Statement delivered at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly’s 53rd Plenary Conference, Cardiff
As Ireland's Ambassador in London, it is a great pleasure for me to represent our Government at this afternoon's session of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and to offer some views on the implications of Brexit for Ireland, for the future of North-South ties in Ireland, for Irish-UK relations and for the European Union.
You will not be surprised to hear that our Government regrets the fact that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union.
There are many reasons why we take this view.
We regret this move because it will bring to an end a highly-productive partnership between our two countries stretching back to 1973 when we entered what is now the EU on the same day.
The UK's decision poses many challenges for Ireland and gives rise to unwelcome uncertainties at a time when our economy has recovered strongly and when relations with our nearest neighbours are better, it seems to me, than they have ever been in the past.
But we are realists. We of course accept the outcome of the referendum and we are prepared to deal with the challenges that this situation will bring. Our aim will be to minimise the impact of this decision on Ireland and on our relations with the UK.
Let me make it plain that that Ireland is firmly committed to EU membership, which has provided us with an environment conducive to the successful pursuit of our national interests. Membership has facilitated the diversification of our economy and the development of close, cooperative relations with our European neighbours.
Membership has also provided a benign framework for the enhancement of Irish-UK relations. For every single day of my career as an Irish diplomat, Ireland and the UK have been partners in Europe and over the decades Irish and British officials have forged richly productive networks of contact and cooperation.
Our relations this past forty years have broadened and deepened as we dealt with each other, not in an exclusively bilateral context, but on a range of topics arising on the EU agenda. We have found that, more often than not, we are on the same wavelength in EU negotiations. We will miss this partnership in the years and decades ahead.
Let me offer our views under five headings: the implications for Europe; for trade; for Northern Ireland and North-South ties; for the Irish community in Britain; and for the future of Irish-UK relations.
Implications for Europe:
The European Union has an outstanding record of achievement, bringing its proudly-independent member States into a unique partnership. The EU is an invaluable asset for the continent of Europe, having helped sustain six decades of peace and prosperity. This is not to say that the EU is without fault. Certainly not.
The EU has undoubtedly struggled in recent years, with the impact of the economic crisis and with the challenges of migration. But, in our view, and in the view of the Governments of other member States, it continues to offer Europeans the best prospect for coping with future international developments and opportunities. It is unfortunate that the UK is no longer prepared to share in the EU’s onward journey. This will not derail the European Union, but it will make our future journey more onerous.
From Ireland’s point of view, we will want the Union to emerge from the coming Brexit negotiations in a strong position, ready to continue serving the needs of its member States and their peoples. We could not, therefore, go along with anything that would have the effect of undermining or weakening the EU.
Our second set of concerns relates to the future of Irish-UK trade. Ours is a vitally important trading relationship that is of massive benefit to both of our countries. The figures are well-known, but I will recall them for the sake of clarity. Two-way trade in goods and services across the Irish Sea amounts to €1.2 billion each week. This trade sustains approximately 200,000 jobs in each of our countries. There is also a considerable two-way flow of investment between us. Overall, the UK is Ireland’s most important economic partner while remarkably Ireland, with a population of less than 5 million, is the fifth most important market for British exporters.
Now no one ought to claim that all of this trade and investment is in jeopardy, but unfortunately there is a degree of uncertainty about the future of trading relations between the EU and the UK. We hope that the UK will remain part of the single market and the customs union, but the outlook for this is still unclear. If the UK is outside the single market, then a new trading relationship will need to be negotiated and this is likely to be a complex and lengthy process. In order to avoid too much uncertainty, it would seem sensible to put in place some transitional arrangements to cover the period after the UK's formal exit from the EU, but these will also need to be negotiated and agreed.
Already Irish economic interests are being affected by the prospect of a British exit from the EU in that the decline in the value of sterling has impacted negatively on our exporters and has the potential to pose problems for our vital tourism sector, which has enjoyed a record performance this year.
You will readily understand that these economic uncertainties are deeply unwelcome from an Irish point of view at a time when our economy has recovered robustly from the setbacks experienced in the period from 2008 onwards.
Our Department of Finance has slightly downgraded its economic forecasts for the coming years on account of the potential impact Brexit. Nonetheless, we continue to expect quite convincing growth during this period, estimated at 4.2% in 2016 and 3.5% in 2017, which reflects the underlying strengths of our economy. This year’s budget put in place some measures to reinforce our economy in the face of the potential implications of Brexit.
With all of this mind, it is clear that Ireland’s interests will best be served by keeping the UK in the single market, or as close as possible to it. We want to minimise the disruption to this mutually-beneficial trading relationship, but this will clearly require the UK to bear the responsibilities that go along with the advantages of that unique economic environment we know as the European single market.
Northern Ireland and North-South relations:
Our third concern has to do with Northern Ireland and relations within the island of Ireland. There is no doubt that EU membership has done a great deal of good for North-South links in Ireland. The European Union has provided a positive framework within which the peace process has been able to develop. The creation of the EU single market has removed the need for customs controls on the Irish border. EU funds have supported cross-community and cross-border projects in Ireland. The current open border we enjoy in Ireland is a product of the peace process and single market. It has brought benefit to communities on both sides of the border and we must not allow those advances to be lost as a result of Brexit.
The circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland are clearly very different from anywhere else in the UK or indeed the EU. The border in Ireland is the only land border between the UK and the EU. Moreover, even after Brexit, everyone in Northern Ireland will, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, be entitled to be an Irish citizen and therefore an EU citizen. This does not apply anywhere else.
Our two governments have expressed their determination to maintain an open border between North and South. In Ireland, we are currently examining all aspects of this issue with the firm aim of preserving current arrangements. This may be less challenging for people than for goods, but it will be necessary to ensure that whatever special arrangements emerge for Ireland do not create difficulties for our EU partners or the EU institutions in the context of the overall negotiations between the UK and the EU.
Our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, has already been in contact with all of his EU colleagues to sensitise them to our unique and specific concerns about the implications of Brexit. The Taoiseach and other Ministers have also been doing the rounds explaining our position and it seems to me that there is at this stage a good understanding around Europe of the particular issues that arise for us.
The Irish community in Britain:
The fourth issue that concerns us is the status of the Irish community in Britain. The Irish in Britain are some 700,000 strong and there are millions more who have recent Irish family backgrounds. The Irish community here has made a huge contribution to this country in all walks of life and our people have always enjoyed a unique status. Indeed, since Ireland became independent in 1922, Irish people have had the right to come and go freely, and to work and settle here without restriction. It is in all of our interests to preserve these benefits, which also accrue to the many British-born people who live and work in Ireland.
We ought to be able to keep these rights intact, but they will in the future operate in a situation where Ireland will be a member of the EU and Britain will not be.
Implications for Irish-UK relations:
Our fifth and final set of concerns relate to the impact of Brexit on Irish-UK relations. It is fair to say, I believe, that these have never been in better shape than they are today. With two hugely successful State Visits behind us, and our two governments taking joint responsibility for fostering the peace process in Northern Ireland, these are truly very good times for our two States and their peoples. This year’s centenary commemorations, which some people had approached with a degree of apprehension, showed the maturity of our relations and the deep well of understanding and mutual confidence that has been created on the back of our concerted efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and our partnership in the EU.
We will need to work harder on our friendship when the time comes when we are no longer encountering each other daily around the meeting tables of that unique partnership we know as the European Union.
A lot of people in Ireland are quite perplexed by the British decision to leave the European Union. For all that many of us would have doubts about one or other aspect of EU policy, those in Ireland who seriously question the value of membership are few and far between. We have committed ourselves to continued membership of the EU and want the Union to thrive and prosper in the period ahead.
We will enter these negotiations determined to minimise negative consequences for Ireland and for Irish-UK relations. Ultimately, the negotiations will take place between the UK and remaining 27 EU Members States and the EU institutions. Ireland will of course be on the EU side of the table, but we will have a special interest in securing the kind of positive outcome that will serve our best interests.
We know that the outcome of the referendum will have a lasting impact on the future of these islands – and on the future of Europe. There is a lot of work to be done and complex negotiations that lie ahead. This will require careful attention on all sides of the table and I am sure that everyone in this room will be looking for an outcome that will preserve the gains that have been made in Northern Ireland and in neighbourly relations between our two countries.
Thank you for your attention.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London.