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Brexit: UK Government Engagement

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 3rd October 2016.

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Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 2:00 pm, 3rd October 2016

6. Mr Easton asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on any engagement with the United Kingdom Government on leaving the European Union. (AQO 357/16-21)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I would like to group questions 3 and 6.

As I recently stated in the Chamber, while it is for the United Kingdom Government to negotiate directly on the terms of our exit from the European Union, we intend to have a full and active voice in shaping the terms of those negotiations to get what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. We welcome and are determined to see fulfilled the Prime Minister's commitment to full engagement with the Executive in preparing for the negotiations and to an inclusive UK-wide approach to and objectives for those negotiations.

Members will be aware that meetings have taken place with the Prime Minister and with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. We have also written to the Prime Minister to set out our initial assessment of the particular challenges that Northern Ireland will face. Work continues in and between Departments to scope and refine the nature of those challenges so that our position will be informed and supported by the best information and analysis available. Discussions have also been taking place in bilateral and multilateral format between the Governments on sectoral issues and on the establishment of a formal intergovernmental forum under the auspices of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) to consider all issues regarding the exit negotiations.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

I thank the First Minister for her comments. Will she consider the use of an Ad Hoc Assembly Committee to oversee and scrutinise the Brexit process as it evolves and develops? What is her opinion on that?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. That is a matter that the Committees must take up, if they decide to set up some Committee structure. There have been occasions in the past when the Committees have come together for a particular reason. They may well believe that they want to do that on this occasion. It is a matter entirely for the Committees and for the House.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the First Minister for her remarks. Has she a view on the Prime Minister's recent comments about initiating article 50 by 31 March 2017 and about a Great Repeal Bill? Has she received any written response to the co-First Ministers' letter dated 10 August, which raises several issues that would directly bear on triggering article 50 and the Great Repeal Bill? Would she ensure that, in the spirit of openness and transparency that her Government are well known for —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to come to his question.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

— that response is published?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

We have not received any response to our letter of 10 August, but that does not mean that we have not been communicating with Whitehall or, indeed, with our ministerial colleagues there. Here is some news for the Member: not everything is put in a letter. We sometimes speak to each other on the telephone and, indeed, by other mechanisms.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the First Minister for her answers so far. Is she satisfied with the level of engagement with the UK Government? Does she support the triggering of article 10 by the end of March next year?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I think that the Member means article 50.

[Interruption.]

I am not sure what article 10 is

[Interruption.]

I am sure that some of my Europhile colleagues will be able to tell me what article 10 of the Lisbon treaty is all about.

Engagement with Her Majesty's Government will be multilayered. We will, of course, have multilateral discussions with the Irish and UK Governments and some bilateral discussions. The formal ministerial discussions will take place through a JMC format, and the deputy First Minister and I have been clear that we want to be directly involved in any negotiations so that we can put forward what is right for all the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they voted to remain or to leave. We are focused on what is best for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

What discussions have taken place with the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Governments?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

We had a very useful meeting during the specially convened British-Irish Council (BIC) in July. As I said, negotiations and discussions will continue bilaterally and multilaterally. I have no doubt that, when the date for the Joint Ministerial Council is set — we believe that that will be set relatively soon — we will continue to discuss matters with our Scottish, Welsh and, indeed, Republic of Ireland colleagues.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Prime Minister's announcement at the weekend not only accelerated the Brexit process but made it clear that access to the single market and its retention would not be a priority. How does the First Minister feel that that will impact on business in Northern Ireland, given the degree to which we trade with the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for her question. It is a core question and one that I have no doubt will continue to be at the core of the negotiations over the next period. Whilst access to the single market is important, we should also remember — people sometimes try to wipe the slate on the issue — that, if we were continuing as members of the European Union, we would have to deal with domestic water charges, the ever-greater inflexibility in relation to attracting foreign direct investment —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

That was not the question.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

If the Member will allow me, I will answer the question. I know that she is always in a rush, but give me a minute. We would also have to deal with state aid rules.

The negotiations will be long; they will be protracted. As a country, we should not be lacking in our ambitions. I have listened to some of the disparate members of the Opposition making the case that we should set out in solid stone what our negotiation position should be. I never heard such nonsense in all my life.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

They are not very good at negotiating.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Indeed, it just shows what good negotiators they are. You do not set out your hand before entering into negotiations. I will not undercut the negotiating hand of the Northern Ireland Executive in these matters before we start —

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

You do not have one.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

You do not have one.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I am sorry; there is a bit of noise coming from the naughty corner.

It is in everyone's interest to make the transition as smooth as possible. In doing so, we will work with the Republic of Ireland's Government, with colleagues in Scotland and Wales and with the UK Government.

That is where we are. We will continue to push ahead with what is right for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 2:15 pm, 3rd October 2016

Given that the people of Northern Ireland voted to "Remain", will the First Minister give a commitment that there will be no Northern Ireland Great Repeal Bill? Can she outline what work is being done by the Executive to ensure that existing EU laws are enshrined locally?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

We will not be passing a Great Repeal Bill; that is a matter for the Westminster Parliament, which is sovereign in all these matters, as, indeed, colleagues in Scotland and Wales have had to face up to. Some Members in this Chamber have still not faced up to the fact that the vote on 23 June was taken right across the United Kingdom. I still hear that Northern Ireland voted to remain. Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the United Kingdom. We were all asked whether we wanted the United Kingdom to remain or to leave, and we all voted. The vote has been taken. Now let us get on with it and deal with the consequences.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Members, before I call Mr George Robinson, I extend a welcome to the Rt Hon Ekwee Ethuro, Speaker of the Senate of Kenya, and an accompanying delegation who are visiting the Northern Ireland Assembly. You are all very welcome indeed.

[Applause.]