I would like to congratulate the organisers of this conference for putting together such a diverse and challenging programme. Brexit isn’t a minor side issue or abstract concern – it is both urgent and one of the defining issues of our time.
In a time when it is increasingly hard to distinguish between serious issues and the noise of passing concerns there is no question – Brexit matters.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the negotiations to date, and one of the most important is that we need to replace negotiation through the media with close and substantive discussions.
There is a much wider agenda to be talked about concerning reform of the European Union. However, we only have a limited time, and in deference to our guests I will largely confine myself to issues concerning relations within these islands.
It is an unfortunate reality that we have paid far too little attention to the work of devolved government in the UK. Twenty one years ago the UK was a relatively uncomplicated unitary state which was highly centralised. The devolution programme implemented in the following years has made this a completely out of date way of seeing the UK.
Large areas of public policy are now decided at a devolved level including much social policy and an increasing number of economic policies. Each of the devolved administrations has its own particular constitutional settlement including growing numbers of powers concerning taxation. This, of course, is in addition to the role of devolution in helping to address historic division and conflict in Northern Ireland.
In spite of how important devolution has been, we have paid little attention to it. Following the various referenda and the initial rush of coverage, the new approach to government in the UK has largely been absent from both our media and our public discourse. This might be understandable in relation to Edinburgh and Cardiff, but sadly it has even also been the case in relation to Belfast.
For us, the failure of this government to engage actively with Northern Ireland other than in the context of major crises has wasted enormous opportunities. It has also caused real damage by reversing the previously strengthening and constructive relations.
The narrative of conflict has been followed by one of complacency.
For obvious reasons, the sharpest focus of my remarks will relate to this island, but I would like to stress that the concerns of the Scottish and Welsh administrations are important for us.
On behalf of my party I would like to acknowledge the detailed and passionate commitment to Ireland’s interests which Scottish and Welsh MPs have been showing during the House of Common’s debate on withdrawal.
SNP MPs and MPs from the Welsh Labour Party have been amongst the strongest voices demanding that the historic progress represented by the Good Friday Agreement be protected.
In the case of Scottish voters, their vote to remain within the European Union has been shown even less respect than the similar vote by the people of Northern Ireland.
I and my party are very clear in stating that we will support any reasonable proposal which will enable the people of Scotland to retain as close a connection to the EU as possible.
We also respect the position of the Welsh government that it wishes to maintain ongoing links with the European Union.
Exactly what this might mean in practice is not clear because of how delayed and confused the process has been.
It was announced on Wednesday in Westminster that a significant move is being made concerning the devolution to the administrations of matters currently dealt with at EU level.
The details are not yet available for us to review but it is an important move as it allows devolved action on areas such as agriculture which are very important for trade within these islands.
This is on top of areas such as health and education where devolved authority was already established and where it should be possible to maintain connections.
I hope what is being proposed can provide a model to develop a new agenda in the next round of discussions and during the transition period.
To step back for a moment and to look at the overall picture, we should always remember that the issues involved in the Brexit negotiations carry with them permanent consequences for the social, economic, cultural and political future of our countries and Europe as a whole.
Irrespective of where you stand, the increasingly undeniable reality is that Brexit is already causing damage.
Equally there is still no proposal from the UK for a long-term arrangement which respects the right of EU members to maintain the core principles of their Union. There is no scenario available in which Brexit will not do further damage.
In Ireland, exporters are already suffering due to both the fear of what will come after the transition period and the impact of a weakened sterling.
As for the UK, it is quite striking how the end of last year’s fiscal and economic data showed a picture of higher borrowing, higher inflation, lower disposable income and a loss to national income of £350 million a week.
That is of course a figure which appeared on the side of buses touring England in 2016, but in a very different context.
The warnings of what was described by Brexiteer’s as the government’s ‘Project Fear’ were wrong in the months immediately after the referendum – that has to be admitted. However they were clearly too mild for the period since then.
And to be clear, I reject the idea that someone who challenges the chaos in Whitehall or points to Brexit damage can be dismissed as a ‘Remoaner’ or that no one has a right to complain because there was a referendum. This shows an intolerance towards the right of people to be true to their own beliefs and to point to hard facts.
Equally, I am not one of those who dismisses anti-EU sentiment as illegitimate or who attacks the right of people to argue against membership. However the dismissive approach to planning for what might come next has exposed the UK and Europe to a process which has wasted time and goodwill.
I fully accept the sincere personal beliefs of anti-EU advocates – but their campaign was shabby and squalid. It was largely based on fear-mongering and outright falsehoods. As the many insider accounts of the campaign have revealed in the last year – the overall Leave strategy was to say or do whatever was necessary and to hell with the facts and the consequences.
And quite frankly this gives everyone a right to argue over the shape and nature of what happens once the UK has left the EU.
And the consequences are likely to get worse no matter what. The UK’s exit from the Single Market has been confirmed and is, disappointingly, even supported by the leadership of the British Labour Party.
But if we look at the specifics of what the long-term situation will be we actually know little more than was obvious a year ago.
First, the remaining members of the EU will not compromise the core architecture of the EU in order to give a privileged status to the UK as a non-member.
Second, the UK’s red lines effectively rule out any proven and ready-to-go model of relations with the EU.
Everything else flows from these two core points.
As for Ireland, the fixed will of the overwhelming majority is that we are committed to a European model of shared and enhanced sovereignty which was absolutely central to ending the cycle of destruction and conflict which defined the first half of the last century.
We see the European Union as the only credible enabler of sustained growth for open societies which aim to secure and maintain high standards of living.
My party believes that Ireland must become more active in shaping the Union’s future and addressing the remaining weaknesses which were exposed during the economic crisis. We have to commit to a stronger central budget, a real banking union and a new emphasis on innovation.
What is striking is that support for the EU amongst Irish people has actually risen in the last two years.
In practical terms, there is no way that Ireland should be a voice at the table for a UK strategy of cake consumption and retention.
The EU must be strengthened its core principles should be protected and adhered to by its members.
The Phase One agreement largely confirmed what had been already been offered by the UK government about Ireland before the negotiations began. They are committed to avoiding North/South barriers and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, but do not yet have specific ideas for how to do this.
One piece of good news is that the EU has confirmed that it will fully respect the EU citizenship rights which will be retained by residents of Northern Ireland. This was an issue which we raised in Dublin and London before the negotiations began and it is extremely important.
It is also an acknowledgement that Northern Ireland represents a special situation.
The 1.8 million residents of Northern Ireland, and future residents, have a right to both British and Irish citizenship, and therefore EU citizenship, which is enshrined in British, Irish and European law. And lest there be any question about the legitimacy of this, it was supported by an overwhelming majority of the people in a free referendum.
And I think it’s important that we put to rest the idea that politicians in the Republic advocating a deal which respects the rights and opinions of Northern Ireland is a constitutional threat. It’s actually the exact opposite.
It is a vindication of long-established policy which underpins the core concept that the people of Northern Ireland alone will decide on its constitutional status.
Equally, we have a right to express our aspiration for a single state for all on this island without this being presented as a threat to anyone. And I think through my words and actions I have more than earned the right to speak on this topic without being accused of following the agenda of Sinn Fein – which is in fact this island’s most entrenched anti-EU party.
I have also been very clear in calling on Sinn Fein to allow the Northern institutions to get working. Only this will enable the anti-Brexit majority to have a place at the table during critical negotiations in the next nine months.
In the Downing Street Declaration and in every agreement since then the overwhelming majority here have been true to the principle of free consent. Equally, our legitimate interest in Northern Ireland has been recognised by the UK government and parliament. It has been recognised by every Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards.
And I hope everyone will acknowledge that my party’s official engagement with communities in Northern Ireland has always been open, unthreatening and constructive.
The recent disagreements are getting in the way of working together to address deep threats to the welfare of all on this island, but particularly in Northern Ireland.
The only published economic assessment on the impact of Brexit in the UK states that Northern Ireland is the region with the most to lose from the hard Brexit which is underway.
For all parts of Ireland, there is no good Brexit. If what we end up with is a new customs border with light-touch technology administering it, it may not look like there is a border, but it will be there and it will be damaging businesses and communities on both sides.
To give one small example, Northern businesses are likely to be hit with serious cash-flow problems because of exiting the EU VAT regime and thousands of companies will be obliged to comply with large numbers of new administrative tasks.
I believe that the only credible means of addressing the economic needs of Northern Ireland is for it to become a special economic zone.
This would threaten no one’s sovereignty but it would enable a means of allowing free flow of trade both North/South and East/West. It would not in any way undermine the internal market of the UK as it is a model used throughout the world by states seeking ways of developing regions.
I regret the fact that this has been opposed so far because of unjustified concerns. It is effectively an economic development zone which doesn’t undermine the status of Northern Ireland, and one which provides the basis for respecting the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland.
Whether or not this proposal is examined, the time is long since passed for our governments to move from generalities to specifics if we want to limit the damage of Brexit.
There are a series of things which should be addressed immediately.
First of all we need immediate and detailed discussions on how the different elements of the Good Friday Agreement are to be protected.
The UK government has said that the Agreement remains UK law and in the High Court in Belfast and the Supreme Court in London it accepted both its responsibility to respect the Agreement and the fact that it “assumes” UK membership of the EU.
For example, the text of the Agreement and its enabling legislation explicitly requires the Assembly and Executive to operate in accordance with EU law. Prime Minister May has said the Agreement remains in place, so how exactly is this requirement to be addressed post-Brexit?
We need to know exactly how the complex balance of rights and obligations set out in the Agreement will be vindicated when the enabling force of EU membership is removed.
Secondly we need to more actively engage on the issue of regulatory alignment and barrier-free trade with the devolved administrations and the UK as a whole.
With the devolved administrations about to receive a significant enhancement of their powers we have to start exploring what this means in practical terms.
While the governments are refusing to produce impact assessments various sectors are already clear about the problems they want to see addressed. Let’s not wait for a final deal to begin work, let’s do it now.
And let’s use this work to inform our positions on the negotiations for a long-term trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
The UK’s agenda for these talks has to be credible, but it can still be ambitious if it focuses on the interests of sectors which are important for regions which are in favour of strong EU-connections.
And thirdly we have to begin to address the fracture in East/West relations which Brexit represents. The close working relationship between ministers and officials in Dublin and London was based on the fact that we interacted with each other every day within the EU. We also ensured close policy alignment because of EU-level agreements.
Northern negotiations did involve strong relationships at governmental level, but the EU context has always been broader and just as important. In the different European Councils which I belonged to, I always had a very positive relationship with the UK minister and we used this to address many bi-lateral issues not on the EU agenda.
In recent years we’ve seen what happens when East/West relations become more formal and less intense. And unfortunately the British Irish Council as currently operated is no answer. It is a valuable body and the contacts involved have always been positive, but it cannot replace the lost EU-level contacts. For example, the British Prime Minister has ignored it for years and its agenda is long on discussions and short on hard actions.
We need a structured and formal process for ensuring that we maintain our relations and avoid a damaging drift. The most effective way of doing this would be something similar to the Nordic Council of Ministers.
This Council includes states both in and out of the Euro and the Union and is a proven way of ensuring that relations are permanent and not dependent on informal contacts.
It has a shared secretariat and identifies areas for increased cooperation. No one alleges that it interferes with sovereignty or has other constitutional implications.
In terms of our specific domestic agenda there is a lot more which needs to be done. Businesses need real support for developing new products and new markets. We also need to begin negotiations with the EU to agree exemptions from state aid rules for sectors which may be worst hit by Brexit. Such exemptions are part of every accession treaty and they should be part of an exit treaty as well.
The UK not being a member of the EU is a material change to our conditions of membership and we are entitled to support for adjusting to the new situation.
Time is already running out if we want to be ready for any scenario next year.
There probably will be a deal and it will probably involve a Canada-like trade deal to be finalised during the transition period. At a minimum, for businesses which trade this means new regulations and new costs.
On the other hand the possibility of no deal other than a transition period is a prospect we have to ready for.
The mess of the last year and a half has been the outcome of people making things up as they go along. It is borderline absurd that the UK government took 18 months before it stated in broad terms the type of post-Brexit relations it wants with the EU – and it is deeply worrying that we are still not beyond generalities when it comes to relations within these islands.
The UK has made its choice, though it is one which is far from uniform and is not net articulated beyond generalities.
Ireland has made its choice and we stand with the European ideal which has delivered so much for us and Europe.
To get through the rest of these negotiations we need more cooperation, more urgency and more ambition. We must be open to new models of cooperation and development.
This is a once in a generation challenge and we must stop the drift and damage which has defined the issue since June 2016.