^^ Brexit Issues ^^

18/12/2018 at 18:20


   Deputy Declan Breathnach: Winston Churchill once said that to fail to plan was to plan to fail.  It is in this context that Deputy Brendan Smith and I have raised this Topical Issue matter on the immediate need for a Border corridor strategic development approach.  The Ireland-Northern Ireland Border corridor will be the most impacted, irrespective of what type of Brexit we end up with.  The impact will be on an economic, political and social level.  Economists agree that despite the support the Border region has received to date, it still lags behind the rest of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Those economists also agree that Brexit will exacerbate the situation.  While the unemployment rate in Ireland has grown overall since the referendum, it has faltered in the Border region.  What is needed is a fresh strategic approach supported by both Governments for practical support for the region.

There are 11 local authorities spanning the Border, North and South, and they recognise the need and wish to develop solutions in conjunction with both Governments.  I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with the document on Brexit and the Border corridor risks, opportunities and areas to consider.  It was commissioned by the 11 local authorities and it clearly outlines the probable impact of Brexit.  The local authorities along the Border wish to develop a bottom-up, needs-based strategy for the Border corridor encompassing all sectors to offset the challenges and opportunities of Brexit.  This strategic piece of work would build on the 2017 report and use it as a baseline to establish priorities for action, engage local stakeholders, social partners and businesses and consider implementation structures and sources of funding.

   Deputy Brendan Smith: I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle giving us the opportunity to raise this very important issue and the Minister of State being present.  A great deal of the uncertainty and concern about Brexit we encounter in the Border region stems directly from the huge uncertainty we see in Westminster, an uncertainty reported nightly on UTV and BBC Northern Ireland news programmes, which are widely watched in our area, and on broadcast media here.  The media are merely reporting the news and there is no shortage of Tory and DUP MPs ready and willing to stoke up uncertainty.  It appears that such is the depth and extent of the impasse in the House of Commons that no one knows what arrangements can be made or what deal can be passed through Parliament.

Most commentators expect the agreement reached between the European Union and the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, to be defeated.  A no-deal Brexit would have immense adverse implications for all of the island.  The House cannot ease any of this uncertainty now but the Government must ensure my community and other communities along the Border are reassured that we will be ready and resourced to ease the damage that Brexit could unleash on our region.  I fully support the proposal from some of the cross-Border bodies and agencies, such as the Irish Central Border Area Network representing local authorities in Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Fermanagh and Tyrone, the region in the north west comprising Donegal and Derry and the east Border region encompassing the constituencies of Deputy Breathnach and the Minister of State.

There is an urgent need for the Government to institute and put in place a specific programme of assistance to try to protect and grow the economy in the Border region, which will be adversely affected by Brexit.  There is great knowledge and ability in the local authorities working on a cross-Border basis through the agencies to ensure that public funding will be put to good use.  A bottom-up approach, as my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, said, would be the right approach, with a new stream of funding being made available to try to counteract the effects Brexit will have.  The Minister of State has heard me say in the House and at committee meetings that our local economy in Cavan and Monaghan is heavily dependent on the sectors that will be most adversely impacted by Brexit.  There will be a double whammy to our economy at a local level.

   Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Helen McEntee): I thank the two Deputies for raising this issue.  Given where they are situated, I know how important this is to them and the concerns they have.  I assure them we are not planning to fail on this.  The potential impact of Brexit and the importance of avoiding a hard border to the people living in all the Border communities cannot be underestimated and the Government has been acutely aware of this from the beginning of the negotiations.  As the Deputies know, in recent decades, businesses, communities, lives and livelihoods have developed and prospered, although maybe not as much as in the rest of the country.  People cross the Border with ease every day to work, study, visit family members and connect with their local communities.

North-South co-operation, both formal and informal, is a practical outworking of the peace process which allows for the normalisation of relationships between people across the island to mutual benefit.  We have seen the range of areas of co-operation on the list of topics discussed during the mapping exercise, which the United Kingdom published on 7 December.  The European Union will publish a similar document in the coming weeks.

For reasons of peace, prosperity and partnership, the Government has maintained the policy that the invisible Border on this island must remain just that – invisible.  It must remain open and free of any physical infrastructure or associated checks and controls.  I have accompanied European ministers on visits to the Border region and briefed them, and many others, on the absolute need to maintain the current arrangements which have been so important to many communities, as both of the Deputies have outlined.  This includes the supports available for peace and reconciliation, as well as for the challenges that face the economies of the towns and villages in the Border region.

The agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which has been endorsed by the European Council, and the political declaration on the future relationship represent a fair and balanced deal.  The agreement delivers on the shared objective of providing an absolute guarantee that a Border will be avoided, while making crystal clear that nothing in it will prejudice the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.  There are also important provisions on protecting North-South co-operation.

The agreement also recalls – this is of most importance in respect of the Deputies’ questions – the commitment of the EU and the UK to the current PEACE and INTERREG funding programmes and to a new PEACE+ programme which will build on and continue the work of both PEACE and INTERREG.  This has not been agreed only recently but goes back as far as the EU-UK joint report of December 2017, which stated that both parties would honour their commitment to the current PEACE and INTERREG programmes and that the possibilities for future support would have to be considered and examined favourably.

The EU-funded INTERREG and PEACE programmes continue to act as important drivers of regional development for the Border regions of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  INTERREG programmes, which are funded by the EU, exist to address the challenges encountered by the Border regions, many of which the Deputies alluded to.  In the case of Ireland, an additional and unique programme, PEACE, addresses the challenges in the regions arising specifically from the conflict.  I had the pleasure of recently visiting Belfast to meet Ms Gina McIntyre and her team who work with the special EU programmes body, SEUPB.  I also met groups that receive funding from both the PEACE and INTERREG programmes.  The positive impact is visible and real for those who receive funding, including young people whom I met whose families are still impacted by the Troubles, students working in Ulster University on various cross-Border programmes and groups working together to tackle racism.

Since the UK referendum on membership of the European Union, the Government’s clear and consistent position has been that it is committed to the successful implementation of the current programmes and, most important, to a successor programme.  To this end, we have been working extremely closely with the European Commission at all levels to ensure this important source of funding for the Border region continues post-Brexit.  I am pleased the Government’s ambition for the programme was reflected in the withdrawal agreement.  We will continue to work to ensure these commitments are fulfilled.

We will also continue to work to ensure Border communities are supported to prepare for Brexit.  For this reason, two of the six Getting Ireland Brexit Ready events of recent months were held in the Border region, in Monaghan and Letterkenny.  We want to work with these Border communities to prepare them for Brexit, making sure that programmes in the future, such as PEACE+ and INTERREG, will not just receive continued funding but, hopefully, increased funding as well.

   Deputy Declan Breathnach: I thank the Minister of State and acknowledge her great work in this area.  The point I am trying to make is that while INTERREG and PEACE funding has been tremendous for the Border region, more is required, namely, a bottom-up approach led by local authorities and communities along the Border.  I am departing from my script to reinforce that point.  Brexit creates a whole new scenario with regard to INTERREG and PEACE programme funding.  That is particularly the case for those who will be outside the EU.  Programmes are available on a trans-territorial basis in respect of EU and non-EU countries.  The UK has spoken of establishing a shared prosperity fund, which will be a domestic programme of investment after it leaves the EU.  It is important that we engage with those who will have the greatest impact on a region.  I recognise that billions of euro have been provided under the INTERREG and PEACE programmes.  The message coming loud and clear from the organisations along the Border to which Deputy Brendan Smith alluded is that a cohesive approach is required to ensure money is directed to where it is needed.  The PEACE and INTERREG programmes will continue to be needed because in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, much of the money provided has not filtered down to where the problems are found.

   Deputy Brendan Smith: I also thank the Minister of State for her reply and acknowledge her work in this area.  The PEACE and INTERREG programmes were established in the mid-1990s to support the peace process at the time.  These funding programmes supported economic development, particularly community development and infrastructure, as well as education and some social areas.  I agree with Deputy Breathnach, however, that what is needed now, alongside the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, is a specific economic initiative to protect the existing economy.

As the Minister of State has heard me argue previously, agrifood, construction products and engineering are the main economic sectors in counties Cavan and Monaghan.  They are also the sectors that are most heavily dependent on exports to the Northern Ireland and British markets and they will be most adversely impacted by Brexit.  To try to protect jobs and grow the economy locally, we need a specific initiative with a local economic dimension.  That is why we need a new programme administered by the agencies with a cross-Border remit.  At this time, it is essential that the Government, along with the British Government, consider the establishment of such a specific stream of funding for economic development and protection.

   Deputy Helen McEntee: I thank the Deputies for their statements.  I know this is an extremely important issue for them.  Deputy Breathnach referred to the UK’s proposed shared prosperity fund.  The UK is considering such a fund on the basis that it will leave the European Union and will no longer receive Structural Funds.  Ireland has no intention of leaving the EU and would be foolish to even consider doing so.  Clearly, we will not establish a fund to replace EU Structural Funds given that we will continue to receive those funds.  We need to ensure not only that PEACE and INTERREG funding continues to the end of the 2020 programme, in accordance with the clear commitment given by the Irish and UK Governments and the EU, but also that PEACE+ is developed alongside the current programmes.  What is significant is that the funding is not just maintained but actually increased.

There is also work we can continue to do at home.  The north west strategic growth partnership involves Donegal County Council working together with local authorities in Derry and Strabane.  They have memorandums of understanding and are drawing down their own funding streams.  There is also a memorandum of understanding between Louth County Council and local authorities in Newry, Mourne and Armagh.  Those memorandums of understanding and the co-operation between the councils mean they are open to apply for this kind of funding as well.  As I said, not only must these funding streams be maintained but they must be enhanced, developed and increased in the years ahead.  It is a matter of making sure the structures we have in place already are developed and strengthened.

I do not doubt for one moment what the Deputies are seeking to do in raising this matter.  However, we have a clear structure in place.  We have a body in place with a good team working to make sure this funding goes where it needs to go.  In a post-Brexit world, what we need to ensure is that the PEACE and INTERREG programmes focuses on the communities that may be specifically impacted and provide support where it is needed.  We are also working on agriculture which, as Deputy Smith outlined, is already being impacted by Brexit and not only in Border communities.  For this reason, the Government in the past three budgets allocated more than €750 million in specific direct payments for the farming community, whether that is dairy, beef, horticulture or otherwise.

I again thank the Deputies for raising this issue.  It is an absolute priority for us to make sure Border communities are not impacted.  The Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and I want to work with the Deputies to make sure that is the case in future.