A Cheann Comhairle,
I am pleased to address the House today in the presence of Michel Barnier. I thank him for his statement in which he outlined the complexities of the Brexit negotiations, and for his acknowledgement of their importance for Europe and of course for Ireland.
Michel Barnier is a longstanding friend of Ireland - not just as a leading French politician and Minister, but also as a European Commissioner. Indeed your time as Commissioner for Regional Policy gave you a particular insight to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland which will be central to the talks ahead.
I also want to thank you sincerely for your willingness to engage with Ireland since your appointment as Head of the Commission Brexit Task Force last July. This is your second visit to Dublin since that appointment, but we have also met on other occasions, including during my visits to Brussels in February and March, and at the European Council.
You and your colleagues in the Brexit Taskforce have been very cooperative and accessible to our Ministers and our senior officials. And I know that you have also been open to a range of other important stakeholders from Ireland. I thank you for this engagement. The challenges for Ireland arising from Brexit are extremely serious; and it is essential that all those affected have the opportunity to make their voices heard.
This has also been the approach of the Government here. Along with ongoing sectoral analysis across Government Departments, we have engaged widely with industry and civic society, holding nearly 280 separate meetings. The All-Island Civic Dialogue, which I convened with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, has included 16 sectoral events and 2 plenary meetings, with over 1,200 delegates representing industries and organisations from across the country. This kind of consultation has informed our positions on the negotiations, and enabled us to publish our thinking in a comprehensive government document last week.
A Cheann Comhairle,
Events have moved on quickly since Prime Minister May formally notified the European Union of the UK’s intention to leave. The European Council agreed the EU negotiating guidelines on 29 April. And on 3 May, the European Commission proposed its draft negotiating directives, which build on the guidelines and provide more detail on the issues to be addressed.
A Cheann Comhairle,
The extensive preparation by Member States, the EU Institutions and Mr. Barnier’s Task Force meant that the Guidelines were agreed very smoothly. This was by no means a given. We know just how complicated and serious the issues are – for Europe as a whole and particularly, for Ireland.
For over two years, the Government has been analysing the issues and engaging with sectors across the island to identify our main areas of concern, and to develop our priorities. These are: to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process, including by avoiding a hard border; to retain the Common Travel Area; to minimise the impact on our economy; and to work for a positive future for the European Union.
We have also been extremely active at political and official level in engaging with our EU partners and the EU institutions, with a view to highlighting and explaining the significant implications for Ireland arising from Brexit, and the need to take account of our particular concerns in the negotiations. Indeed, since the UK referendum last June, we have had over 400 engagements on Brexit with our EU partners.
In all these meetings, we have explained the background and context of the Northern Ireland Peace Process and emphasised the need to avoid the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. As I have said before, this is a political challenge and we will have to be flexible and imaginative in our efforts to find solutions.
Thanks to this strategic, patient work, and the understanding and support of our European partners, I am pleased that Ireland’s specific concerns are fully acknowledged in the guidelines. Supporting and protecting the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process; avoiding a hard border; and protecting the Common Travel Area will now be addressed as part of the withdrawal negotiations. The guidelines provide an excellent basis for the negotiations. It was crucial that we got this right from the start and, again, I would like to thank Mr. Barnier for his role in making that happen.
In more general terms, we are pleased with the tone of the guidelines which is open and constructive, while nevertheless clearly and firmly outlining the EU’s objectives and principles.
They highlight the importance of getting clarity in relation to EU citizens' rights – a key issue across Member States, and important in terms of providing certainty for people and for families.
The approach to the sensitive question of the UK’s financial liabilities is also welcome. It is only reasonable that the UK is asked to honour the commitments it entered into as a member State of the EU. Mr. Barnier’s approach to this issue is sensible - to focus first on the principles and methodology before considering the numbers or the structure of payments involved.
Importantly from our perspective, the guidelines acknowledge the need for transitional arrangements. This will be crucial in order to provide a level of continuity and certainty for our citizens and businesses.
As Ireland stands to be more affected than any other Member State by the UK's departure, we believe it is necessary to begin work as soon as possible on scoping out the future EU-UK relationship. I am pleased therefore that the guidelines acknowledge that the shape of the future relationship can be considered once the European Council – i.e. the Heads of State and Government of the 27 Member States - agrees that 'sufficient progress' has been made on the withdrawal issues. This phased approach is also a sensible and pragmatic way forward.
From Ireland’s perspective, our objective is for a close and positive future relationship with the UK, and we are pleased therefore that the guidelines indicate the EU wants an ambitious agreement, not just in economic terms but also in areas such as security. We will continue to work with partners to achieve such an outcome.
So I welcome the European Council guidelines from a substantive perspective and also that the principles and approach in them have been carried forward into the draft negotiating Directives. I appreciate the thorough preparatory work carried out by Mr. Barnier and his Taskforce as well as the European Council team, and our EU partners, whose willingness to listen to us and to acknowledge our unique concerns has brought us to this point. The outcome is an endorsement of the Government’s approach and a clear recognition of the specific challenges we face.
A Cheann Comhairle,
The Government has robustly defended the Good Friday Agreement throughout the process so far, making clear that, as a legally-binding, international Treaty, it provides a unique political and constitutional framework on the island of Ireland. We knew that it was vital to provide reassurance that Brexit does not undermine any provision of the Good Friday Agreement. In that context, we secured an acknowledgement that, in the event of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, brought about in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would be part of the EU.
I have been consistent in my view that now is not the time to have a such a referendum on Irish unity and that the conditions set out in the Good Friday Agreement for the calling of a border poll do not currently exist. However, the statement agreed by the Heads of State of Government of the 27 EU Member States, which will be recorded in the minutes of the European Council, was hugely important in order to dispel any doubt or uncertainty that the UK exit from the EU would negatively impact on this crucial constitutional provision of the Good Friday Agreement.
A Chean Comhairle,
With the EU guidelines now adopted, including the language about our unique concerns, the government published last week a Comprehensive Document which reflects the findings of our extensive preparatory work and consultations on the island of Ireland and at EU level, and outlines the positions and priorities that will underpin our engagement in the Brexit process over the next two years.
And at EU level, the more detailed draft negotiating directives are now being discussed at Ministerial and official level with a view to agreement at the General Affairs Council on 22 May. These are again broadly positive from Ireland’s point of view. Mr. Barnier and his team have shown that, in addition to being open to meet with us, they are also listening very closely to what we have to say. This is vitally important if the negotiations are to progress in a calm and ordered way, and end up at a point which is as good as possible for all sides.
As I said in my statement to the Dáil on Tuesday, it became very clear at an early stage of our analysis that the economic impacts of Brexit would be severe. With the EU guidelines now adopted and work underway on the directives, the Government will intensify its focus on the economic implications of Brexit, including on domestic policy measures to protect it from the potential negative impacts of Brexit, to reinforce the competitiveness of the Irish economy, and also to pursue all opportunities that might arise.
In this context, I should also mention Ireland’s bids for the two EU bodies currently located in London – the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. I believe that Ireland would be an excellent location for these.
A Cheann Comhairle,
As I have said before, Brexit is a British policy. It is not an Irish policy or an EU policy. For its part, Ireland remains committed to the EU. Indeed, a poll published on Europe Day this week showed that 88 per cent of Irish people agree that Ireland should remain a part of the EU.
So we are committed to playing a strong and active role as a member of the EU27. We are well prepared and will continue to ensure that our concerns and priorities are reflected in the EU negotiating position as it evolves, and that we work closely with our EU partners, the EU institutions and Mr. Barnier and his team, towards a strong and constructive future relationship with the UK.