The Oireachtas and Brexit
Gavin Barrett (University College Dublin)
The Irish parliament has not traditionally been numbered among the stronger parliaments in Europe in exacting accountability in relation to European affairs, either in terms of its institutional strength or its activity level. However, it has over time undergone periodic reform, in particular at the time of the ratification of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties respectively, and in the wake of the inconclusive results of the February 2016 general election and the subsequent agreement on a minority government. What follows in this article is a broad, roughly-chronologically ordered overview of the main aspects of Oireachtas activity relevant to Brexit, which gives some idea of how the system has coped with the 23 June 2016 Brexit referendum vote.
First, a number of Brexit-related reports have been produced. Remarkably, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs during the 31st Dáil period published its report UK-EU Future Relationship: Implications for Ireland on 23 June 2015, – i.e., one year before the Brexit referendum – concluding that an EU without the UK would weaken both Ireland and Europe and recommended Irish Government engagement with the UK and the EU in order to reflect the special relationship that exists between the UK and Ireland. Already unusual in that it concerned the topic of a referendum in another country, the report was launched in the UK with the assistance of the Irish Embassy and given much publicity. Subsequently, somewhat surprisingly, no report relating to Brexit has been produced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs in the two years since the Brexit referendum.
A number of sectoral committee reports concerning Brexit have also been produced during the lifetime of the 32nd Dáil, but the number has been small: five in total, two of which were produced by one committee (the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement) and one of which was produced by a Seanad committee specially formed to consider Brexit. Tremendous work was put into some of these documents, but given the widespread concern about Brexit, it seems surprising that so few of the now-32 Oireachtas committees produced reports.
A second Brexit-related activity was that in September 2016, in order to inform debate, the Dáil Business Committee hosted a symposium in Dublin’s Mansion House concerning Brexit’s economic implications. Economic, diplomatic, business and union figures spoke. Parliamentarians participated as members of the audience.
Thirdly, in February 2017, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs also sought to inform itself on the process of Brexit by visiting Brussels. The visit involved, inter alia, meetings with Michel Barnier, the EU Chief Negotiator on Brexit and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations. The Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine also visited Brussels in December 2017 although this visit was less Brexit-focused. No other Oireachtas sectoral committee has since visited Brussels.
Fourthly, if reports by Committees are in short supply, debate seems plentiful – a search on the Oireachtas website (on 28 August 2018) for Committee debates on Brexit yielded 4,843 results and 243 pages of links to debates. In particular, some accountability is sought to be exerted on Irish ministers participating in General Council meetings through the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs normally being briefed in a public meeting by the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Minister of State for European Affairs (either ex ante or ex post) on a limited number of such meetings. There have also been private briefings of the same Committee.
A fifth way in which Brexit has received consideration has been through debates in plenary sessions of both Houses. A search for Oireachtas debates in both the Dáil and Seanad using ‘Brexit’ as a search term by this writer (on 27 August 2018) yielded over 6,000 returns (with the list of links stretching over 309 pages), clearly indicating a high level of interest in the topic. Brexit-level activity of this kind goes beyond set-piece debates in plenary session. This point can be illustrated by taking one (randomly chosen) date. On 12 July 2018, the topic of Brexit was raised variously in a statement to the Dáil ; in a so-called ‘Topical Issue’ debate ; in the report and final stages of a Bill in the Dáil ; in second stage debates in the Seanad on two further items of draft legislation ; in a Dáil debate on a private members’ motion ; in so-called Dáil ‘Other Questions’ ; in the Seanad, variously in the ‘Business of the Seanad’, ‘Commencement Matters’ and in the Order of Business ; and through Brexit being raised (21 times on this one day) in the Dáil in Government replies to so-called ‘Questions for Written Answer’. A particularly Brexit-focused forum of debate in this Dáil period has consisted of ex ante and ex post statements by the Taoiseach on European Councils (which are followed by an opportunity for each of the Opposition parties to make statements) and which invariably see the issue of Brexit raised.
Sixthly, the setting up of a Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU has demonstrated the taking of a different approach by this Seanad to its predecessors. The Committee sought to take a strategic approach to Brexit, to seek solutions for potential problems and to fill perceived gaps in the work of earlier committees. Hearings were organised with former high office holders, including ex-Taoisigh, and a former European Parliament president, as well as various industry, social partners and some academics. Representatives of Northern Irish social, professional, academic and political life were also invited to speak, mirroring the equivalent organisations and individuals from the Republic. At the end of its deliberations, the Seanad produced an eighty-page report examing both the implications of Brexit and potential solutions. Since then, the Committee has been dormant although it may be reactivated.
Seventhly, among the several Commissioners to have visited the Oireachtas has been First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who addressed a Joint Sitting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence and the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs February 2017 on the topic of Brexit, and engaged in dialogue with its members.
An eighth feature of Oireachtas Brexit activity has been prominent speakers speaking in the Dáil chamber. The form of these appearances differed on all three occasions, but all have addressed crowded meetings. EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addressed a Joint Committee Sitting of Dáil and Seanad Éireann in May 2017. Guy Verhofstadt followed in September 2017, addressing a joint meeting of three Oireachtas committees, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker considered the topic of Brexit in June 2018 in an address to a joint sitting of the Dáil and the Seanad, underlining Commission support for Ireland.
Ninthly, apart from the foregoing well-publicised events, in the background, other Brexit-related occurrences are taking place. Large numbers of parliamentary delegations from other EU member states are visiting the Oireachtas. Visitors have included both the House of Lords EU Select Committee, which has visited twice, and the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee. Germany, France, Latvia and the Czech Republic are among the states which have sent visiting delegations. Irish parliamentarians and Oireachtas staff members have also undertaken some visits abroad. Brexit has been discussed in a multiplicity of fora such as COSAC, the Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments and the Meeting of the Secretaries General of the European Union Parliaments, all of which have had speakers from the Oireachtas in the recent past, although such events are of course more geared towards networking and sharing information than generating high levels of publicity.
What conclusions are to be reached? In terms of its normal level of activity, the Oireachtas may be said to have played an active role regarding Brexit. In terms of its constitutional role, however, it is not clear that the Government-Oireachtas relationship has diverged in any meaningful way from the normal state of affairs, or that the Oireachtas is making optimum use of the potential that exists for it to play a role in the Brexit crisis. The number (and proportion) of parliamentary questions asked concerning Brexit is high. Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are interrogated week in, week out, about various aspects of Brexit, a ‘deep dive’ into the subject, which has involved hundreds of Brexit-related questions over time.
The Oireachtas has therefore not been inactive. And yet more might perhaps have been expected. It seems remarkable, for example, that no special parliamentary Brexit committee or sub-committee has been set up. This omission might possibly have occurred because no Brexit Department or Brexit Minister was created by the Government. It nevertheless contrasts strikingly with the more dynamic approach taken in the political crisis caused by Ireland’s referendum rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Part of the reaction to that was the establishment of an Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union which issued a very well-regarded report in November 2008. A similar reaction might have been hoped for on this occasion either from the Joint Committee on European Affairs or perhaps the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The establishment of the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit, and its taking of evidence and report were both novel and useful, and the other few reports compiled by Oireachtas committees have been generally substantial and useful. However, more engagement on Brexit itself, the measures Ireland has taken or should take and other ancillary issues might have been expected from the Oireachtas committee system as a whole.
Gavin Barrett is a barrister and professor specialising in EU Law in the Sutherland Law School, UCD and the sometime Jean Monnet Professor of European Economic and Constitutional Law. He has written books, book chapters and articles in leading journals on EU-law and democracy-related subjects, including The Evolving Role of National Parliaments in the European Union: Ireland as a Case Study (Manchester University Press, 2018). He writes in national newspapers, appears on radio and television and has addressed parliamentary committees in several countries, including Joint Oireachtas Committees on sixteen occasions and the House of Lords EU Affairs Committee three times.