It is obvious to us that protecting the Good Friday Agreement has to be paramount but not, I believe, to people in Britain. The Good Friday Agreement was hard won and it is positive that a generation of young people in Northern Ireland have not experienced the violence, disruption and devastation that their parents and grandparents experienced during the troubles. As such, it was difficult to listen to a vox pop last week when people who lived on the Border did not seem to mind about a border returning. It was almost as if they were welcoming its return. We know that position has been fuelled by DUP MPs. I cannot help but think that, if they are not living in the past, then they want a return to it.
Like other contributors to the debate, I acknowledge the work and hours that have been put in by the Ministers, officials, Departments and organisations in trying to prepare for Brexit, be it a hard, soft or no-deal one. I cannot help but think about how that work and energy and those hours could have been better spent on other issues in Ireland, Europe and the world.
While we respect the democratic vote of some 51% in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain, as did the majority in Scotland. In Gibraltar, a significant 96% voted to remain. Now, an ambiguity relating to Gibraltar may create Spanish opposition, but that will not prevent the agreement going through the EU.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and we have spent every meeting of the past year and a half hearing from a wide range of groups, organisations and officials about the potential impact of Brexit. We did not hear anyone speak positively about Brexit. However, there is the potential for Ireland to do better, as Brexit will remove our over-reliance on one particular market. According to a statistic, if even 1% of firms relocated to Ireland, it could mean 6,000 jobs.
Brexit is a wake-up call to the EU on the need to reconsider its vision, principles and values and to look honestly at the areas that are in need of reform. There are deficiencies, an increasingly two-tiered EU in the growth of inequality and the dominance of certain EU powers. We acknowledge that the EU recognised and respected how Ireland would be particularly affected by the withdrawal of Britain and the possible political and economic consequences for us. I agree that Michel Barnier seemed to be on Ireland’s side.
There are positives to this agreement. The transition period is good, as are the continued co-operation between North-South bodies, the electricity market, the common travel area and the backstop, which I hope will prevent the return of a border. However, there are concerns, one of which has to do with community relations, which have been damaged. We know how important community relations are. Support for Brexit was strongest in unionist areas outside of Belfast whereas Remain was supported in most of the other areas. Given the deterioration in community relations, it is time that we rebuild them and get them back on track. In the Brexit debate, there has been almost a normalisation of anti-immigrant rhetoric as well as an increase in racist attacks in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
There are concerns around workers’ rights. With Britain out of the EU and a possible increase in competitiveness, workers will lose out. If Britain is not bound by certain EU directives on the environment, environmental issues will also arise.
There was a charter of rights for the island of Ireland. It has not been implemented, and it is time to re-examine that matter. The EU PEACE and Structural Funds have been valuable to the voluntary and community sector, which has used them for many projects, including in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland. There are communities there that feel hard done by and that they have not benefitted from the Good Friday Agreement.
We have been so consumed by Brexit that other issues have been sidelined even further than they were. There are outstanding issues from the Fresh Start and Stormont House agreements, for example, criminal justice, community engagement and preventing the return to militarism, not to mention the legacy issues. In that regard, a section of the Stormont House Agreement deals with the past. We know about the outstanding issues. There were proposals on an historical investigations unit, an independent commission on information retrieval, an implementation and reconciliation group and an oral history archive, but all of these have been at a standstill. In the midst of Brexit, there is a danger that the legacy issues will drop further down the list of priorities, assuming they were ever on it. The Commission for Victims and Survivors needs to be considered. Some interesting submissions have been made to it recently.
I was watching this debate from my office. It was all calm and orderly. It appears that most Deputies are on the same page, which is positive.