Executive Subcommittee on Brexit: Update

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 17th February 2020.

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Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP 2:00 pm, 17th February 2020

1. Mr Middleton asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the Executive subcommittee on Brexit. (AQO 110/17-22)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Before I respond, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the passing of Harry Gregg, who died today. Harry was a great sporting icon and role model. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

I am pleased to advise the Member that the Brexit subcommittee is firmly established and working to ensure that our interests are being protected and that we get the best deal for us. The subcommittee has met twice, and further meetings are scheduled over the coming days and weeks. At our first meeting, we received an update from officials on what they identified as the key challenges facing us. We also agreed a work schedule to ensure that we are focusing our efforts on the most appropriate areas, although it was recognised that our consideration of issues will be informed by the timetable of the negotiations processes. At our second meeting, we had a focused consideration of the issues around the movement of goods east-west and west-east. Given the importance of that issue, we will give further consideration to our position at the next meeting.

We also considered the implications for services North/South, as well as how we can appropriately engage with stakeholders in recognition of the established and ongoing stakeholder engagement undertaken by the various Departments. We also received a paper from officials on draft negotiating principles for the Executive that will be discussed in detail at our next meeting.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

The deputy First Minister highlighted the importance of ease of trade east-west and west-east. The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is crucial to our economy. Her party's position is that there should be no checks or infrastructure, but does she agree that, if there is an insistence that there be checks, they should not be done on this side of the Irish Sea?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I do not wish to see barriers east-west or North/South. We do not wish to see any kind of barrier to trade. We want to make sure that we have a prosperous economy and everybody has an opportunity to flourish. The Member mentioned the agri-food sector and its significance to our economy. We have to do everything that we can to protect the sector. The First Minister and I have written to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. I am seeking clarity around some of the issues. We have a protocol that needs to be protected, but we also have to guard against the fact that we could come to the end of this year and still not have a deal. We need to protect our local interests. We are determined to work together, and we have sought clarity from Boris Johnson on a range of issues and hope to get a response in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Ireland protocol sets out a joint committee on the implementation of the protocol. It sets out a specialised committee that will report to the joint committee on the operation of the protocol. Once the protocol is operational, it envisages a joint consultative working group on the operation of the protocol. Have officials advised her or the First Minister of the membership of those committees and whether there will be Executive representation? If not, when will we find out?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

We are working our way through the detail of all those things. The First Minister and I attended the Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) meeting in Cardiff a few weeks ago, at which we raised those issues, including that of representation. The Executive voice needs to be heard as part of the discussions. How it is organised and how it will operate are not yet definitive, but suffice it to say that we will insist that our voice is heard and that we are part of the discussions at each stage of the negotiations. It is important, as negotiations move — we know that they can move very quickly — that our voice is heard and that we can adapt to be part of them. That is why we are meeting as an Executive subcommittee on Brexit every week. We are trying to get up to speed and to make sure that all Executive Ministers are involved in the discussions and decisions that we need to take.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Given the deep and genuine concerns and the widespread discussions that are taking place among a range of stakeholders representing the economy, social justice and constitutional change, plus rights advocates, such as trade unions and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), will the Brexit subcommittee, in the context of participatory democracy, undertake engagements with such relevant stakeholders to listen, possibly learn and discuss their views on Brexit?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

We absolutely recognise the importance of stakeholder engagement. Well-seasoned, long-established mechanisms are already in place to engage with stakeholders in each Department. The subcommittee aims to build on those. Each Department will continue to engage with its stakeholders, and the subcommittee will make arrangements to receive briefings from key stakeholders as it feels appropriate.

The subcommittee will keep stakeholder engagement under review, and we will consider detailed stakeholder events at certain points between the phases of the negotiations. We have to adapt to the process as it unfolds. At the last meeting of the Brexit subcommittee, officials committed to bringing forward proposals on stakeholder engagement for consideration, and that will build on the stakeholder engagement that is already established in each Department.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Will the deputy First Minister give a guarantee that the Executive and all the Ministers will act faithfully to implement the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The protocol is established. It is in place and is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement, so it has to be adhered to. I am committed to making sure that that is the case. That is why we have a Brexit subcommittee: it is important that every party represented on the Executive is part of that. Our duty is to try to protect the interests and livelihoods of the people who live here and to ensure that citizens' rights are not diminished and that our economy can flourish. That includes the implementation of the protocol, making sure that we have everything in place that needs to be in place. There is still a danger that, at the end of the year, we could have a no-deal scenario.