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Where does Ireland's Europe minister think Brexit talks stand now?

The Meath-East TD, who worked in European law and twice ran as an MEP candidate, talks to TheJournal.ie about an extraordinary Brexit week.

I’ve always felt that the expression of Irish sovereignty is greatly enhanced by being part of that table at Europe.
It’s not a question of giving up sovereignty, it’s a question of the bigger country sharing sovereignty with us. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at it – it gives us more power.

THOMAS BYRNE IS the seventh person to hold the role of Minister of State for European Affairs – a junior ministry that has become more important in recent years.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016, the Europe portfolio has involved a lot of batting for the benefits of the EU and the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement – the latter of which was greatly helped by having the same customs and regulatory rules North and south.

Never has there been a greater need for it than this week, when the UK threatened to renege on commitments to Northern Ireland contained in the concluded and ratified Withdrawal Agreement (upon which Boris Johnson glided into a successful general election campaign).

The non-Cabinet European Affairs minister role was first created in 1997; since then its alumna have assumed more senior Cabinet roles.

Current Eurogroup President and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe assumed the role in 2013, and his Fine Gael colleague Helen McEntee – who is now a Justice Minister at the age of 34 – preceded Byrne.

Being a junior minister for Europe looks good on a CV.

For Byrne, moving from a role as Fianna Fáil’s education spokesperson to a junior minister for Europe may seem left-of-field, but he started his professional career as a solicitor in the EU law department of Irish firm McCann FitzGerald, He also twice ran as an MEP candidate, adding that he’s “always had an interest” in European matters.

And, like many domestic politicians who become MEPs, Commissioners, or take up another European role, he’s already using the safe, steady language of an EU politician.

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Already out to bat for Ireland and the EU in a game of Brexit this week, he told BBC Radio 4 that the UK’s actions to renege on commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to Northern Ireland were “uniquely unprecedented”.

He said that the UK’s claim that they were taking this action to protect the Good Friday Agreement was “completely false”, and that the opposite was true.

[It was put to me that] a sovereign country can make its own laws. But one of the essences of sovereignty is making agreements with other sovereign countries. And I think the UK has missed that point.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie - held during the throes of a diplomatic crisis with the UK government over the Withdrawal Agreement – he responded to a question about whether Ireland has done enough to protect Northern Ireland with a familiar answer:

Even in the best Brexit outcome imaginable, there’s still going to be huge, negative consequences on the island of Ireland, north and south.

He adds that no one could have foreseen the UK rowing back on an international treaty it ratified just months earlier.

“The [Irish] Protocol is there, fundamentally, to protect trading goods to the island of Ireland, and thereby protect the peace process,” Byrne says – another recognisable phrase. 

“Anything at all that is said or done about the Protocol can have immediate effects in Northern Ireland.”

Byrne repeats another familiar phrase: that in his phone calls with all his European counterparts, he is “struck” by the solidarity there is with Ireland.

When asked whether other EU countries care anymore about Brexit, he says they do, and insists that Brexit hasn’t slipped off their agenda.

“Well it’s my job to keep it on the agenda,” he adds.

An exemption on travel

Though having relaxed into the role, Byrne admits that his start as Ireland’s Europe minister has been somewhat clipped by not being permitted, under public health guidelines, to travel to Europe.

When asked has he travelled abroad, he gives an emphatic ‘no’.

But, anticipating a change to Ireland’s travel rules next week, he plans in-person meetings in two weeks’ time: “The General Affairs Council is happening physically in two weeks. So we expect to be there at that point, and we’re making preparations to be there.”

Currently, foreign diplomats and workers involved in the supply chain are the only workers exempt from travel restrictions – MEPs have written to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin to ask for an exemption to allow them to travel to the European Parliament without having to restrict their movements for 14 days upon their return.

“I don’t want to start comparing us to nurses or doctors,” Byrne says, but adds that the current travel regulations are “pretty restrictive”, and that diplomacy will be needed as the trade talks come to an end this winter. If not sooner.

‘Unacceptable’ events this week

When Byrne read Peter Foster’s exclusive in the Financial Times last Sunday night, which said the UK was planning to override key parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with a piece of domestic legislation, he thought it was incredible.

Despite it setting off alarm bells in Dublin, he said that the Irish government took an initial reaction “of caution and care”. 

“What we don’t want to do on this side, is just immediately ratchet up things,” he said.

But it came into to sharp relief [in the House of Commons], that’s the truth. And it’s not acceptable. It just can’t be accepted.

The Bill was published on Wednesday afternoon, and was as extreme in reneging on the Withdrawal Agreement as had been promised – contradicting requirements for custom declarations for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and giving British ministers the power to decide on State aid rules for companies in the North.

Byrne compares the British government’s actions to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “absolute commitment to treaties”, when he invoked a Portuguese Treaty from 1373 in the House of Commons during the Second World War.

When it’s suggested that Boris Johnson was not far off when he is reported to have said that the Brexit deal agreed “never made sense”, particularly in relation to what customs rules the North was to abide by, Byrne refutes this.

“I think it makes perfect sense. What the protocol aims to achieve is to ensure that goods can trade freely on the island of Ireland, and that requires a protection for the [EU's] Single Market as well. 

Northern Ireland is such a complicated place that there are complicated solutions to its problems. The Good Friday Agreement is a complicated system of government.

He said that the protocol was the end result of compromise on both sides in negotiations, though there is still “a lot of work to do”.

When asked whether there is any chance for a trade deal to be struck, Byrne says that the government launched its Brexit Readiness plan this week encouraging businesses to be ready on the basis of “a limited deal or no deal”. 

He says that Ireland and Europe will watch how the Internal Market Bill progresses through the UK Parliament. 

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Sovereignty, Europe, and Anglo-Irish relations

The UK has argued that though it was one of the most influential countries in the EU, it paid more into the EU ‘pot’ than it got out – an argument that had always been the reverse for Ireland (mostly because of the EU’s CAP payments to farmers).

Following on from Ireland’s resurrection from the depths of the recession to high offices of influence (see Paschal Donohoe as head of the Eurogroup, and Mairéad McGuinness’ new role), it will be paying more into the EU than before. 

We tend to play our hand strongly for a country of our weight,” Byrne says, “but that’s not to say that we don’t have challenges ahead. One is that we’ve become a net contributor… That will require a bit of work and a bit of effort [to communicate].”
We want to make Europe as relevant as possible to citizens without getting caught up in huge big constitutional changes.

“You’d love to have a stronger health competence or whatever might be useful now, but that’s not going to happen without big ratification… we’ve got to work with what we have.”

On the more macro issue of Ireland’s place in Europe, Byrne says Ireland has a close relationship with European nations, but adds that it could be closer. 

“Countries like Croatia and Austria, those countries that you mightn’t think of, there are business links that can be developed to mutual benefit,” he says.

Byrne also stresses, however, that relations with the UK must be maintained.

On the fisheries issue in trade negotiations, a sensitive one for Ireland, Byrne says that “you can see where Britain is coming from as well, there’s a lot of deprivation on the coasts in England, that’s where they’re coming from”.

“I think we’ve it’s absolutely necessary to maintain a close relationship with Great Britain. There’s no two ways about that. It’s a really important relationship.”

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