Interview with Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs

November 07, 2022

Interview with Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs

By Emma Clarke

Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne, visited Columbia on November 1st and spoke at an event organized by the European Institute Europe Today: Marking 50 Years of Ireland’s EU Membership.

In conversation with Adam Tooze, Director of the European Institute, Minister Byrne discussed many dimensions of Ireland's past 50 years as a member state of the European Union, remarking on the profound social and political change and the improved political position of Ireland on the world stage that occurred by virtue of EU membership. As the discussion progressed and was opened to the floor, topical concerns such as the economic future of Ireland, Ireland's involvement with the war in Ukraine and the position of Ireland on the current energy crisis in Europe were raised. I interviewed Minister Byrne after the talk to continue the discussion on these pressing issues,

Emma Clarke: As we are here to discuss the 50th anniversary of Ireland's accession to the EU, it is important to remember that Ireland chose to join in a period of “Eurosclerosis”. What in your view is the main contributing factor to the enduring faith of Ireland in the EU project, is it a question of sovereignty as you were saying earlier or a combination of factors?

Thomas Byrne: Economic success, social progress and actually our sovereignty. In every referendum concerning the EU, including the one that allowed us to join the EU, people have said that joining the EU will reduce our sovereignty, because yes you do share your sovereignty around the table so you do reduce your sovereignty, but the truth is a country like Ireland has little or no sovereignty just on its own. Yes, within our own island we can do what we like, but if we want to spend money we might have to borrow from abroad or if we want to have trade links with France, we might want to have a trade agreement - we’re all interdependent. By being at that European table it gives us a greater voice, there’s no question about it. We’ve seen it particularly since Brexit though and with the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

EC: My next questions deal with the response to Ukrainian refugees in Ireland. You mentioned during the talk that Ireland was initially very enthusiastic about its refugee response. Recently however enthusiasm has cooled as public opinion sways, not away from support of the Ukrainian people, but towards concern about the numbers coming in, which have reached over 50,000 people in the last few weeks. How will Ireland mediate between the pressures from the international community, our obligations to the refugees we have taken in, and the emergent popular discontent surrounding the influx of these refugees?

TB: First of all, I wouldn’t agree that there’s popular discontent, what I would say is we’ve had some difficulties with accommodation sourcing, which in fairness all EU states have. This is an unprecedented crisis. Putin is bombing the hell out of these people and their central infrastructure. They’re fleeing a war. By signing up to the temporary protection directive we have signed ourselves up to legal obligations, not just moral obligations. The Irish government and the Irish people are going to comply with our legal and moral obligations because it's the right thing to do and it's also the legal requirement. That won’t always be preferably executed because we’re in an emergency situation, but we will try everything possible to make sure it is executed as preferably as possible. That is to give the Ukrainians the right to live in Ireland,
suitable accommodation, the right to social security, the right to work, the right to education and healthcare- Particularly education is really important, Irish people have done tremendous work. I wouldn't say public opinion has shifted, there certainly are concerns about accommodation, I’m concerned about it too, but I think we can find accommodation to help these people fleeing the war. And by the way, it's always important to remember that the directive is a temporary - it is a temporary piece of law. The idea is some will go home and in fact some were going home, back to Kyiv recently.

EC: Has the EU offered any support to Ireland to attain these goals?

TB: There is provision to give financial support, as I understand that hasn't been executed yet. So, no is the answer as I understand it at the moment, we’re providing this ourselves.

EC: On the Ukrainian refugee crisis, my use of the phrase “popular discontent” arises from the question of government action, which was rapid and effective in the face of the Ukrainian crisis, and how it can be reconciled with the relative stagnation in domestic issue areas like the
housing crisis and direct provision*?

TB: Direct provision is basically housing for refugees who are coming from places other than Ukraine, who are coming under international protection laws, and again we have legal obligations to provide shelter and food while they’re waiting for their applications to be processed. Direct provision is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination and there is a government commitment to eliminate it. Separately as you’ve mentioned we have a housing crisis, I wouldn't agree there’s stagnation there, we have actually, in the last number of years since coming into government massively increased housing, not enough yet, we’re only in government just over two years, and from that low base we have increased [housing], and we would like to increase more. The type of accommodation we’re offering to Ukrainians is not the type of accommodation that young families or single people need, which is permanent housing. There are old convents, hotel accommodation for Ukrainian refugees, so that is separate really from housing. Yes, if we had lots of spare housing it would be an easy situation with the Ukrainian refugees. The two work together I think, we need a lot more construction and we’re really determined to do that.

EC: My final question for you is about the energy crisis. Recently in the Irish news there has been much mention of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and their use in Europe as a means of reliable gas storage in the face of the energy crisis. There was an article in The Irish Times saying that this would be a good strategy for Ireland to pursue but it was blocked, primarily by the Green Party on the basis of opposition to supporting fracking by importing fracked gas. What is your opinion on this?

TB: Government policy is very clear: the government is not sponsoring an LNG terminal. That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, the private sector could do it, and you’re right it was because of the green party. This issue was incredibly controversial in Ireland a couple of years ago. So much so that I went on TV one night, not as an energy spokesman, this issue was coming up as a side issue - the LNG terminal that was proposed. I spoke with my colleagues briefly to clarify our position [on the proposed LNG terminal]. [American actor] Mark Ruffalo went on Twitter to attack me that night after I outlined our support for this LNG terminal - it was global, there was an international campaign. I wouldn’t agree with people who were against the LNG terminals, they have reasonable grounds for opposing it, they don’t want fracked gas coming in, they’re listening to communities in parts of America who are suffering as a consequence of fracking. It's not unreasonable to be against it but at the moment I have to say we have to get as much gas as we can into the country. We are working on gas storage. We have a small gas supply in the Corrib gas field off the coast of Ireland and we want to make sure our pipelines are absolutely secure with Britain and Norway. Our energy security should be okay this winter but I think that really where we’re focusing is gas storage. In the short term we need to get our act together on that, but in the medium to long term it's all about renewable energy.

*Note: Direct Provision is the system by which asylum seekers are accommodated in the Republic of Ireland. The government provides housing, food and medical care while the asylum applications are processed. Initially an emergency measure not intended to last longer than six months, the direct provision system has come under scrutiny in recent years due to the lengthy processing times for asylum applications, leaving many people in what was supposed to be temporary accommodation for years on end.