When the first Civic Dialogue meeting was held in November 2016 the most important consistent issue raised by people was that not only did they want as soft a Brexit as possible they wanted clarity on what they had to plan for.
There was an understanding of the need to be ready for whatever might happen, to invest in diversifying markets and products and to provide significant support in advance of Brexit taking place. There was a hope and expectation that when Brexit took place we would have completed not just planning but actually implementing major new investments.
The situation today is that the laws of both the EU and the UK say that Brexit will happen in 42 days’ time unless an alternative is both negotiated and ratified before then. As things stand our level of preparedness is at very best uncertain and there is a genuine concern amongst businesses and communities about what they are facing into.
There is no useful purpose to be served today by going over the events of the last two and a half years to remind ourselves of the combination of ignorance and ideology which has characterised the behaviour of Brexit’s fanatical supporters in London. It’s been very clear for a long time that they will not budge in the face of evidence or reason.
Europe’s solidarity for Ireland remains strong and it will remain fully intact. There is no scenario where Europe will force Ireland to accept a deal which it opposes.
We have no substantive information available to us about what technical discussions are underway or any private discussions about concrete steps which might avoid a crash in six weeks’ time. Along with you we assume and hope that there is more happening than has been acknowledged by the government.
Our concern today needs to be laser-like on how to manage the coming months to limit the damage inflicted on Ireland.
And we should all be very clear in understanding that the damage is already underway.
The Budget announced last year included as its core assumption a best-case situation of a ratification of the current deal. This showed that national income in 2019 would be roughly 2% lower than with a Remain scenario. Since then growth figures have been lowered and we have had two very serious projections from the Department of Finance and the Central Bank of Ireland.
The Department says that a nearly €1 billion hole will appear in public finances this year if there is no deal, with the situation next year being many times worse. Employment will be lower, with indigenous companies being particularly badly hit – and certain sectors bearing a disproportionate impact. The government has accepted that this is a very conservative forecast.
The Central Bank agrees with the Department of Finance on the scale of the damage, but says it will hit faster and harder.
The evidence is that there are many preparations underway but we will certainly not be fully ready for a no deal scenario in six weeks’ time.
Many of the figures for firms undertaking basic steps are impressive, but all of the data on completion of preparations show at best a patchy situation. For example, the need for major investment has been acknowledged by the Brexit Loan Scheme which is primarily funded by the EIB. As of the latest figures we have been given, 5% of this was allocated by mid-last month and if every single qualified application is sanctioned at most one quarter of the fund will be allocated before Brexit takes effect – and a fraction of this will have been spent.
In terms of trained-staff in place, legislation enacted, investments underway and emergency supports announced, there is simply no way to describe Ireland as Brexit ready today.
The urgency could not be greater and the stakes could not be higher.
We need a level of application and delivery in the coming months which will be a step-change from current practice.
And there is space to do this.
Ours is the only minority government in Europe which has received a guarantee that it can govern without worrying about an election at this critical phase in Brexit – and this includes countries which also face severe Brexit threats.
My party is being criticised on a near daily basis for this decision. Certainly the route of all-out opposition is easier. But when you look at the scale of the Brexit threat I believe we are right to say that our country simply cannot afford the added risk of spending up to four months holding an election and forming a government. It was the right decision and we stand by it.
As we’ve all seen in Belfast, the absence of a functioning government can cause immense damage to the public interest.
As the record shows it has been our consistent policy at these forums to be constructive. Indeed we have been speaking about Brexit preparations from over a year before the referendum was held. We believe the government has serious issues to answer about strategic errors and the gap between spin and delivery – while it has also benefitted from a consensus which has left normal standards of scrutiny to one side. However these are matters which have to wait. For now we have to focus on concrete actions.
We need much greater clarity and urgency.
In spite of being asked on a daily basis in the Dáil, the government has not answered the basic question of what will happen on the border in six weeks’ time if there is no deal. We know what is not being planned and what is not being contemplated – but what actually is being planned?
We also need clarity on what sectoral supports will be implemented and when they implemented if there is a chaotic Brexit. We can’t let the damage happen before we step-in. We need hard details of what is to be done and how much is involved.
As part of this we have to move away from the emphasis on investment schemes which are subsidised loans rather than grants.
Many firms are faced with not being able to commit to the scale of borrowing they need to undertake to replace lost markets. The fact that one investment scheme announced in late 2017 has so far not transferred a single cent to a business shows we need a more ambitious and generous approach.
And we need an assessment not just of how much is being planned but what its impact is.
I asked the Taoiseach this week if he knew how many businesses would be fully Brexit ready on March 29th and the answer was no.
We need a hard assessment of exactly where we will be on March 29th or at any date that Brexit is delayed until.
I believe we will have an extension of the Article 50 process until mid-year. This is time we badly need.
We know the scale of the threat and we know what we have to do to overcome it.
Finally, on behalf of my party I would like to thank the hundreds of businesses and organisations which have made the time to brief us on their concerns. I encourage you to keep doing this and to assure you that we will continue to raise these concerns at all available opportunities.