This week’s Council meeting marks another missed deadline in the long series of missed deadlines which we have seen since the political declaration on Brexit last December. In fact, there is a higher degree of uncertainty and a greater risk to Ireland’s interests today than there has been at any point.
Obviously the root cause of all problems is to be found in the small group of Euro-haters in London who continue to campaign against the EU with a ferocity which the last UK Permanent Representative in Brussels has rightly compared to the destructive frenzy of revolutionary ideologues.
Quite simply we cannot waste our time talking about them. They are willing to damage their own country and have no interest in the welfare of any others.
What we must do is to focus on what we have to do in the coming months to prepare for any eventuality. And just in case anyone is foolish enough to take the spin on face value, the evidence is that Ireland is today nowhere near Brexit ready.
Following this weekend’s failure to reach agreement President Tusk has written to leaders to say that a ‘No Deal’ outcome is more likely today than before and the process by which the main blockages may be overcome is far from clear.
It remains highly likely that some form of deal will be pulled together for the most obvious reason that a no deal outcome would hurt everyone more than any of the alternatives would.
For Ireland, in addition to the implications for the future of our agreed political settlement, according to the only independent forecast commissioned by the government a hit equal to 7% of national income would result – which is on par with the damage which would be felt by the UK.
Obviously the first priority must be to keep pushing for a form of special status for Northern Ireland which would guarantee it full access to both the EU and the UK markets.
It has been highly damaging that this area was allowed to be seen as a Green versus Orange issue last year – and immature and ill-advised comments about righting a wrong of 1922 and moving tectonic plates have at very least made the task of persuasion harder.
From the very beginning of this process my party has repeatedly said that tying the future of Northern Ireland to the overall and permanent status negotiations was at best dangerous.
Given the febrile and self-destructive nature of politics in London at the moment, linking Northern Ireland to the overall settlement was always likely to cause trouble.
But now is the time to try to calm fear and help people to understand that the offer being made by Michel Barnier and the European Union concerning Northern Ireland is both generous and potentially very exciting for Northern Ireland.
It is the best of both worlds – and it offers a new economic dynamic for Northern Ireland which could break a cycle of disadvantage which recent London and Belfast administrations have been unwilling and unable to tackle. It protects links that matter, but also opens up radical new opportunities.
Northern Ireland would have a unique economic status where it would not be obliged to pay for membership of the Single Market but would derive all of the benefits.
Northern Ireland could overnight find itself as the preferred destination of investors who want access to both the EU and the UK single markets – and as we know from the comments of British business, there are many jobs which could relocate to Northern Ireland in the right circumstances.
Yesterday I reiterated to the leader of the DUP that none of the democratic parties in this Dáil is in any way seeking to use Brexit as a way of undermining the clear constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland.
Our concern is to protect a relationship which has worked so well for all parts of this island.
The special or ‘unique’ economic zone status which my party has advocated provides a definite guarantee that no constitutional sleight of hand is being contemplated. It utilises principles well respected in international trade law – and which by definition involve one part of a state being given separate and preferential status to the rest.
Frankly, no government in the world is more assertive of its sovereignty than China’s – and they have used special economic zones as a central part of their dramatic growth story in recent decades.
I should say to the House that during our ongoing discussions in Brussels we have found a genuine interest in the special economic zone idea.
It is a pity that a year ago the Taoiseach said he had no responsibility for trying to persuade Unionists to accept what is being proposed. In this he was taking a position 100% different to his predecessors over nearly three decades. It is noteworthy that each of the major steps in the peace process involved sustained quiet engagement with the unionist community.
I welcome his meeting yesterday with the leader of the DUP and I hope it is not too late to start a wider effort.
Tomorrow I will be attending a pre-summit meeting of the ALDE Party of which Fianna Fáil is a member. Eight prime ministers are due to attend for the small working session at which Brexit will be a major topic.
I intend to thank them for their continued solidarity with Ireland and to reinforce the fact that there is a broad consensus in Ireland behind a status for Northern Ireland which protects both the operation and principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
I will also be informing them that we have taken the initiative to ensure that even though ours is a minority government the ability of our government and parliament to react quickly to any developments in the months ahead will be protected.
If there is, as we all hope, a substantive deal in the next two months the ratification process will potentially be littered with obstacles and I know many deputies share the opinion that we should not risk being caught in a period of election campaigning or government formation when quick responses will be needed to protect Ireland’s interests.
As things stand, there is no clarity on what deal can either be reached or ratified. The existing law of the UK specifics both that there will be a vote of some sort by January 21st and that the UK will leave the EU on March 30th.
We must be ready for all eventualities but the growing evidence is that we are nowhere near ready.
There are nearly 6,900 companies potentially impacted by Brexit, yet only a quarter have any Brexit plan in place. Key schemes for aiding planning are being awarded to a total of roughly 12 firms per months. A key loan scheme announced last year has not yet been established – which another has seen allocations of €2.5 million out of a promised €300 million.
The Dutch government has already hired and trained 1,000 officials to deal with Brexit – our government has just started the process of recruiting 400.
The delivery deficit which is so central to this government’s policy on housing, health, broadband and other major issues is being seen in relation to Brexit.
It’s long-past time to put aside the over-produced videos and ministerial self-promotion and to show far more urgency in Brexit preparedness.
Of the other items on the Council’s agenda President Tusk has asked members to express their support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons after the recent cyber-attack on that organisation – as well as the attempt to hack the investigation into shooting down of flight MH-17 over Russian-dominated areas of Ukraine.
Earlier this year we heard nearly hysterical attacks from Sinn Fein and others against the decision to sanction Russia for the Skripal chemical attacks. Now that the identity of the would-be assassins is clear and even the most useful fool cannot deny the link to Russia, it is clear that Ireland’s decision to stand in solidarity with the UK on that issue was correct.
It is another demonstration of just how much damage the UK will be inflicting on itself when it leaves the community of European nations who are committed to close, rule-based cooperation.