Wednesday 16 January 2019

'Ireland will not once again become collateral damage in British policy'

One hundred years ago this country was 'forced' to accept partition. We can never go back to the borders that followed, writes Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Bad old days: Ireland cannot return to a hard border of posts and barriers
Bad old days: Ireland cannot return to a hard border of posts and barriers

Leo Varadkar

In eight months, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Brexit is not our policy, we regret that it's happening but we respect the decision of the British people to leave. Our over-riding policy is to ensure that Ireland and the Irish people do not once again become collateral damage in a British policy decision.

We want to protect the Common Travel Area ensuring that British and Irish citizens can continue to travel freely between North and South and between Britain and Ireland with the right to live, work, study and access healthcare, education, housing, pensions and welfare in each other's countries as though we are citizens of both.

This means, for example, that Irish people will still be able to work in London or study in Edinburgh when German or French ones might need a visa or permit. For cross-border workers in the Border counties, things will be as they are now.

We have this agreed in the draft Withdrawal Treaty. And while nothing is agreed until everything is, its significance should not be discounted.

We also want to protect the Good Friday Agreement which has at its core peace in Britain and Ireland, power sharing in Northern Ireland and ever closer co-operation between North and South and East and West. We have reactivated the British Irish Intergovernmental Council (BIIGC) as a mechanism to improve co-operation between the British and Irish governments. It will meet for the first time in a decade next week. Ireland will be represented by the Tanaiste, Simon Coveney, and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

Above all, we need to avoid a hard border and any associated physical infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It's about much more than economics. Border posts and barriers would not be accepted - they would become targets and could even lead to violence. Nobody wants that. So, I simply cannot agree to anything that would give rise to a hard border now or in the future and I don't believe any Taoiseach would.

One hundred years ago, we were forced to accept partition but it was we who put in place customs controls in a drive for self-sufficiency in the 1920s, hardened the Border again during the economic war in the 1930s and it was hardened again for security reasons due to paramilitary violence. We can never go back to that. As the Irish Government, we have a special responsibility and duty towards those who exercise their Irish citizenship north of the Border while respecting those who can but do not.

We also want to minimise the disruption to trade between Britain and Ireland. It's no longer the mainstay of our economy, given the growth in trade with the United States, eurozone and beyond. However, industries like agrifood and exporting SMEs are uniquely exposed, as are industries like tourism, fisheries and aviation.

The United Kingdom has ruled out the easiest and most obvious solution which is to form a customs union with the EU and to stay in the single market. So, we must find other solutions that respect the integrity of the single market and don't permit any cherry-picking by Britain.

This won't be easy and no matter how close, will most likely involve the need for some new checks in our ports and airports. We will need a transition period of up to two years to negotiate this new relationship or ''final status'' treaty between the EU and UK and to prepare for its implementation. Again, the terms of the transition period have been agreed. The nature or outline of the new relationship has not. That's going to require a lot of work over the next few weeks if we are to meet the October deadline.

Whatever happens, we need to be prepared and we've been preparing since before the referendum two years ago. We've provided €450m in low-cost loans to business, farmers and the agri-food sector to help them prepare. Businesses have been offered grants to use to assess their preparedness. More resources are being provided to Bord Bia, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Tourism Ireland to diversify our exports, foreign direct investment and inbound tourism away from Britain into Europe, North America and Asia.

This is something we should be doing anyway but is more urgent now. It's never a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket. With Brexit coming, we now need to prepare our ports and airports for any new checks and controls that may be needed. From autumn, we will begin recruitment of a thousand new customs and veterinary inspectors.

Project Ireland 2040 is our ambitious 10-year plan to invest €116bn in our public infrastructure - ports, airports, roads, railways, housing, schools, universities, broadband, climate change and rural development.

It's already well under way and is exactly what we need to prepare us for effects of Brexit and the opportunities that may arise from Brexit to promote and position Ireland as a financial services, technology and investment hub for international companies to have a base within the European Union, eurozone and single market that is English-speaking, free trading, open to skilled migration, politically stable and sure about our place in the world.

We've also put the public finances in order, broadly balanced the books, are paying down our national debt and setting up a rainy day fund.

Some parties disagree with this approach. They think we should run a bigger deficit, borrow more, spend more and increase our debt. This is a truly reckless approach. I am determined that we should never repeat the mistakes of the past.

So, if we do face turbulent times economically again as a result of Brexit or another external shock, we want to have the financial headroom to ensure that we never again have to ask people to take pay cuts, accept welfare cuts or face higher income taxes. In fact, we want to be in a position to do the opposite.

There will be many twists and turns in the months ahead which is made worse by the political vacuum in the North and political instability at Westminster.

We, however, will stay calm and negotiate. We will do so alongside our European allies and friends who give us strength in numbers.

We should never forget that four times in our history we travelled a different road to Britain; when we became independent and left the empire, when we became a republic and left the commonwealth, when we broke the link with sterling and floated our own currency and when we joined the euro without the UK. On each occasion there were enormous risks and challenges and a difficult transition.

On all occasions, we emerged stronger and more prosperous. And this time, we will too.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin West

Sunday Independent

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