Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD
Panel Discussion hosted by the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool
“Perspectives on the EU Referendum”
1 June 2016
I’m delighted to be here today at the Leggate Theatre, and to be joined by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn MP, Conor McGinn MP and Gráinne Mellon.
I’m also delighted to be in Liverpool, this most Irish of cities and a place where half - or even three quarters - of the population can claim an Irish link. I feel very much at home.
I would like to start by thanking Janet and Peter for their very warm welcome to the University of Liverpool, and indeed, Peter for his words of introduction.
The Irish Government is proud of its support for the Blair Chair, and our longstanding association with the Institute of Irish Studies, which has its roots in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement – a key moment for Northern Ireland and for British-Irish Relations, and an achievement warmly remembered in the annals of my own party, Fine Gael. Last November, we marked the 30th anniversary of the Agreement with a special event in my Department.
Let me briefly offer the Irish perspective on another key moment for us all – the 23 June referendum on the UK’s EU membership. In doing so, I want to stress at the outset that I fully acknowledge that the referendum decision is one for the UK electorate to make on 23 May.
I know that for some voters, the Irish perspective may be one of the factors they consider when informing themselves about the issues concerned. So I am here to set out where we are coming from.
It is a perspective which enjoys almost complete consensus in Ireland, from the trade union movement to the business community and across the political divide. In short, we want the UK to remain in the EU.
And the reasons why are clear:
• Because we believe it is better for the continued positive development of Irish-British relations – political and economic, with €1.2 billion a week now traded between us.
• Because we believe it to be in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the peace and prosperity hard-won in those 30 years since the Anglo Irish Agreement, work carried out with important and ongoing EU supports. I know this directly from my own work in Northern Ireland as the Irish and British governments worked to facilitate the recent Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements.
• And because we in Ireland believes the EU as a whole is stronger with the UK as an active and engaged member state – indeed, as Hilary Benn himself put it earlier this year, “a nation at the heart of world affairs”.
Let me also bring things a little closer to home. I spoke at the outset of the Irish links to Liverpool.
Transport links have been at the core of our history together and this morning I flew from your twin city, Dublin, on one of seven direct flights today to Liverpool. In terms of flights from the island of Ireland as a whole, between Dublin, Cork and Belfast there are at least 21 direct flights to Liverpool today, operated by four different airlines.
Add to that our historically important shipping and ferry links and one knows for sure that Liverpool remains one of Ireland’s key gateways to Great Britain and beyond.
The very freedoms that offer us this choice and the value that goes with it come from our both being member states of the EU, which opened up the airline sector in the 1980s and 1990s and made connectivity so much easier and so much cheaper.
Such freedom helps businesses reach across the Irish Sea…and grow…..and give more people jobs. It helps families and friends stay in touch and visit each other. It brings tourists in both directions. And of course it brings Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere fans to Merseyside to support their teams!
Later this afternoon I will visit a state-of-the-art Irish-owned beef plant at Ellesmere on my way to Manchester - a plant which employs over 700 staff locally and supports the region’s food industry. The company, ABP Group, is clear that the UK remaining in the EU is by far and away the better choice. Airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet are clear that remaining in the EU is best for their sector too. These are important messages from stakeholders in our economies who, while of course focused on the bottom line, really make a difference to everyday lives.
I wanted to conclude my opening remarks with these two practical demonstrations of the EU at work right here on our doorsteps. I would never say that the advantages of EU membership would evaporate overnight, but we simply have to acknowledge that there is at best enormous uncertainty about what may happen should the UK vote to leave the EU. The freedoms that we now enjoy matter a great deal to our cities and our regions and I greatly value them. They cannot and should not be taken for granted.
Dear friends, I am excited by the next steps Ireland, Liverpool and this dynamic region of England can do together in the coming years for each other’s mutual benefit, including in the context of the Northern Powerhouse project.
Let’s undertake this work together with both countries in the EU rather than under a cloud of uncertainty and at a time of significant change. That’s the Irish perspective I offer and I urge everyone to be active in this debate and to cast their vote on 23 June.
My own experience of referendums on EU matters – indeed on many matters – has convinced me that it is really important to have a well-informed debate, it is really important that people register to vote, and it is really important that people exercise their democratic rights on polling day. I want to thank the Institute today for its important contribution to the ongoing discussion.
As I conclude, I would like to note that Dorothy (Lynch), of the Institute for Irish Studies, has performed stellar work in organising today’s event – and indeed works closely with the Embassy on a regular basis – and I would like to thank her particularly for her efforts. Thank you Dorothy.
Once again, I’m delighted to be here. This is my first engagement in Liverpool as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and I know I have an interesting morning ahead.