It is now over seven months since the narrow majority for Brexit was confirmed. The fact that those who pushed for that result had no plans for what came next is blindingly obvious.
Drip by drip they are getting around to setting out their very general negotiating objectives and are scrambling to find ways of dealing with the major disruption they know is on the way. They have found out that casual talk of being “pro having the cake and pro eating it” is no substitute for hard choices.
The essential background to today’s discussions is that a hard Brexit, and potentially a chaotic Brexit, is underway. The UK government has decided that it wishes to leave the Single Market, leave the Customs Union and impose new controls on immigration.
According to the ESRI, without very significant efforts to win special concessions and to implement new policies, this scenario threatens Ireland with sustained economic damage carrying obvious social and political implications.
And just in case anyone is fooled by the shrill anti-EU press claiming that things are turning out fine, Britain has already increased its borrowing provisions by £122 billion and 56% of large firms say that they are already seeing negative effects from Brexit.
We must understand that this is not business as usual – it represents perhaps the greatest challenge which will be faced by this generation.
We have to move on from warm generalities to talking about specific actions. This is what I want to do in this short speech.
Since this plenary session last met I and my party have followed closely the ongoing sectoral dialogues. We have engaged directly with many groups and outlined our policies in a series of detailed speeches delivered on both sides of the Border.
Ireland can only prosper if it is an international economy, with guaranteed access to fair trade, a seat at the table when rules are made and the active good will of partners.
Our future is as a positive member of the EU. That is the clear will of the overwhelming majority and it is our starting point.
The only area where there has been obvious progress is in relation to the Common Travel Area. There appears to be no real resistance in London to maintaining the broad range of rights which we extend to each other’s citizens.
What we need no is to go into much greater detail. Many of the pre-EU CTA rights we not formally incorporated in statute law.
In order to provide long-term security and to avoid future problems, we urgently need to start preparing legislation to protect rights covering not just travel and employment but also health, education and social protection rights.
For a range of reasons which we have outlined in detail we believe that Northern Ireland is a unique case and it should have a special status. If the UK government will not propose this, then it is our job to propose ways forward.
Given just the fact that Northern Ireland will contain the largest concentration of EU citizens outside of the EU, it is different.
In relation to core rights and protections, the concerns about the impact of hard Brexit on the Good Friday arrangements are deep and well founded. There is no basis for us agreeing any change to the role of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As for the role of EU law as included in the Northern Ireland Act, this is the result of a solemn treaty between our countries.
There is no room for any doubt on this – no change to that act can or should be made without Ireland’s prior agreement. On a more practical level, we need to propose specific options for protecting North/South trade and interaction.
For a start, there should be no question of introducing new customs arrangements for goods using ports and airports across the border for transit. Special arrangements are common internationally and this should be easily achieved. Early agreement on this is essential for many businesses in the border areas in particular.
On a larger scale, we should seek a Special Economic Zone status for Northern Ireland and those areas where trade with Northern Ireland is a major factor. These are also areas which have so far not been able to recover from the decades of violence which often directly targeted economic and social infrastructure.
Many businesses are rightfully concerned about the impact of new regulations including customs regulations which will apply to both North/South and East/West trade.
I believe our core strategy should be to both limit and subsidise compliance costs.
The amount of information to be collected has to be limited and automation maximised. A permanent consultation process for each major trading sector should be in place with a legal right of consultation before new regulations and new administrative arrangements are put in place.
As for the cost of compliance with new trade regulations, there should be, for at least a lengthy transitional period a direct subsidy of the costs of adaptation.
For many firms this will be the first time that they will have to track their trade for customs authorities or this will mark a dramatic increase in such activity. They will need to pay for training, technology and often new personnel. Having to meet this through existing resources while also facing new customs duties would directly damage competitiveness.
The last few months have confirmed that the impact of Brexit will vary from sector to sector and therefore the response has to vary. We need a series of meaningful sectoral support strategies to help navigate the next five to ten years.
Where necessary we should seek a transitionary exemption from state aid rules to support diversification of products and markets. We also have to step-change research activity, training and agency supports to be offered on a sector-by-sector basis.
At present we have a deep and ongoing contact with the UK because we both attend every European meeting. At political, diplomatic and administrative levels we know each other well and we work together because so much of our work is within the formal context of the EU.
We also work together on implementing regulations. We have to replace this contact or we run the risk of managing the next two years and then drifting apart. Given how dismissive London is being towards the views of the devolved administrations this is a major risk.
Following Brexit there will be many unanticipated problems and possibly even opportunities in our relations with the UK. To tackle them we need structures which demand active rather than passive engagement.
Under the Good Friday Agreement we have the British-Irish Council, but it has a limited record of tackling urgent or complex issues. In fact it already has the competence to discuss EU issues but has played no significant role in shaping Brexit policy.
Our objective should be a clear one of having in place arrangements which oblige regular and structured discussions between our governments. This could be an evolution of the British-Irish Council or it could be something new along the lines of the Nordic Council of Ministers. That body has an independent secretariat and its members differ in terms of membership of the European Union and NATO.
On a European level we need to engage with the agenda of where the Union goes from here. We need it to be more dynamic and responsive. We have to be absolutely clear in fighting against the populists and anti-democratic forces of the far right and far left.
Brexit is under way and Brexit is already causing damage. Our options are not limitless, but they are wide enough that we can do a lot to prepare for 2019 and to secure Ireland’s position as part of a strong international community.