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Speech by Minister Flanagan “What Brexit Means For Northern Ireland"

Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Charlie Flanagan T.D.

“What Brexit Means for Northern Ireland” – Seminar at Queen’s University Belfast

26 November 2015

Minister Foster, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Phinnemore, Daithí, Ladies and Gentlemen

It’s good to be back in Belfast again and it’s a particular pleasure to join you all in the beautiful surroundings of Queen’s University.

Now, as many of you will know, I’ve recently spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland. I’ve been here, on and off, over 10 weeks as part of the process which resulted in last week’s Fresh Start Agreement.

And I want to begin this afternoon by first saying a few words about Fresh Start, which I believe has stabilised the institutions and made progress on many issues, not least a plan for ending paramilitarism.

At the same time, I very much regret that the Agreement did not in the end include agreement on issues dealing with the legacy of the past.
I share the deep disappointment of the victims and survivors of the Troubles and their families.

And I want to reassure them that we are working hard on how best to take these issues forward so that the commitments made to victims and survivors are fully met.

You know, getting that Fresh Start deal over the line wasn’t easy. It required hundreds of hours of meetings, careful consultations, and endless phone-calls. It demanded honesty and directness on the part of all involved. And it tested the patience and commitment of everyone at the negotiating table.

But at no point, even at the most difficult of moments, do I recall anyone ever saying: “Do you know what? All this would be a whole lot easier if it wasn’t for our membership of the European Union.”

And nobody asked that same question either – as far as I can recall anyway – in the run-up to the equally hard-wrought Stormont House Agreement in December 2014.

Maybe that’s because we all know – at least here in Ireland, both North and South – how important common British and Irish membership of the EU has been for our peace process.

And we all realise, whatever our party or political allegiance, that the key role it has played should not be taken for granted, or, even worse, simply dismissed out of hand – as it has been by some further afield.

The fact is, whether we proclaim it loudly or not, that the EU deserves credit for being a force for good for people on these islands.

A force that has a positive impact not just on the peace process, but on our economies and on north-south cooperation as well. A force that has provided opportunities for all our people and businesses, whether they are based in Portrush or Portlaoise.

That’s not to say I don’t think that the workings of the EU cannot be improved. They can. And they must. Our Government certainly feels there is room for improvement – we’ve been quite clear about that.

That’s why we are ready to support those reform efforts of Prime Minister Cameron that are aimed at making the EU function more effectively and helping it to better deliver growth and jobs for all of its 500 million citizens.

But we approach that process from a starting point that continuing EU membership is, without question, in the interests of everyone on our islands. We are convinced about that. And we certainly think that EU membership has been good for Northern Ireland and for the totality of relationships in the UK and Ireland.

So it’s important, in my view, that we recognise and understand fully why that is the case. Not just for its own sake, but because by doing so we also throw into sharper relief what the implications of a British exit from the European Union might be for Northern Ireland.

Now, I don’t think I’m doing anybody a disservice when I say that this is a theme that has – up until recently – been somewhat neglected in public debate in Ireland, both North and South.

That’s why today’s event is both so welcome and timely and I want to thank the University, the Institute of International and European Affairs, and the Irish Association for making it happen.

Because no matter which way people decide to vote here in the referendum on EU membership, they deserve to be able to make their decision on the clearest possible understanding of all the facts. As we know from our own EU referendums, active civil society and political engagement is vital to ensure maximum voter participation, so Minister Foster’s contribution today is very much to be welcomed.
I’d like to recognise as well the efforts others in Northern Ireland are also making to better that collective understanding here. I know the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, for instance, has launched an initiative to stimulate debate about the referendum and its impact on Northern Ireland.

Only last week the Centre published an illuminating paper on this very subject, four of whose five authors are academics here at Queen’s – including Professor Phinnemore. Other valuable studies and events examining this area have been also been undertaken.

So the implications of a “Brexit” for Northern Ireland are increasingly on our radar screens. And so they should be, given what’s at stake for everyone.

But what are these implications exactly? Well, you could just as easily ask: how long is a piece of string?

Because assessing what Brexit means for Northern Ireland, or Ireland as a whole for that matter, is enormously complex, as some of the studies already published make quite clear. A virtual endless list of policy areas – spanning every part of Government – could be affected in a myriad of different ways, almost all – in my view – for the worse.

I might focus today, however, on what I see as the dominant concern in connection with a possible Brexit for Ireland and Northern Ireland and for relationships on this island. The concern that, from our point of view, characterises every aspect of the debate. And that concern, quite simply, is uncertainty.

Because no matter what way you look at it, a Brexit would be a leap into the unknown. No matter how much planning and mitigating and negotiating we will of course do if the UK does leave the EU, we simply don’t yet know just how much it might mean for the border, for north-south cooperation and for the all-island economy.

And that’s just uncertainty from a relatively narrow all-of-Ireland perspective. There is huge uncertainty too surrounding a whole host of other things, whether it’s the economic impact it will have on the entire EU, the strategic balance within the Union, or on the EU’s engagement with the wider world.

Call me cautious, if you will, but that all makes me more than a bit uneasy. From an Irish and island-of-Ireland perspective, I just see very little to be gained by sailing into such uncharted waters.

But before I examine further what my Government sees as some of the chief uncertainties Brexit would cause for our island, let me just make absolutely clear that we are doing all we can in Dublin to make sure the Brexit scenario does not come to pass. That’s because we believe the best way to prepare for Brexit is to prevent it from happening it in the first place.

This helps explain why we are in the business of solutions, including through being committed to supporting sensible British reform EU proposals. We are firmly behind the UK’s initiative, for example, to strengthen the Union’s competitiveness through more sensible regulation and a reduction in red tape.

Not only would steps like these make the EU and its collective economy better and stronger – a goal that everyone should share – but they will also hopefully provide the Prime Minister with a basis upon which he can secure the backing of the majority of the British people for continued EU membership in the referendum.

The British Government certainly knows where we stand. I met the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, on Monday and I assured him that Ireland will be as supportive as we can be in the negotiations that lie ahead. I also discussed with him, as I have on previous occasions, the importance of the Northern Ireland dimension.
And of course the EU-UK relationship also features very significantly in virtually every conversation the Taoiseach has with Prime Minister Cameron.

But getting back to the uncertainties, I would say to all with a stake in this debate that it is fair and right to now put some hard questions to those making the case for leaving the European Union.

The first big question surrounds what would happen to the border between North and South. After all, those who advocate most strongly for a British exit from the EU say it’s needed in order for the UK to “take back control of its borders”.

So naturally we are concerned – as I understand many are here too – about the implications for the UK’s only land border, that which runs for a total of 499km across Northern Ireland all the way from Lough Foyle to Carlingford.

Ever since the Anglo-Irish Agreement 30 years ago, we have all been committed to making that border less of an impediment for everyone on this island, North and South, whether they are commuters, businesspeople or tourists. And we have tried to ensure too that it would not hinder policing or security cooperation between our two jurisdictions.

And we have made remarkable progress on all counts. Just compare the border now to how it was in November 1985. Tens of thousands now cross it daily and seamlessly to get to and from work. Tourists travel just as easily, helping to support our respective economies. Trade flows from one side to the other, as if it weren’t even there.

Could a Brexit reverse all of that? Would it mean border controls being re-imposed in some form, light or heavy? Will trade and tourism, let alone the daily commute of thousands of workers, be adversely affected? Would secondary border roads be blocked off again, as they once were, albeit for various other reasons?

I certainly hope the answer is a resounding “no” to all those questions. And I can assure you that will be the basis for our approach to any arrangements which will have to be put in place if the UK leaves.
But the reality is, speaking honestly, that we don’t yet know 100% what would happen.

This would be, as I said earlier, uncharted waters. There is no real precedent. Much could depend on the terms of a British departure from the EU, if it came to that. And as some of you know, these terms would be difficult and complicated to negotiate.

After all, any special EU exit deal the UK might strike would, in accordance with the Treaties, be subject to an EU vote in which the UK itself could not take part. And the approval of the European Parliament would also be required, adding yet another layer of complexity.

Needless to say, the Government in Dublin would do its utmost to mitigate any consequences in the event that the border became an EU/non-EU one. I’m sure all sides as well – the authorities here, in London and in Dublin – would take a pragmatic and sensible approach in such an unpalatable scenario.

I just suspect that the situation of this particular border hasn’t figured that highly in the thinking of many of those who so strongly favour a British withdrawal from the EU. This was probably not a prime consideration of theirs. And it’s probably low down the list in the minds of those who dream about a post-Brexit Britain.

But it is certainly in our minds, both northern and southern, or at least it should be. Because we must be wary of anything that has the potential – inadvertently or otherwise – to undo the progress that has been achieved over the last 30 years. And it’s hard to see how a hardening of the border could have any benefits for virtually anyone in Ireland.

The impact of Brexit on our economies is an even greater uncertainty. And while we might hope that a solution could somehow be found for the border issues, there would be no quick fix in economic terms.

Our Government is still studying the likely economic impacts but the research so far does not paint a pretty picture. One study recently published by the Economic and Social Research Institute forecast a potential reduction in trade flows between Ireland and the UK of up to 20%. The same report also warned of lower wages and higher prices.

This is another reason why our Government is so exercised about the Brexit debate – why, as the Taoiseach put it speaking to the CBI annual conference recently, this is to us a national strategic risk.

This is not just about relationships on our islands or the British-Irish relationship, as important as both those concerns may be. It’s also about jobs, living standards and livelihoods – they too are potentially on the line.

But I unfortunately know that the risks to our economy are matched by others for Northern Ireland. That much is clear from other research that has been carried out here. It has been forecasted, for example, that GDP could decline by up to 3% and that €1 billion would be taken out of the economy. That would be an extremely heavy price for the people of Northern Ireland to pay.
There are serious questions too about the impact Brexit would have here on the farming industry, given the end this would entail for Common Agricultural Policy support for the North’s farmers.

Similarly, others have asked how the economy would cope without the important structural funding that the EU has provided – this totalled €2.4 billion from 2007-2013 alone.

The fact is that EU funding – whether in the form of the CAP, the PEACE Programme, the Fisheries Fund, or Regional programmes – is hugely important here. By one study, EU support accounted for 8.4% of GDP between 2007-2013. Any economy would struggle if it was suddenly shorn of that percentage level of contribution – we certainly would.

Brexit might also be bad news for Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland. The authorities here have had some great success in attracting FDI here. They deserve much credit for that and I hope it continues.

Our own experience is that foreign companies love Ireland because of the highly educated English-speaking workforce and our access to the EU’s single market – fundamental traits we both share.
But if the UK voted to leave the EU, and thereby hampered its access to the single market, would Northern Ireland’s attractiveness to FDI be reduced? I hope not but again it’s another unhelpful uncertainty.

Minister Foster will of course offer her own perspective on these challenges and we should listen to her carefully. But let me say that my concern about the potential impacts is not just attributable to some sort of neighbourly benevolence.

It’s because both our economies need each other because they are so deeply intertwined. If one suffers, so will the other. And what seems clear to me is that Brexit will be bad news for both of us. The question is just how exactly bad that might be.

It would be remiss of me as well – especially given the venue – not to highlight the uncertainties that Brexit might create for the educational sector, both in North and South. Membership of the EU has been a huge boost for Universities across Ireland. It has allowed our students to avail of the Erasmus programme which has quite literally broadened their horizons.

And it has afforded our centres of learning with access to financial support through Horizon 2020. Our Universities deserve so much of the credit for making our respective workforces as competitive and prized as they are.
And they don’t deserve to have some of this work undone by a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the Union.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I have only scratched the surface with my remarks this afternoon.

Describing the impact of a Brexit on Ireland is so difficult precisely because it’s so all-encompassing. It’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every aspect of our economies and societies could be affected. That is what we are dealing with.

The only question, as far as I am concerned, is just how badly affected they may be.

Because I take it as a given that it would be bad news for everyone on these islands. All the evidence suggests as much. And I think it would be a real fool’s errand to argue otherwise.

Events like this today though are a crucial tool though to improve our understanding of what’s at stake. Northern Ireland would be uniquely affected by a British withdrawal from the EU on account of its history and geography. That deserves unique attention, whether in Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels.

But let me conclude by striking an optimistic note: I am optimistic that a deal can be struck that can secure the UK’s future in the EU. And I am hopeful that the voice of reason, and good old fashioned pragmatism, will prevail in the campaign ahead of the referendum.

I promise you all that the Irish Government will play a full and active, yet appropriate part in this crucial period ahead.

It seems fitting – at a time when we are reflecting on political agreements, both new and old, that have been struck in the past in Northern Ireland – to finish by remembering the words of another: the British-Irish Agreement of 1998.

In that text, which complemented the ground-breaking Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish Governments committed to, and I quote, “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close cooperation between their countries as partners in the European Union”.

We are still resolutely committed, almost 18 years later, to that pledge. And that’s why we will do all we can to ensure Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole can continue cooperating together in the future as partners within that Union.

Thank you.