Squaring the Brexit Circle: If the UK is outside the Customs Union and the Single Market, how can we avoid returning to borders of the past?
Thank you Don (Thornhill) for the introduction. I’m delighted to be back in Glenties for this annual pilgrimage.
I want to welcome DUP and Sinn Féin colleagues here, and also the leader of the opposition in the Dáil, Micheál Martin.
It is of considerable advantage to the Government – and to all Irish people – to have a strong degree of cross-party consensus in the Dáil on the vital issue of Brexit. We’ve had a couple of cross words, which is fine. But by and large, in the Oireachtas, there is healthy recognition that Brexit is an issue of such importance for our island that petty point-scoring pales into triviality. When you contrast that to what we’ve been treated to at Westminster – where fighting within parties is rampant, never mind across the aisle – we can agree that Irish people are relatively well-served.
And well-served by what? Well, it’s a consensus that – as the title of this session suggests – we simply cannot countenance a return to “the borders of the past”. It’s a determination that the sweat and tears of a peace process more than thirty years in the making won’t be sacrificed at the altar of the most extreme Brexiteer ambitions. It’s a belief that as much as possible of what has made the relationship between our islands so warm and positive today needs to be maintained and nurtured and allowed to flourish. The unique and profoundly peaceful ideas around the deep and interlocking relationships on these islands – as brought to life in the Good Friday Agreement – encapsulate perfectly the sensitive equilibrium which has served us so well and which we are all so determined to protect.
I am a product of our Anglo-Irish relationship. As some of you will have heard me recount before, I studied and worked in Britain. Several of my family have had UK passports – even if they didn’t really mind what colour they were! And I know for me – for the Taoiseach, whose parents lived in Britain, whose sister is there now – there simply isn’t anything remotely anti-British in the positions we are taking to protect peace and both the spirit and realities of partnership.
Progress over last 12 months
Naturally enough, there is some anxiety at recent Brexit developments. But as MacGill is an annual affair, it is worth taking stock of what has been accomplished or agreed since we met last year. This time twelve months ago, most people were telling us that Irish issues would have to wait until the UK had left the Union. We could only look at the border when we got down to the nuts and bolts of that future trade or association agreement. There was no meat on the bones on the loose promise of not returning to the past.
And where are we now? Firstly, compared to a year ago, there is even greater understanding across Europe of why Irish issues need to be – and are – at the forefront of the debate. An outstanding solidarity illustrated by visits to the border by Prime Ministers or EU Ministers from partners like Austria, Belgium, France and Sweden. I saw it on display again in Brussels last Friday from Michel Barnier and my counterparts from almost every Member State.
Secondly, the British government has pledged internationally, in the December agreement with the EU, that the guarantee of no hard border is the “overarching requirement” in terms of future arrangements. It has agreed, again in December, that this will be achieved – if no other solution is agreed – by full alignment with the relevant rules of the Single Market and Customs Union. And, in March, the Prime Minister herself committed, in writing to Donald Tusk in March, that this will take the form of a legally operable text for a backstop as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Current State of Play
That is good progress – significant, even. But to some degree, on the Irish issues at least, it ground to a halt in March. The UK then turned its focus to the future relationship and how it envisages its customs and regulatory relationships with the European Union after it has left the club.
What is notable about this phase – which we had hoped would conclude at Chequers – is that it has primarily involved the UK negotiating with itself. Not negotiating with Brussels or Michel Barnier and the Task Force he leads – the UK’s real interlocutors in this process. But instead, trying to find compromise positions between Ministers who prioritise the real benefits of a close economic and security relationship with the EU – and Ministers, indeed backbenchers, who take a more ideological approach, where leaving the EU seems to be an end in itself.
On this issue of the future relationship, the Irish Government has been consistently – some would say boringly! – clear since last summer. We believe the best guarantee of prosperity in Britain’s future is to remain a part of the Single Market and Customs Union, or arrangements to similar effect. The title of this session suggests that ship has sailed – but all who cherish the relationship between our islands should continue to aspire to that deepest and closest of relationships if we are to limit the damage of Brexit. This is quite obviously the best solution in terms of retaining an open and invisible border on our island. But look at the likely impact on the UK economy too. The Department for Exiting the EU in London, in its own analyses, puts the gap between a soft EEA-style Brexit and a harder free trade agreement Brexit as a gap in value of £60 billion per year to the UK economy – and a difference between a 2% fall in GDP and a 5% fall in GDP. That is huge and is the difference between what are often presented as two quite benign scenarios.
Ireland needs a good outcome here – we absolutely need Britain to be prosperous after Brexit. This is what gives the lie to commentators – and some people who should know better – alleging that Ireland wishes Britain ill in what lies ahead. This could not be further from the truth. We need a prosperous Britain to keep buying our beef, enjoying our cheeses, using our services and so much more besides. We need the UK to get this right.
So then – what is achievable between now and the European Council in October? Well, let’s get a framework for the closest possible future relationship between the EU and UK, considering the ideas in the British Cabinet’s White Paper and guided by what will deliver most trade, most investment, most jobs, while preserving the integrity of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
And as an absolute priority, the EU needs to see our backstop or insurance mechanism in the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol nailed down – to ensure that, no matter what, as Prime Minister May pledged again last Friday, there will be no going back to any physical infrastructure at the border.
The Backstop and Northern Ireland’s Constitutional Status
It is essential too – as Michel Barnier has stated – that we de-dramatise the backstop or Protocol. For one thing, we should put to bed the notion that there are any constitutional implications, or any constitutional agendas, at play here. There simply aren’t. The only way in which Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can be altered is through the principle of consent and through a vote to change that status by a majority of people in Northern Ireland. We are rock solid behind that absolute principle – and I am on the record as saying that calls for a border poll in Ireland are premature and unwise in the context of what we are trying to disentangle and negotiate here with Brexit.
But, at the same time, the argument that Northern Ireland cannot be treated any differently from any other part of the UK simply falls short. Aside from the unique architecture for Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement – which is guaranteed by both governments – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different rules and regulations from England, and from each other, as a result of devolution.
To use some simple examples here, councils in Northern Ireland have different powers to councils in England – that represents divergence. The planning system is different in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK. A range of diverse issues – from animal health to regulation of loughs and waterways – are governed on an all-island, rather than all-UK, basis. As we know very well, on certain social or progressive issues, Northern Ireland takes quite a distinct approach from the rest of the UK. None of this makes unionists in Northern Ireland less British or the union with the United Kingdom less strong. None of this has constitutional implications.
So let’s be practical here as we move forward, try to keep the rhetoric at least reasonably measured and give ourselves the best possible chance of an agreement in October. If the UK doesn’t like the text already on the table for the Protocol, it is welcome to put forward language of its own – as long as it meets its own commitments of December and March, and helps us avoid any physical infrastructure. And as I’ve said previously, once it comes to negotiating the detail of the future relationship during a transition or implementation period, Ireland will be a strong voice on Team EU in terms of advocating for the closest possible partnership.
Restoring Northern Ireland Institutions
Even a comprehensive free trade agreement will mean changes however and the Government had some significant announcements to make on preparedness last week. But our preparations need to be about more than contingency-planning, or indeed the significant range of business supports we have already announced. Getting this island ready has to also be about restoring a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. It is inexcusable for any elected representative to sit on their hands and to let dangerous vacuums develop.
On Wednesday this week, I will be in London with our Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, to meet with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, for what will be the first British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference meeting since 2007. It is sensible to get this institution of the Good Friday Agreement back up and running and to use the opportunity to intensify our work as co-guarantors of the Agreement.
But to put it simply, the magnitude of the issues which have caused the Executive and Assembly to collapse pale in significance in comparison with the magnitude of the challenges ahead. So it is incumbent on all parties to reach practical agreements on the small number of issues where there is still a stand-off; to explain what has been agreed quickly and accurately to their communities; and then to move on to tackle the bigger challenges posed by Brexit and a multitude of other pressing concerns, as part of a power-sharing Executive.
Standing proud in defiance of others, or realities, is not to stand particularly tall these days – whether that stand is being taken in London, Belfast, Washington DC or elsewhere. Better to summon the spirit that achieved the Good Friday Agreement, the goodwill that brought Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to the steps of Stormont and the long-term vision of that hero of the North-West, and this island, John Hume. With real leadership North and South, Ireland and Northern Ireland can emerge from the first years of Brexit with continued prosperity, peace and partnership. It is a prize worth all our energies in the months ahead.
Thank you and I am looking forward to our Q&A.