There was a large attendance in the Wetlands centre in Ballybay on Friday evening last for a Sinn Féin public meeting on Brexit, which also heard speakers address issues pertaining to the future of the EU, rural development and recent machinations in the efforts to re-establish the Stormont institutions.
The meeting was the latest in a series of engagements organised by Matt Carthy MEP, since his election to the European Parliament in 2014. Carthy explained that he had promised prior to that contest that he would, if elected, hold regular forums to update constituents on his work on their behalf and on EU political developments affecting them. He explained that he has since organised over 50 public meetings across the 15 counties of his European constituency, including several in Monaghan and Cavan.
The meeting was also addressed by local Dáil deputy, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and was chaired by the Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council, Cllr. Cathy Bennett. Other elected representatives in attendance included Monaghan Councillors Pat Treanor and Seán Conlon and the Cathaoirleach of Cavan County Council, Paddy McDonald.
Following the main addresses by Deputy Ó Caoláin and MEP Carthy, Cllr. Bennett invited questions from the floor thanking all those in attendance which included several representatives from local community, business and farming organisations.
Ó Caoláin remarks
Addressing both the deepening concerns across all sectors of the Irish economy, north and south, at the growing prospect of real barriers to trade and the free movement of people on the island of Ireland as a consequence of Brexit and the disappointment and understandable frustration of a cross-section of opinion at the DUP’s decision to ‘pull-the-plug’ on the talks at Stormont earlier in the week, Sinn Féin Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin stated that the people had every right to fear what was in prospect post-Brexit. He also urged a calm and measured reaction to Arlene Foster’s provocative stance towards the Irish language and other issues central to the northern negotiations.
“It is now clear to almost everyone, everyone bar Leo Varadkar perhaps, that there was nothing ‘bullet proof’ or ‘cast-iron’ about the so called assurances given by EU negotiators last December regarding protecting Ireland’s interests.
“Recent comments by among others, EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan leave no one in any doubt that a border across the island of Ireland is inevitable if Britain leaves the Customs Union. The former Fine Gael Government Minister said this will happen regardless of any alignment that is secured in terms of negotiations.
“The lead EU Brexit negotiator Michél Barnier has now said that if Britain leaves the Customs Union and being outside the single market, barriers to trade and goods and services are unavoidable.
“The most telling recent remark however came from a senior French official who in an interview with the Financial Times stated that ‘the Irish issue’ had not been solved in December adding “we swept it under the carpet”.
“There is only one way to avoid these potentially calamitous scenarios that will impact so seriously in terms of trade and services and on the now twenty years long experience of being able to traverse the border without hindrance and that is by according the Six Counties, the north of Ireland, special status within the European Union. We need to keep this ‘inevitable border’ off the island of Ireland.
“There is the added and very real concern too of the potential of a reintroduced physical border giving rise to more than just community protest. The Good Friday Agreement, now two decades in being, deserves the protection of all who want to see no return to the past. The British Government is a co-guarantor of the agreement and the European Union is supposed to be an underpinning agency of its outworking. Neither set of negotiators should play loose and free with our hard-won Peace” stated Deputy Ó Caoláin.
Referring to the unexpected and sudden withdrawal from the northern talks process by the DUP, Deputy Ó Caoláin said;
“Over these past twelve months, and time and again with renewed energy, including very particularly over these past number of weeks, Sinn Féin has put every effort into the engagement with Arlene Foster and her DUP negotiating team. We have always approached these talks with a determination to see the elected institutions back up and running. We want the assembly back functioning and we want an Executive in place that serves the people of the north of Ireland, all the people of the six counties, fairly, honestly and equally.
“Respect for all must be a corner stone of any agreement reached and that must include respect for language choice, for gender orientation and for access to mechanisms that will allow survivors and relatives of victims of the conflict pursue truth and justice in their own or their loved one’s name.
“While it is very understandable that some voices would react angrily to Ms. Foster and the influences within her party that have caused this fresh hiatus in the talks process, we should remain calm and measured and careful in what we say always. These talks will have to re-start, hopefully sooner rather than later.
“And while we remain committed to the restoration of the political institutions in the north, other voices on this side of the border continue to play party politics with all that has unfolded north of the border. The Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is the most prominent and most vocal among their number. His constant efforts to paint Sinn Féin as one of “two problem parties” at Stormont shows his total disregard for the truth and his complete disconnect from the real work that has been underway and that must continue. For our part, we in Sinn Féin remain willing and available to get the talks back on track. Our record in this regard is above reproach” stated Deputy Ó Caoláin.
“Brexit is the greatest challenge facing Ireland” – Matt Carthy MEP
Thanking those who attended for braving the terrible weather conditions and expressing his appreciation for the support he has received from his native Co Monaghan since his election as MEP, Matt Carthy explained the efforts of the Sinn Féin team in the European Parliament to resist the tory Brexit agenda.
He then outlined the political context, saying:
“Currently, the greatest political and economic threat facing Ireland, and in particular border counties such as Monaghan, is Brexit.
“In December the British Government finally put its signature to something which recognises that, in relation to Brexit, different arrangements need to be put in place for the North of Ireland.
“However, since then, they have been trying to renege on that commitment.
“In the time ahead, EU negotiators and the Irish Government need to ensure there is no going back on the December communique and that, indeed, it is strengthened.
“We must protect the social and economic interests of border counties, including trade and open borders, as well as defending and upholding the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.
“Insisting that the north stays in the customs union, single market, and EU legal framework is essential to ensure no return to a hard border.
“Despite what the Taoiseach says, ‘full alignment’ in sectors covered by the Good Friday Agreement such as health, education, energy and transport, is not enough to avoid a hard border.
“If Britain decides to deviate from the EU tariff regime, legal protections to ensure that the North stays within it will be needed.
“The danger now is that the issue of the border will slip off the agenda once Brexit talks move on and the economic and trade interests of the larger EU states come into play.
“We need to ensure that the current ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ becomes a legal treaty, and that Designated Special Status for the North, within the EU, is achieved.
“However, we see already that the British Home Office is recruiting 300 Border Force Officers, including an unknown number to be based in Belfast.
“This contradicts the British Government’s stated aim of avoiding a hard border.
“Their duties are to involve operating checkpoints and making decisions on the movement of people.
“This raises the prospect of the British Government attempting to turn the North into one big border region in terms of immigration.
It is also concerning that, to meet the criteria for these posts, applicants will have had to have been a police officer, a former Border Force officer or have served in the British armed forces.
“This underlines the importance of ensuring that the communique agreed between the British Government and the EU is legally enforced and fully implemented.
“EU needs to change direction”
“While Sinn Féin is firm in pushing for special status for the North within the EU, it does not mean we are uncritical of the EU’s present direction.
“There is a democratic deficit at the heart of the EU.
“The Union is dominated by an austerity agenda which has caused much hardship to people across member states – not least in Ireland.
“Certain EU leaders want to exploit Brexit to increase EU federalism and reduced democratic accountability.
“This is what contributed to Brexit in the first place and has caused deep antagonism among citizens across the EU.
“This EU neoliberal political agenda ensured the Irish people were forced to pay back billions in bank debt which was not ours.
“It is now leading to the creation of an EU army, more dangerous trade deals, increased privatisation, less democratic oversight, and the domination of the EU by the larger Member States.
“Sinn Féin strenuously opposes this and is working with others across Europe for a more democratic, social Europe where member states work together as equals.
“We want an EU where the interests of citizens are at the heart of policy making”.
Dangerous EU Trade Deals
Matt Carthy told the meeting that since he was elected he has been active on a range of new EU trade deals which pose severe threats to Irish farmers, Irish workers and Irish consumers.
He said: “Deals which allow cheap food imports or which have limited food traceability or do not meet the EU’s animal welfare standards would be a disaster for our agricultural industry.
“The Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) will further distort trade and wealth in favour of large multinational corporations at the expense of indigenous Irish industry.
“Small and medium Irish enterprises will be severely disadvantaged.
“CETA will allow up to thousands of tonnes of beef and pork to be imported into the EU, tariff free.
“This will be devastating for Irish agriculture, farming families and rural communities, yet it is supported by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
“Fine Gael MEPs also recently supported the opening of negotiations with Australia and New Zealand on a trade deal which would open up the Irish dairy sector to competition from one of the biggest global traders in dairy.
“The position of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on trade is one of support for foreign corporations against those of Irish agriculture.
“Sinn Féin supports free trade. But we will not sign up to deals, such as CETA, which include measures which give multinational corporations huge power over democratically elected governments which include the power to sue governments for enacting legislation that could impact on their profits.
“Meanwhile the EU Commission is now prepared to sacrifice the needs of Irish agriculture in order to gain improved access to South American countries for the German car and pharmaceutical industries through the proposed Mercosur trade agreement.
“Mercosur will depress beef and poultry prices, reduce quality and drive small farmers out of the market.
“Irish Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has betrayed the concerns of Irish farmers on this issue.
“The position of the Fine Gael Government, and their partners in Fianna Fáil, on CETA shows that farmers cannot depend on those parties to protect their interests in Europe.
“Therefore, it is more imperative than ever that farmers and their representative organisations mobilise against all dangerous EU trade deals, including but not limited to Mercosur.
Threats to neutrality
“Another area of major concern right now at a European level is the Irish Government’s involvement in moves to establish an EU military union.
“The Irish people, just like people in other European countries, want an EU that delivers for them, for their families, for their communities, for their countries.
“There is no evidence that they want EU military expansion and I believe the Irish people deeply value our neutrality and do not want that compromised.
“In this regard, the recent decision of Fine Gael, supported by Independent Alliance TDs and Fianna Fáil, for Ireland to join the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), flagrantly disregards Irish neutrality.
“This move to sign Ireland up to participation in a military organisation aligned to NATO was done with almost zero public debate.
“This Fine Gael/ Fianna Fáil government is disregarding the constitution and attempting to mislead people as to the true nature of PESCO.
“So, while thousands of Irish people are forced to wait on trolleys and thousands more have to wait months for appointments, Fine Gael has decided to commit Ireland to contributing up to €5 billion in EU military research budget and a series of military projects”.
Matt Carthy confirmed to the meeting that he has been a vocal advocate on issues affecting people living in rural Ireland.
“I have raised at EU level the issue of regional imbalances in Ireland and highlighted the lack of key infrastructure here” he said.
“I have also raised the issue of the economic and social problems created by the border.
“I have been working with others to find ways of using the European institutions to support further North-South integration. With the advent of Brexit this has become extremely critical.
“I have sought to reduce overly burdensome regulations imposed on small and medium businesses, on farmers and on local authorities.
“But the truth is that while we can champion these issues at EU level, we really need a fundamental rethink of Irish Government policy.
“That means that rural based MEPs, TDs and Councillors, from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in particular, must join with Sinn Féin in demanding significant investment in rural counties. Elaborate photo-ops such as seen in the launch of the so-called ‘National Development Plan’ won’t cut it.
“As a first step, the attacks on rural communities – as seen in the closure of rural Garda stations, schools and post offices – must end.
“Crucially, it means thinking big for rural Ireland.
“There is no reason why many parts of this country have no rail line, or even adequate road infrastructure.
“There is no reason why many parts of County Monaghan haven’t got broadband or can’t access international investment or why so many of our young people, even now, continue to emigrate in order to get a job.
“There is no reason other than the fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments have not and will not invest adequately in the infrastructure and services we need” he said, before outlining the comprehensive list of Sinn Féin proposals for the reinvigoration of rural Ireland.
Matt Carthy committed to continuing to work for, and on behalf of the people of County Monaghan and beyond in demanding a better, fairer Ireland and a people-centre, democratic Europe. He would also, he said, continue to press for a United Ireland recognising the disaster that partition has been for all of Ireland but especially border counties such as Monaghan.