Statements in the Seanad on Brexit Referendum

Posted on June 23, 2016

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, back to the House and I congratulate him on his reappointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I look forward to working with him, as I am now Labour Party spokesperson on foreign affairs.

  I commend the Government on the work that has been going on as detailed in the Minister's speech. This has included interventions such as the Taoiseach's article in The Guardian, supporting the "Remain" side while being sensitive to the fact that this is a matter for a different jurisdiction. However, it is clear that we have a major interest in this as citizens and residents of the neighbouring island. The Labour Party leader, Deputy Howlin, was in England last Thursday campaigning on the "Remain" side among the Irish community there.

  It is impossible to take part in today's debate without mentioning, as others have done, the brutal murder of Jo Cox on Thursday. We paid tributes to her yesterday. We note that today would have been her 42nd birthday. For many of us the ugly rhetoric that had come to characterise some of the anti-immigration arguments on the "Leave" side consolidated the view many of us had of strong support for the "Remain" side. That ugly rhetoric was perhaps summed up in the awful poster revealed by Mr. Nigel Farage, MEP, last Thursday, which clearly plays on racist sentiment.

  We have a direct connection. We have a very close relationship with Britain. For some of us it is closer than that. I emigrated to England and voted in previous British elections as an Irish citizen resident in England. Indeed now as a Dublin University Senator, I represent many Irish citizens who have a vote in the referendum. Some weeks ago I spoke with Trinity alumni in Derry and have been in contact with Trinity alumni branches throughout Britain and Northern Ireland. I am very heartened to hear back from so many of our graduates there who are so passionately on the "Remain" side and have been doing a great deal of work canvassing other Irish citizens resident in Britain to seek their support for the "Remain" side. I speak with people such as Nick Beard, whose blog on headstuff.org provides very compelling reasons for the UK to remain in the EU.

  I speak with Brian O'Connell from the Irish4Europe campaign group. He has noted that with over 600,000 Irish-born people living and working in Britain, it is a larger group than citizens from many other EU jurisdictions and could be very influential in the result of the referendum, particularly given how close the sides appear to be according to polls.

  As many have said, if the UK votes to leave, one of the main concerns for us on this island would be the citizens in the North. Most of us are very dismayed at the position that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, has taken on the "Leave" side, not seeming to recognise, as the historian, Roy Foster, has said, that a vote for Brexit could be disastrous for the advances we have seen in relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland. We should not take for granted the huge role the EU has played in British-Irish relations and its role in the peace process. British and Irish partners sitting as equals side-by-side at international tables of the EU from the early 1980s onwards arguably did more than many things to improve British-Irish relations and to begin processes leading to the Good Friday Agreement. That is an important factor for us.

  It is also important not to be dismissive of all of the arguments on the "Leave" side because clearly there are people on the "Leave" side who genuinely believe in Brexit without adhering to the horrible rhetoric of Mr. Nigel Farage, MEP, and his allies in UKIP.

  Some of the arguments on the "Leave" side indicate a very high level of disillusionment with the EU - a sense of a democratic deficit, as Senator Higgins mentioned, a sense of concern about democracy and decisions being made by an unelected Commission. Many of us feel that consolidated action is required to tackle that. We need the added voice of Britain at the table to help us in countering that and putting the case, for example, for a social Europe and in putting the case for the need for the EU to have a united front facing crises such as the economic crisis felt so recently and indeed the crisis of so many refugees seeking to enter Europe.

  There are also very strong arguments to remain on economic and social grounds, in particular the strong economic evidence so many have pointed to. The ESRI, for example, has pointed to enormous losses for Ireland as a crucial partner with the UK. There are many reports on the adverse economic effects for the British economy should the Brexit side prevail.

  However, there are also very strong social arguments for remaining in the EU. We should not forget that the Nobel committee presented the EU with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, noting the EU's work over six decades in advancing peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. The EU serves as an example to many other countries of what can be achieved through solidarity and transnational co-operation.

  The EU's work in terms of the social Europe and progress for equality and in particular for women's rights should not be taken for granted. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has emphasised the progress for women as a result of EU membership. Also in Britain, Frances O'Grady of the Trades Union Congress published a report entitled Women's Rights and the Risk of Brexit, making the point that Brexit risks turning the clock back decades on hard-won rights. The socialist movement in Europe has a strong tradition. The red flag of the Labour Party was first marched under in 1831 in Merthyr Tydfil by oppressed miners and red remains the colour of many of our social democratic partners in Europe, such as the SPD in Germany. We see a strong sense of European and national identity emerging from these movements around workers' rights, trade union rights and women's rights.

  While the decision clearly rests with others tomorrow and not in this jurisdiction, for us the Brexit debate clearly raises many worrying sentiments and we need to challenge some of the arguments for Brexit and meet them with confidence because the European project of an open society of international solidarity of trust and mutual co-operation is an ideal that is worth supporting and worth building upon in co-operation with our neighbours. We need to have the confidence and leadership here and elsewhere to counter racist and narrow-minded commentary about immigration and we need to plan for a brighter future.

  My hope along with that of so many others is that the UK will vote to remain and we can all work together to face the crises that will confront the EU in the rest of the 21st century.

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