Address by Brendan Howlin to members of the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party
Remarks by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party (Ireland)
Addressing the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party Meeting, 11.30am, Thursday 14th June 2018
A few years ago, it was fair to say that relationships on these islands—and British-Irish relations in particular—were at an all-time high.
The European Union has provided us with a common platform, through which we have been able to move beyond our divisions and historical tribalism, and to grow closer.
As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for five years, in the previous government, I’ve been involved in some of the practical out-workings of EU-level co-operation, such as the EU PEACE funds for Northern Ireland and the border region, the EU’s INTEREG funding and the Ireland-Wales Co-operation Fund.
As an example, the kind of joint projects set up under these funds, such as adaptation of coastal communities to climate change, have led to productive co-operation involving the Irish Government and Welsh Assembly.
And of course, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, such as the North-South Ministerial Council, have led to North-South co-operation in Ireland on a whole range of areas, from Agriculture, Environment and Tourism, to Education, Health and Transport.
The Good Friday Agreement itself has allowed us to move from historical enmity to close friendship, and it is essential that Brexit is not allowed to put that at risk.
But there can be no doubt that Brexit poses massive challenges for Ireland, and massive challenges for British-Irish relations.
Most plausible post-Brexit scenarios risk serious damage to jobs and livelihoods on the island of Ireland, with Northern Ireland most vulnerable to being disadvantaged by a harder Brexit or any disorderly disengagement of the UK from the European Union.
And yet, there is an opportunity for Northern Ireland, and to an extent all of Ireland, to be an economic bridge between the UK and EU.
There is a rich tapestry that has been woven on these islands in recent years, which incorporates economic, social and political elements.
The UK’s exit from the EU, regardless of the character of the final agreement, is going to leave gaping holes in that weave that we will have to actively fill.
It won’t be enough to rely on existing institutions.
We will have to double our efforts to ensure greater bilateral and multilateral engagement between all corners of these islands.
On the social dimension, the EU has had a liberating influence on Ireland, and we have recently seen the latest manifestation of that with strong referendum results to permit abortion and marriage equality.
Ireland’s young people are outward-looking, and Irish society has benefited greatly from the multi-cultural society that we now have, where one in eight people are now foreign born.
Our second largest ethnic minority, if you want to call them that, is the British community in Ireland. Over 100,000 UK nationals live in Ireland, representing around 2.5% of the population.
And they will have become non-EU migrants by this time next year, which calls into question a whole host of rights and entitlements, as well as the existing EU institutions through which these rights are provided and enforced.
This is where the so-called Common Travel Area is so important. Since the 1920s, Irish and British people have right to reside, to work and to access public services in each other’s countries. We also have the immediate right to vote. These rights go far beyond the misnomer of a “travel area”. They represent shared citizenship rights that are given reciprocally, and which go beyond the shared citizenship gained under the EU.
And we must ensure that these rights are reinforced after March 2019.
It would have a devastating and immediate effect on many tens of thousands of Irish people in Britain, and British people in Ireland, if these rights are not fully preserved.
The economic relationship between Ireland and Britain has shifted from a historical dependence to one of mutual inter-dependence.
Nearly 14 billion pounds of goods are exported from Ireland to the UK, including an important percentage of the UK’s food. In turn, we import almost 16 billion pounds of UK goods into Ireland. The Customs Union is what makes this trade possible: No quotas; No tariffs; And standardised regulations that mean consignments don’t have to be checked at the border.
Ireland also exports 16 billion pounds of services to the UK, including from many multinationals based in Ireland. And Ireland buys 10 billion pounds of services from the UK. The European Single Market facilitates this through standards for services in different sectors, the free movement of money and workers, and the legal certainty for business provided by the EU’s Court of Justice.
Our trade represents over one billion pounds in goods and services every week.
And as you can imagine, tens of thousands of jobs here and in Ireland rely on this trade.
Already the uncertainty surrounding the final outcome of Brexit has led to financial companies and major industries delaying investment or moving part of their activity out of the UK.
The European motor industry looks likely to cut the UK out of their supply lines, which is disastrous for British workers.
The good jobs in the global market are all about adding value to globalised supply chains.
It is very hard to see how we can avoid having border infrastructure on the Irish border, as well as border checks at British and Irish ports, if the UK is outside of the Customs Union and Single Market.
Or at least, if the UK does not find a way to remaining close to these institutions.
And it is not just about quotas and tariffs.
In a way, that’s the easiest problem to solve.
The real problem is that free trade depends on sharing the same set of regulations and standards on both sides of a trade agreement.
The British Government have committed to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland, in order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement.
But it is technically difficult to achieve this in any scenario that allows deviation in regulatory standards on either side of the border.
Which in turn raises the question of different standards applying to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which the Democratic Unionist Party emphatically rejects.
Although some unionist farmers may have a more nuanced approach to this issue, as long as they can sell their wares to Britain unimpeded.
All of the UK Government’s proposals to maintain the open border have been rejected by the EU, including Ireland.
Not out of spite.
But because they won’t work to achieve frictionless trade.
Cameras at the borders might facilitate the movement of people, but it won’t alleviate the need to check the contents of goods consignments.
The proposal of a time-limited backstop including the whole UK likewise won’t work, because having a time limit is just a countdown to a hard border, which is unacceptable.
From our perspective, we want free trade North-South on the island of Ireland, and free trade East-West across the Irish Sea.
But we can’t have that free trade if the UK doesn’t maintain the same standards as the EU.
Crucially for workers and the Labour movement, this includes regulating private industry and enforcing higher social and environmental standards.
For example, if the UK rolls back on regulation of the financial sector this would undermine the level playing field for Irish financial services, which would again risk large numbers of jobs. So barriers would be erected to re-create a level pitch.
And if the UK dilutes workers’ rights or environmental standards, this again will lead to new barriers being put in place to ensure that a race to the bottom is not allowed to undermine Irish or European competitiveness when trading with the UK.
And many of these regulations are the cornerstone of the project of Social Europe that the Party of European Socialists have been working on for decades.
Like equal pay for equal work.
Despite the series of crucial votes in Parliament this week, the UK is still unlikely to present detailed proposals at the June Council of the European Union, which was meant to be the last Council before the final sign-off in October.
The Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, told the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, on Tuesday this week that he believes there will not be sufficient progress in June.
Now the already delayed process will become incredibly compressed.
There is simply no time for further delay.
The political challenge is therefore to come up with creative solutions that are also robust.
Whoever leads the next UK Government—and hopefully it will be a Labour Government—will take the blame for economic downturns and any Brexit-related problems that will occur.
The British voters will not thank Labour for allowing a damaging form of Brexit to occur when they have the numbers in Parliament to bring about a better outcome.
From an Irish perspective, including Northern Ireland’s economic wellbeing, it is critical that the UK remains very close to the Customs Union and Single Market, including in terms of regulations.
And the EU has preferential trade agreements, in place, or in negotiation, with most of the world’s major economies. So the argument that the UK needs to be “free” of the Customs Union to negotiate new deals runs into the sand. It seems implausible that the UK will get better deals than are already available except through abandoning social and environmental protections.
The threat to social and economic rights is perhaps the greatest challenge to socialists and social democrats from Brexit Britain.
And I should say, there is no credible argument for the so-called “Lexit” or Left-wing exit from the EU.
The very nature of global trade today, alongside the types of goods and services being traded, make claims for a left-wing exit implausible.
And, I would note, that most EU member states already possess State-owned, major successful companies in energy, utilities, transport and other sectors of the economy.
And many EU member states find ways to invest in housing, health care and other public services within the EU rules.
And the success of the Social Europe project has been to create one of the world’s largest free-trade zones, providing 17.1 per cent of the World’s GDP, which also has among the highest social and environmental standards.
I welcome the leadership shown by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association in voting overwhelmingly to campaign for a second public vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
It is said to be a typically Irish solution to referendum results—and we have had a lot of them on European Treaties—to re-run the referendum if we don’t like the result.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We engage in a political process.
We listen to people’s concerns and we respond to them.
We have made a number of major amendments, and achieved opt-outs and protocols to deal with Irish people’s concerns.
So when we bring the topic to the people again, the detail of the proposal is substantially changed to address their concerns.
The Dutch and French have done it too on EU referendums.
It seems to me to make sense to put the outcome of negotiations to the people so that they can make their judgement.
We have entered the crucial stage of exit talks. Final decisions are mere months away.
It is in the strategic interest of all our peoples to get things right.