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Táiniste, Minister, Taoiseach, in previous Brexit debates in this chamber both I and many others have repeatedly urged that in the context of the negotiations that the British government spell out exactly what their plans to avoid a hard border in Ireland would actually look like.
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“While there is an acceptance that this deal, if endorsed by the UK and EU, is the best that can be negotiated, it bears repeating that there is no such thing as a “good” Brexit for Ireland.”
Táiniste/Minister/Taoiseach, in previous Brexit debates in this chamber both I and many others have repeatedly urged that in the context of the negotiations that the British government spell out exactly what their plans to avoid a hard border in Ireland would actually look like.
It seems that in actually doing this, Prime Minister May has managed to shock many in her cabinet into resigning. The political infighting in the Conservative party has been allowed to hamper and delay these negotiations to such an extent that the deal agreed last week seems to already be in grave danger.
While the contents of the agreement are broadly to be welcomed, and I pay tribute to the hard work of the civil servants and others involved in the negotiations, there was a sense of unreality from Government last week that wasn’t helpful. In the context of the very tricky political arithmetic that Prime Minister May faces in the House of Commons, the hubris that the government chose to engage in regarding the deal was, in my view, damaging.
To see the Irish Government welcoming the content of the draft withdrawal agreement so enthusiastically will have done little to quell the fears of even moderate Brexiteers that this was anything other than a capitulation to the demands of the EU27. Similarly, the DUP, whose crucial votes in the House of Commons seem to be slipping through the Prime Minister’s fingers, will undoubtedly have been put in a position where they could not be seen to be supporting anything that Dublin was welcoming so heartily.
This view is shared by many hard-line Brexiteers in both the Conservative and Labour parties, Kate Hoey for example described elements of the backstop arrangement yesterday in the Belfast Telegraph as “look[ing] like they were written by the Irish government.”
I attended the briefing with the Táiniste late last Wednesday night and I believe that there was a complete lack of appreciation on the part of the government about how the mechanics and operation of this draft agreement are so intimately bound to the political reality in Westminster.
While we may lambaste those in the Conservative party and the DUP who seem to be intent on making their constituents poorer in order to further their selfish political agenda, we must similarly accept that the composition of the House of Commons will remain as it is until such time as there is a general election. That is the reality that the Government should be dealing with and I would urge them to be mindful of that fact.
I do note with interest however the comments by Amber Rudd this morning where she effectively contradicted the Prime Minister by saying that the British cabinet would act to prevent a ‘no deal’ situation in the event that the draft agreement fails to make its way through the House.
With these mixed signals in mind, I would ask the Minister, as I have previously in this chamber, what will be the practical response of the Irish Government if the unthinkable happens and the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal in place next March? Is there a contingency plan in place to ensure that the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will remain open? Given the situation in Westminster that I have outlined, it is imperative that we are well prepared for this eventuality.
While the focus of our attention is on the UK, it should not be forgotten that other EU states will be directly impacted by Brexit. Cyprus as thousands of Cypriots are employed to work in two British army bases in the south of the island which are considered sovereign British territory, and also Spain. I note that reports emerged yesterday that the Spanish Government are unhappy with certain elements of the withdrawal agreement as they relate to the relationship between Gibraltar and the EU. I would urge the Minister to engage carefully with his counterparts to ensure that the hard work on the deal is not scuppered by last minute local political concerns in the EU27, if it does manage to pass through the House of Commons.
Brexit and Ireland in the EU
While there is an acceptance that this deal, if endorsed by the UK and EU, is the best that can be negotiated, it bears repeating that there is no such thing as a “good” Brexit for Ireland. Regardless of how the UK exits the European Union, it is inevitable that the relationship between our two states will be diminished. It is a great shame for Ireland that a state, with which we shared a common position on many aspects of the European project is leaving the bloc. Particularly a state with as much clout as the UK enjoyed in shaping the EU we see today. I acknowledge the efforts of the government in building new alliances with small EU states similar to ourselves. These relationships will undoubtedly prove crucial in the future when the dust of Brexit settles and the day-to-day functioning of the EU readjusts to the reality of the UK being absent.
The Draft Withdrawal Agreement
I would like to draw attention to one particular area of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement that I believe warrants further scrutiny and will need clarification. I would particularly like to draw attention to article 5 on the Common Travel Area. This is a point which I have raised previously in the chamber regarding the seemingly impossible situation whereby other citizens of the European Union will continue to enjoy the right to free movement into and out of the Republic of Ireland, while the Common Travel Area is retained as is. As we know, the CTA allows for citizens of Ireland and the United Kingdom to travel and work freely in each jurisdiction. It isn’t difficult to understand the issue with this proposal, in effect the border between the UK and Ireland will be an open land frontier into the United Kingdom for EU citizens. I do not see how this circle can be squared given how vociferous Prime Minister May has been regarding the fact that this deal will end free movement for non-Irish EU nationals into the UK.
If the DUP will not accept travel restrictions between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain, then this presents a major stumbling block for the deal. I would very much welcome clarity from the Táiniste on this issue as the border could, in effect become a magnet for those wishing to enter the UK illegally. I note that reports emerged earlier in the week that Ireland could refuse entry for EU ‘persona non grata’ who are not allowed to enter the United Kingdom. This does not however address the issue of regular EU nationals intent on entering the UK via Northern Ireland.
Táiniste, while I commend the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and all of the others who have ensured that this deal is the best that could be brokered from an Irish perspective, I still harbour some grave fears about how this scenario will play out. We can only hope that the summit this weekend will be enough to ensure that the issues with the deal can be addressed without having to make major alterations and that the Prime Minister will be able to command enough support to guide it through Westminster.
The challenge for the government is to strike a balance in respect of holding the line on no hard border while aslo acknowledging the reality of the political arithmetic for the British Prime Minister. The fact that the promise of holding a Brexit referendum by Mrs. May’s predecessor was an enormous mistake does not make the task any easier.
21st November 2018