We are 115 days away from a potential no-deal Brexit. That leaves us with just in excess of 16 weeks to finish preparing, as best we can, for the serious disruption of the UK deciding to become a third country overnight after 46 years of EU membership. The chances of a disorderly Brexit have never been higher and the Government now considers the risk of this outcome on October 31st as "significant".
Therefore, on Tuesday I will bring to Cabinet a detailed update on our contingency planning across all Government departments and State agencies. Once agreed by Cabinet we will lay the document before the Oireachtas and publish it in full ahead of a Dáil debate on Brexit preparations later this week.
This updated Contingency Action Plan will build on its predecessor published last December and the noteworthy cross-party effort that went into passing the Brexit Omnibus Act in March. It refines and improves on all the actions that were already in place for the March 29th and April 12th Brexit deadlines. This work will continue to be prioritised across Government in the weeks ahead.
The UK is, and will remain, the Republic’s closest neighbour and friend regardless of Brexit. At the same time, the State is, and will remain, a fully committed and proud member of the European Union.
In recent weeks we have observed and listened to some inaccurate utterances about ourselves, the EU and the backstop.
Of course people can have their own opinions, but they cannot have their own facts. The facts are that Brexit is a British decision, triggering article 50 on March 29th, 2017, was a British decision, and the red lines laid down for the negotiation are British red lines.
The withdrawal agreement was a hard-won deal between the EU and the UK; the backstop is an integral part of that deal and the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened.
The backstop is a creative, negotiated solution to protect Northern Ireland, the part of these islands that will be most damaged by a no-deal Brexit, and in turn the peace process. It recognises the uniqueness of Northern Ireland. It is an insurance policy and we hope it doesn't need to be used. But the backstop gives us certainty now, certainty that is essential to protect stability on this island.
Any other arrangements agreed in the future must deliver the same outcome. The backstop is much more than just avoiding physical infrastructure. It is also about avoiding related checks and controls, protecting North-South co-operation and the all-island economy, conditions that created tens of thousands of jobs, normalised relations on this island and sustained peace.
Small businesses need to realise that they are exposed and act
The backstop is also about protecting the EU’s single market and the Republic’s place in it. The Irish people did not vote to leave the EU. The State has not caused this problem and we cannot be expected to compromise our place in the EU and our single market to fix it. The Republic accepts the decision of the UK and we have negotiated in good faith as part of the EU for an orderly Brexit. Our country has pulled together and will need to do so even more if UK politics decides on a disorderly Brexit. I make no apology for protecting Ireland through Brexit.
Some claim Northern Ireland won’t hurt too badly in a no-deal scenario. To them I say read the stark warnings and bleak reports of the Northern Ireland civil service. Listen to farming and fishing groups as well as the diverse business lobby. They all strongly support the backstop.
We hope sensible evidence-based politics prevails over slogans in the UK, but we cannot bank on that. One of the biggest dangers Ireland faces in the weeks ahead is the “boy who cried wolf” effect, whereby people and business assume that because a disorderly Brexit was averted in March and April the same will happen in October. To assume this would be a serious error.
The Government isn’t the only player in this. Businesses will need to ensure that they are prepared. Major multinational firms have done so, as have many Irish companies, but given the amount of small and medium enterprises in Ireland, not to mention their exposure to the UK market, we need to see concerted efforts by them in the weeks ahead.
The Government has helped and will continue to help small businesses, but we need those same businesses to realise that they are exposed and need to act. There is a range of supports already in place and tomorrow’s updated Contingency Action Plan will detail how the Government will continue to offer supports over the next 115 days.
Our no-deal planning work with the European Commission will continue in the weeks ahead to achieve the shared twin goals of preventing a hard Border while also protecting the EU's single market. However, no deal means we lose the backstop and elements of the all-island economy are particularly vulnerable in this scenario.
The State’s number one contingency is, and will remain, our EU membership, with all of the support and security that brings.
Simon Coveney is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs