During this workshop one of the topics which is being discussed is how we want our politics to work both now and in the years ahead. It’s important to remember that one of the greatest challenges in both politics and economics is to see through the fog of current events and focus on those things which really matter.
In a world where news cycles are becoming shorter and louder all the time it is incredibly easy to be distracted by events which actually aren’t that important.
Just ask yourself how often front page headline news is forgotten a day later. Or think about how regularly pundits predict that something will have a decisive impact but it actually turns out to be irrelevant.
Yet for all of this, there are still times when an issue deserves to dominate discussion and which will have a profound impact for many years ahead.
Brexit is just such an issue.
For Ireland and Europe – indeed for the democratic world as a whole – Brexit is a defining issue of our age.
It has economic, political, social and cultural implications which go far beyond the narrow issue of the trading relationship between one country and the rest of Europe.
And let’s never forget that Ireland’s interests go far beyond dealing with the deep economic threat of disrupted trade.
And this is why the situation we find ourselves in today is so serious – two and a half years after the dark and destructive Brexit referendum and 70 days until it is due to take effect under current law.
Under the current best-case realistic scenario all we will achieve in the coming months is more time to define a permanent relationship.
We have really not even begun to grasp the medium and long term issues which come from Brexit.
We have no roadmap for how relations between different administrations and jurisdictions on these islands will work.
We have no plan for the diversification of our economy which is essential to prospering in the longer-term.
Equally there is no real engagement with the radical agenda which is required to protect the great ideals of a Europe which is a shared space for free democracies.
The chaotic scenes we have seen in London in recent months should be a stark warning to us of what happens when a political elite looks only at winning tactical battles and refuses to question itself.
We have to get through the weeks and months ahead – and we have to do so with a continued national unity of purpose – but we also need to step back and realise how much more we need to do to meet the challenge of this moment.
I believe that there will eventually be a deal reached which can be ratified in some way in London.
In order to make sure that Ireland is in the strongest possible position in discussing and implementing this deal my party has ensured political stability.
On a number of occasions I have written to key European leaders to reassure them that reports of political instability in Ireland could be safely ignored.
And we went much further last month and gave a commitment unmatched in Europe to allow a minority government a secure period to focus on emergency issues.
I think events this week have confirmed that we were right in saying that the worst thing for our country at the moment would be to be in the middle of an election and heading into potentially months of government formation talks.
Make no mistake – we believe that the chronic failures of public policy in the critical areas of health and housing allied to other issues means that our country should have a change of government. But business as usual is simply not an option.
The stability which is there for the rest of this year needs to be used to move at much greater speed to both address the urgent practical tasks of preparing for Brexit and to start addressing more permanent issues.
From early last year it has been clear that Ireland is well behind where it should be in Brexit preparations.
Only a small fraction of potential funding for businesses and communities hit by Brexit has been allocated and the majority of actions identified as being a priority have not been completed.
In private discussions with the government and in various public forums we have been pushing for a move from general statements about being ready to hard evidence of actually being ready.
On at least four occasions in the last seven months the government announced that it was “stepping-up” or “accelerating” no deal preparations.
Had this been true we would not need to be still seeking even basic information.
While the government has said it has prepared a massive 17-sector omnibus bill to be enacted before March 29th the fact is that no such draft legislation has been seen by anyone.
On Tuesday we received brief and general details of what is intended – roughly the equivalent of an explanatory paragraph. After objecting to this we have now been promised sight of an outline draft next week.
If this legislation is to be enacted in time and to be legally sound we need far more people involved.
We will be suggesting that the different sectors involved should be invited into the Foreign Affairs Committee to comment in advance of the overall scrutiny of the omnibus legislation.
What we also need immediately is a statement on the fiscal and economic implications of a move away from the current deal.
The Budget enacted before Christmas is based on the premise of a long transition and a backstop. Any change from this position has implications and it is not good enough that details of these are being withheld.
For example, a no deal scenario could put an immediate hole in this year’s Budget. It’s not credible or acceptable to refuse to discuss this.
It is also cynical beyond belief to claim that there will be €3 billion free for a tax cut when there are so many threats already here or on the horizon.
Let’s have a lot more transparency and honesty in talking about the likely specific impact of current events. The Irish people will respond positively to the challenge – but only if they have a sense that their government is being open with them.
This is a time to show that we can build and maintain not just a political consensus but a national consensus – one which agrees on shared objectives and good faith but still allows for the sort of scrutiny and debate which should be central to free democracies.
And let’s also use the time we now have to address core issues about our future which involve far more than Brexit.
We have to understand that Northern Ireland’s problems go much further than Brexit and were there well before the referendum.
The threat to the Good Friday Agreement which Brexit poses is serious – but there is a wider and deeper threat which will remain irrespective of the final Brexit outcome.
Over the last decade there has been a relentless erosion of public faith in the ability of the Northern Institutions and the parties which dominate them to work in everyone’s interest.
In contrast to Scottish devolution, which has seen its public standing strengthen dramatically, people look at the Northern settlement and question its future.
Two years ago the key institutions of the Agreement were collapsed because of a heating scheme but in reality it was the culmination of the core dysfunction and ‘party first’ approach of the two parties.
The inquiry into the heating scheme has shown that both of the largest parties behaved in a non-transparent way and put the interests of their people first.
What has been revealed needs to be understood more widely – however what it does not reveal is any justification for leaving the people of Northern Ireland with no voice at a moment when its future is at the centre of national and international debate.
On top of this you have had the damage caused by our government’s withdrawal from the sort of active role which secured the Good Friday Agreement and the successor measures which ensured its implementation.
It is impossible to imagine how anything could have been achieved if Bertie Ahern had said, as the Taoiseach has, “it’s not my job to deliver the unionists”.
Set-piece formal meetings and dialogue through the media can achieve nothing and certainly this approach will not bring about the restoration of constructive North/South relations which is the indispensable foundation for any progress.
Whatever deal is implemented, Northern Ireland must return to being a genuine priority for our government and the Oireachtas.
We also have to understand that we must construct a new relationship with our nearest neighbour.
One part of this is the trading relationship the UK will have with the European Union, but there are many other dimensions which are purely bilateral and require a new strategy on our part.
Anyone who attended European Council of Ministers meetings over the years will tell you how deep and permanent our cooperation was. Europe provided the framework for maintaining the sort of close relationship which we have taken for granted.
It’s not just about whether you need a passport to go to Britain – it’s about health, education, pensions, insurance, qualifications and the many other areas which are required to make a concept such as the Common Travel Area work in practice and to maintain the constant movement between these islands which we both value so much.
I welcome the fact that there is agreement on some immediate steps such as protecting welfare rights – but we have to go much further and create the type of ongoing interaction which will stop the CTA being undermined in the future.
The proposal for an annual joint cabinet meeting is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what is needed.
Such set-piece events are more about public profile than serious work. Our best cooperation with the UK over the years has come from work conducted well away from the cameras but at unglamorous meetings.
We need a formal structure for permanent official and political interactions. Something like the Nordic Council of Ministers needs to be discussed – and we will certainly need at the very least a temporary structure whereby the problems faced by exporters in both our countries can quickly raise issues with both countries and receive a joint response.
The decay of British politics we have seen in the Brexit process is a tragedy, and one which we can only hope that they quickly recover from.
When they do, we have an immense job ahead as we need to construct a new relationship and we need to at the very least prepare for this.
Finally we need to remember that we are not just continuing as members of the European Union – we are continuing as members of a Union which faces many threats.
It needs a more urgent and ambitious agenda in order to overcome these threats and Ireland has to start playing a far more active role in shaping and promoting this agenda.
While we would not agree with some of the points in President Macron’s initiative on Europe, much of what he proposed was deserving of support and it’s unfortunate that Ireland didn’t speak up.
The EU needs a larger budget if it is to achieve the objectives which we set for it. It cannot create an innovation-driven Union, or deliver regional cohesion, or help countries caught in economic crises if its budget is capped at the equivalent of 1% of combined national incomes.
Research shows people believe the Union has a Budget which is many times bigger than it is and make demands which it simply cannot meet.
Ireland needs to join with other countries in addressing this.
We also need to support a more ambitious completion of the Banking Union so that it finally addresses all of the core weaknesses which materialised during the crisis.
And during 2019 we have to speak up while the Union goes about replacing all of its senior leaders. By this time next year members states will have chosen new leaders for the Council, the Commission and the European Central Bank.
We can’t afford for these decisions to be based on anything other than finding people who will not only lead their institutions well but will help to address a real lack of public understanding and faith in these institutions.
Mario Draghi is perhaps the single most important person when it comes to having helped Ireland and Europe out of the great recession. He was brave and he was innovative – and by not only promising but actually doing whatever it took he saved the Euro and possibly the EU.
Under no circumstance should Ireland or any country agree to a replacement who would return to the approach which had such a disastrous impact in the years before his appointment.
Donald Tusk has also been an effective leader of the Council and has made sure that the interests of members have been respected. He has also been an active promoter of the values of free democracy in Europe and has prevented some compromises which would have fatally undermined the values which the Union is supposed to stand for.
We need a new Council President who will have his political touch and determination.
And of course there will be a new Commission President. What happens in the coming months will do much to determine how the Junker presidency is seen, however what we know for sure is that we need a frontline politician who can take the Union’s message directly to the public.
The Commission may well be world-class in negotiations but it is very far from it when it comes to broader politics.
In recent years Ireland has too often been a bystander. We have failed to understand fully how much has changed in the Union and how our old strategies are out of date. We don’t just need to join new groupings, we need a new agenda and we need to show our people and our partners that Ireland is a full participant in the task of securing the Union’s future and making sure that it can contribute as much to this century as it did to the last.
At this critical moment in our history the challenges are daunting but they are clear. We need to show a level of urgency and commitment which has too often been lacking.
We don’t just need to get through Brexit, we need to define and shape a new agenda for this island, for these islands and for our place in a renewed Europe.