All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit Fourth Plenary

All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit Fourth Plenary
Dundalk Institute Of Technology
30th April 2018
Report by Michael Steven

The day started with a video of speakers discussing Brexit on a large screen. The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coventry, T.D. said that more clarification on border issues was needed and progress on this was needed by the end of June.

Michel Garnier, the Chief Negotiator, heading the Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom, said that a managed, sensible Brexit was needed and the negotiation was extraordinarily complex. He said practical solutions were needed and there must not be a border on the island of Ireland. Speaking on behalf of the EU, Michel Garnier said that the EU was working towards a final deal in October and it was working on operational solutions. He said the EU needed a clear operational framework for Ireland and the EU was ready to work with any of the proposals from the UK. According to him, June is a stepping stone to reaching an agreement in October. He clarified that contrary to Arlene Fosters’ comments, the EU was never aggressive. An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, T.D. said he respected the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish government was trying to avoid a hard border.

The Plenary session then started, when An Taoiseach arrived on stage, in person, to say that 1500 Civic groups had now engaged in the Civic Dialogue. According to him, the UK had now committed to no hard border in Northern Ireland and An Taoiseach said he did not want a hard border between Ireland and Scotland. Leo Varadkar said that a backstop agreement had been agreed until the EU can get a better deal. This backstop agreement states that Northern Ireland will stay in the Economic Union, he also said he wanted a deep partnership with the EU and the UK. He thought that the only barrier to achieving this, was the UK’s self imposed red lines. He confirmed that the Irish government wants peace in Ireland. He also confirmed that the Irish government has no hidden agreement, the Irish government will work with unionists and it wants North/South cooperation which gives practical benefits for everyone, irrespective of the community and tradition they come from. He said that the Good Friday agreement was the best way forward. However, he reminded us that there was still much to do, finalising work on the withdrawal agreement, with less than a year before the UK leaves the EU.

Political Party Contributions
There then followed contributions from political parties. Fianna Fáil said that Ireland’s future was with the EU. They were greatly concerned that there were contradictions in the withdrawal agreement. They were also confused as to whether the UK was working to a June or October deadline. Fianna Fáil was particularly concerned that the Northern assembly was still suspended and Ireland needed to help businesses diversify.

Sinn Fein said that Brexit cast a long shadow across the border region and Ireland should not be one bit complacent as the threat of Brexit cannot be overstated. They said it is so important that the North stays in the Economic Union, this is not a question of orange and green, Ireland will not be collateral damage to a Tory Brexit. The British government have chosen to prevaricate and delay, this is cynical and reprehensible according to Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein thinks the British government needs to come forward with its proposals now.

The SDLP said that Michel Garnier has the best interests of Ireland North and South and the Good Friday Agreement should be used for channels of alignment for the future.

The Alliance party said that Brexit was a threat to Northern Ireland, if the UK is not staying in the economic area, at least NI should. The Alliance Party said it does not want a hard border, the backstop is about avoiding a hard border. The Alliance Party thought that Ireland must find a solution that allows agreement, a unique solution.

The Labour Party said that negotiation had fallen into constructive ambiguity and that a civil war had erupted in the UK Tory party. They thought that the UK’s plans were patently unwanted and that Ireland was no where near a satisfactory solution to the border issue.

The Independent Alliance said that the connection between Ireland and NI must remain. They said that Ireland wanted to see a seamless border. The Alliance reminded us that negatives were threatening and worrying but they can be overcome and that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity, as Ireland will be the only English speaking country left in the EU, Ireland needs to take advantage of this.

The Green Party said that Ireland is at the very pinch point of EU negotiations. The party reminded us that unity is Ireland’s strength, that is why Ireland joined the EU. They also pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement was an international agreement, it was a particularly important treaty and it was the best option for Ireland.

The Social Democrats said that Northern Ireland used to always be the harbour of bad news and that it was deeply disturbing that decisions that should have been made before Christmas have not been made. The party thought that freedom of movement across the border must be protected and that Ireland must do more to prepare.

Michel Barnier
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, T.D. then introduced Michel Barnier, saying that he had worked hard to negotiate for Ireland and that he has the Irish government’s full support. Michel Barnier said that he only worked with honest people around him to make progress and there was no added value to Brexit. He said that he had come to listen and learn from people across this island, unionists and nationalists, and he respected all of us. Over the next 2 days he will be talking with businesses trading on a cross border basis. He said the UK has now made the decion to leave the single market, the customs union and the EU. He said that the Good Friday Agreement has meant far more than moving customs and physical borders. He reminded us that Human rights and cooperation, are all made possible by the open border, which must be protected, as there is no alternative. He said that the EU has insisted on a backstop until another alternative is found, NI will remain in the single market. He understands that a backstop was met by deep suspicion by the UK. This is an EU issue, he said, not only an Ireland issue and that the backstop is not part of the negotiation. Michel reminded us that the UK leaving the single market creates the possibility of a hard border return and that Ireland is a member of the EU and an active player on the single market. He stated that as the EU agreed that it did not want a hard border, goods entering NI must comply with the single market. Michel told us that the EU was seeking a practical solution to a complex problem and that the EU has agreed to protect the common travel area. He made it clear that the EU needs substantive progress on the backstop before June.

Young People
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said that there were no unionists present at the plenary because they did not want to leave the mainland. The audience then got to listen to some youth’s perspectives on a “post-Brexit Future”. There are uncertainties about what a post Brexit future will look like. However, the young people agreed that there should be “nothing about us without us”. Children did not have the opportunity to vote on Brexit but they had a say in the “Its our Brexit too” conference for children and young people. Children from the North and South, came together at this conference. The specific key messages from the conference included:

  • No hard border – a hard border would cause significant disruption to schooling.
  • All island cooperation on health care needs to be maintained.
  • NI should stay in the common economic area.
  • Child protection rights should be maintained.
  • There is a need for Good Friday Agreement rights for people North and South of the border – human rights should be maintained across the border.
  • The North and South of Ireland need special consideration in the Brexit process.
  • Young people do not want a return to violence.
  • Irish passport holders should not have more rights than British passport holders.
  • Young people want opportunities to work, study and travel abroad, they want access to goods and facilities on either side of the border.

A Society Perspective
This talk was then followed by Parallel Breakout Panel discussions, one of which was “Looking to the post-Brexit Future – A Society Perspective”. The panel noted there was a great deal of uncertainty and fear around Brexit. A border poll was discussed, however if there was a border poll, would the people in the ROI want the North?

Young unionists and loyalists were then mentioned. Apparently they feel their identity is under siege and unionists have concerns about leaving the UK, due to the economic prosperity that unionists feel living in the UK. The Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) identity is vulnerable and the panel was reminded that a formal outreach to the PUL identity is needed. The panel noted that there has been a unionist minority in the last 2 elections in NI, a catholic majority is predicted in 2021, however a United Ireland is premature. Since the Good Friday Agreement has failed to unite all the people in Northern Ireland, the panel noted there has been peace but not reconciliation and there was a need to have a new relationship based on trust.

The panel mentioned that Northern Ireland has been a 2 party sectarian state and the people of Northern Ireland need to be united before having an United Ireland, Northern Ireland needs to get away from segregation, people have to live together, children should have opportunities to meet the other side. The panel thought that the absence of an executive in NI is inexcusable, as it needs day to day governance, education and welfare and as a society, Northern Ireland should have that. However, If there had been an executive, there might have been severe cuts down the line the panel noted.

Dr Katy Hayward from Queens University Belfast then presented some preliminary “Brexit at the Border” survey results, with the completed findings coming out in June 2018. This survey looked at people who worked or lived in border regions. The people surveyed saw a hard border as a negative and to do with the past. 80% of the people surveyed relied on services across the border.

The panel discussion then returned and protection for the Irish language was raised. The panel noted that the wider concerns of civic nationalists had been well received by the Irish government. The panel noted there were still a lot of questions surrounding Brexit, for example, “What are the rights of Irish citizens in the North post- Brexit?” The panel then noted the uncertainty as to whether Irish citizens could avail of the NHS in the future and that British citizens in the North may be denied the right to an education in Europe.

The panel ended on a positive note with the good news that business people and communities are coming together, they were really galvanised around the Brexit issue and they were trying to save jobs and people’s lives.