Londonderry Chamber of Commerce President’s LunchTánaiste Simon Covneney, TD - 25/4/18
Londonderry Chamber of Commerce President’s Lunch
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney TD
25 April 2018
Thank you Jennifer for those kind words of introduction. I am delighted to be here to join you for the Chamber of Commerce’s annual President’s Lunch, one of the highlights in the calendar for this great city.
I have been making frequent trips north over the last number of months and have had probably too many plates of chips in the Stormont cafe. So it is a particular treat to pay another visit outside Belfast in this landmark month, when we are celebrating 20 years since the Agreement which transformed the fortunes of Derry and this North-West region.
At the President’s Dinner last October, the Taoiseach spoke of the City of Derry as an enduring example of how we can work together, acknowledging and understanding our history, but never being prisoners of it.
This spirit of working together, sharing knowledge, and building networks has been at the very heart of the work of this Chamber, which has championed the cause of commercial, social and economic development in the North West for over 130 years.
Today, we celebrate this excellent combination of business and leadership in the North West that continues to drive progress in the face of new and unprecedented challenges.
I know that everyone here is very much aware of these challenges. As the UK’s departure from the EU approaches, more and more businesses are developing their responses and preparing for the road ahead.
I have made no secret of my belief that Brexit is bad for Ireland, bad for the UK and bad for the EU. Nevertheless, I accept the result of the referendum, however narrowly it was arrived at. And we must all now make sure that the damage is limited and that the particular interests of this island are protected.
In doing this, the Irish Government holds the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts as foremost among our concerns. This includes protecting the gains of the Peace Process, facilitating continued North-South cooperation, strengthening our all-island economy, and, of course, preventing the emergence of any hard border or associated checks and controls.
The issues are well-known to all of us - the solutions, at this stage, are not yet as nailed down as we would like.
The Irish Government works daily with Michel Barnier’s EU Task Force and with other Member State governments to ensure that we keep a focus on these important issues – that Ireland and Irish issues are front and centre in this debate, in the UK and across Europe, is no fluke. And the support we are receiving is rock solid right across Europe.
We also have regular exchanges with a wide range of UK Government Ministers. In my case, I regularly meet Cabinet Office Minister, David Lidington, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley. Good personal relations are key to achieving positive progress on Brexit, on restoring Northern Ireland’s institutions and on a range of global and bilateral issues. And we are giving some thought too to how this can be done when UK Ministers and diplomats and officials stop travelling to Brussels. The trust and understanding and friendships that were fostered between British and Irish delegates in the corridors and coffee-docks of the EU cannot be forsaken now – we have to find new ways to foster and sustain those relationships.
Invisible Border & North-South Cooperation
Each time I am here in Derry, I am struck by the magnificent presence of the Peace Bridge, which I have brought my own children to visit too. It serves as a reminder of the significant role the EU has played in the development of Northern Ireland.
Our shared EU membership – and our peace - facilitated the removal of any semblance of border infrastructure on the island. The arrival of the Customs Union, Single Market and the Good Friday Agreement in the same decade led to a situation where the border could quite simply disappear from view, and from our daily lives.
Since then, businesses and communities, lives and livelihoods have developed and prospered, with people crossing the border with ease every day to work, study, visit family, and connect with their local communities.
All of you here, living in the North-West, and right now in a city a mere 4 miles from the border - you don’t need me to tell you this. You live it daily. There are in excess of 320,000 cross-border trips a week in the North West alone.
And North-South cooperation is flourishing as a consequence, including between Derry and Donegal. Initiatives like the North West Strategic Partnership Group are working to take fullest advantage of the potential for cross-border collaboration. We are building on this in Project 2040 in planning to help develop the cross-border city region encompassing Derry, Letterkenny and Strabane.
All of this plays a crucial part in helping to deliver growth. The North West Regional Science Park in Derry and Letterkenny, working with local business, is just one example of how this is helping to drive innovation and skills.
In public services too, the North-West is providing examples of cooperation that should inspire all of us. This includes cancer services in Altnagelvin for patients on both sides of the border, a project to which the Irish Government has been pleased to contribute €19 million (euro). This is complemented by cross-border out-of-hours GP services, another really practical and sensible initiative.
I am very conscious too of how important the A5 is for the connectivity of Derry and Donegal to the rest of the island. This is why the Government has already made a commitment of £75 million (pounds) for this project and we are looking to make progress on this as rapidly as possible.
For the sake of all this work – and for peace, prosperity and partnership - the invisible border on this island must remain just that - open and free of any physical infrastructure or associated checks and controls.
Negotiations - Irish Issues
And so to Brexit. The Irish issues have been taken forward in a distinct strand of the negotiations between the EU and the UK in phase two. We are now at a crucial stage of the talks. A number of key negotiation sessions will take place before the European Council in June. These continue to focus on all outstanding issues in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish specific issues, as well as the future relationship.
As you know, the Withdrawal Agreement contains a draft Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland - the legal outworking of what was agreed in the Joint Progress Report in December. The UK Government has agreed that a legally operative backstop based on the December agreement – and the paragraph which references the option of full alignment with the relevant rules of the Single Market and Customs Union - must form part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement. They have also agreed that this backstop will apply “unless and until” another solution is agreed. Prime Minister May confirmed these assurances in her letter to Donald Tusk.
Of course, it remains our preference to avoid a hard border through a comprehensive future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK. This is a view shared by the UK Government. However, it is the UK government’s own current red lines about that future relationship – ruling out membership of the Single Market and Customs Union – which underlines why that backstop is so important.
The European Council was clear last month that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that the negotiations as a whole cannot progress unless the UK honours the commitments it has made to date. We need to see significant and meaningful progress in this respect before the European Council in June.
Negotiations - EU & Future Relationship
Beyond June, and indeed, beyond Brexit, Ireland’s future prosperity depends on our continued membership of the European Union. Support for the European project in Ireland is clear – as high as 88% in one poll last year. At the heart of our EU membership and economic prosperity is our place in the Single Market and Customs Union. It is therefore essential, from our perspective, that their integrity is fully maintained. This is of huge importance not only to us, but to all Member States.
Ireland and the UK helped to build the EU as it is today. Acknowledging this positive shared history is important as future relationships develop. Although the UK is leaving, we still want to ensure that there is the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, including on trade.
In the context of the economic relationship, the European Council confirmed its readiness to start work towards a balanced, ambitious and wide ranging Free Trade Agreement (FTA). While this 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 limit the depth of future partnership.
Nevertheless, the EU will enter negotiations on the future relationship with an open, positive and constructive mind. This is important should the UK’s position evolve – and we hope it does.
The FTA proposed by the EU would cover all sectors and include zero tariffs on goods. It would also address trade in services. On fisheries, it is very welcome that the EU guidelines propose the maintenance of reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources.
Throughout the negotiations on the Future Relationship, Ireland will be firm in arguing that any agreement must protect key sectors of the all-island economy, particularly given the unique circumstances on this island, and the importance of Ireland’s economic relationship with the UK.
Executive, Assembly and North South Ministerial Council
As I speak in the context of Brexit about the all-island economy and the importance of protecting all that has been achieved through the Good Friday Agreement, I am acutely conscious that - despite intensive engagement by both Governments with the political parties over the last year - the Executive and Assembly are not operating.
These are extremely serious absences.
The devolved institutions are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and they are the only way forward for Northern Ireland.
The Executive and Assembly are urgently required to be the voice for Northern Ireland in dealing with the challenges of Brexit.
The devolved institutions – and the North South Ministerial Council - are essential also for decision-making on the delivery of public services here.
There are an array of other issues that also require the Executive and the Assembly to deliver for people in Northern Ireland.
Continuing division between communities here still needs to be addressed.
Advancing genuine and mutual reconciliation is a core commitment of the Good Friday Agreement that must be prioritised once more, even in the midst of the day-to-day political issues and challenges.
The absence of an agreement over the last year on the formation of a new Executive has been disappointing and frustrating for all involved, and more importantly for people in Northern Ireland who provided a mandate for the devolved institutions in March 2017.
All with responsibilities – the two Governments and the political parties – must re-double their efforts to secure a resolution that will get the Executive and Assembly up and running again, as quickly as possible.
I want to reaffirm that the Irish Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, will continue to engage intensively with the British Government and the political parties, until the institutions are operating again.
The people of this city know that the emotional and physical scars of the Troubles run deep, but you are also aware of how life on this island was transformed from one marred by violence, to one of peace.
This month we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, remembering that historic achievement, which seemed so unlikely in the weeks leading up to 10 April 1998.
At the 20th anniversary of the Agreement, it is essential to recognise the sustained and collective effort of so many – community leaders, educators, business people, political leaders and the two Governments – to ensure that the promise of the Agreement in 1998 has been progressively realised in the 20 years since.
I cannot stand in this city and speak about the Agreement and the European project without acknowledging the extraordinary contribution of that great son of Derry, John Hume. John was not able to come to various events for the anniversary but his words and deeds and courage and wisdom have permeated events remembering the Agreement in recent weeks.
We also remember those who made such a lasting contribution to building the peace and are no longer with us. This includes the all too recent loss of Martin McGuinness and, in this anniversary month, the force of nature that was Mo Mowlam – who was at heart I think – a Derry Girl!
There have been many moments of setback, frustration and disappointment, but that is the nature of any peace process.
Unquestionable is the slow but steady success of the Good Friday Agreement, in securing the peace and providing a better basis for everyone on this island to live together.
So this month we renew our commitment to the enduring values and principles of the Agreement.
I am convinced that the current impasse will be overcome with the same determination and commitment to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement that has sustained and advanced the Peace Process over the last 20 years.
The work and the shared journey to full reconciliation promised by the Good Friday Agreement goes on. Let’s make this a priority in all of our busy lives over the months and years ahead.
Thank you for having me here today.
25 April 2018