CNBC Transcript: Willem Marx interview with Micheál Martin, Leader of the Opposition in Ireland

Following is the transcript of a CNBC interview with Willem Marx and Micheál Martin, Leader of the Opposition in Ireland.

W: We booked this trip a few weeks ago, and it ended up being quite a newsy sort of period for us to be here. And I wonder now that the Tánaiste has resigned a couple days ago. Whether you think, as the leader of your party that, that's that done and dusted?

MM: Well certainly in terms of the confidence and supply agreement, which is an agreement we as the opposition party have with the government, whereby we facilitate the government in terms of budgets and in terms of key issues, by abstaining on budgets and so on, or voting for mergers. That will now continue. We had a very shaky week, there's no question about that. And damage was done to trust and the relationship. But we are determined to rebuild that trust and that engagement in the interests of the country and I think that will happen. And, there is no immediate sense of any general election or anything like that now. And, so the government is free to pursue the core issues that bedeviled the country - housing and health issues, domestic issues that are there in a lot of countries, and of course the Brexit negotiations that are ongoing. And that represents such a threat to Ireland into the future and to the island of Ireland as a whole.

W: You had several days with direct talks with Mr Varadkar, and I wonder at the end of those, do you now have personal trust in the man?

MM: Well I think actually in the midst of the crisis, through our discussions, I think we reached better understandings. But, there is no doubt that, you know, emotions in both parties and that are bruised. But, that said, I think we are clear in terms of the immediate challenge ahead in both domestic issues and in terms of Brexit. And I think we both learned a lot from this particular episode, and that is the key.

W: Do you support his proposal and his government's proposal that Northern Ireland should remain part of the Customs Union and the single market?

MM: Yes, in short. Although I put forward a proposal, which is similar, in terms of a special economic zone - that Northern Ireland would be a special economic zone - that would have regulatory convergence with the European Union's Customs Union and single market. We should have devolved administration restored to Northern Ireland because of the failure there between the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP - we don't have such an assembly.

But if it was restored, it would have the capacity in terms of a devolved power from the UK parliament, to actually ensure the maintenance of regulatory convergence, so that we could have essentially, Northern Ireland included in the European framework. Now it may also mean, that it would also be included in the UK framework, depending on the ultimate settlement between the UK and the European Union. So it is a bit complex, and it does need far more fleshing out. But fundamentally our position is aligned with the government in terms of the national objectives. And there's more or less a unity in the Irish parliament around that core question, because any suggestion of a restoration of a border is very problematic for Ireland - both in terms of trade, commerce, business, the natural flow of people north and south. But, most critically of all, it has the potential to endanger the Northern Ireland peace process, which, is really, has evolved in the context of the European Union and the absence of any border, any economic border or fiscal board, any barriers to the free movement of people, goods, and services. So it's a very very sensitive a complex issue and we are worried about it as an island. Now equally, to be honest with you, the whole peace process was the British-Irish relationship, the north-south relationship, and the relationship between two communities in the North. I'm concerned also with the east-west relationship. I think, British-Irish relations are strained as a result of Brexit. I would prefer less stridency in the public articulation of the issues. There is a need to ensure post European Union membership in the context of the British government and British people, that we devise new alternative ways of having a structured relationship with the United Kingdom, that maintains our very close ties in kinship, family, business, trade, and the free travel area as it has become known which involves the seamless interactivity in a whole range of activities of life between citizens of both countries.

W: You talk about the strain in relationship there between Dublin and London, how much of the blame for that do you lay at the door of Mr Varadkar?

MM: I believe it's a consequence of Brexit and the opposing positions. I think, in the first instance it's very difficult for the Irish government to be honest, to come to terms with different perspectives emanating from the United Kingdom, particularly even within the British government. Essentially, there are different factions and different camps within the government in Britain. That said, I think there is a need for less stridency in the articulation of the issues. I think there's a need to be conscious of the diplomatic dimension to this, and the need for the long term relationship with Britain to be good. Not easy, so I'm not in a blame game her, I'm rather more in an advisory role to the sense that I think, in the conduct of our Brexit negotiations, it's extremely important that we keep an eye on the British-Irish relationship into the future. We are members of the EU. We're negotiating as members of the EU and we're for that of course. But, we all have to live in harmony after Britain leaves the European Union. And not only just in harmony, but in a relationship that can ensure the optimization and realizing the full potential that that relationship can yield in terms of commerce and economy. So ultimately, the U.K. deal with the EU is as critically important to Ireland as anything else. In other words, anything short of an approximation to the Customs Union will be damaging to the Irish economy, to our agri-food industry, and particularly to our economy in rural Ireland, and across the regions, and the border counties where you visited yesterday.

W: You talk about political unity with Fine Gael, and yet I wonder we've not heard any very specific details from the Taoiseach, or anyone else in senior levels of his government about what they want in terms of a written commitment from the UK on the border. What does your party want to hear from Westminster about the solution they've kept promising about the border?

MM: Well, so far we have generalities, you are correct. I think the Irish government is looking for more concrete language around how they would in practice put into operation the import of the comments that they've been making up to now. In other words, if everybody says we must have a frictionless border, if the British government are saying there cannot be a border between North and south. OK, tell us how that's going to happen, if at the same time you want to be outside the customs union and you want to be outside the single market. So that is our, that is the difficulty. Now, there is a vagueness around what's been asked for. I think there's negotiations ongoing between Europe and Britain in relation to this, and the Irish side and our diplomats and officials at the European level are obviously making a contribution to those deliberations. But, it has to be a greater concretisation of the principles, if you like, into some workable formula that would give us some indication that Britain is going in a direction that actually means one we'll take.

W: So again, you say you're in an advisory role here when it comes to Brexit.

MM: I mean, I'm talking to you, I'm saying, "my advice would be…"

W: Yeh, sure. –so what would your advice be to the British government? What specifically could they offer as a solution?

MM: Well I've made suggestions for example, in terms of a special economic zone. That would give Northern Ireland the best of both worlds. And it needs that actually because the economic model in Northern Ireland hasn't worked. And what we're proposing is something that would preserve the existing constitution and framework of Northern Ireland within the Good Friday agreement as part of the United Kingdom until a majority decides otherwise into the future. So we, we're not, anything we say, does not impair the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. However on the economic side, Northern Ireland could do with a fillip - some of the worst statistics across Europe. So, in other words, continuing to be part of the European trading area, whilst at the same time having access to the UK - the new situation that will emerge within the UK - could actually work out quite well for Northern Ireland. I think it's accepted across the United Kingdom that a united Ireland is in, economically, probably the worst position. And therefore, if we could move the politics, the constitution politics to one side, and concentrate on that sort of pragmatic idea then I think we could achieve a lot. Pascal Lamy, formerly of the WTO, has put forward something similar as a potential solution to this very serious problem. He's instanced Hong Kong and Macau as potential models. We have many many economic zones across the world, it's not a new concept.

W: But it's quite new for Europe, so I wonder whether you think that hybrid model can be accepted in countries like Spain and Portugal and France?

MM: Well given the peace process, given the centrality of peace, of the necessity to maintain the peace process, I think there is, there would be a good reception in Europe to this because it's interesting.

I'm a member of the ALDE group, and Guy Verhofstadt is the parliamentary repertoire for that. When Brexit happened, and I went to an ALDE meeting with Prime Minister's - Mark Rutte and others - their immediate concern was the peace process. How would this affect Northern Ireland? How would this affect the peace? And that has been a very significant factor in Michel Barnier's approach to this and the European Union's approach to this. Because, the European Union was a factor in the peace process.

I actually would say that the British-Irish relationship flourished under the EU. Why? Because we met ministers very regularly at European meetings. When I was a Minister for Education, Health, Enterprise, Foreign Affairs - I was on first name terms with my British colleagues. Civil servants were on first name terms with British civil servants. The relationship really blossomed under the European Union. Then Europe, through peace money, put a lot of investment into Northern Ireland and to deprived areas and so on like that, and to the cross-border relationship. So Europe has a stake. It's probably one of the more successful peace initiatives that Europe has ever been involved in. So, there is no desire across Europe for that to be frittered away or needlessly undermined. And so I think, if we push hard enough I think it will be difficult to take your point in terms of different regions across Europe. But given the uniqueness of Northern Ireland in the context of what has happened over the last 30 years, I think there's a case to be made for it.

W: As the leader of a major political party in the Republic of Ireland though, are you disappointed that this is not until now been such a priority for the British government?

MM: Well I am, and I'm being charitable in some respects. But, when the when the vote happened, I think a lot of people woke up in Britain the day after and said - What have we done? What does this mean? What's the blueprint? There was no blueprint for Brexit. And, nobody had a roadmap. I think that's probably the greatest failing of the entire initiative. And I keep saying to people here - not that there's any likelihood because we're probably the most pro-European Union population in Europe judging by opinion polls and so on - but if anybody ever suggested in Ireland that we should leave the European Union, my first question will be, give me the blueprint.

W: You think that was the failing on the British Brexit campaign side then?

MM: Absolutely. It was shocking in my view. It's my personal view - you know, you can't go to the people and... This decision was so, fundamental. It alters the relationship between Europe and the UK, that's one thing. It has huge impacts for the UK economy and society. Huge impacts for Ireland. Huge impacts for all of Europe. Before we make a decision of that seismic scale, you should really do far more due diligence and work out what actually will mean. We're all grappling with it. What does it mean in aviation? You know the Open Skies policy. What does it mean in terms of the Euratom Treaty in terms of nuclear power? What does it mean in terms of economy and trade? For a number of European countries it would be a severe impact if we don't get some harmonization and regulatory convergence between the UK and Britain into the future. Sorts us, the UK and EU, into the future. So I was taken back by that dimension to the campaign and it's very clear that even within the government -still the British government took a long wave to find a way. Now there is a sense now of a pattern, or some work pathways being developed and so on like that. But it's taken the guts of a year and a half to get to where we are today. And yet, lots of files remain unopened. When I say files - a whole range of issues. It's an enormous enormous project. Our revenue did report - I criticize our own government for not publishing it - it's horrendous in terms of what they're suggesting for small businesses, in terms of red tape, bureaucracy, compliance costs.

Britain was part of the largest free trade zone in the world. And it opted to leave it in the interest of pursuing trade elsewhere. To me personally it doesn't make sense. And the result will be; I met the representatives of the pharmaceutical industry, some of them located in Britain, recently. What they had to tell me in terms of the impact on their productivity potentially, how they will get authorization for medicines post membership of the EU. It's all very poorly determined. They don't have an idea. Companies in different sectors are working flat out to try and work out the implications for their businesses, for their competitiveness. All of this will mean costs on British industry. It will mean costs, because we're at the border, on our industries as well, and on our SME's. So, we're very very worried about it, to be honest. And there is a degree of national self-interest, I make no apologies in saying that. This has negative impacts for Ireland. From day one I have said, Brexit it is about limiting the damage it can do.

W: So what can your government do to limit that damage?

MM: I think working with the EU, or partners in the EU. Try and persuade Britain to have a deal that's as close as possible to the existing Customs Union and single market, essentially a regulatory convergence in terms of standards and so on, that means we can trade on a continuing basis.

W: So one final topical question then: The European Union has made very clear that they want specific answers to some of these questions about the Irish border in the next few days. Do you think, based on the fact that you've said all you've heard so far are generalities, do you think Theresa May's government can deliver those specifics in the next few days?

MM: I think they can deliver some, I do. And they're going to have to work for them. I mean we met with Boris Johnson some weeks ago, and the British government position up to then was 'trust us'. Now that's not a base I accept, and I agree with the Irish government on this, and Leo Varadkar that we cannot just go in blind to the next phase without some clear indication as to the pathway in relation to the border of north and south on the island of Ireland. That's very very important.

W: Fine, thank you so much for your time today.

MM: Thank you indeed.

W: Are you optimistic about next week, in terms of those proposals?

MM: I think something will come through. I mean, my sense is that there will be progress made. Whether it will constitute a breakthrough or not, I'm not sure yet. I know that their papers have been exchanged, I know the mood music is a bit better than it was two or three weeks ago.

W: It sounds like you would support Mr. Varadkar in remaining quite hardline on this. Do you think you will?

MM: Oh we will of course. I mean the Irish Parliament is at one on this absolutely at one on this. This is an important moment for us. And I think to be fair, we have been fair with the European Union in the sense that there was a view that at the beginning of these talks that Ireland might try and negotiate behind the scenes with Britain, and not just as members, of course which isn't possible. But I think Europe has been impressed with the degree to which we have been part of the EU 27, and we accept – I think Michel Barnier has given us a very straight, up-front negotiating push, and he has been - he came to the parliament here, he is experienced, has a good understanding of the Irish situation, and I think that – that gives us some confidence that we can get a reasonable important outcome to this summit. Now this summit obviously is a staging post to the next more…

W: But it's a very symbolic one for the British Government isn't it?

MM: It is symbolic – I can see where the British government are coming from, I understand where the British government are coming from because if you… obviously, indications in terms of the border do presage maybe the ultimate nature of a deal between Great Britain and the European Union. So I get the complexities of it from both sides, but nonetheless– I think it's time to move on from the generalities around the Irish border and to get to some concretes.

W: When you hear from people like Dr Fox and David Davis that, you know, they want to wait until the future trade has more clear outlines, the relationship on trade has got a clear outline before they can commit to anything on the shape of the Irish border question, do you think that's just a question of buyers' remorse, given that they agreed on the sequencing back when they did?

MM: Yes I mean we all know the sequencing, I think what's going on here is to a certain extent as well, buying for time maybe, because of the internal splits within the Conservative Party on this. That is a problem, there is no doubt. Because we've witnessed this over the last 12 months, when some moderate Tory Ministers put forward some ,what we would say is reasonable ideas—when I say moderate I mean, people who're remainers maybe, or people who are not as enthused about what we would call the extreme level of Brexit that some want to advocate for you know. Some of them are called treasonous; some of them are called treacherous, which is kind of completely over the top. So, it's taken quite some time for the British government to try and get a workable position that has all the different factions on board.

And I think there is a sense maybe that if Theresa May shows her hand too early, in terms of real pragmatism in resolving this, that that pragmatism gets undermined by various camps within the Tory party that are pushing for hard Brexit, and in the midst of that you have all the leadership issues.

W: Doesn't sound like you'd like her job…

MM: No, at this political point in time. [But there comes a time when you've got to make the move, you've got to make the decision. That's the key point. Someone has to grab this in the UK, in my view, and put shape on it. And it is emerging, even though they've managed to forge that consensus to a certain extent in Britain, they now have to realize that even with that consensus, you now have to go through the European Union – just because you've forged a consensus within Britain doesn't necessarily mean you're there, because obviously you have to negotiate then.

ENDS

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