Let us start today by stepping back from the wall-to-wall coverage of negotiations and take stock of where we actually are in terms of confronting one of the greatest challenges of the last half century.
Fifteen months after the Brexit referendum the sad reality is that confusion and uncertainty remain dominant.
In no substantive area do we have any real clarity about what lies ahead and specific actions remain more talked about than implemented.
As a result, businesses and communities throughout this island are deprived of the ability to plan how to minimise the damage which all the evidence shows is inevitable.
There is no question that the biggest fault by far lies with a London administration which appears divided between those who want to maintain the empty bluster of their referendum campaign and those scared by the scale of self-inflicted damage which they face.
Europe has adopted a reasonable and structured approach to the negotiations. Each of the principal institutions has demonstrated understanding fconcerning Ireland’s position and their goodwill is clear.
However, we are still stuck in first gear. The prospect of a transition period is welcome, though not in any way certain, and no serious work has been undertaken on mitigation efforts to address Ireland’s unique issues.
This is not a political forum and I and my Fianna Fáil colleagues have outlined elsewhere our concerns about what we believe is a lack of urgency and ambition in our government’s response. Therefore I will leave it at the comment.
We believe that the gap between the rhetoric and reality is large and that it is simply not credible to announce as government policy that it’s up to others to make proposals before we will.
The feedback from industries and communities over the last year has been consistent in confirming that Brexit presents a direct and substantial threat to economic, social and cultural progress on this island.
In addition, these threats amount to a challenge which is unique for Ireland. In response to this we need a combination of targeted and broader actions.
We believe that the unique situation of North/South relations means that both the EU and the UK should recognise it as requiring a unique response. Therefore, we reject the British government’s proposal to use concessions for Northern Ireland as a way to secure preferential access to the Single Market for the rest of the UK.
Equally, we reject the attempt by some to use Brexit as an attempt to try and force what would effectively be constitutional change for Northern Ireland outside of the mechanisms in the Good Friday Agreement.
The only credible way forward is, we believe, the recognition of Northern Ireland and at very least the border counties, as a Special Economic Zone with access to the EU.
There are 4,500 SEZ’s in the world, of different sizes and scopes. The consistent feature is that a defined area within a state has a different regime for international trade. It is an Irish concept – having been invented here for the Shannon Free Zone – and it offers the ability to respect constitutional agreements while addressing unique challenges.
Continued regulatory convergence should be possible due to the fact that the Northern Assembly can receive delegated authority to legislate in key areas. In addition, the Good Friday Agreement, which is already part of both Irish and UK domestic law and has received the formal recognition of the EU, provides for cross-border bodies which would have the authority to manage the relationship.
It is true that this arrangement would potentially advantage Northern Ireland over the rest of the UK. This would not be large enough to damage the other countries but it would provide a development opportunity for Northern Ireland and the Border counties to break out of cycles of long-term disadvantage.
The simple fact about a new trade border is that there is no such thing as a soft border. The only way of avoiding serious damage and protecting businesses is to have a mechanism which allows free and fair trade. We believe that a Special Economic Zone is the only credible means of achieving this.
Obviously a major impediment in the way of this is the fact that Northern Assembly and Executive are not functioning. Last week the Scottish and Welsh governments published formal demands in relation to the devolution of EU powers currently being discussed in the House of Commons. Yet Northern Ireland, which has dramatically more to lose from Brexit, has no voice.
The continued failure to get back to working on behalf of the people has caused serious damage already and may cause much more unless parties agree to work together.
In the coming months long-term capital plans will be published. While the core of this work was apparently finished early this year and is simply waiting for publication, there remains an opportunity for these plans to commit to a renewed level of cross-border investment in infrastructure and shared services.
Feedback and research have also confirmed that irrespective of what arrangements are made with Northern Ireland; businesses need direct support for market and product diversification.
The UK market will continue to be uncertain and wide currency fluctuations are now a permanent feature. Sectors with a wide exposure to the UK market, especially in terms of traded goods, need more than extra trade missions; they need targeted and generous assistance in finding new high value markets. I see no real alternative to planning for a direct aid scheme which would work over a defined period of years to reduce the exposure of these sectors to the UK market.
This will require exemptions from State aid rules and we should be proposing this now rather than after all the damage is done.
The significant expansion of staff dedicated to handling Brexit is something we have been calling for from the very beginning. We welcome the announcement of extra staff, though we don’t welcome the fact that many of these new positions remain unfilled.
Also in relation to East/West trade, we should prepare the legal ground for funding and concessions which will can relieve businesses of the huge compliance costs which have been identified during this dialogue as a major concern.
We have to plan for the worst and be able to scale back if the British government ends up reversing its stated intention of being outside the Single Market and Customs Union.
I understand the reluctance to plan based purely on one scenario, but it must be possible to have in place enabling measures flexible enough to be scaled to respond to any particular scenario – including the possibility of internal Tory manoeuvring leading to a ‘no deal’ Brexit in March 2019.
There is no positive outcome to Brexit; there is at most an outcome which limits the damage.
We have available to us a range of measures we can take. Some require intense negotiations while others can be implemented without discussions.
You and your organisations have been very clear in expressing your concerns and being open to any constructive solutions.
On behalf of my party I want to thank you for the time that many of you have made available to talk to us separate from this dialogue. I assure you that we remain ready and eager to hear from you as Brexit discussions go further.
The threat is clear. The answers are difficult but available. What we need now is to show the necessary urgency, ambition and implementation.