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Ambassador Mulhall's remarks - Brexit - implications for Ireland, Policy Exchange Seminar, 10 January 2017

The current situation in Northern Ireland:

Although other speakers have focused on yesterday’s developments, my remarks will concentrate on the implications of the Brexit issue, but I would like to make a few remarks about the current situation.

The gains made in Northern Ireland this past 20 years are something that everyone involved can be proud of and must seek to preserve and further develop.

Our Government has made clear its determination, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to protect the integrity of the Agreement’s principles (notably those of partnership and equality) and of its institutions.

We have urged all parties to act responsibly in word and deed so as to avoid damage to the political institutions.

Our Government has made it clear that they will work closely with the British Government and the political parties in order to advance stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.

Ireland and Brexit:

Ireland is probably the EU country that will be most seriously affected by the UK's exit from the EU. This is because no other EU country has quite the same range of interests as we have in our relations with the UK.

No other EU country has a land border with the UK.

No other EU country has the depth of historical links with the UK. This has bequeathed us a multifarious legacy of affinities and intersections.

We are the only other English-speaking country in the EU.

There are at least 500,000 Irish citizens resident in Britain, equivalent to 10% of the number of people resident in our State. The future status of our community in the UK will be an important issue for us and I see no reason why current arrangements should not continue post-Brexit.

No other EU country has the kind of intensive economic ties we have with the UK with more than £1 billion each week in two-way trade in goods and services.

There is a myriad of business, professional, cultural and personal ties between us. For example, there are currently 60,000 Irish-born Directors of British companies. There are 2,000 flights a week back and forth across the Irish Sea.

I take the view that EU membership has been very beneficial to our bilateral relations with the UK. There are two reasons for this. First, the experience of cooperating within the European Union has highlighted the things we have in common. And second, Ireland's increasing prosperity, a product of EU membership, has made us a more attractive partner for Britain than we were before 1973.

Implications for Ireland:

It will be clear, therefore, that the stakes are high for Ireland as a result of the UK's impending departure from the EU and we are now focused on minimising and mitigating any adverse impacts. We will also seek, of course, to take advantage of any upsides deriving from the need for companies to locate more of their operations within the EU. Our Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and our Central Bank have reported rising numbers of enquiries from companies about setting up or scaling up operations in Ireland as a consequence of Brexit.

Let me make four points about our response to Brexit.

First, Ireland will remain a member of the EU. There is political consensus behind this and strong public support evidenced in recent opinion polls. Our Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, has described the idea of Ireland exiting the EU as 'fanciful' and with good reason.

Look at how Ireland has benefited from EU membership. In 1973, our wealth per capita was just two-thirds of the then EU average; now it is comfortably above the average. Membership has enabled our economy and our ties with our European neighbours to develop and diversify impressively. Membership has given us an opportunity to bring significant quantities of foreign direct investment into Ireland, attracted by our status as an English-speaking country within the EU.

Second, while remaining in the EU because this is firmly in our national interest, we will want to maintain the most beneficial possible set of relationships with our nearest neighbour. This will be more challenging to achieve once our two countries are no longer partners within the EU. I am satisfied, however, that we can rise to this challenge provided the political will to do so continues to exist in both countries.

Third, it is clearly in Ireland's economic interest that the UK should retain the closest possible relationship with the EU after it formally leaves. In the first instance, it is a matter for the UK to decide on the kind of future trading ties it wishes to have with its European neighbours. Ideally, we would hope that the UK will decide to remain in the single market and in the customs union as this would minimise the potential impact on Ireland.

The coming UK-EU negotiations will need to reconcile the UK's aspirations for its future relations with the EU with the interests of the remaining 27 member states including Ireland. Within the 27, we will of course have our own view of the issues arising in the negotiations and we will put our position forward strongly as we always do. It is impossible to anticipate the outcome of what will necessarily be negotiations of great depth and complexity. A good outcome will require flexibility all round and the will to find common ground.

Let me make the point that our trading relationship with the UK is not just of benefit to Ireland; it is also vital to the UK, sustaining approximately 200,000 jobs in this country also.

Fourth, given our Government’s role and responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement, we will have a special interest in the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and for north-south ties within Ireland.

The advantages of the current open border in Ireland for trade, tourism, investment and people-to-people contact are immense and these are widely recognised.

There is a strong desire within Ireland and, I understand, on the part of the British Government to preserve these advantages.

Moreover, our Government has worked hard to sensitise our EU partners to the importance of our open border and the need avoid any disruptive effects on the island of Ireland arising out of Brexit.

It would clearly be a tragedy if the progress that has been made so painstakingly since the Good Friday Agreement were to be put at risk in any way, shape or form as a consequence of the UK's departure from the EU.

Conclusion:

We would definitely have preferred if the referendum had turned out differently, but it is our task now to minimise its ill effects for Ireland, for North South ties in Ireland and for Irish UK relations. That is what we are determined to do in the months and years ahead.

Like many others, Brexit is not something we wanted or expected, but our government is geared up to deal with it and will do so with complete determination as these crucial negotiations - for the UK, for Ireland and for the EU as a whole - unfold in the period ahead.

Thank you for your attention.

ENDS