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Minister of State Ciarán Cannon, TD - Remarks at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs

I am delighted to be here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs this afternoon.

This Council has a reputation for excellence that extends beyond this city and this country, across the Atlantic to Ireland, and it is a great honour to address you on the topic of Brexit.

Your great philosopher, HL Mencken once noted that, “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong!”

Brexit certainly is complex and there are no clear and simple answers.

My address to you today comes at a time of uncertainty for Ireland.

Brexit has unfortunately injected much strain into our most important bilateral relationship – that with our closest neighbour, the United Kingdom.

Brexit has also added to the challenges we face in sustaining the Northern Ireland peace process, as we work with the British Government in finding a way forward on the current political impasse there.

But one thing is clear as I speak to you today from this global city: Ireland faces these strategic challenges certain in our role as a global island, looking outward, fully involved with the world and at the heart of Europe.

It is through this outlook that we can best look to resolve the unprecedented political, economic, social and diplomatic challenges that are posed by Brexit. We need to navigate these challenges in a level-headed, clear-eyed and practical way.

Ireland will be more affected than any other EU Member State by the UK’s departure from the EU. Our relationship is unique in the depth and strength of the historic, human, political, economic and cultural ties which bind us.

The United Kingdom remains our single most important economic partner country.

However it is worth noting that our trade with the rest of the European Union is more than twice as great. The United States is the top source of inward investment to our country.

For Ireland, our strategic objective of the Brexit negotiations is clear: the creation of the closest possible future connection between the EU and the UK, a connection which recognises and supports the vast extent of our common interests, whether economic, security or political.

We want a smooth and cordial separation. It is in Ireland’s interest and the interest of the European Union as a whole to have a confident and co-operative UK on our doorstep. After all, we cannot alter the basic facts of geography and history.

The other key strategic objective for us is to ensure that the outcome of Brexit does not in any way undermine the hard won gains of the peace process achieved through the Good Friday Agreement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Next month on April 10th, we will mark the 20th Anniversary of that agreement. The agreement gave rise to the establishing of the Northern Ireland Executive; a powersharing Government comprised of the main parties in Northern Ireland. Those of you who follow NI politics, might know that the Executive collapsed over a year ago, and remains suspended. Some say that this demonstrates that the Agreement has failed.

It has not failed, it has delivered peace. 20 years of peace is a wonderful achievement after so many years of conflict.

John F Kennedy addressed our Parliament, the Oireachtas in 1963 and he said that no country had done more for the cause of Irish freedom that the United States.

Today, I want to highlight that as well as helping us secure Ireland’s nationhood, no country has done more for peace on our island than the US. The support of successive administrations over many years, helped Northern Ireland secure the precious prize of peace. The people of our island owe a great debt to heros such as Senator George Mitchell and to all those involved in that process.

The US should be proud of, together with Ireland and the UK and the people of Northern Ireland, that great achievement. Today the Irish Government remains committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process.

Despite recent setbacks, it must be remembered that we have come a very long way since the dark days of violence and conflict on our island.

There is no doubt but that Ireland and the UK’s common membership of the EU has contributed significantly to reaching a point where relations across our islands were never better.

The UK and Ireland both joined the European Union on the same day, 1 January 1973, together with Denmark. Our common membership, and the shared EU rules we have helped make, have facilitated and developed our co-operation – not just in the economic sphere, or in such important areas as aviation, research, and the environment, but in human terms too.

Politicians, diplomats and civil servants grew more familiar and found it easier to work together as they sat around the same EU negotiating tables and met in the same corridors. This factor was not unimportant in developing the atmosphere of trust and partnership in which Ireland and Britain could co-
operate in building peace in Northern Ireland.

And this is why protecting the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is such a central dimension of the Irish Government’s approach to the Brexit.

We want to protect the peace process, including by avoiding a hard border on our island. We want to maintain the Common Travel Area with Britain, protect North South cooperation, and safeguard the EU citizenship and other rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.

It is important to note that, while the European Union is not in fact mentioned much in the Good Friday Agreement, that was because the membership of both Ireland and the UK, and hence of the two parts of Ireland, was taken as an absolute given.

That common membership has ensured that very many areas of North South co-operation are supported by or rely on the framework of EU law.

This cooperation between North and South has contributed greatly to the normalisation of relations on the island of Ireland, bringing significant economic and social development, particularly to the border region. Non-discrimination and the protection of human rights have been reinforced by the obligations of the EU Treaties. The European Union has given financial support to projects aimed at fostering reconciliation and co-operation within Northern Ireland and between both parts of the island.

Between the long-standing Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, the creation of the EU Single Market and the removal of customs posts, and the removal of security posts made possible by the Good Friday Agreement, the political border, has become invisible. It is like crossing a state line here in the US.

Albeit our border is not a straight line! Following ancient county lines, it is some ?300 miles long. Quite long when you consider the Republic of Ireland is roughly the same size as Indiana. Northern Ireland is the size of Conneticut.

People travel freely throughout the island. There are no customs or regulatory obstacles to completely free trade. And in particular, people living near the border, on either side, can move back and forth across it without let or hindrance, whether to shop, work, be educated, receive medical treatment, or visit friends and relations.

To illustrate a farmer might produce milk on one side of the border, it might be sent to the other side of the border for processing, and back across the border when packaged. A person might shop on one side of the border, socialise on the other, book a holiday departing from Dublin or departing from Belfast depending on the route and the price. That is the current reality of the Irish border.

The economic benefits of this invisible border have been immense, but it is more that that. The human and societal benefits have also been immense. The absence of a physical border is one of the most tangible outcomes and benefits of the peace process. In short, EU membership and the Good Friday Agreement have made our lives and our relationships on the island relatively normal.

We want to ensure that none of these enormous advances is halted or reversed by Brexit. We cannot see the clock turned back. I know that the British Government shares this objective.

It is because of this shared objective, and despite some admittedly difficult conversations along the way, that we were able to reach an agreement between the EU and the UK at the end of last year. Agreement was reached on maintaining the Common Travel Area, and on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border.

But more importantly, we have reached an understanding on how this will be achieved.

It has been agreed that delivering on these guarantees can either be achieved through the wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, which is our first preference, or though specific solutions which the UK has promised to come forward with. However, if these routes fail to deliver on our shared objectives, we have a fall back or a default arrangement. That arrangment would ensure full alignment with those rules of the EU’s internal market and customs union necessary to protect North South cooperation, the all island economy and the Good Friday Agreement. There is an over-arching guarantee of avoiding a hard border.

This agreement could not have been achieved without the quite remarkable full solidarity and support of the other 27 EU Member States and of its institutions. - reflected in the fact that Irish issues are recognised as unique and an EU priority in these EU-UK negotiations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The focus now in the negotiations is on translating these commitments into the legal binding text of an EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.

This is a complex exercise, both legally and politically, and there is no doubt but that we will face many challenges. We are entering another critical period. The UK needs to engage positively in the drafting of the withdrawal agreement to demonstrate clearly that it will live up to all the commitments they gave in the first phase of the negotiations.

It will be for the European Council to judge whether there has been satisfactory progress on delivering on these commitments, so that work can then be taken forward on finalising a transitional arrangement, and on scoping out the framework for the EU’s longer-term, post-transition, future relationship with the UK.

As regards later negotiations on the future relationship, these too will raise difficult issues.

There will be a particular emphasis on trade, but there is a wide range of other questions to be settled too, including some fundamental and overarching elements to negotiate.

If the UK is indeed to enjoy the closest possible relationship with the EU, its own regulatory rules and structures will need to be, at a minimum, closely aligned with those of the Union. Can this be achieved? How will it be monitored and enforced? How will disputes be settled?

The European Union has made clear that, in these negotiations, it will not compromise on the integrity of the four freedoms of movement – of capital, people, goods and services – which are the basis of the internal market which lies at the heart of the project. Nor can the United Kingdom enjoy privileges and flexibilities outside the EU which it does not have within. Being outside cannot be the same as being inside.

Within those parameters, I am sure that the Union will be imaginative and open. Indeed, the growing strength of the EU economy, its new mood of cautious optimism, should all allow it to be more generous - if of course the UK can settle on its own approach and bring this to the negotiating table. Its inability to do so thus far is causing concern across Europe.

There remains the hugely difficult question of what has up to now been the free movement of EU workers to the UK. After Brexit – this will be classed as immigration. The answer to which will have a major impact on the overall EU attitude. The debate is fierce.

We are hopeful that it will be easier to reach agreement on co-operation on issues such as counter-terrorism, combating organised crime, and foreign and security policy. The developing relationship between the EU and NATO – which Ireland supports, will assist in this - as long as the autonomy of the two organisations is clearly respected.

Brexit also has an impact on the political process within Northern Ireland. Despite the best efforts of both Governments in recent months, and especially in recent weeks, it is deeply regrettable that there is at present no power-sharing Executive in place. However, we will not give up.

While the immediate disagreement between the parties in Belfast is not focused on Brexit, the prospect of the UK exit, whether hard or soft, is a fundamental political issue now in Northern Ireland. A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit; however, the two major parties have sharply different views on it. The additional challenge for the political process is to establish some common ground on addressing the practical challenges which arise for Northern Ireland under any scenario.

The Irish Government is doing its very best to protect the interests of Northern Ireland, which are also the interests of the island of Ireland as a whole.

However, there is no substitute for the power-sharing Executive as the authentic, direct voice of the people of Northern Ireland on Brexit – and one which badly needs to be heard in London, in Brussels, and in Dublin. The Irish Government wants to work in partnership with a Northern Ireland Executive to deal with the all-island challenges of Brexit.

Our strong view is that many of the problems posed by Brexit for the island of Ireland, both in terms of protecting the gains of the peace process but also in terms of our wider economic and political concerns, would be best resolved by the UK’s remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market, or in equivalent arrangements.

This is now recognised by many politicians and commentators in Britain. However, this remains ultimately a decision for the UK, and one which we hope the British Government will reflect on carefully.

Ireland faces these unprecedented challenges with one absolute certainty: we are more than ever committed to its membership of the EU. This was the existential choice of our people in 1972 and it has never been seriously called into question – in the most recent polls, over 80 per cent of Irish people support EU membership.

We as a people fundamentally understand that the EU Single Market and Customs Union are essential to our economic growth – not least given their importance to attracting US investment.

As a small country, we find that our interests and values are best advanced and protected through a Union of hundreds of millions of people – a Union which itself is a successful peace process – and a Union that is committed to the rule of law, to human rights, to global trade and to international co-operation.

As we approach one hundred years on from independence, we have no wish to retreat back into a British sphere of influence; we are far too attached to our own place in the world.

As a small outward looking country, we remain committed members of the UN and we remain committed to a rules based international order. It is central to our foreign policy. In 2020 we are seeking election to the UN Security Council reflecting our commitment to engaging on issues of international importance. Irish peacekeeping troops have served on Peace keeping missions continuously since 1958; Sixty years this year. Our development program, Irish Aid, which I have Ministerial responsibility for – is consistenly recognised globally for its delivery of high quality untied aid focussed on the world’s poorest people.

It should be no surprise then that we are anxious to continue to play our role in shaping the future of the EU, a Union we helped to create.

It is important to understand that, in most European countries, Brexit, while important, is not at the top of their EU agendas. The Union continues as usual to address such issues as climate change, fighting terrorism, investment in infrastructure and strengthening the digital economy.

At the same time, a lively debate has begun on the medium to longer term future of the European Union. Ideas, some of them particularly bold and challenging, are being put forward on such issues as migration, strengthening the foundations of the euro currency, and European security and defence.

It is in this context that the EU needs and wants the United States as its major international partner – in foreign and security policy, in free trade and investment, in protecting the environment. Together, we are the champions of democratic values and of co-operation for prosperity.

Of course, circumstances change and partnerships evolve. The nature of many of the new security challenges facing Europe require a greater collective effort – and not just militarily.

There are many people in both the US and in Europe who feel that globalisation has not worked for them and that trade has destroyed their jobs. So it is right that we do not assume that we should forever carry on exactly as before, and that we ask ourselves how our policies need to be adjusted.

Brexit will, without doubt, change some of the dynamics within the European Union, and will somewhat reduce its international clout. But we are confident of a close EU-UK partnership which will also help sustain our international relationships, above all with the US.

We know that the US and UK have, and will continue to have, very strong and in some cases unique ties. But this should not be an alternative to, or a threat to, the EU-US relationship. In the same way, we in Ireland hugely value our special relationship with the US – which is strengthened by, and contributes to, the wider EU relationship.

Within the EU, no Member State is more committed to free and open trade and investment than Ireland. We can see in our own country the extraordinary benefits they can create.

As a global island, we will continue to look outwards and to engage with the world. Indeed the Taoiseach announced last summer that Ireland will double its global footprint. In Chicago for example, we have just opened an Enterprise Ireland office. EI is the Government agency responsible for helping Irish companies develop overseas.

The departure of the UK will mean the future absence of an important ally in the EU on economic issues, but this makes us all the more determined to work hard with other like-minded countries.

This is an agenda on which Europe must continue to work with the US and we hope in particular that the possibility of a trade and investment partnership between the EU and the US can be examined afresh when the time is right.

So Brexit poses many challenges and we are not naive about the complex problems we face. Simple and clear answers that are correct will elude us.

But I am certain that by positioning ourselves at the centre of the world and at the heart of Europe, we can meet these challenges and continue to prosper together with our close friends and partners.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh

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