’s last November , but to be more practical, special status might mean allowing some form of reduced or removed tariffs on trade conducted solely within the island. This would be a major departure and would involve substantial monitoring – but it may be the only thing to prevent the collapse of cross-border trade and the damage that would come with that.
Given that the UK government appears uninterested in special status, our government has a responsibility to at very least table formal proposals.
No matter what, there will be ongoing dislocation for Irish business. We must demand that Europe show solidarity and flexibility in helping us. Therefore we believe that state aid rules should be eased for a transitionary period and that a special fund be put in place to allow the development of replacement markets and diversification.
As I have said, we believe the government’s response is far from adequate. It has been significant but it is nowhere near what is required. There is no evidence that the personnel resources are in place to manage what should be emergency-level of response. Equally, diplomatic activity at the very highest level must be stepped up. We will support any reasonable proposal for supplementary funding, but these proposals can only come from government.
The format for this debate doesn’t allow the level of detail we should be engaging in. A further detailed debate on this matter should be scheduled in the coming weeks.
On the other matters discussed at the summit, the only reasonable way of looking at the agenda is how disappointing and complacent it was.
It is particularly unfortunate that there is no active engagement with the continuing economic turmoil in Greece. Debt restructuring is desperately needed. The Greek people have shown an ability to respond and the government has long-since abandoned its arrogant demand that it be funded by others with no accountability. This can’t be allowed to drag on until there is another crisis.
We welcome the commitment to speed up implementation of the Banking Union and hope that there are some proposals to actually achieve this.
On the matter of refugees, particularly from the savage actions of Russia and Syria, the attempt by a few countries to oppose the principal of solidarity is at best unfortunate. If these people cannot be classified as refugees deserving of our support then no one can.
It is frankly shocking that in light of the continued aggression against a European state, including an invasion and participation, together with the criminal attack on the civilians of Aleppo that there are countries demanding a lifting of sanctions against Russia.
There has been a lot of talk about defending Western values against radical terrorism. How can we defend these values if we ignore the aggression being shown by a strong nation against basic principles including democracy and freedom?