09 May 2017

Statements re. Ireland and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD



On behalf of my party and our movement I want to wish you all a Happy Europe Day. May we be united in diversity, to quote the EU motto.

I welcome the fact that your Government has finally produced a more comprehensive document on your approach to Brexit.

It is well overdue, but also sadly lacking in policy specifics.

It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know.

For a 68 page document, 8 pages of it consist of your speech to the IIEA, another 4 pages of Government statements, 2 pages of EU statements,

I could go on, but I hope you will see my point.

Plenty of text has been produced, and much of it reproduced,

But what we are doing to mitigate the damage Brexit will do, is not clear.

The UK has set its course,

Theresa May and her party are seeking a strong mandate in the upcoming UK election

Judging by the polls she will secure that objective.

But to achieve what, we can only guess,

My fear, judging by the language used in the artificial row with the EU last week,

Is that it will be a hard Brexit,

Entailing custom checks, tariff barriers, a bonfire of rights,

And imperilling of the Peace Process.

The soft options have been ruled out.

Arguments about the final bill will distract many both in the UK and abroad from the substance of what Brexit will mean.

And that row ignores the fact that much of the bill consists of payments the UK will make anyway –

As a member up to 2019, and to the end of the current EU budget.

But there is much we can do in the meantime

A poor deal for the UK will be a bad deal for Ireland.

But there are important principles at stake.

Being a member of the EU comes with responsibilities,

But also with strong benefits as we in Ireland know.

As Colm McCarthy wrote in the Sunday Independent at the weekend

What we in Ireland must be focused on is damage limitation,

Nearly a year on from the referendum,

6 weeks since the triggering of Article 50

It is incredible, that my party, the Labour Party

Is the only political grouping to have put forward practical solutions and proposals?

The problems we face are clear

Investment, agriculture, transport, access to markets,

The future of cross border bodies, the fallout for workers, the Common Travel area.

We are the only party to have put forward specific actions.

The severity of what will result from Brexit may not be clear, depending on the final deal

But the sectors that will be distressed are known.

Many, if not all of them, have already made dozens of proposals

It’s now time for Ireland to start putting in place our defence measures.

I understand the Government will soon bring forward a paper focused on the economic and business implications of Brexit.

I hope it will take on board many of our proposals on trade, investment and jobs.

The Labour Party has put forward 20 key action points.

I welcome that some of those, like those focused on Northern Ireland have been achieved by the Government.

The recognition of the Good Friday Agreement and the future possibility of a shared united Ireland are important but also obvious.

The text of the negotiation guidelines rightly recognises the issues we face on our island.

However, as those larger existential questions are addressed,

There is still a need for a focus on our future plans.

In particular we have called for a new protocol to be included to the EU treaties to recognise the special relationship on this island, and the special status of Northern Ireland.

Such a protocol would copper fasten the declaration of the EU27 regarding a United Ireland. It should also highlight the deep trade, political, social and economic ties between our Republic and Northern Ireland.

Another proposal we have put forward is that there is an opportunity to look now at the future of cross border bodies,

Not just the 6 we currently have, but those that could be created –

Where integration is highly advanced, in areas like animal welfare, healthcare, the energy market, agri-food supply chains, education and transport.

For example, the dairy market operates as though no border exists.

The ESB owns the electricity grid in Northern Ireland,

Public rail and bus services operate across the border, and future infrastructure projects like the A5 or a high speed rail line require deep integration that will be sundered by Brexit.

New bodies, established with the support of the UK and the EU would help address the problems we will face in the event of hard Brexit with custom checks.

We have also called for a transitional trade agreement, and it appears as though many have now woken up to the reality of the future trading relationship that will exist with a negotiated settlement.

It could take a decade to put a comprehensive free trade agreement in place between the UK and the EU.

In the meantime life will continue, but we face the prospect of customs, and barriers, the loss of the land bridge to the continent through the EU, and infrastructural bottlenecks on our roads and in our ports.

For many months the Labour Party has been calling for changes to the Stability and Growth Pact fiscal rules.

We will debate that further tonight, but we have followed that call with action, and the Party of European Socialists has established a working group, at my request to bring forward actionable proposals.

Fine Gael now needs to take a lead on this with their own colleagues in the EPP.

Our economy is growing, as is our population. We need to invest more.

We need to Brexit proof our economy. The proposed extra €2.65 billion is not enough when you factor in the demands on the budget, and construction inflation.

The Rainy Day fund of €1 billion a year should be deployed in 2019 for investment.

Where would we invest?

It is clear we must be prepared for a hard border – that means increasing capacity in our ports.

And making contingency plans for along the Border to provide for a seamless transition to custom checks.

At a minimum there must be an examination of the infrastructural capacity of our ports.

With better roads and ample space for custom checks on containers.

We will need enhanced direct connectivity to mainland Europe, most likely through Rosslare and Cork.

This would also act to rebalance our island economy.

In Dublin, we need an elected Mayor who can lead the drive for investment and growth in our city. If we want to compete against Frankfort, Luxembourg and Paris we must invest in housing, schools and public transport.

We need to develop other urban hubs for growth and investment.

We need revised regional action plans for Jobs, which were drawn up in 2015, and are now out of date.

The economic impact of Brexit will wreak havoc in many sectors but in particular those that are reliant on the UK market for exports, which are concentrated in our regions.

That is why we have proposed a €250 million trade adjustment fund. We believe Brexit warrants the suspension of state aid rules for SME’s for a period of two years.

Of course the devil is in the detail.

And the detail of any trade deal or transitional arrangement will determine the level of requirement for such a fund.

But it’s much easier to save a job and a business, than try to find replacements for them.

That’s why we have said the State needs to forge new alliances in Europe, in particular with countries of a similar size to us, and I welcome that the Government has started on this meeting with the Dutch, Danish, Croatians and others.

A Brexit early warning system should be introduced with trade unions, employers and other stakeholders to identify sectors and firms at risk – it could function through regional fora that would be better positioned to drill into the local impacts of Brexit, building off the work of the Civic Dialogue.

We also need to look at how current EU supports can be deployed, including the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund.

That scheme should be amended to take account of Brexit.

We also face major questions about the EU Budget.

When the UK leaves other countries will have to meet the shortfall.

Finally, the last point we make in our policy document is on the future of English language in the EU.

While it has been said that it was protected, the views expressed last week show that nothing is written in stone.

Ireland should ensure that English remains an official and working language of the EU, while also protecting the designation of Irish.

Clearly we have much to do, and should now be taking action as well as making plans.

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