I welcome the recall of the Dáil to discuss this very serious situation. The result has brought to the fore the deeply divided nature of British society. I fully accept the outcome and Britain’s right to decide, as well as the fact that it will not be forced to have another vote. The majority of those who voted to leave were from working class backgrounds and regions that were disproportionately affected by the EU austerity agenda. While the UK was not involved in the treaties, as it has its own currency, the austerity agenda is one of the issues that has made people so sceptical about and opposed to the European project.
The result has underscored the enormous democratic deficit at the heart of the European institutions. It is a fact we cannot deny. There is a lack of accountability among the mandarins, as we call them here, or eurocrats who are unelected but are dictating what we must do in Ireland. Successive Governments have not stood up to the eurocrats, nor have they stood up to the eurocrats in this country. That is a fait accompli; everybody knows it. I supported our entry into the European Union and some of the treaties. I was not happy when we had to vote again on the Lisbon and Nice treaties. It is not good for democracy to change the goalposts when one does not get the result one wants. Our team would not be returning today from the European soccer championships if there was a situation where the goalposts could be changed when it suited.
Nonetheless, there is a very serious situation now. Many of us took our eyes off the ball, perhaps, especially after the murder of Jo Cox MP, as she was going about her business. We thought that people might swing back to support remaining in the EU. Obviously, the campaigns of the Labour Party in England and of the Conservative government were not what they should have been and were unable to bring the people with them. One cannot drive people, one must listen to them. That was learned by our Government with the new situation in Ireland. The election threw up a different political landscape and we must reflect on that, accept it and work within it. The European leaders did nothing to bring people in the UK with them. Instead, they talked down to the people and dismissed their fears as irrelevant, which only hardened views. That has happened again.
Since the referendum result was announced in mid-morning on Friday, the leaders of the European Union, as they like to call themselves, have engaged in threats and bullying. The 28 member states should be treated equally and small groups of member states should not operate in the EU. Members of all parties were not happy with the Economic Management Council that operated in the previous Government because it vested the power of decision making in a small number of people. All member state governments have been elected and they must all have an equal say in the European Union.
The outcome of the British referendum was decisive and delivered certainty, namely, the decision of Prime Minister Cameron to step down. Delays are not good and a vacuum will not be good for Europe, the United Kingdom or the important relationship between the UK and Ireland, especially given the number of Irish people working in and travelling to and from Britain and the many people who travel up and down to the North.
The impact of the referendum result on Ireland is already being felt. My views on water are well known. According to news reports this morning, the European Commission has indicated that Ireland will be severely punished if we do not maintain water charges. Our sovereign Government has acted on this matter and the Oireachtas debated the Irish Water fiasco last Friday, yet we are being dictated to by the EU, which tells us we will be given a few lashes of the cane or, to pardon the pun, the tap will be turned off in some other way if we do not have water charges. The EU cannot operate by diktat and behave in this manner. It must allow people to breathe and develop a respect for the EU institutions.
While Ireland has made significant gains since joining the European Economic Community in the early 1970s, the European Union has become too big. There are concerns about its powers and EU support for armed intervention by the United States in various parts of the world has not gone down well.
Immediate clarification is needed on a series of issues. I am pleased a special group has been established in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to seek a manageable way forward for agriculture, which continues to be our most important industry. We do not have a sea or land border, other than a fence with Northern Ireland. Britain’s exit from the EU will have a serious impact on many flagship projects. Despite various EU payments, for example, the single farm payment, agriculture is on its knees. I have never seen farmers in such a perilous position as they hope for a harvest or await a milk cheque that will not come. They are desperate because the large conglomerates and co-operatives have become too greedy and have lost sight of individual farmers. Communities have been devastated by certain policies pursued by the European Union with the support of successive Governments.
What will be the impact of Brexit on the struggling haulage industry whose drivers are subject to a plethora of levies as they travel to and from Northern Ireland and Britain? Will more punitive measures be imposed on them?
While I welcome the debate, it must be meaningful and extend beyond making statements about this serious issue. I thank the Taoiseach and his officials for the briefing provided to Opposition spokespersons last Friday, which was attended by Deputy Michael Harty on behalf of the Rural Alliance. I welcome the calm and reflective comments made by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in a radio interview this morning. We need calm and reflection but the Government must take a stronger line with the European institutions than previous Governments took when the banks went bust and austerity was forced on us. Before the bust, other European banks knew Irish banks were in trouble but kept shovelling money into them. The banks and bondholders were subsequently protected and has the last laugh because their insurance policies were not even called in. The patsies were made to carry the can and the Government accepted that.
I voted for the bank guarantee and it is a mistake I will carry to my grave. We were warned that all kinds of scenarios would come about. The bank guarantee was provided for the big people, while ordinary people and families suffered grievously as a result of the decision to let the banks off the hook. Not only did European banks shovel money into Ireland, they bulldozed money into this country when they knew the position was perilous. They also knew they would be backed up by the powers of the European Union because, as Deputy Pringle stated, might is right in the European context and the EU backed up the larger countries and punished smaller countries. We were not strong enough to stand up for ourselves but I hope we will stand up for ourselves now. We must not have uncertainty in the interregnum that will last until the button is pressed and Article 50 invoked. Clarity is required in this regard.
I understand Ireland may benefit from increased foreign direct investment in the short term because companies may decide to invest here on the basis that Ireland will be the only English-speaking member state after Brexit. While I hope they will do so, I do not want Irish people working in England to suffer as a result of policies pursued by the Government. We must stand on our own two feet. We must also learn that the European project may be good but it requires serious attention because many things have gone wrong with it. The EU institutions must sit up and listen. Fear-mongering and threats will not prevent other countries from exercising their right to leave the EU, if they wish to do so. Respect must go both ways and must be shown to the smallest as well as the largest countries.
We must not allow Brussels to become a rest home for politicians who have utterly failed in this country. I will not mention names but everyone will know who I am talking about. A full examination is required of the payscales and remuneration provided to unelected officials in the European Commission and other European institutions because they are totally out of kilter with the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The EU has become a gravy train for some people. This issue must be examined. Everyone must be looked after fairly but we must remember the ideals of the men and women of 1916 and what they fought for. Europe cannot issue diktats all the time.
I am willing to work with any committee, review body or group that is established to soften the blow of Brexit. I look forward to engaging with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, and the continuation of the valuable relationships that have been built up. No one wants another fixed border in this country because the Border was in place for too long. The smuggling and racketeering it generated and which continues are too serious. Borders need to be removed and broken down.
We must seriously examine developments in the Middle East. The poster used in the referendum campaign depicting thousands of emigrants moving to Britain was an example of scaremongering but people are frightened. We must address the ethnic cleansing of Christian communities from the Middle East. The Oireachtas has not debated or discussed this issue. I look forward to doing so with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan. I also look forward to travelling to Rome in the summer where I will debate this issue with an international group. I hope to have a meeting with the Minister before we leave and on our return. The Middle East is experiencing a serious crisis which is destabilising the world. It is important that we reflect on and address this issue. While it is fine to agree to take a couple thousand refugees, the European Union is unable to deal with the serious crisis that has emerged. It may have to deal with many more crises but it must respect Ireland and the other 27 member states as equal partners. We are not lesser members that can be bullied, threatened and intimidated.