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White Paper welcome but UK can't cherry pick single market

12 July 2018

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Speaking on Dáil statements on Northern Ireland and Brexit, Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin welcomed the publication at last of the White Paper by the UK Government, but warned that the UK can't cherry pick the parts of the single market it most desirers, saying:

"I would like to open my remarks by welcoming the fact that we have, at last, a written position paper by the British Government, setting out its vision of a future EU-UK relationship.

"It has taken two years to get to this stage and only months remain until March 2019 when the UK will have actually left the European Union.

"I welcome too that Theresa May references commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland in her Foreword to the White Paper.

"There are two sides of the story when it comes to Northern Ireland and Brexit: the economic side, and the political side.

"The White Paper is ambitious in the type of economic partnership it outlines.

"It remains to be seen whether a deal can be struck, not least in relation to UK payments to the EU, the role of the European Court of Justice, and the four fundamental freedoms.

"Not only is there a risk of the UK cherry-picking what it wants from the EU’s single market, but there is an explicit plan to allow employers to cherry pick so-called “talented” workers, and allow those workers free movement, but not other workers, which is something we would not agree.

"Three British proposals that are worth emphasising are maintaining the all-island energy market, the suggestion of a common rulebook for goods including agri-food, and participation of the UK in certain EU agencies, including for Chemicals and Aviaton Safety."

Deputy Howlin continued in his remarks to say:

"For example,

Ireland exports €3.9 billion worth of animals and food to Britain and another €3.9 billion of chemicals.

There is also nearly €600 million in animals and food that crosses from Ireland to Northern Ireland, and €200 million of chemicals.

In turn, we import nearly €500 million of food and €64 million of chemicals from Northern Ireland.

Behind all of these figures are jobs, farms and businesses.

So, without prejudice to the negotiations to come, I welcome that the UK are now clearly seeking an agreement that would maintain the open border that is essential to so many people’s livelihoods.

Inevitably, there is a political dimension to agreeing standards and regulations for trade, and the White Paper recognises that by proposing a twice-yearly meeting of UK Ministers with their EU counterparts to agree the evolution of standards.

This is a way for the UK to participate as a rule-maker, not just a rule-taker.

While it is a radical proposal, it is worth exploring the merits of the idea.

It is not unlike the European Free Trade Association – EFTA – which the UK co-founded in 1960.

But it envisages a less one-sided relationship than the current EU-EFTA relationship.

From Ireland’s perspective, having a permanent association agreement between the EU and the UK would help secure the permanent openness of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It would reduce the risk that some future UK government might tear up any agreement that was perceived to lock the UK into a second-class relationship with the EU.

If such an association agreement was workable

– And there is a long way to go in negotiations –

It could offer a model for EU relations with other countries on its periphery, including Norway, Ukraine and Turkey.

But there is also a political dimension to Brexit and Northern Ireland.

In this house, we used to have a greater focus on Northern Irish affairs, which has diminished in recent years.

Brexit has obviously brought the border back centrally onto our agenda.

But we need to look beyond the economic and social aspects of the border.

Northern Ireland’s political system – as set up under the Good Friday Agreement – is precarious.

There has been a political stalemate for over 18 months.

Initially this was over the cash-for-ash scandal,

Which we don’t hear much about these days.

But more issues have been raised since, including marriage equality and an Irish language Act.

Labour supported marriage equality for many years, and it was at our insistence that the last programme for government included holding the 2015 referendum.

Agus ba mhaith liom Acht Gaeilge a fheiceáil.

But the nature of politics is about addressing issues and resolving problems, through participation in the democratic institutions that are in place.

There was a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly for marriage equality, but it was blocked by a Petition of Concern by the DUP.

The DUP no longer have the numbers to block legislation on their own.

Likewise, an Irish Language Act is only a matter of time.

So I would say clearly to Sinn Féin and all the parties.

Stop raising reasons to avoid doing the business of democratic politics.

Stop looking to Parliament in London to impose (or block) legislation that the politicians of Northern Ireland are quite capable of delivering through their own political institutions.

It is absolutely essential that Northern Ireland’s Assembly and Executive are back up and running as soon as possible.

And there is no issue preventing this that cannot be resolved in those institutions and through those institutions.

In the last 48 hours, we have seen what happens when there is a political void.

Instead of Northern Ireland moving forward,

As it has done over the last 20 years,

There is a risk of sections of society moving backwards.

Catholic youths throwing petrol bombs at the homes of Protestant pensioners.

And lying in wait to throw more petrol bombs at the PSNI.

Shots were fired.

In Belfast, the UVF threatened to organise serious disorder, according to the PSNI.

And we have certainly seen serious disorder,

In terms of illegal bonfires,

As well as those that were permitted.

Vehicles have been set alight.

Fire crews have been attacked while trying to make situations safe for people.

I agree with the joint statement by six of Northern Ireland’s political parties condemning the violence and intimidation in recent events.

But they would be more effective if they were issuing this statement from a functioning Assembly,

And implementing policies to improve the lives of young people from disadvantaged areas,

who are easy prey for the extremists who push them into violence.

The planned meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 25th July is an important opportunity for the Government to push for the restoration of Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions.

While the Taoiseach and Prime Minister have met recently, it is a pity that they will not be attending the July Conference.

But I hope that the Tánaiste will be able to impress upon his counter-parts the urgency of getting democratic politics back up and running in Northern Ireland.

And if that means some of the parties proceeding in the absence of others, so be it.

And if it means some change to the rules, to allow a more typical division of the Assembly into Government and Opposition, it might be time to try this,

While still requiring cross-community votes on certain sensitive issues.

At such a critical juncture in Northern Ireland’s history, it is a shameful avoidance of responsibility that has led to a situation where there is no functioning Assembly or Executive while the Brexit negotiations are deciding issues that could have catastrophic consequences for the people of Northern Ireland.