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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 976 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin] Will the Taoiseach confirm that the detail and content of the Government memo that was brought by the Tánaiste and revealed in the Irish Examiner on 28 November truly reflects the case?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar Firms across the country are preparing for Brexit. Some 85% of Enterprise Ireland firms have a Brexit plan already. That is important because Enterprise Ireland firms are the firms that are doing the exporting.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Only 33% of exporting companies have a plan.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar Some 85% of them have a Brexit plan in place already. Generally speaking, IDA firms know what they are doing. They are the multinationals which invest here in Ireland. We need to improve preparedness, however, particularly among small and medium enterprises, SMEs, that export to the United Kingdom. Seminars are available. They are happening all over the country and assist businesses to become Brexit-ready. The Deputy will have heard some of the advertisements on the radio prompting people in business to do exactly that. Customs training is available and we have also made low-cost loans available to business.

On the Deputy's question about customs officials, we have a panel of 3,000 people who have applied to be customs officials. A minimum of 200 will be in place in March but that can be increased to a much greater number should we find ourselves in a hard Brexit, no deal scenario. The comparisons with Holland, and with Rotterdam in particular, are not valid. Rotterdam is a massive port which handles ten times as much trade as our Irish ports, so obviously the numbers in Rotterdam are going to be much greater than those required in Dublin and Rosslare.

In terms of making information public, we are very happy to give the Deputy full briefings and information through the Brexit stakeholders' group. We will publish plans, but it must be borne in mind that this situation is still evolving. Brexit planning happens on two levels. Most of it is led at a European level from Brussels. Some 70 notices have been issued already. The final seminar at European level will only happen on 10 January. Our domestic preparedness comes in under that. Any plans we produced now would have changed again by the middle of January. We will do that.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin What about Rosslare Europort and Dublin Port?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar Rosslare will need infrastructural investment, as will Dublin Port and Dublin Airport.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Will the Taoiseach publish all of that?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar We will publish what we can.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I spoke with the British Prime Minister last night and reiterated the common position of all of us here, which is that the basic protections afforded to Ireland in the withdrawal agreement, particularly the backstop, are non-negotiable and cannot be unpicked or diluted. I spelled out to her the need to ensure that the commitments agreed in last December's joint report by British and EU negotiators are honoured. That means no hardening of the Border on the island of Ireland, that citizens' rights are protected, and that the Good Friday Agreement is upheld in its entirety.

In December the Taoiseach said that he had a cast-iron guarantee. He said that he had "achieved what we sought to achieve" in respect of avoiding a hard border. He said what we had was "rock solid" and "politically bulletproof". In the midst of the deepening crisis at Westminster I am afraid to say that those words no longer hold. On Monday Mrs. May shelved her plan to hold a vote on the withdrawal agreement at Westminster and today she faces a vote of no confidence in her leadership. That is a matter for herself. What we need to be concerned with and what is our business is ploughing our furrow.

On the concerns around our ports and around investment in them, I am glad that the needs of Rosslare have finally dawned on the Taoiseach. The need for sectoral planning is unanswerable. We also now need to look at any prospect of a no deal scenario or crash come March. I will emphasise that this is not something anybody here, including Sinn Féin in particular, wants to see. When I and others asked the Taoiseach yesterday about contingency planning for a crash scenario, he said "preparations involve a number of elements including the hiring of staff such as customs' staff, veterinary inspectors [and] environmental health inspectors". That is all very well and good but, as we all know, a crash-out Brexit would be catastrophic for our island. It would rupture our economy, our social fabric, and our peace accords. The contingency planning required therefore goes well beyond the recruitment of additional officials.

I reminded Mrs. May last night that, in the event of a no deal situation arising, it is the strong view of Sinn Féin that a referendum on unity must be advanced as a matter of urgency and priority. Of course she disagrees with that because she is a unionist. That is fair enough, but the Taoiseach is Head of Government here. He should accept that Irish unity is the logical, sensible option to avoid the calamity of a crash or no deal scenario and everything that would entail for our island in the short and long term. I put it to the Taoiseach that in a situation in which the Good Friday Agreement is to be disregarded, a crash situation, we need to go back to the agreement and its provisions for a referendum on Irish unity. Giving the people their say would be the ultimate contingency plan.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar The Deputy correctly quoted what I said in December on the joint report and on the agreement we struck between the EU and the UK last December. I also said that we had to be vigilant and that we would be. We have been. I also said that the next step was to turn that joint report we agreed last December into a legally binding withdrawal agreement. For months and months I heard critics in this House tell me and the Government I lead that we oversold the deal that was made in December. We did not. It, including the Irish protocol, was translated faithfully into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement as we promised would happen. The next step is to secure ratification by Westminster and the European Parliament. That is still possible. That is what we are working on now. We will have a meeting of the European Council on Thursday and Friday. It will be an opportunity to engage with Prime Minister May and for me to speak to my colleagues. Indeed I will be taking a call from President Juncker later today to see what assurances we can give the United Kingdom Parliament that might assist it in ratifying the withdrawal agreement. That cannot mean a change in the substance of that agreement, including the substance of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, however. That is what we are going to work towards.

I do not believe that now is the time for us to start talking about Border polls. I understand the perspective of the Deputy's party, which is committed to the territorial unity of this island. That is an aspiration that most of us in this House share but this is not the time to go about it. There are people in Northern Ireland who know that the backstop is a good deal for them. That is why it is being supported by business, farmers and many civil society organisations in Northern Ireland. To now inject a constitutional dimension into this debate would be destructive and disruptive because there are people who are arguing against this agreement precisely because they believe that having special arrangements around regulations for goods somehow weakens the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We know that is not the case. There are many special arrangements for Northern Ireland already. In so many areas, from social policy through to agricultural regulations, Northern Ireland is already different from Great Britain. Another example is that, before the institutions were brought down, they were seeking autonomy over corporation tax. Northern Ireland can have differences and still be part of the United Kingdom just as there are differences between all the countries in the European Union. I really do not believe that stirring up tensions in Northern Ireland or turning this issue into one of orange versus green is at all helpful at this time.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I agree with the Taoiseach that would not be a helpful thing to do. As he well knows, that is something which we have not done. In fact, considerable and very fruitful efforts have been made to ensure cross-community and cross-party support for a consensus against Brexit in the North. Brexit is a British Tory invention. All this disruption and tension is not of our making or of the making of anyone in this House. It is of the making of the Tories across the water.

The Taoiseach talks about relying on a vote at Westminster and the safe passage of the withdrawal agreement. That may or may not occur. Let me emphasise again that I do not want want to see a crash, no more than the Taoiseach does. However, I also want to say to the Taoiseach, as Head of Government with the responsibility to advance Irish national interests and to protect everyone on this island, North and South, east and west, that he now has to plan and prepare for such an unfortunate scenario with eyes wide open. Rather than evading his responsibilities by talking up disruption or disruptive forces, he needs to look this dilemma squarely in the eye.

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