I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Martin McGuinness, who as we all know was instrumental in the peace process. We all know that he has worked tirelessly to connect with people to whom he has been diametrically opposed politically, most notably the late Rev. Ian Paisley. We may not see his kind in office again, and I hope he makes a full recovery. I also want to send best wishes to his successor, Michelle O'Neill, and all of the democratic leaders in the North.
The forthcoming elections in the North are taking place in an atmosphere of crisis. It does not seem likely that a new power sharing executive will be formed easily unless there can be a fresh start, renewing the commitments made in 1998 and 2007. While we await the people's verdict in the North, we all know what is occurring. There are also the consequences of the referendum held in the UK last June.
It is not just about that. We can all agree that the cash for ash scandal needs to be addressed, respecting principles of good and clean government. The costs to the people of the North must not be forgotten, as they look at the prospects of the drying up of the EU funding of agriculture and numerous other important functions, including cross-Border and peace programmes, which are areas that I am specifically interested in as I have worked in the community in the North on many different occasions.Ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement it has been obvious that there has been resistance by the DUP to the equality agenda. In addition the DUP has been reluctant to engage in all-Ireland bodies or to treat nationalists as equals within the Executive. Sadly, its reluctance to embrace equality goes further as shown by the party's strong opposition to same-sex marriage. Given that the Irish Government is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and has equal status with the British Government, will the Minister urge his British counterpart to put pressure on the DUP to fulfil all its current and future obligations?
Theresa May seems on course for a hard Brexit. All considered opinion suggests this will have a significant effect on the island of Ireland because the Border between North and South will be the only land border between the UK and the EU. The reimposition of a hard land border will have implications both for trade and security. Britain's departure from the customs union suggests that there may have to be some physical barrier to the transport of goods between both jurisdictions on this island.
The fact that the Brexit campaign was strongly focused on the issue of immigration also suggests that freedom of movement between the EU and the UK may be at risk, thus affecting North-South travel. Recent submissions to the parliamentary Northern Ireland affairs committee highlight the impact on people's lives that Brexit will have. The head of the Northern Ireland arm of Dairy UK has warned of the damage ahead. No longer being part of EU trade deals will see dairy exports to major markets such as Malaysia and Thailand face at least double tariff rates, which "would kill that business". On the possibility of a hard border with a customs barrier, and with immigration officials behind it, he stated:
This is a major issue for the dairy industry. We are very dependent on what we call an all-island value chain. If we have any interruption in the current practices it is going to effect the longer term viability of the industry.
Now that the ideal outcome of a soft Brexit for the whole of the UK seems unlikely, what plans have been put in place to establish a separate strand in the negotiations focusing on the specific concerns which arise for the island? Will the Minister be asking our EU partners to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is fully protected? Will that request include special status for the North to enable it to stay within the Single Market and the customs union, and to place the practical border between Ireland and Great Britain in the Irish Sea at ports and at airports? That seems the best way to keep the borderless island we were promised by the outworkings of the Good Friday Agreement and which we have enjoyed for over a decade. The status of the North was supposedly enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement through an act of Irish self-determination North and South. The modification of Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution was based on the understanding that a majority in both jurisdictions had to vote in favour of any change of the status of the island.
Would the Minister agree that, as currently envisaged, Brexit contravenes these agreements both in word and in spirit? Has the Minister given any consideration to the possibility of the North and Scotland remaining in the EU and also in the UK, reflecting the wishes of their respective peoples? Professor Brendan O'Leary has argued that possibility in what would seem to be a rational democratic compromise as both areas voted to remain in the EU. The case of Northern Ireland is different from that of Scotland because of the Good Friday Agreement and the treaty. However, we must have regard both to the current and future interests of Scotland whether or not its parliament and people choose to stay in the UK.
In any case, the position advanced by Professor O'Leary and others emphasises the need for Ireland to have a well thought out and coherent strategy before the negotiations begin. It is the view of most of those I meet in my new role North and South that defending the Good Friday Agreement and the 1999 British-Irish treaty should be the firm red line of the Irish Government both with the UK and our EU partners.
The Good Friday agreement and the treaty signed by two EU member states assumed a borderless Ireland and created a North-South Ministerial Council tasked with addressing relevant EU matters. It is vital that no physical land border should be reintroduced, in addition to having no customs posts, immigration officers, police, military portakabins or watchtowers. This should be a red line for us and Michel Barnier should be so advised.
The ideal scenario would be for the North to stay fully in the EU or, failing that, to keep the North's existing European status as much as possible, for example, within the Single Market and the customs union. This option would exclude Northern Ireland from full UK exit, but would do so precisely because of the UK's previous commitments to a borderless Ireland. It would express the preferences of the North's voters.
I understand the Minister's concerns, including protecting the economic interests of our citizens and its resident businesses. However, these interests have much less traction with Ireland's allies in the rest of the EU because they are our competitors in these matters. Focusing on the Good Friday Agreement therefore makes moral, political and strategic sense. It is simply the best way to deal with all the prospective difficulties. We should also do our best to protect Scotland's current and future interests.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in London decided that the Northern Ireland Assembly need not be consulted as a matter of domestic UK law over the UK Government's decision to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This unfortunate and controversial decision is at odds with many Irish people's understanding of what was agreed in 1998, namely, that all of the institutional relations within the North, between North and South, east and west, and between these islands and our European partners, were one complex unity and that any constitutional change required the consent of the people of Ireland North and South.
I am asking the Minister to explain what he intends to do to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected in its integrity, to ensure that the wishes of the majority in the North are upheld, and that the status of all-island relations are treated distinctly as a separate strand in the Article 50 negotiations.