British Irish Chamber of Commerce
30 May, 2018
Good evening. I’m delighted be to here tonight as we celebrate, and seek to enhance, the relationships between our two countries. I would like to thank Eoin, John and the entire Chamber team for your tireless commitment to building and developing these links between Ireland and Britain. I know our previous attempt to convene this event was derailed by the snow – the weather this week has been considerably kinder, and long may it last.
Those of you present here this evening represent some of the 38,000 Irish companies that are now doing business in Britain. And you exemplify the mutually beneficial trading relationship Ireland and the United Kingdom enjoy, a relationship that is worth over €65 billion each year, and which sustains over 400,000 jobs across both islands. These impressive statistics are testament to your hard work, and the dedication and innovation of our leading entrepreneurs and business-women and men.
This Government continues to do everything in its power to ensure that our East-West relationship will thrive into the future. The UK has long been our closest partner and friend, and we are determined that will continue to be the case after Brexit. Ireland has been clear at every stage that a positive relationship between the EU and the UK, and between Ireland and the UK, is in all of our interests. I myself have reiterated this numerous times - a prosperous Britain, after Brexit, is unquestionably good news for Ireland.
This firmly-held belief helps informs our approach to the Brexit negotiations. But we should not confuse optimism and positivity over future relations with any naivety over current talks. On the contrary – we are clear-eyed that greater intensity and realism needs to be brought to bear. And also that this needs to happen urgently.
It is acknowledged now that the EU and UK teams have not made the headway since March that we had hoped they would. In response, we have made two things very clear. Firstly, that significantly more progress must be made on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland before the June European Council. And secondly, that there will be no final Withdrawal Agreement, in October or at any stage, without that backstop on avoiding a hard border.
The backstop should now be the highest priority. The clock is ticking and our time is limited. It is, of course, possible that the backstop can be made redundant through a close and comprehensive future relationship agreement, the detail of which will be negotiated once the UK leaves the EU. But we need to have the Protocol and its backstop in place to ensure that we have certainty in all scenarios.
What we are talking about here is delivering on commitments already made. The commitments in December that, in the absence of agreed solutions – and should we need an insurance mechanism – full alignment will be maintained with those rules of the Single Market and Customs Union necessary to support North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. And, of course, the overarching guarantee of no physical infrastructure at the border and no associated checks or controls.
We were able to build on this in March, with the UK agreeing that the paragraph I just quoted from will form the basis of a legally operable backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, and that this backstop will apply “unless and until” other solutions are agreed. Prime Minister May confirmed these commitments in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk.
And we did make some progress that month. Agreement was reached on certain articles of the draft text, including the Common Travel Area and Other Areas of North South Cooperation. As you might recall, in the text the Task Force published, a colour-coded approach was taken whereby sections of text that were agreed between the two negotiating teams were marked in green; text agreed in principle but not in detail was marked in yellow; and text not yet agreed was marked in white.
Progress since March has been slow however – too slow – and significantly more by way of agreement is needed ahead of the June European Council. The UK needs to engage in a more detailed and realistic way on the draft text of the Protocol. In brief, we need to see more Protocol text, including key passages, turning green before the end of next month. Otherwise, we are set for a very difficult summer.
Once we have the Protocol agreed, Ireland will once again be arguing the case we have been making since last summer - for the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK, including – indeed, particularly – on trade. As such, we welcomed the confirmation in the March European Council Guidelines of the EU’s determination to have as close as possible a partnership with the UK in the future, as well as the Council’s readiness to start work towards a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement.
While a Free Trade Agreement is not Ireland’s preferred end goal, we recognise that the European Council has to take into account the repeatedly stated positions of the UK, which would limit the depth of the future partnership. We’re still of the view that the optimal outcome would be for the UK to seek to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union or arrangements to similar effect. This would help in avoiding the need to implement the backstop, but it would also – we believe – maximise the chances of a prosperous and dynamic UK once it leaves the European Union. And as I have said, Ireland’s interest is very much in a prosperous UK in the future. So we hope these considerations will continue to impact the debate at Westminster over the coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, work is continuing here in Ireland to prepare domestically for the UK’s exit, in parallel to work in Brussels. This includes contingency planning for all possible scenarios. We have already taken important steps to prepare our economy, including in the Action Plan for Jobs, our Trade and Investment Strategy, ‘Ireland Connected’, and in Project 2040, our National Development Plan.
Dedicated measures announced in Budget 2018 included a new €300m Brexit Loan Scheme for Business, a €25m Brexit Response Loan Scheme for the agri-food sector, and additional supports for capital investment in the food industry.
I would strongly encourage all of you to use the tools available to you to help prepare for Brexit, and to promote their use among companies with which you do business. The more preparation we do as a society, the smoother the transition will be – whatever the outcome of the negotiations.
But of course this is about much more than trade too. We know that – our unique and recent history dictates as much. At the forefront of our thinking throughout this process has to be protecting the achievements of the peace process – without any doubt the most successful joint endeavour of the Irish and British governments in recent history.
We can see the support for a sensible Brexit outcome in all communities in Northern Ireland, where a recent high-profile poll puts support for staying within the Single Market and Customs Union at 85%. But we should also be understanding of the sensitive juncture which we’re at. Calls from some quarters for a border poll now or in the near future are not wise and not welcome. Navigating Brexit is about protecting the gains of the peace process, and as much of the status quo as possible, for all communities and people of all backgrounds. It is definitively not about any constitutional agenda or upheaval.
As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government, along with the British government, have an obligation to uphold and protect the letter and spirit of that Agreement. That includes restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, which will remain a high priority for me and for the Taoiseach in the weeks and months ahead. While I do not seek to understate or underplay the differences between the parties in Northern Ireland, I do not believe that they are of magnitude to merit the longevity of this impasse or that the current political vacuum is sustainable or acceptable. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and the Governments, as co-guarantors of the Agreement, each have a responsibility to play their part in creating the environment for power-sharing to get back on track as quickly as possible.
Of course, so many of the roots of the strong relationship between the two Governments were nurtured through our working together over the years of our shared EU membership. After Brexit, we will no longer have those structures – British Ministers and diplomats and officials will stop travelling to Brussels – and so the risk is that the ‘habit of cooperation’ will be lost. We have been giving consideration therefore to how to ensure our two Governments continue to develop our relationship as close friends and neighbours after Brexit.
There is a huge range of bilateral issues of shared interest and concern – everything from energy to employment and from communications to climate change – where people across Britain and Ireland will greatly benefit from their public representatives and civil servants working together in a coordinated and formalised fashion. And of course, I encourage you all to work with us as we continue to foster that positive working relationship.
The British-Irish Chamber, in particular, is a vital part of the fabric of relationships that span the Irish Sea. And I would like to commend the Chamber for providing us the space in which to consider our shared future, both tonight and throughout all of the #Agenda2018 events. I know too of the work the Chamber has done in trying to put forward positive solutions throughout the Brexit negotiations and I am grateful for that.
It is vital that the business community speaks its mind and does not just tell Governments, here or in London, what they think we want to hear. Decisions taken in the coming months will define outcomes for generations to come. However, if everyone keeps their eyes on the prize of lasting peace, prosperity and partnership, our islands will continue to enjoy these fruits of our collaboration long into the future.
Thank you again for welcoming me here this evening.