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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, TD, Second Stage in the Dáil of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019

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Ceann Comhairle,

The Government recognises that managing a no-deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. 

This Bill represents a whole-of-Government approach to protecting us from the worst effects.

Fortunately, preparation and planning for a range of Brexit scenarios has been ongoing since well in advance of the UK referendum in 2016.  A comprehensive set of Government structures was put place to ensure that all Departments and their agencies were engaged in detailed preparedness and contingency activities. 

Dedicated actions to get Ireland Brexit ready were announced in the last three Budgets, including significant investment for businesses.

In the event of a no deal Brexit, we recognise that it would be impossible to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK, or to put in place arrangements equivalent to those provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

So our focus is on the UK ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which was concluded following intensive negotiations between the UK and the EU.

The Protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement and the peace by respecting fully the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement.

It makes provision for the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, ensuring that the current bilateral arrangements can continue whereby Irish and British citizens can live, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in each jurisdiction as though they were citizens of both.

It ensures that there is no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and confirms that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens, that is freedom of movement across the continent without any need for visas or work permits.

Protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, supporting North-South cooperation and the all island economy, as well as protecting and maintaining the Common Travel Area underpin the Government’s approach in a number of provisions of this Bill.

The EU has been unambiguous that it is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect the peace process.

If the UK chooses to leave the EU without a deal, Ireland and the EU will have responsibilities in terms of ensuring protection of our Single Market and Customs Union.

The UK will have its own responsibilities, including meeting WTO requirements.

And we will all have our respective obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, and to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

The backstop is a carefully negotiated compromise, the UK red lines drawn around the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect the integrity of the EU Customs Union and Single Market. 

It is a result of a negotiation between the EU and the UK and is supported by the people it is designed to protect – our citizens in this state and British and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as business, farming and civil society groups in both jurisdictions.

The backstop is about avoiding a hard border and therefore protecting the peace process.  It cannot be time limited and cannot have a unilateral exit clause.  If so, it would not be a backstop.

The EU is committed to exploring and trying to agree alternative arrangements with the UK to supercede the backstop in the future.

However there are currently no alternative arrangements, which anyone has put forward, written down in legal form or demonstrated in practice which achieve what both sides are determined to achieve – the avoidance of a hard border.

The backstop is intended as an insurance policy for avoiding a hard border in all scenarios.

The Government is convinced that the backstop is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement.  The current uncertainty and political instability in the UK reinforces our view.

The best way forward now is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and to use the time provided by the transition period to seek to negotiate a future relationship or alternative arrangements that avoid the need to invoke the backstop.

I have said this it before and I will say it again; a no deal Brexit is the worst possible outcome and would not be in the interests of the UK, Ireland or the EU. 

Given the ongoing uncertainty in the UK and the proximity of the date of Brexit, the Government is continuing to take concrete steps in preparation for a no-deal scenario.

These include the publication on 19 December of the Government’s Contingency Action Plan.

The Contingency Plan sets out our approach to dealing with a no-deal Brexit.  The Plan includes analysis of the impact across all aspects of public life including: the economy and public finances; security; Northern Ireland and North-South relations; and it provides detailed sectoral analyses and approaches, both at an EU level and at national level, to mitigate the impacts of a no-deal Brexit.

On 30 January, an update to the Contingency Action Plan was published, setting out how preparations for a no-deal scenario have intensified since 19 December.

This includes prioritised drafting of Brexit-related legislation, and detailed Government consideration of important policy areas including:

•       transport connectivity, and ongoing preparations at ports and airports

•       supply of medicines,

•       agrifood and fisheries,

•       the Common Travel Area, and

•       macroeconomic impacts.

This work is informed by intensive planning across all relevant Departments and Agencies, to prepare as best we can for ‘no deal’.

To inform the public about our preparations the Government launched a Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign in September 2018, including a website and a dedicated social media presence.

To date 68 events have been held in 21 counties with another 18 events scheduled in the coming weeks.

These include six ‘Getting Ireland Brexit Ready’ workshops in Cork, Galway, Monaghan, Dublin, Limerick and Letterkenny.

Over 2,500 people have attended these events and they have included strong participation from the business community.

The Government is also providing information to assist businesses and other affected sectors to respond and prepare for Brexit including financial assistance from Enterprise Ireland and Local Enterprise Bodies. 

Practical assistance is also available in the form of the Brexit Advisory Clinics, Bord Bia’s Brexit Barometer and Enterprise Ireland’s Brexit Scorecard.

The Revenue Commissioners have also engaged with over 80,000 businesses to date to raise awareness of customs obligations.

At EU level, there is a strong understanding of the unique and disproportionate impact of Brexit on vulnerable economic sectors, particularly our farmers and fishermen.

The Commission has said that it stands ready to support Ireland in finding solutions to its specific challenges. The European Commission has adopted a package of contingency measures preparing for a possible ‘no deal’ and as recently as last week the EU Commission announced the adoption of revised rules on state aid in the agriculture sector, signalling an increase in the ceiling for national support to farmers from €15,000 to €25,000.  Budget 2019 also includes a €78m package for farmers, fishermen, and food SMEs to cover additional costs related to Brexit.

Work is underway to provide temporary infrastructure at Dublin and Rosslare Ports, and Dublin Airport, so that necessary checks can be applied in a no deal Brexit.  Recruitment of staff and development of IT systems is also on track for 29 March.

Engagement with stakeholders is an important aspect of the Government’s domestic response to Brexit.  Within the framework of the All-Island Civic Dialogue, five plenary dialogues and 20 sectoral dialogues have taken place across the country.

With the Tánaiste, I hosted the fifth plenary session in Dublin Castle on 15 February.  Over 400 political, business and civic society leaders gathered to continue this important all-island conversation.

I updated participants on the Government’s position on latest Brexit developments and on our intensive contingency planning work and I welcomed the opportunity to hear the views of political parties, North and South, and also to hear the concerns of participants through interactive panel discussions on ‘People, Citizens and Rights’ and ‘Business Preparations’.

There will be a certain level of disruption, but we are doing all we can to minimise it.  I urge businesses to step-up their contingency planning for a no deal Brexit and to utilise the supports available.

Brexit of any kind means change for the worse and no country can be fully prepared for No Deal.  It is uncharted territory.  No country has ever left the EU before.

However, we are prepared as we can be for this unprecedented challenge.  Indeed it is prudent that we do so.  The legislation the Tánaiste has introduced to the House is part of this.

Our focus is on assisting the UK to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. However, for the last two years we have also been preparing for ‘No Deal’.

This legislation enables us to mitigate against some of the worst effects of no deal by protecting citizens’ rights, security, and facilitating extra supports for vulnerable businesses and employers.

This omnibus bill is the result of more than a year’s background work starting with a root and branch review of our legislation.

The draft General Scheme of the Bill was published on 24 January 2019 and all nine relevant Government Ministers have appeared before Oireachtas Committees to discuss the contents.

The Bill prioritises issues that need to be dealt with urgently and immediately through primary legislation at national level.

Across the 15 Parts there are health provisions to protect citizens on a north-south basis so that children from Belfast can continue to come to Dublin for specialist pediatric care, and patients in Donegal can continue to access hospital care in Derry.  To give just two possible examples.

The Bill also includes new provisions to protect employees if their companies become insolvent, new powers for state agencies to intervene to aid businesses, provisions to ensure ferry crews can continue to operate in our ports, and protection of the single electricity market on the island.

We will have laws to ensure that bus operators can enter and operate in the UK and legislation to protect Irish and British students grants so that we continue to travel to each other’s countries for educational purposes.

The Bill includes sections to ensure that social welfare and pension payments continue as normal for the thousands of people in Ireland who rely on British pensions each week for their income. This legislation will also protect Irish citizens living in the UK who rely on pensions coming from here.  These are all crucial issues that need a new legal base in the context of a no-deal.

Work is progressing in parallel on the required and complementary secondary legislation covering a wide range of issues, from recognition of driver licences, recognition of qualifications, changes to facilitate the introduction of postponed accounting, and legislation to reduce the advance notification period for imports of animal and plants from third countries using roll on/roll off shipping.

In recognition of the breadth and scope of the Bill, I want to thank the Business Committee for waiving Pre-Legislative Scrutiny.

We will continue to work closely with all members of the Oireachtas, and listen to their views carefully.  I think we can all agree that it is essential that the Bill passes through all stages in the Dáil and the Seanad in a timely fashion and be ready for commencement by 29 March 2019.