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European Council: Statements (Continued)

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 963 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae] The full and final solution which takes into account the particulars of the Irish Border has not been found yet. We know what the parameters of it are but not how every little piece will work or what exactly regulatory alignment is and in what areas it is needed. The EU will need to go into all of this with the UK.

My sense is that if we are to look at the central parts, that is, the customs union and the Single Market, to ensure there is no hard border on this island, we might be better drawing up a list of what is not essential rather than trying to start with what is essential. We have all seen the reports on the trade, the number of people and, in particular, the volume of milk crossing the Border every day. There is the example of how Baileys is made, with movement backwards and forwards made possible partly because we all recognise the same standards. While the European Council noted in its position that the Brexit transition arrangements must suit the EU, it also highlighted its willingness to establish partnerships with the UK in other areas besides trade after Brexit. This is very helpful. At the end of the day, there is a lot of excitable talk about all of this but the islands are not moving. We are still going to be neighbours and we will need to work together on many issues. With regard to the rest of the issues that were dealt with at the European Council, it is always helpful to continue to co-operate with other member states. Some of the issues that were discussed are ones where, while it is important Ireland has a different focus and approach because of our military neutrality, we can still co-operate on them. We need to take care on all of these issues. The final issues of importance the Council looked at focus on improving co-operation on social, educational and cultural policies. While we all set our own policies in these areas, we can still learn from each other and try to improve.

I want to put on the record my compliments and gratitude to all of the members of the committee. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, continued success. The committee members look forward to working with her in a very proactive way in trying to deal with all of the issues of importance to Ireland post-Brexit.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister of State and everyone in the House a happy new year. As there was no time to do so on the Order of Business, I did not sympathise on the sad passing of Dolores O'Riordan, the famous singer. She was an excellent ambassador for Ireland throughout the EU and, indeed, all over the world. She is a huge loss, not only to her own young children, her family and those in the music industry, but also to us and to her many admirers all over the world.

  I am happy to speak on these statements. It can be taken as a given that, for the foreseeable future there will be only one topic dominating our engagement with the European Council and that, of course, is Brexit. The agreement reached in December on the first phase of the negotiations is to the credit of the Government. I have no hesitation in commending the work of the Irish team who worked so hard to get to that point, and I will always give credit where it is due. Up to that point, the entire process was marked by a chaotic and messy approach whereby both the UK and the EU sides seemed to be working in complete opposition to each other - they were like two horses on a plough that were pulling in different directions. This created very real fears in this country that the process would generate considerable long-term damage in terms of addressing the need for certainty.

  I accept that it has not been easy trying to balance our clear national interests with maintaining respect for the delicate nature of the Good Friday Agreement, for example. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, made some very blunt statements in that regard and I think he was fully justified in being so candid at the time. It always amazes me when others, particularly those within the EU, seemed totally surprised that the Irish negotiating team would come out fighting for our national interests. What do they expect us to do? Are they so used to us asking "How high?" when they say "Jump" that they think we would kowtow to them altogether? I would remind them we are a sovereign country. We should not abandon diplomacy but we should certainly not pretend that this process will be anything other than brutal. I encourage the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and others to be absolutely up-front in their view that we will always put the interests of the Irish people first, as is our duty.

  I note from the report on the phase one agreement that both parties, the EU and the UK, have reached agreement in principle across the following three areas under consideration in the first phase of negotiations: protecting the rights of Union citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the Union; the framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland; and the financial settlement. I also note that progress was made in achieving agreement on aspects of other separation issues under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Where have we heard that before? It is certainly the crux of the matter.

  While progress is being made, there is still the potential for the whole thing to descend into another sorry spectacle. All it would take is for the ever-increasing political instability in the UK to get to the stage where the more hardline elements of the Leave campaign gain a stronger hold over the Conservative Party. All of that is outside our control, however. For now, the only responsible approach is to support the Government, where possible, and try to make the existing agreement as legally binding as we can, particularly with respect to the Border issue and the status of Northern Ireland. As Professor Cormac Lucey has noted:

Ireland’s economic priority is that the UK’s exit from the EU is as soft as possible. It is not in our interests for the UK to exit the single market. It would suit Ireland much better if, outside the EU, the UK opted for similar arrangements to those of Switzerland and Norway, both of which are inside the single market. It is clearly up to the UK to decide what it wants. Yet it is of vital national interest that we and the EU encourage as soft a Brexit as possible.

  I compliment Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, the Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs, Deputy Haughey and all the other members on the work they have done. It has been a very trying time and has not been easy. Deputy Healy-Rae met all the EU ambassadors and even brought some of them to Kerry, and he gave them a good outline of what is happening here in Ireland.

  I see the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is wiggling his pen. I thought he might be a little easier on the draw in this new year period. I am only starting and am going at a nice slow pace. I am not really over time, as such.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher You are being presumptuous but you have reminded me you are over time. To put some structure on this, there are 20 minutes for questions and answers and five minutes for the Minister of State to wind up. If Deputies who wish to ask questions would indicate, we will deal with them. I call Deputy Haughey.

Deputy Seán Haughey: Information on Seán Haughey Zoom on Seán Haughey I have two questions. Obviously, the main focus in this country in regard to the summit was the Article 50 negotiations, where it was decided that sufficient progress had been made during the first phase of the Brexit negotiations and where guidelines for the second phase of the negotiations were adopted. However, there were other issues discussed at the summit, including security and defence, the EU pillar of social rights, the EU action plan to tackle the gender pay gap, the concept of European universities, issues in regard to European languages, climate change, Jerusalem, the Russia-Ukraine situation, migration and economic and monetary union. Like other speakers, I believe we need to be very conscious of the debate taking place on the future of Europe at this time and I appreciate the work the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is doing on that. I note she is briefing Oireachtas Members this week, there is a major conference in DCU in association with European Movement Ireland and, obviously, there are meetings taking place throughout the country as well.

As regards security and defence, PESCO was launched at the summit. Some 17 common projects have been agreed so far and I understand further work is needed in that regard. Will the Minister of State undertake to keep the House briefed on this and assure us that any projects in which we participate will not compromise Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality?

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