On Monday 1st October, An Tánaiste Simon Coveney TD attended an event in UCC organised by the UCC Young Fine Gael society. On the night the Cork South-Central representative spoke about a range of topics including: Brexit and Housing. The University Express had exclusive access to the meeting and were able to gather an insight into the Brexit negotiations in particular.
“Britain is our closest neighbour and should be our closest friend too.” That was one of several key messages made by the Tánaiste when he visited UCC a few weeks ago. Over the past two years, a day has not gone by on these shores without Brexit being mentioned. It could potentially be one of the most damaging political decisions taken in history for this country, despite the fact that we had no involvement in its outcome.
Fortunately it seems that we are coming to an end in negotiations both between Ireland and the UK, along with the EU and UK. According to Mr Coveney, 90% of all talks have been completed and it is expected that a final deal will be ready by the end of November. The major stumbling block remaining is the ‘backstop’ agreement, without which everything else such as citizen’s rights, the UK divorce bill and the transition period, will fall through. The Tánaiste expects that this crucial part of the negotiations will cause a lot of “political bluff” to be said on both sides of the Irish Sea over the next fortnight or so. However, he remains confident that his position and the Irish government’s position will remain respected in the weeks to come. “My job is to hold our nerve, to ensure that what has been committed to Ireland already around the Good Friday Agreement and around the border is followed through on and that the Prime Minister keeps her word,” Coveney explains. The proposed backstop would see the UK align themselves with the rules of the Customs Union and Single Market in order to avoid disrupting trade north and south of the Irish border.
According to the Tánaiste, €70 billion in trade is transported across the sea every year to Britain and therefore maintaining as close a relationship as possible is very important. In an interesting revelation Mr Coveney also mentioned how the Irish government have somewhat ignored a lot of speculation that has emerged from Westminster in recent times. “The messaging you hear from Britain changes all the time. So we have decided now for some time to ignore most of the commentary that comes from Westminster and concentrate on the commentary that comes out of No. 10. We are not negotiating with Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. It is the Prime Minister’s decisions that we insist on following through on.”
Another big statement made by the Carrigaline TD was the reiteration that the government will in no way accept any deal which involves the reintroduction of border infrastructure in Ireland. “It is not going to happen, we are not going to do it. Some people think we are going to lose our nerve and Ireland will be pressurised into a compromise but we will not, you can quote me on that.” However, should things turn sour and a backstop agreement can’t be agreed upon, potentially resulting in a ‘no deal’ scenario, then there may be a stand-off between Ireland and the EU on the border issue.
At a meeting with Donald Tusk on 4th of October last, Leo Varadkar said that if there was no backstop there would be “nothing”, to which Tusk replied, albeit with some tongue in cheek, “the Taoiseach is optimistic.” When the University Express personally asked the Tánaiste about whether Irish civil servants were preparing for a possible ‘no deal’ outcome he replied by saying, “we have been contingency planning for over a year now but in truth we’ve only really started talking about it since June. The reason for that is that you don’t talk up preparations for an outcome that you’re trying to avoid because you potentially create a self-fulfilling prophecy then. We do not have contingency plans for border infrastructure because we will not accept it but we are pressing ahead with more border checks, as in custom checks and food related checks. For any further no deal contingency plans, there would have to be some negotiations with the EU. But look, if there is a no deal then planes can’t even take off from the UK because their safety certifications come from the EU, it’s as fundamental as that”.
At the beginning of the talk Mr Coveney was confronted by protestors, who attacked the Tánaiste and his government for their response to the housing and homeless crisis. Coveney responded, passionately defending the work of his party but did acknowledged that levels of homelessness, and those who live in temporary accommodation, is not acceptable. “It is not ok and we are changing it. We are spending tens of millions of euro to change it. We have successfully taken families out of hotels, 2000 in the last twelve months. I know I am here to talk about Brexit but I am happy to defend what we are doing on housing. This is a five-year plan on housing and homelessness and it can’t be judged within 18 months, like some people are judging it.”
The Tánaiste, who was Minister for Housing from May 2016 to June 2017, went on to explain that Ireland was destined for a housing crisis due to a “fundamentally broken housing market.” He went on to explain, “we went from building 90,000 units a year, which was crazy! That’s nearly as many as the entirety of the UK. We went down to 5,000 units a year but we are getting back to higher numbers now. Two years ago we built 12,000, last year 14,500, this year will be over 20,000, next year over 25,000 and the year after comfortably over 30,000 units which is where we need to be. In the meantime, we will dramatically increase the amount of social housing and also refurbish vacant properties, but these things don’t happen overnight.”
The reason that Mr Coveney gave for the shortage of housing was clear. “We were essentially building no social housing for about eight years because this country had no money. We were relying on emergency finance which didn’t allow us to spend on capital expenditure, not roads, not housing, not hospitals. But as soon as this country was able to make its own choices financially we started building houses again. However, I can understand the anger that it has brought. I can understand why someone would want to come into me today and give out to me about it, fair enough. But what I won’t allow is to let the truth be twisted.”