Good morning, it is a pleasure to welcome you all to this Fifth plenary meeting of the All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit. Thank you Tom for chairing the plenary once again.
It is now over two years since the inception of this Dialogue, which has allowed us to have the widest possible conversation on the unprecedented challenges facing our island as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
At all stages, your engagement has helped to shape the Government’s policies, strategy and objectives in the Article 50 negotiations and our domestic response to Brexit.
I welcome the opportunity to hear from you again, at this critical time. I also want to share with you the Government’s position on the latest Brexit developments and update you on the important no-deal planning work that we are engaged in.
We are just 42 days away from the 29th of March – the date on which the UK is due to leave the European Union. Unfortunately, at this point, uncertainty persists on the terms on which it will depart.
There is a deal on the table, one that was negotiated over many months that reflects the compromises on both sides that were required to reach Agreement.
It is a fair deal. Not least, it contains the guarantee that there will be no hard border on this island, no matter what else happens as a consequence of Brexit.
It also provides for a period of transition during which we can prepare for any permanent changes that will take place.
And it gives us time to negotiate a new economic and secure partnership with the UK.
I firmly hope that the UK will ratify it so that we can move forward.
The Withdrawal Agreement reflects the Irish Government’s priorities in the negotiations: to protect peace and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and to ensure the continuation of the Common Travel Area in all circumstances.
It sets out arrangements required to avoid a hard border on this island in light of the UK Government’s own red lines and our need to protect the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union – our Single Market and Customs Union.
Critically, it provides for the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. It will allow both sides to move on to the critical negotiations on the future relationship that we hope will result in a deal that means the backstop, an essential part of the Withdrawal Agreement, will never need to be used or at least not for long.
Since the vote in June 2016, we have been acutely conscious of the need to ensure that the rights and citizenship protections currently available to all the people of Northern Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement, are not undermined by the UK’s withdrawal.
The deal which is on the table contains a commitment from the UK that Brexit will not result in any diminution of the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. This is a firm undertaking made in a legally binding international agreement.
We also want to ensure that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as EU citizens, will continue to have access to important EU programmes such as the European Health Insurance Card and Erasmus.
We know they will continue to have the right to travel freely, work and study in any part of the European Union from Athens to Athenry.
One of the most striking things about what has unfolded since the UK’s decision to leave has been the remarkable solidarity and unity on the EU side. It has been strong and resolute. Ireland’s concerns on the border have become EU concerns. Our insistence on a legally binding and operable means to avoid a hard border has become an EU insistence.
In my contacts with the Presidents of the EU Institutions last week – Presidents Tusk, Juncker and Tajani – I was again assured in the strongest terms, that the EU stands by the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. It is not open for re-negotiation and there can be no Withdrawal Agreement without the backstop.
This is because the commitment on the border has got to be watertight. Despite what some have suggested, nobody has yet identified credible alternative arrangements that can avoid a hard border, protect the all-island economy, the Good Friday Agreement and North-South cooperation.
I know that the current political impasse in the UK is a particular cause of angst for many in Northern Ireland. It is simply not right that communities and businesses in Northern Ireland are being held hostage to political division in Westminster.
In Belfast last Friday, I heard the views of the five main Northern Ireland political parties at first hand. I heard from those who represent the voice of the majority in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU and I heard from those who fear that Brexit could loosen the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We need to acknowledge that concern.
This is compounded by the absence of functioning institutions in Northern Ireland for more than two years. Each of the parties confirmed to me their desire to get the institutions up and running. The Tánaiste and I stand ready to do anything we can to help - undoubtedly a successful conclusion of the Withdrawal Agreement would be a very positive development in that context.
And so, I welcome the fact that Interparty talks will take place today in Belfast with the Tánaiste in attendance.
Later that evening, I met with Prime Minister May over dinner in Farmleigh House. We discussed Brexit, of course, but we also discussed the ongoing political situation in Northern Ireland and the continuing absence of functioning institutions. The Prime Minister and I talked about our respective visits to Northern Ireland last week. I believe that Prime Minister May is sincere in her desire to avoid a return of a hard border on this island, and that like me she wants to see the political institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland.
But we have to be realistic and recognise that Brexit has serious implications for Northern Ireland politics. I think it is in all our interests to see Brexit resolved sensibly, as soon as possible, which can in turn help to reinstate political stability there.
We have to acknowledge that the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit could be particularly profound in Northern Ireland. I know that community representatives on all sides there are apprehensive about how that might play out. It would be a very unwelcome complication in the already strained relations between the political parties and in efforts to restore the institutions. It could add to unease between communities and fears of a return to darker times of the past.
Northern Ireland farmers and businesses could be among those most severely impacted in economic terms. And rights and benefits currently enjoyed by citizens could be curtailed or more difficult to access.
The Government is very mindful of all of these concerns in its determination to reach an agreement that minimises the negative impacts.
However, deal or no deal, the Government will continue to take into account the very real concerns of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland in the weeks and months ahead, including in its work with all the political parties there and with the British Government.
Amidst all of the uncertainty, I know that some in Northern Ireland consider that Brexit has changed the rules of engagement. On that point I should say that the Government is firmly of the view that now is not the time for talk of border polls. It is our strong belief this only serves to sow division at this highly sensitive time.
The Good Friday Agreement, which we have worked so hard to protect in the Brexit negotiations, is the foundation for all political engagement and wider relationships in Northern Ireland - between North and South and between East and West. We have no hidden agenda in this regard.
It is in all our interests for the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK to be secured and we welcome Westminster’s ambition to avoid a no-deal scenario.
While we are investing all possible efforts to secure the deal, we have to recognise that the possibility of a no deal outcome is real until it is removed.
We therefore have to be ready for all possible outcomes.
Last week in Brussels, President Juncker and I discussed the detailed contingency planning underway at both domestic and EU level.
We are intensifying our planning for no deal and it is welcome that programmes that provide assistance for cross-border peace and reconciliation in the border counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be continued and strengthened.
I outlined to President Juncker the assistance Ireland would require to deal with the specific challenges faced by businesses in the event of a no-deal exit especially farmers, fishermen, agrifood and exporters.
For his part, he emphasised that the Commission stands ready to help Ireland in finding solutions to the specific challenges that Ireland might face. We will continue to work closely together to this end over the coming weeks.
We will also continue to remind the Government of the United Kingdom of its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement, with or without a deal.
In December, the Government published its Contingency Action Plan which sets out our approach to dealing with a no-deal Brexit.
Last month we published a draft Brexit Bill which includes actions to protect our citizens and to support the economy, enterprise and jobs.
We will also put provisions in place in sectors where major challenges associated with a no deal Brexit have been identified, such as all-island transport and energy.
Timelines are tight, so we are working closely with all Opposition parties in the Oireachtas to ensure that this legislation will be in place by the 29th of March. We are grateful for the broadly constructive role they have played which stands in stark contrast to events at Westminster.
The Government’s overall objectives have been consistent from the start to minimise the impact on trade and the economy, protect the peace process including avoiding a hard border, maintain the Common Travel Area and reinforcing commitment to, and participation in, the EU. These continue to guide our approach, regardless of the type of Brexit we end up with.
Whatever the outcome, we will be prepared.
So, I want to thank you all for participating in today’s Dialogue. I hope that you will find the discussions useful and informative and that you will take the opportunity to have your voices heard.
My thanks also to all of the panellists and moderators who are making this event possible. Finally, thanks again to Tom Arnold for giving of his time to guide these important discussions.