Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for The Executive Office, meeting on Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Colin McGrath (Chairperson)
Mr Doug Beattie MC (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr George Robinson
Mr Pat Sheehan
Ms Emma Sheerin


Mr Kearney, junior Minister
Mr Lyons, junior Minister

Brexit Issues: Mr Declan Kearney MLA, Junior Minister, Executive Office; and Mr Gordon Lyons MLA, Junior Minister, Executive Office

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I welcome the junior Ministers. Thank you for coming along today to give us an update on Brexit issues. I invite you to make a presentation, after which we will take questions from members.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Go raibh maith agat as ucht an seans a bheith libh an tráthnóna seo. Thank you very much, everybody, for allowing us to come in this afternoon to provide you with an update. I will begin, and Gordon will share additional information with you. At the last meeting and since, we have undertaken to interact as fully as possible with the Committee. We last briefed you on 13 May, and officials provided an update on Brexit on 27 May. We are resolved to ensuring that we continue to provide the Committee with monthly oral briefings on Brexit. From this point on, we will try to arrange a routine date at the end of each month.

The joint heads of government will attend the Committee next week, and they will provide an update on broader departmental and COVID-related issues. You received a briefing paper ahead of today's meeting. We intend to update you on the progress made over the last few weeks on a variety of EU exit issues. The Committee is aware that, during the COVID-19 response phase, EU exit matters were being considered at routine Executive meetings. We have recently resumed meeting as an Executive to deal with EU exit matters to ensure an appropriate focus on all those issues.

I will start by providing an update on the negotiations and the joint and the specialised committee meetings that followed our last Committee appearance. Negotiations on the future relationship between the British Government and the EU have been ongoing, and the fourth formal negotiating round concluded on 5 June. You will know from the statements on both sides that significant areas of divergence remain. Specifically — we touched on this in our last meeting — those relate to governance, open and fair competition, fisheries and internal security.

Those at the high-level stocktake meeting on 15 June, which we mentioned to you in our last meeting, were the British Prime Minister, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. Following the meeting, the British Government and the EU committed to intensifying the negotiation process, with a view to trying to arrive at a deal as soon as possible. Negotiators will continue to meet during July and August, and, subject to public health considerations, it is expected that there will be face-to-face meetings in London and Brussels, in all likelihood, in September. That would represent a significant increase in the tempo and pace of engagement. I am sure that we all agree that it is in everybody's interests that certainty is provided for our society and all our local businesses. Throughout the next stage, we will take every opportunity to continue to engage with the British Government to ensure that the future relationship best reflects the interests of our citizens, businesses and the wider community and economy.

I will now provide an update on the joint committee and the specialised committee. The second meeting of the joint committee on the withdrawal agreement took place on Friday 12 June, three days before the high-level meeting that I mentioned earlier. The meeting was jointly chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, and European Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic. A copy of the agenda for that meeting was provided to this Committee. That meeting was joined by Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator, who is also the alternate EU chair of the joint committee, as well as representatives from 15 member states, which included Ireland.

On behalf of the joint heads of government, junior Minister Lyons and I took part in the meeting, supported by the director general of international relations, Andrew McCormick. The committee received an update on progress on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement from the British Government and EU sides as well as updates from the six specialised committees, including the specialised committee on the Ireland/NI protocol.

On behalf of the Executive, we outlined that our officials continue to work closely with British Government colleagues to ensure the fulfilment of the obligations under the withdrawal agreement and that all relevant processes will be in place and concluded by 31 December 2020. That relates particularly to areas that are the specific responsibility of our power-sharing Government.

On the implementation of agri-food requirements, we indicated that officials in DAERA are engaging with their counterparts in the British Government and working to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place to facilitate the movement of goods and products between Britain and the North; and to minimise the burden on business while complying with the statutory requirements set out in the protocol. DAERA officials are also focused on protecting the safety and security of the North's agri-food industry and associated supply chain, post transition.

We also made clear that we wanted to see the streamlining of documentation and low percentages for physical checks. We have requested that all sides recognise the need for flexibility in the application of the protocol in all those respects. The joint committee received official notification from the British Government that they would not request an extension of the transition period. A request was required to be made by 1 July. Therefore, the second meeting of the joint committee was the last opportunity to do that. That position was reaffirmed at the high-level meeting three days later.

The EU acknowledged that decision but indicated that it would remain open to accommodating an extension request in the coming weeks, should the British Government decide otherwise. During the meeting, we updated the committee on the progress that the Executive have made on the single electricity market. We recognise that the significant legislative requirements that have to be delivered during the transition period will be required for the operation of the single electricity market under the terms of the protocol. We further stated that, while the importance of the single electricity market has been acknowledged by both the British Government and the EU, clarity is still required on the following issues: the efficiency of trading between the single electricity market and British markets; and how our views will be taken into consideration in the future operation of the single electricity market by the relevant European bodies. The opportunity was then taken to reaffirm to the committee that it is important that all our views are properly and adequately taken into account as this process moves forward. The next meeting of the joint committee is scheduled for a date in September.

I will hand over now to Gordon.

Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Thank you, and thank you, Mr Chairman. I will cover the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and readiness for the end of the EU transition period, which will include an update on legislation, and the common frameworks.

The Committee will be aware of the publication on 20 May of the Command Paper on the protocol by Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). We remain committed to working with our colleagues in HMG to ensure that all these objectives are achieved in a way that secures the best possible outcome for our citizens and businesses, and in a way that is beneficial to our economy and ensures the smoothest possible flow of trade in all directions. Some elements of the delivery and implementation of the protocol — for example, the agri-food requirements — fall within the Executive's devolved competence, and the Executive have committed to working with HMG to ensure that the obligations are met. However, we will also ensure that the UK Government honour their commitments. It is important that any implementation is done in a light-touch way, taking account of the commitment by the UK and the EU, in the protocol, to use all their best endeavours to minimise friction.

We welcome the Government's commitment in the Command Paper to engage with Northern Ireland businesses to discuss their proposals and provide feedback on how to maximise the free flow of trade. On 10 June, Minister Kearney and I attended the first of these meetings with representatives from our business community. It is clear to us that a high level of engagement needs to be maintained over the next few months if businesses are to have the necessary clarity and appropriate support to prepare for the end of the transition period.

On operational readiness, following the confirmation from HMG that they would not be requesting an extension to the transition period, the Executive recently agreed that Northern Ireland Departments needed to commence work on readiness for the end of the transition period. There are still several possible scenarios for the end of that period, but the one that remains static is that of a non-negotiated outcome. The Executive have, therefore, agreed that our readiness planning should commence to include the potential of a non-negotiated outcome scenario. This will provide a baseline for readiness but will need to allow planning to be flexible and to adapt as and when clarity emerges through the negotiations. Officials continue to liaise and work with the Northern Ireland Office, Departments and their counterparts in the Irish Government to seek the necessary clarity on protocol issues to support our readiness for the end of the transition period.

Legislation is a key area in preparing for the implementation of the protocol and the future relationship or, in the event of a non-negotiated outcome, preparing for operational preparedness. We have a significant challenge ahead of us to effect a high volume of largely technical EU exit legislation before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. Work is ongoing to capture the volume of legislation that is likely to be required, and it will be necessary to manage this alongside the essential, mainstream business of the Assembly, including the non-EU exit legislative programme. So, our officials are liaising with the Assembly to ensure that Assembly Committees are involved in a timely and appropriate manner in progressing the legislation. You will be glad to hear that the Executive Office has not identified any legislation to be brought forward under the EU exit legislation programme. That means that not too much of your time, Mr Chairman, will be taken up in the Assembly.

Finally, at the Executive meeting of 15 June, the Executive agreed to endorse the common frameworks principles, which had been agreed at the joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations (JMC(EN)) in October 2017. This decision will be communicated to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It has been recognised that there are significant challenges in having a full suite of common frameworks in place by the end of the transition period, and interim arrangements have also been agreed by the Executive to deliver core elements of the common frameworks project by the end of the year. As a result, 10 high-priority frameworks have been identified as essential for delivery, and a letter will be sent to the Assembly setting out the revised arrangements and expected Assembly scrutiny.

I hope, Mr Chairman, that these updates have been useful. No doubt, you will have a few extra questions, and we are, of course, happy to take them.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Thank you very much to the junior Ministers for their presentation. Yes, we will move on and ask a few questions.

The terms of reference for the Executive Committee's consideration of EU exit matters were placed in the Assembly Library last week, but they were not provided to this Committee, even though we are the Committee charged with scrutinising this area of work. The terms of reference for the original subcommittee were not provided to this Committee either. Apparently, that was due to a clerical oversight. Was this another clerical oversight? We are racking up quite a number of them.

Mr Kearney: Let us ensure that that problem is remedied. This afternoon, we will ensure that that situation is regularised, Colin. I do not have an explanation, and I am sure that Gordon does not either. It may have been an administrative oversight. If so, it is one that should not have happened.

In the spirit of our intention to engage with you on a regular basis and to provide as much information as possible, let us try to fix that omission and ensure that the relevant terms of reference are circulated to the Committee within the next 24 hours.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): That would be appreciated. Thank you very much.

In those original terms of reference, the subcommittee had a focus on agreeing a "policy position", and that has been changed to agreeing a "common policy position". Is there any significance in the insertion of the word "common", or is that simply a drafting matter?

Mr Lyons: I do not know the exact answer to that. I assume that it is just a drafting matter. I do not think that it changes substantially the point that we are trying to make in coming to an agreed position.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): So there is still the same approach in the subcommittee to try to reach consensus?

Mr Lyons: Absolutely, and that is not just for EU-exit-related matters. As an Executive, since we were established on 11 January, the approach has always been to seek consensus where we can. As we go into the future, we are still committed to that.

Mr Kearney: We have shared the common framework priorities with you. That is a joint Executive position. The negotiation priorities that the Executive put in place some time back remain in place. Those are common positions shared by all Executive Ministers in the power-sharing Government. Of course, there are differences — we touched on it at the last meeting — around matters relating to the extension of the transition period, but, fundamentally, the Executive are committed to developing a strategic road map that serves the best interests of all the citizens in the North.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Can you give us a little more detail on the assessments that are under way for the impact of Brexit on the North/South and east-west institutions? Some of that will have been referenced in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). What preparations are there to look at the impact of Brexit on those institutions?

Mr Lyons: Do you mean the North/South bodies, the British-Irish Council and the east-west bodies?

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Yes, there are North/South and east-west institutions and, come Brexit, they will obviously reflect the change. Has an assessment been done of the impact on those institutions and on how they operate and deliver, given that they will be in a new dispensation, potentially in January?

Mr Lyons: It is a requirement that they will still exist. They have been around for a long time and will continue to be. They will continue to be important as we move into our future outside the European Union. That is going to continue, and I do not see why that would change in any way. If anything, it will give us additional ways in which we can communicate with other devolved Administrations and with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I think that there is a specific requirement in NDNA that that assessment takes place. Has there been a formal process to check if that is going to take place, or is that lined up for —?

Mr Kearney: No, that examination — I think that is the term — is to be commissioned, because there will be implications. We discussed yesterday on a separate issue in the Assembly that, for example, EU funding and the Peace Plus programme need to be addressed in the context of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), but specifically in relation to the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). We have said that, when the British Government address that issue in the negotiations going forward, specifically on Peace Plus, there is need for a trilateral engagement between the British Government negotiators, the Irish Government and our officials in the Executive Office to ensure that our requirements under Peace Plus are properly provided for.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): We are having a small connection failure at the front. Can I just check: are the people who are on StarLeaf and are videoconferencing still hearing and seeing everything?

Some Members: Yes.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): That is grand. That is fine.

I will finish with three easy questions and a difficult question. You mentioned that the British Government have said that they will not seek an extension, and the EU has said that it is open to an extension. What is your assessment of the deadline? When is the last chance saloon to actually ask for that extension? How have the Northern Ireland Executive been articulating, suggesting, requesting or asking for an extension, or is the official position that you do not ask for it? How is that processed or progressed at any of the meetings that you attend or any of the discussions that you have with UK officials? Are you saying that this is something that you would like, are you saying that it is something that you would not like, or are you saying that it is something that you cannot agree on? How is that put forward?

Mr Lyons: You will be aware that the Executive have not reached an agreed position on this issue, so we do not communicate a position, and we do not have an agreed one in relation to this issue. As you are aware, different political parties in the Executive take a different view or approach on this issue. For my own part, I think that we have got to the point now where an extension is out of the question. The British Government have made it very clear where they stand on that at this point in time. It is up to them to request an extension, and Ministers have stated that that is not something that they intend to do. That was discussed at two of the meetings that we were at in June. The European Union has acknowledged and accepted that, and everybody is proceeding on that basis.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Do you articulate that you cannot agree a position, or do you not articulate anything because you cannot agree a position? Obviously, that relays a particular message. If you are saying, "We cannot agree a position", that suggests that there may be a difference of opinion. There may be an acknowledgement that, within the politics of the North, because it is two sides that are coming together, if you are not able to articulate a position, there may be a difference of opinion, and there may be a substantive viewpoint — maybe not a majority viewpoint, but a substantive viewpoint — that would be differing and, therefore, you cannot reach an opinion. Or is it simply that, because the Executive cannot form an opinion, they do not say anything?

Mr Kearney: As Gordon stated, the political reality is that there is a political difference of opinion not only in relation to the matter of withdrawal from Europe but on the specific issue of an extension to the transition. When Michael Gove met us prior to the joint committee meeting to advise that the British Government would be advising the EU that they would not seek an extension to the transition period, that meeting was attended by the First Minister and me, and we made it clear that we have a difference of opinion on that issue, so the British Government are very well sighted on that fact.

When the joint committee meeting took place, Michael Gove set out the British Government's position. I asked that he make clear, as the lead British Government Minister, that, while that was the position of his Government, it did not reflect the unanimous position of our Executive. He did that, but, during the meeting, the other joint head of government, Michelle O'Neill, made clear to Maroš Šefcovic — outside the context of the Executive, because there is not a unified position — that that was the case. She also disassociated my party, in party political terms, and those other parties that have clearly expressed a view that we need an extension to the transition period.

Everyone involved in the negotiations is very clear about the political difference that exist; that the Executive have not been able to form a unanimous position around an extension. To be clear on your specific question: is that articulated? Yes, but, ultimately, as Gordon said, it is the British Government who are in charge of this negotiation. Therefore, the British Government will represent their position directly to the EU. The British Government position diverges from that of the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, and they also recorded their discontent at the decision that was reflected at the joint committee meeting, for the record.

Within the context of our exceptional political arrangements here, yes, there is a political difference of opinion. Do other players in the negotiations know that that is the case? Yes. How does that impact on the British Government's negotiating position? In many regards, they are the lead. They have the chief and principal authority. We will do our best to try to influence that to the greatest extent possible, in the interests of local businesses, our economy and citizens living here in the North.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Two and a half of the devolved regions or Governments are basically saying, "Go for an extension", but the British Government are taking their own view on that.

Do you share the other junior Minister's perspective that we have gone beyond the stage of being able to ask for an extension? The EU says it is open to one. Is it still something that could be a potential outcome, or is it your assessment that we have gone beyond the stage of asking for that?

Mr Kearney: In the realpolitik, the British Government telegraphed their intention not to seek an extension. They then proceeded to the joint committee meeting and formally registered the fact that they would not be seeking an extension. That suggests to me that the British Government have a settled view on the issue of no extension to the transition period. However, in the context of negotiations, as you will appreciate, there is many a slip between cup and lip, and it is never over until it is over, if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors. Therefore, the European Commission, in the spirit of collegiality and a desire to work as closely as possible and close out differences with the British Government in order that we had maximum consensus, said that it was still prepared to keep a window open. Whilst that window remains open, there is always potential scope.

That said, I echo what I shared with the Committee at our last meeting: the clock is ticking. We told you that the joint committee meeting would be a watershed moment, and that it would be followed by the high-level meeting, so described. That was a watershed moment, indicating six to seven months out from the conclusion of the transition period, and we are now beyond that point. We are moving rapidly closer to the end of the year and the end of the transition period, but would I never give up on the possibility that we might be able to influence an extension.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Thank you for answering my question.

Mr Beattie: Declan and Gordon, thank you for your evidence. I thought it was really clear. Your answers have been clear and helpful, actually. I think you articulated well, Declan, the issue about the extension. You have painted a very clear picture for me as to exactly where we stand. The reality is that we have a unique system of government, with different parties in it, and, where you cannot get a single piece of ground to stand on with regard to an extension, neither could this Committee. It is just a reality of politics. I still look at 1 July as that window we are talking about. When you say "a window", that window closes on 1 July. That is what I sense, anyway.

I have another sensing question, just trying to get a sense of the wider scope of that. I am trying to figure out where there is real difference. I am not trying to pick out friction for the sake of it. It is just a difference where people see one thing, and somebody sees something else. You may have seen Sammy Wilson's question in the House of Commons. I thought it was interesting. The Port of Larne received an email saying that it is going to be a border control post, but the Prime Minister said that there would be no new infrastructure. Is that, similarly, a friction within the Executive? What is your sense of that question that Sammy Wilson asked, and of the answer given by the Prime Minister?

Mr Lyons: We have just spoken about some of the differences that exist about the transition period, but it is very clear, for everyone around the Executive table, that we want to ensure the best outcome for the people and the businesses of Northern Ireland. We want to make sure that trade flows as freely as possible. Let me take you to the Command Paper, where the Government said that they want to make sure that a lot of this documentation that needs to be produced is going to be done digitally, so no additional infrastructure will be needed.

The Prime Minister, in his answer to Sammy Wilson today, made it clear that there is not going to be any new infrastructure. The Command Paper repeats that. It is in everybody's interest to make sure that, yes, we have legal obligations under the protocol for agri-food and some of the measures that will have to be put in place there, but we want to make sure that we minimise friction and disruption. We are completely united around the Executive table on that.

Mr Beattie: Is that how you read it, Declan?

Mr Kearney: You also have to allow for the mixed messages that come from the British Government and for confusion between arrangements for border control posts to deal with goods, foods and livestock and the issue of customs infrastructure.

There are requirements under the protocol, and there are sanitary and phytosanitary elements that need to be provided for. I am content that the Executive, and DAERA, which is the lead Department, are in compliance with the requirements that have been set out in the protocol and that DAERA is working closely with DEFRA and the British Government to ensure that the necessary facilities are put in place.

Mr Beattie: Thank you. That is pretty clear. I want to ask a couple of pointed questions of you, Gordon, about the Northern Ireland Engagement Forum, as it was you who covered it in the briefing.

The two of you took part in the forum. Are we going to escalate participation — this sounds awful but is not meant to — to more-senior Ministers? Are we likely to have, for example, the Minister for the Economy or Mr Poots attending? Is that the likelihood, or will it be you who will carry on with the forum? Can you also give us an idea of who attended in order to give us a deeper sense of the forum, please?

Mr Lyons: How very dare you. [Laughter.]

Are you trying to insinuate something?

Mr Beattie: I did not have the words. [Laughter.]

Mr Lyons: First, we need to distinguish between the engagement that is happening at UK level and the engagement happening at Northern Ireland Executive level. The Government did commit in the Command Paper to the establishment of a business engagement forum that would meet regularly. We are there to represent the Executive on it, where we are very much in listening mode. I thought that we had a useful first engagement with businesses. The meeting was an overview to begin with. Further meetings will take place, so that is useful. The forum was promised by the UK Government to businesses in Northern Ireland, so that will continue.

DAERA and the Department for the Economy have both established stakeholder groups at which EU exit issues are discussed, and those groups will provide another key link to the work of the business engagement forum. Moreover, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have agreed that they will meet small groups of stakeholders on key issues. I believe that something along those lines was signed off on today.

We are going to have that UK/Northern Ireland business engagement. We are going to have it in Departments, and the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will also engage at that level. I hope that those Ministers are senior enough for you, Doug.

Mr Beattie: Yes. I am sure that they are. Sorry, but can you give me a sense of who attended the meeting? It does not have to be detailed.

Mr Kearney: I have the list in front of me, Gordon. Do you have it there?

Mr Lyons: I have it somewhere.

Mr Kearney: It was a broad-ranging group, and there were two meetings back to back, Doug. I will give you some examples of who was there: the Institute of Directors; the Federation of Small Businesses; the Freight Transport Association; and the NI Food and Drink Association. There were also a number of individual corporations present: Asda; Caterpillar; the NI Chamber of Commerce; CBI; the Ulster Farmers' Union, from a rural, agri-economy point of view; and Manufacturing NI. There were a number of others there besides, representing sectors, federations and individual businesses.

Gordon is quite right in setting out the commitment of the Executive, Ministers and the two joint heads of government to continue with that engagement, but the process was stipulated as a requirement under the terms of the Command Paper. It was therefore an NIO-sponsored gathering. I think that it was useful, if not indispensable. The criticism that I would make — I made it at the meeting and have made it since — is that I thought that the meeting was much too high-level. It was scant in detail. I got no sense from it that businesses were being given the type of clarity and certainty that they want, and, from my follow-up conversations with the business sector and various business organisations, I know that their expectation of the process was not met. At the meeting, I said that we need to see that engagement significantly ramped up and upscaled so that the kinds of answers that individual businesses and business sectors need are provided, because, again, the clock is ticking on a lot of the issues.

There is saying in the Irish language, "Tús maith leath na hoibre", which means that half a start is OK. I do not think that we hit that bar. A lot more work needs to be done to ensure that our business community in the North is properly engaged and is content that we know the shape of how all of this will unfold.

In fairness, the NIO and the other officials in attendance gave a commitment that they would come back and provide much more detailed information. That is what the business community needs at this time.

Mr Beattie: You have answered my follow-up question, which was this: what is the business community's big issue? Its big issue was always going to be having clarity about what is happening next, where we are going and what it will look like when we get there. Clarity is a big thing. I know that the haulage industry has huge concerns and is seeking clarity. I think that what you are saying is that there is an issue with clarity.

Chair, if you do not mind, I will ask one final, short question. The part about rights and the dedicated mechanism is interesting. Citizens' rights are extremely important. The Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission will undertake the scrutiny and monitoring roles throughout the process. Will you try to outline how they will do that? Will they just be given the papers to scrutinise? Will they be present at meetings? How will they fulfil the function to give proper independent scrutiny of the stuff that comes out about rights and the dedicated mechanism?

Mr Kearney: As I understand it, Doug, the specificity of that will be worked out by what is called the joint consultative working group. The Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission have been engaged by the NIO to provide that role. That is to ensure that the requirements under the withdrawal agreement that guarantee citizens' rights under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld.

The Equality Commission is in advanced discussions with the NIO to agree appropriate funding. TEO will act as the sponsor for the Equality Commission, and we will be involved in ensuring that the modalities for payments and the appropriate governance structures are put in place. The Equality Commission will begin recruitment of a dedicated cohort of staff for the role in July, so next month.

Mr Beattie: Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): OK. Doug has shown us how flattery gets you everywhere when it comes to getting answers. [Laughter.]

Ms Anderson: I will try a bit of flattery and see how that works.

I thank both Ministers for their presentation. The previous time that you were here, you informed the Committee about the establishment of border control posts and how the British Government have said that they will be setting aside funding for such posts. I say that in the context of what Sammy Wilson asked today. People probably need to hear the question and the answer.

He asked specifically about border control posts in Larne, and the British Prime Minister answered him by talking about customs infrastructure, which was like talking about an apple and a banana — two different things. People need to hear and understand the difference between those two things. We got that from you last time round. Has a lead Department and Minister been designated yet by the Executive to take forward those checks and the border control posts?

Mr Kearney: Yes. That touches on the question that Doug raised — or was it you, Colin? I suggested that mixed messages were coming from the British Administration, and that is exactly what has happened today — a question about control posts and an answer about customs, and there is a distinction between the two. I think that you asked that question, Doug.

Mr Kearney: The Executive are going to act in full compliance with the requirements of the protocol, so DAERA has been identified as the lead Department. Its current focus is on ensuring that the plans for the control posts are going to be ready by the end of June, because that is a Commission stipulation —

Ms Anderson: This month?

Mr Kearney: — yes — so that it is in a position to review. Now, in saying that, they are starting their preparations from a very low base, and the timescales to meet that deadline are very challenging. Notwithstanding the low base and working with those timescales, which do not allow the time necessary to prepare systems and point-of-entry facilities, the intention is to meet, as closely as possible, the terms of the protocol by 1 January 2021.

Ms Anderson: Will that fulfil the obligations of the protocol as set out by the EU, given that the Department is starting at a low base to meet that time frame? Do you anticipate, then, that the obligations of the protocol will be fulfilled?

Mr Kearney: I said "low base" because it is about preparation. It is the lead Department and logistical and capacity issues are involved. However, I know that DAERA is directly engaged with DEFRA, and, as I understand it, financial commitments are available from the British Government to assist in ensuring that the necessary facilities and infrastructure are put in place. That may go some way towards dealing with the low starting point and the capacity issues.

The EC has made it clear, under the terms of the protocol, that it would like to be able to review the arrangements by the end of this month, but the target is to have the necessary infrastructure in place by the end of the year.

Mr Lyons: It is important to emphasise that there is not going to be any new customs infrastructure. We have to look at animal issues, and some of that already takes place at our ports. It is our job to make sure that the Government know how important it is to our economy that we have the smoothest and freest flow of trade; we all want to see that happen. We all want to make sure that there will not be any holdups for businesses or consumers and that there will not be a negative impact on jobs. Again, I emphasise that the protocol is very clear that the EU and the UK have to use their best endeavours in order to ensure that that happens and that the economy of Northern Ireland is protected. That is what we all want to work towards as well.

Ms Anderson: Of course, I concur with that. They have to make their best efforts to do that, but wishes are for Christmas. We know what was agreed to and we know the obligations that have been put on the EU and the British Government to implement the withdrawal agreement in full. It goes back to the conversation that was —.

Mr Lyons: I would just say that things are not necessarily black and white. That is why there is a joint committee to iron out those issues. It is ultimately for the UK Government to implement the protocol. It is not as if it is, "Here's what we should or shouldn't do". There is a lot of work still to be done around that issue. As an Executive, we are going to make sure that our voice is heard and that we are putting forward our concerns. It has to be implemented, as the Government have said again and again, in an appropriate way. Yes, we have commitments under the protocol. The Government have said that they are going to implement that fully and appropriately, but discussions and negotiation are still going on around that. We should all work together collectively to make sure that the Government and the EU know of the potential difficulties so that we can secure the best outcome for our people. That is what we are united on.

Ms Anderson: You will also appreciate that the joint committee is informed by the specialised committee that has met only once. We have heard the EU calling on the British Government to have another meeting of the specialised committee so that that information can be fed through into the joint committee. It is unfortunate that that has met only once.

The Command Paper from the British Government talks about the establishment of a business engagement forum. What views are you hearing from the business community? For instance, this week, I received correspondence from the Derry Chamber of Commerce. Businesses associated with that chamber of commerce are feeling uninformed and unprepared. They are telling me that there is an urgency because there is a lack of clarity, and they want the technical details to be shared with them. They want to understand how unfettered access and unfettered trade are going to operate, and they are looking for support and understanding. They do not have understanding; they feel unprepared and uninformed. That is the view that I am getting from businesses that I meet across the North.

Gordon, are you hearing the same from businesses? As you said, the clock is ticking. People, particularly people in business, understand the differentiation between customs officers in custom posts and custom checks and border control posts, and they understand declarations. They want to know what they are going to face, and they do not feel that they are getting enough information or being allowed to engage sufficiently in the process. Given that it might not have been the meeting that many of them had hoped it would be, what views are you getting from businesses? Are you hearing the same views as I am?

Mr Lyons: The meeting was a start. We were involved in that meeting. I have not had meetings that have involved the Department for the Economy and its working groups, or the Agriculture Department. Having spoken to businesses, I know that it is clear that we need more clarity, and businesses want that as soon as possible. It is difficult to give clarity when it does not exist — when negotiations are ongoing and when there are issues that still need to be ironed out. That is the case.

The first meeting of the business engagement forum was a start. It began the process, rather than finished it. The organisations that are a part of that forum have an important role to play in making sure that the issues that they are concerned about do not get forgotten. However, the Executive are keen to engage with everyone, especially those who feel that they have nobody to go to, directly — perhaps, they are not involved in the other Departments' working groups or on the business engagement forum. We will be happy to hear their representations and to engage with them. Businesses desire clarity more than anything else, and the sooner the better. If we can help in that process, we will do that.

Ms Anderson: It will be helpful for the Derry Chamber of Commerce, and other chambers of commerce, to know that they can go to you and that they will be listened to, at least, and engaged with.

Gordon, you or Declan mentioned the common framework. You were told that 10 would be agreed by the end of the year. Last week, we were sitting at seven. That was the information that we had received. We are now being told that it will be 10. That is out of 42 common frameworks. Only 10 of the 42 are going to be ready by the end of the year. How will the other 32 operate, and how long will it take for all of the 42 to be implemented in full, given that we are only a quarter of the way through them, and they are to be implemented by the end of this year? That is concerning, and I am sure it is concerning you.

Mr Lyons: Absolutely. Officials from the Executive Office have been working on that. The board identified 10 high-priority frameworks that are essential. I completely understand that there is further uncertainty in relation to that. We will be more than happy to provide further information on that as soon as we have it.

Mr Kearney: The message to our business community in the North is that we are as concerned as it is about the lack of certainty and lack of clarity around arrangements. What does implementation of the protocol to the fullest extent mean? Do we have guarantees in relation to unfettered access on an east-west basis? Are there ramifications for trade on a North/South basis? There clearly are, but that negotiation is taking place outwith the authority of the Executive. I would much prefer that to be different, but we are not in charge of that negotiation. It is being led by the British Government.

I go back to a point raised by Colin in his earlier contribution. It is about trying to influence this to the greatest extent possible, but we are handicapped in that respect. The broader strategic context, in which all this needs to be seen, relates to the interdependencies of the future relationship negotiations that are under way. At official and ministerial level, we have repeatedly emphasised to the British Government that the interdependencies between the future relationship negotiations with the EU, the rest of the world and the protocol itself need to be fixed. You have to get that synergy clarified. Officials have sought further reassurance that the British Government's operational and strategic approach to the future relationship negotiations and the protocol takes all those interdependencies into account. At this point, British Government officials are not able to provide that reassurance to our officials.

That is characteristic of what we shared with you at the last meeting. In January, when Gordon and I went to Whitehall for the first meeting that we attended, we raised the need to be fully sighted on the full scope and breadth of the approach being taken by the British Government to the negotiations. That has still not been satisfied, and that position is echoed continuously by the Scottish and Welsh Administrations. We are part of a broad negotiation framework, but we are not being fully informed about its scope, the detail, the planning assumptions that are being adopted or the kind of priorities that the British Government are taking forward. Most importantly, in saying all that, we do not have assurances and guarantees that our priorities and concerns are being properly taken into consideration. We do not have satisfaction on any of those issues.

Mr Lunn: Thank you, gentlemen, for your presentation. I am looking at Mr Šefcovic's report on the joint committee, and I want to pick out a couple of bits, particularly in the light of the question that Sammy Wilson asked the Prime Minister today and the typical answer that he got. Mr Šefcovic emphasised that the need for urgency from all work streams is paramount but:

"in particular with regard to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland."

He then said:

"We need to move from aspiration to operation — and fast."

That is less-diplomatic language than usual. He said that, by 1 January:

"the UK will have to meet all the requirements of the Protocol, rigorously and effectively. That includes putting in place all the necessary checks and controls for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. That includes applying EU rules on customs and sanitary ... protection."

I am sorry to read so much of this, but he continued:

"And that also includes – according to Article 12 of the Protocol – enabling the EU to effectively exercise its right to be present during any activities of the UK authorities related to ... the implementation and application of the customs provisions of the Protocol."

It does not say "border control"; it says "customs provisions". Maybe I should be asking Boris Johnson this question, but how can we reconcile that statement with what he said today, when he was still insisting on this nonsense that there will not be any customs infrastructure, given the fact that Sammy Wilson has now identified a site? We will probably be told shortly that this is just an extension of the port; it is not really meant to be for customs or some nonsense like that. Not for the first time, there is a such a clear gap between the two positions that I really wonder how this can be bridged, if at all, and certainly within the next six months.

Mr Kearney: Perhaps asking us at least assures you that you will get an answer. If you were taking the question up with the British Ministers in charge, you might not get much of an answer, if any, Trevor.

During that joint committee meeting — it happened in the previous joint committee meeting as well — the European Commission vice president and other representatives made very clear their dissatisfaction at the level of progress made in relation to the British Government's requirement to bring forward detailed plans and timetables to meet the requirements of the protocol. That was repeated at the last meeting. The point was made, quite clearly, that the European Commission has approached the negotiation in good faith, but that has not been adequately reciprocated by the approach of the British Government. There is a clear gulf between the European Commission's expectation and aspiration for the implementation of the protocol and, at this point, the British Government's ability to deliver on its requirements.

Mr Lyons: We are not the negotiators here.

Mr Lunn: You are the best that we have at the moment.

Mr Lyons: The protocol is not our


or by our design. We have to look at the Command Paper and at what the British Government have said that they will do. It is our job to try to ensure that that takes place and that those promises on the free flow of trade etc are delivered on. We can make the points, and we can express our position, but we are not the negotiators in this.

Mr Lunn: I am looking at the British version of a report on the same meeting, which is about 15% of the length of the European one. There is no detail in it whatsoever. It says that the committee took one decision to amend 10 minor errors in the withdrawal agreement. That appears to be the only decision taken at the meeting. The UK reiterated its commitment to upholding our obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. Again, there is absolute distance between those two attitudes, but I will not go any further with that.

One line in the British report — Mr Gove's report — states:

"The UK took the opportunity to emphasise the UK’s decision not to extend the transition period."

We are almost at the point where we have to accept that. There are two things. The next line is:

"There will be no further opportunities to extend the transition period."

What did the British Government or whoever wrote that report mean by that? Does that mean that once 1 July comes, it cannot be extended? Or is it the British Government restating the fact that they will not ask for an extension? I noticed that quite a heavyweight politician, namely Gavin Robinson, just the other day, did not entirely rule out the possibility, however remote, of a further extension. Who is right?

Mr Lyons: I am sure that you have been around long enough in politics to know that you never rule anything out 100%.

Mr Lunn: I have been around too long.

Mr Lyons: As Declan said earlier, the Government have made their position very clear. It is in the agreement that any transition extension has to be requested before 1 July. So, with six or seven days to go, it is unlikely that that will happen. Those things can always be changed, I suppose, and they could make amendments to that. However, it is fairly clear in my mind that nothing will be changed before 1 July.

Mr Lunn: I accept that no change will be made between now and next Wednesday. However, when I see that the EU is leaving the window open in case we change our mind, and I then see that line from Mr Gove that there will be no further opportunities to extend the period, I still wonder what that means. Does it mean that it is legally ruled out and they cannot do it?

Mr Kearney: I think that he was referring to the meeting that took place on 15 June and saying that that was their last opportunity because it was the last meeting before the 1 July deadline. I assume that it is that, but I cannot answer on his behalf, Trevor.

Mr Lunn: Fair enough.

Mr Kearney: I also think that it is politics: at this point, the British Government have adopted a political position. They set out that position at the joint committee, and it was reiterated at the high-level meeting three days later. The European Commission's approach to the negotiation throughout has been to try to create the bandwidth to ensure that a consensus is achieved and that there is a successful outcome.

If I may, Colin, my sense — I am not reflecting an Executive position, though I know that other Executive Ministers hold this view — is that the alarming thing about the statement at the joint committee meeting was that it was probably the clearest signal of a political preparedness on behalf of this British Administration to crash out of Europe with no deal.

Mr Lunn: Precisely. Thank you for saying that.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Martina, a point was made there. Do you want to come in on that?

Ms Anderson: I am OK.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Fine. George, you are the only member here via StarLeaf at the moment.

Ms Anderson: Emma is there. [Inaudible.]

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Oh, they are all there. They were not there when I looked up, but they have popped back up. George, do you have any questions?

Mr Robinson: Not really. I just have an observation.

Mr Robinson: From the extension point of view, the British Government have made it clear that, on 31 December, that is it — we are out. What is the extension for? Why are so many people asking for this extension? At the end of the day, it will have to be realised that this has gone on and on for three or four years, and, finally, finally, finally we are ready to leave on 31 December, and that is it. What is the extension for? Will the two junior Ministers, or one of them, enlighten me?

Mr Lyons: George, it is good to hear from you. I think that I picked up most of that. I am fairly sure that I will not be able to give a joint answer on behalf of the Executive Office, so, if I am permitted —.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): This is the first of two answers to that question. [Laughter.]

Mr Lyons: You can choose which one you like. [Laughter.]

George, it will not surprise you that I take a similar view and believe that it is time to get on with it. I do not think that the issues will change in another six or 12 months. We need to get on with this. The decision has been made, and we need certainty and clarity. What would be worse all round is for this to go on continually. If you say that you want an extension of six months, why not an extension of 12 months or two years?

We have been here before, and I can tell from the look on the Chairman's face that he does not agree with me, but I am of the view that the issues will not change and we have to get on with it. For a completely different view, I will pass over to Minister Kearney.

Mr Kearney: George, the question is a political question, and you and your Committee could talk about the politics of that from now until the cows come home. However, I do have a slightly different perspective on it. I think that you have to start with the objective reality that our business organisations, our economic stakeholders, are very frightened by the current level of uncertainty.

Business, as you will know, George, depends upon as much certainty and stability as possible, and, at this juncture, that does not exist. So, if you come at this question from the perspective of our business community, an extension to the transition period could and should be used to iron out the difficulties that exist and to provide the answers and the clarity that are presently absent.

The corollary to that is that you have the political will to then use the space of an extension to deliver on that, and the unanswered question for me is whether this British Government, were they to seek an extension, would be prepared to actually concentrate and fasten in on the key issues that business requires to get that kind of certainty and clarity. I cannot answer that question, but, benchmarking it against the experience of the last period of months and the preceding periods of engagement between our officials and British officials and British Government Ministers, they have significantly short-changed us in relation to the necessary information, data, modelling, projections and planning assumptions that are necessary to underpin a negotiation that would secure a good deal at the end of the transition period.

Mr Robinson: That is your perspective, Declan. Quite honestly, I would just like to see the whole thing wrapped up. Let us get on with it.

Mr Kearney: I hear that, George. I get —.


Mr Robinson: a few months, maybe after 31 December, if there are other issues that should be ironed out, there is still plenty of time to iron those out. Let us just get on with it. Get it over and done with. We are gone, and that is it.

Mr Kearney: I completely get that, George, and of course there is a difference of opinion between us on that point. That is why I began by saying that it is about the politics of it, but I am moving beyond the politics of it. The employers, the small manufacturers, the haulage company directors, the farmers and the people who are involved in agri-food production that I meet and talk to are telling me that they are very concerned about their livelihoods and the future of their employees. That is really my starting point. If those people are not reassuring me that they are content with the direction of travel, I think that that is a big political wake-up call. It needs to be taken as a political wake-up call by all our political representatives.

Mr Robinson: Quite honestly, Declan, I am sure that that all can be ironed out after 31 December. Anyway, thank you very much for your presentation.

Mr Sheehan: Thanks to both junior Ministers for their fairly comprehensive briefing today. Most of the queries that I had have been cleared up. I have one question. I suppose I already know the answer to it, but I will ask it anyway. The British Government did give a formal commitment in the terms of reference for the joint ministerial committee that they would seek agreement with the devolved Administrations on having some influence in the negotiations. Do the Executive have a view on whether the British Government have upheld that commitment?

Mr Lyons: The Government have been clear that any negotiations on international arrangements are the responsibility of the UK Government. So far, the negotiations have focused on technical clarifications, but they are at the stage now where they move to a higher level of engagement. Talks from next week will move to a more intense phase. The JMC (EN) structure was set up to give the devolved Administrations a voice in the negotiations, and those meetings have taken place, although there have been only two this year. In short, this is a matter for the UK Government, but we want to make sure that our voice is heard, and we continue to do that through the various structures that exist, including regular meetings and updates with the Paymaster General.

I do not know whether Declan has anything to add to that.

Mr Kearney: I draw a distinction between the quite frequent encounters that are arranged with Penny Mordaunt and some of the officials involved in the negotiations, and the bilateral meetings that were promised under the terms of NDNA with Michael Gove. Thus far, we have had only two of those meetings with Michael Gove, which, generally, are much more substantive. He is one of the key political authority figures leading on this negotiation. I find the goodwill shown by Penny Mordaunt to try to resolve difficulties, answer questions and move things along convincing. However, I see no product coming out of those engagements and I think, therefore, that a twin-track approach is being taken with engagement with us. The more frequent contact is with Penny Mordaunt, who comes to this with genuine goodwill, but I do not see delivery at that end. That is probably to do with your position in the food chain. As I said, we have had only two meetings with Michael Gove.

The reality is that there is a significant impasse at this point in the negotiation. That is why I make the comment about the meetings with the Paymaster General, because that is the clearest evidence that there is an impasse and that there is congestion in the approach that the British Government are thinking about, or acting out, in their ongoing contact. I said earlier that we are not satisfied, either at ministerial or official level, about the quality and substance of the communication or, indeed, our involvement and ability to influence the negotiation. That remains my position, and I think that I reflect the position of officials and other Ministers in that respect. It is very much a case of not just "Could do better" but "Must do better." It is a matter of clear urgency.

Ms Sheerin: I thank the junior Ministers for the session. I do not really have anything much to add. Everything has been covered and that was a good conversation, but I think even the interchange following George's question demonstrates the need for an extension and why people want it. There is still so much that we do not have clarity on. We do not know what way things are going to be in so many sectors. Last night, I had a conversation with a farmer down close to home who is just completely confused as to what is going to happen with single farm payments next year. You could have an example like that for every industry. There is a lot of uncertainty with COVID and everything, and Brexit is just another thing looming there that people are worried about all the time, and have been for a number of years.

Thank you very much, and I appreciate the presentation.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): That brings us towards the end. I will end on —. Trevor, was there something urgent?

Mr Lunn: I will be very quick, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): If you can, thank you.

Mr Lunn: I am sorry to labour the same point indirectly again.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Well, if you are going to labour the point again —. Is it something new?

Mr Lunn: I will say it in one sentence. The Government say that there will be no customs provisions, but the protocol says there will. The protocol also says that the EU will have the right to have representation at that customs provision but, just recently, the British Government ruled out the possibility of even having an EU office in Belfast, which might be where EU representatives could be based. I just wonder how far we are going with this.

Has there been any discussion on the point about EU representation in Northern Ireland following the eventual conclusion of all this?

Mr Lyons: That is not actually a matter for the Executive. It is ultimately a decision for the UK Government. The UK Government decide how the protocol needs to be implemented. They have stated that they do not believe that there is a need for a permanent physical presence in Northern Ireland. That is their position.

Mr Lunn: It is not a good sign.

Mr Kearney: The issue was raised at the first joint committee meeting by the European Commission. Michael Gove, from memory, spoke in his response about ensuring that there will be a proportionate implementation of the protocol. Subsequent to that joint committee meeting, a political and publicity controversy blew up around the issue of an EU office in the North. The British Government made it very clear that they would not welcome the installation of an office and, indeed, would oppose it.

At the last joint committee meeting, the European Commission made it very clear that it did not see that facility as representing a political mission, or anything other than a technical office that would allow its officials to ensure that the requirements for proper compliance with customs regulations and oversight of the border control arrangements could be facilitated. The British Government repeated that they did not concur and that they did not see themselves giving way on that point. The European Commission expressed dismay at that attitude, at the political controversy, and at that answer. However, consistent with the approach to all those issues on the part of the European Commission, it sought to leave the door open for a reconsideration of the position expressed.

Mr Lunn: Thank you very much for that.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I will end with a trivia question. What do the numbers five, 155 and 164 have in common? The answer is that they are the number of minutes' notice that we got from yourselves for today's papers, which were tabled in advance of your presentation. We received them at about 11.30 am, including one that we could not even table today because we got it at 1.55 pm. Therefore, in the spirit, junior Minister Kearney, of what you said at the beginning about making sure that we work more closely together and provide the information, can we please get it in a timely fashion, so that we can issue it for members' consideration before discussing it with you?

If you are going to come to us once a month and if we are going to get some papers only half an hour before the meeting, we are not going to be able to talk about those papers until a month later. That leaves us with the suspicion that you do not want to talk about the contents and that you hope that, in a month's time, whatever was in the paper will have moved on. There are protocols for the deadlines of papers. If we could please have them at the appropriate time, it would be most appreciated.

Mr Lyons: On that, Chairman, there is certainly no intention on our part, in any way, to deliberately withhold information. We have said that we are more than open to your questions. We welcome this opportunity for engagement and we recognise the role that the Committee has. We will go back to our private offices to see why that happened. We will endeavour to make sure that it does not happen again, and that you are informed of the actions that are taken and that you get papers on time, as well.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I am not sure what the verbal version of cut and paste is for an answer, but we have been getting the same answer for months. I am taking it at face value; that is my cut-and-paste answer to you, but patience is running out. However, I appreciate that it may not be your issue; it may something in the Department. However, if you could sort it out, it would be appreciated.

Mr Kearney: We will do our very best. However, the wee reality check on all this, Colin, is that we have sat on that side of the table as well —

Mr Kearney: — and we are former Committee members, so we get the need for the circulation of papers and the need for members to have the time to reflect, analyse and to prepare for meetings like this. We have said to you, in good faith, that we want to engage. We proposed that we are prepared to commit to one meeting per month. I have said that I am quite prepared to meet with you, informally, offline and off the record, to ensure that there is a regular flow of information. That commitment is intact. Unfortunately, more is the pity, myself and Gordon are not responsible for preparing the paperwork and making it available to you. Clearly, there is a glitch in the system.

When we say that we will do our very best to resolve that anomaly, that commitment is cast iron. We will speak with our officials and ensure that papers are prepared and brought forward in a more timely fashion from this point on so that these conversations can be more productive. Be under no illusion: there are no moves or strokes being pulled on our behalf; we do not work like that. We want to ensure that the scrutiny function of the Committee is optimised, and we see it as our responsibility to ensure that you are best equipped to do that. It is our responsibility to do our best to provide additional information and clarity.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Ministers, thank you very much for your attendance today. It is appreciated. We will give you a moment to gather your seniority and exit the room. [Laughter.]

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