A Frankenstein Bill to protect from the shock of a hard Brexit
Government hopes omnibus Bill will ‘sit on a shelf’ and not be needed by March 29th
There is little that Brexit does not touch. The Bill even includes a measure to continue to protect the pilots of ships steering boats into the State’s harbours and ports should the UK leave without a deal
It is the law nobody wants to cope with a problem the Government wishes it did not have; it is legislation the Government hopes will never have to be used but intended to keep everything as it is now.
These are yet more strange peculiarities that surround the whole bewildering Brexit process.
It has taken nine Government departments and a legion of officials the guts of a year to come up with a contingency plan that Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he hopes will “sit on a shelf”.
Coveney acknowledged the curious nature of the legislation when he said on Friday he would be spending the next three weeks preparing a Bill for the statute books that he hoped will be proven redundant.
At 35 days until the UK is due to leave the EU, the Minister in charge of the Government’s Brexit response said it had moved not just to the planning for a no-deal Brexit, but to the “actioning” stage.
While warning that a disorderly Brexit would be “a lose-lose-lose for the UK, for the EU and for Ireland”, he said the Government had to have legislation ready to maintain “the things that work so well today” should division over the proposed EU-UK divorce deal continue up to the March 29th departure date.
This Frankenstein piece of legislation, cobbled together by a large cross-department team and legislative drafters, covers everything from healthcare to child benefit payments for Irish citizens in the UK (and British citizens in Ireland), from education grants to insolvent companies, from electricity to cross-Border bus routes.
It will be brought to life with the strike of a commencement order, should it be required in case of emergency.
The publication of the omnibus legislation to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, running to 70 pages, came with “no surprises”, said Coveney. The Bill contained much of the detail already outlined when the drafts of the legislation were published last month.
There were some additions: new lending powers for Enterprise Ireland to help businesses affected by a no-deal Brexit and deferred accounting for traders importing from the UK to avoid making substantial VAT payments at the moment they import the goods into the State.
This latter measure was announced by the Government two weeks ago after intensive lobbying by industry representative groups. It would benefit about 90,000 businesses who, without it, would have a nasty up-front payment to make on March 30th when the UK becomes, in trading terms, a non-EU “third country”.
Harbours and ports
There is little that Brexit does not touch. The omnibus legislation even includes a measure to continue to protect the pilots of ships steering boats into the State’s harbours and ports should the UK leave without a deal.
Most importantly, large parts of the fresh legislative text would guarantee the continuation of the Common Travel Area (CTA), the long-standing arrangements that permit Irish people to enter and work in the UK – and Britons in Ireland.
These arrangements predate the EU by several decades and protect the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
About 132,000 people in Ireland receive social welfare payments from the UK, while 28,000 people in the UK, most of them in Northern Ireland, receive social welfare payments from the Irish State.
The Government alone cannot protect all these measures with this legislation. A matching UK law is required to complete the legal circle around the CTA. The British Home Office has assured Irish officials there will be no difficulty updating its own legislation –the Immigration and Society Security Co-ordination Bill – to continue these arrangements from a British perspective before Brexit.
Other well-established conventions have to be dusted off. Brexit means Ireland and Britain can no longer rely on the European Arrest Warrant, used by both countries since 2003 to transport criminals across the Irish Sea.
The Government, in a no-deal Brexit, would instead use the Council of Europe Convention on Extradition, the 1957 multilateral extradition treaty drawn up by member states of the Council of Europe, and the omnibus law sets this up.
The 62-year-old convention is regarded as slower and more cumbersome than the arrest warrant system and potentially exposes the courts to more legal challenges against extradition.
Another thing that nobody wants.