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Tánaiste’s address to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Spring Dinner

Tánaiste’s address to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Spring Networking Dinner

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to have been invited to speak to you this evening about the UK-Ireland relationship and its importance for both countries.

British politics is in a very fluid state, as developments in train at this very moment at Westminster bear out. I will turn to Brexit later. Suffice to say for now that the timing of this gathering could hardly be more appropriate.

 The British-Irish Chamber of Commerce has been a voice of pragmatism throughout this difficult process.  I would like to pay tribute to your continued efforts to highlight the value and importance of our neighbourly relationship, and your work bringing together British and Irish business.

 Voices like the Chamber, that have focussed on the importance of protecting trading relationships, the practicalities of the geography that binds us together, have been an important reminder of what we are trying to protect.  

Because whatever the outcome of deliberations at Westminster, the UK and Ireland will remain close neighbours and important trading partners.

You don’t need me to tell you this evening about the importance of the British Irish trading relationship. You all know the stats. But such is the scale of our interdependent prosperity that some points are worth reiterating.

 

Bilateral trade between our countries amounts to approximately €1.38 billion per week.  Over 38,000 Irish companies do business in Britain.

 

CSO statistics indicate that FDI by the UK in Ireland is valued at €61 billion. Irish direct investment in the UK is at least €30 billion more - to the tune of €94 billion.

 

Overall, this is a relationship that sustains over 400,000 jobs across the two islands. Therefore, no matter what else is happening, it is important that we continue to focus on how we can best facilitate this trade, and help it to grow.

 

The Irish government has made clear the priority that we place on the relationship with the UK. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, we have increased the resources at our Embassy in London and in State Agencies.

 

Next month, we will reopen our Consulate in Cardiff as part of the Global Ireland initiative. The mission in Wales will be followed by an additional Consulate in another UK location post-2019. This network of offices across the UK will enable us to develop a strategic approach to the UK as a whole, one that recognises the importance of regions outside London.

 

Indeed Wales is a good example of the importance of regional cooperation. There are an estimated 85 Irish companies with a presence in Wales, employing just over 5,500 people. We are Wales’s fourth biggest export market. Trade between us is projected to grow further over the coming years.

 

Despite these positive aspects of our relationship, it is clear that Brexit poses a threat to the economies of both islands. When I spoke to you at your Spring dinner last year, I don’t think any of us thought there would be quite this degree of uncertainty so close to the original date proposed for Brexit of 29 March.

 

Working together over almost two years, the UK and the EU negotiated, with much difficulty, a Withdrawal Agreement that represents a fair and balanced outcome for both sides.

Last week the European Council formally confirmed the assurances and clarifications given to the Prime Minister by President Juncker. But it made it crystal clear once again that the Agreement will not be re-opened.  And nor will it accept any statements or actions which cut across the letter and spirit of the Agreement. 

 

I deeply regret that it has not been possible for the British Parliament to approve the Agreement.  While the focus has overwhelmingly been on the backstop, let us remember that it also includes a reasonable financial settlement and a generous and balanced arrangement for citizens.  It also contains vitally important provisions on the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, on continuing North/South co-operation, and on human and citizens’ rights. And of course, it provides for a transition period of 2, and maybe even 4 years.

 

While it is welcome that a no deal Brexit has been avoided for now, extension is not a solution in itself. Westminster needs to make a choice on what outcome it wants from Brexit, and for the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

 

Today MPs are holding indicative votes on various options related to Brexit and the future relationship with the EU.  We should know the results of this first round of voting by nine o’clock.  Then a further choice will need to be made next Monday. But of course the British Government would also need to decide on its approach to any mandate from Parliament.

 

Should there be a change on UK red lines, and therefore the UK's intentions for the future partnership, the EU is ready to adjust the content, and the level of ambition, of the Political Declaration. It is committed to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK.  For no country is this more important than for Ireland.

 

But the EU has done all it can. It is time for Westminster to decide.

 

Throughout this process there has been a strong understanding from EU partners, and the UK, of the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, maintain the necessary conditions for North-South cooperation, preserving the all-island economy, avoiding a hard border, and protecting the peace process.

 

This is why the backstop is an essential part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and any orderly withdrawal.

 

Our shared EU membership has provided the conditions under which Ireland and the UK, working with the parties in Northern Ireland, has been able to build and sustain a peace process.

 

It is the EU regulatory framework, taken together with the Common Travel Area and the Good Friday Agreement that has delivered an invisible border. It has helped to build an all-island economy with seamless trade.

 

This has normalised relationships on this island and provided the prosperity which in turn has helped to sustain our hard won peace. It is this virtuous circle, this status quo, which the backstop is designed to protect.

 

However, we cannot afford to be naïve. Given the ongoing political uncertainty in London, and despite the expressed wishes of the House of Commons, a no deal outcome remains, sadly, a real possibility.

 

Our core objective remains the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland and the protection of the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union and Ireland’s place in them. This does not change in a no deal scenario.

 

As a Government we have been preparing. Much of the attention in recent days has been on what will happen with the border in a no deal scenario. I want to be clear that we have not been preparing for a hard border. But without a Withdrawal Agreement, avoiding one would become more complex and challenging.

 

Intensive discussions with the Commission will be required to determine how, in the short term, this would be achieved. But before long, engagement between the Commission, ourselves and the UK would also be needed if we are to have a sustainable solution. 

 

Therefore for us, the starting point for these discussions will be the backstop. For any sustainable long term solution, it would be impossible to escape the need for close alignment with the Single Market and Customs Union.

 

As I said, the Government has been preparing. The Brexit Omnibus Bill was signed by President Higgins on 17 March. It ensures key protections for citizens and economic sectors are in place. It also ensures that Ireland fulfils our legislative requirements to ensure the continuation of the Common Travel Area, which enables British and Irish citizens to move freely across our islands to work, study and enjoy access to healthcare and social protection. 

 

However, managing a no deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. It is impossible, in a no deal scenario, to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across the range of sectors which are, at the moment, facilitated by our common EU membership.

 

The study released this week by the ESRI and the Department of Finance makes clear the costs Ireland could face, in terms of orderly and no deal scenarios. 

 

This is why the Government has concentrated on prudent management of our economy and investing in our future.

 

Since 2016, across several Budgets, the Government has put in place dedicated measures and schemes for the business and agri-food sector.

 

The Government is providing an array of support and information measures to assist businesses and other affected sectors to prepare. Government enterprise Agencies are working closely with companies, helping them to deal with Brexit – making them more competitive, diversifying market exposure, and up-skilling teams.

 

At the same time, we are also working closely with the EU. Ministers Humphreys and Creed have met with Commissioners Vestager and Hogan to discuss the specific challenges facing Irish businesses. They are working closely with the European Commission - in respect of flexibilities under both State aid rules and direct supports under the common agricultural policy.

 

As I said earlier, Brexit presents real challenges, especially in a no deal scenario.

 

The UK outlined earlier this month a proposed tariff schedule to apply in the event of no deal.

 

Any tariff regime would be extremely serious for Irish exporters. The EU has always made clear that the EU must apply tariffs on UK imports in a no deal scenario. This is essential for the EU in order to remain a reliable trading partner to the rest of the world and to protect our industries.

 

The UK plan is significantly less than what is on the table in the Withdrawal Agreement.

 

That is why we remain focussed on securing the Withdrawal Agreement - it would enable both sides to negotiate a future relationship agreement with the aim of avoiding tariffs and quotas, and help protect a thriving trading relationship between Ireland and the UK that everyone in this room has helped to build.

 

Post-Brexit, our government has always been clear that we will seek the closest possible relationship with the UK.

 

On a political level, we already cooperate closely through a number of institutions under the Good Friday Agreement, such as the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference and the British-Irish Council. Our parliamentarians work closely together through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

 

However, when the UK leaves the EU, there is a danger that we could lose the “habit of cooperation” that we have developed, working side by side in EU institutions since 1973. This is why, at the most recent British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, both governments agreed on a framework for future cooperation post-Brexit.

 

While the details of this cooperation are still to be finalised, it will include annual Summits of the Taoiseach and PM, together with some Cabinet Ministers, and we will continue to cooperate across a wide range of policy areas of mutual interest and concern.

 

We will continue to invest heavily in the personal relationships we have cultivated with our UK colleagues. And I’ll be honest, these relationships have been tested throughout the Brexit process. But this experience has proven the importance of ensuring deep and resilient relationships that can sustain collaboration across these islands long into the future.

 

Finally, I would like to say a special word of thanks to the team in the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. Since its foundation in 2011, the Chamber team has worked tirelessly to develop the relationship between our countries. The crowd here this evening is a testament to the work that it has carried out in that time, and the esteem in which it is held.

 

My Department will continue to support the Chamber where it can, and I am sure that the Chamber will continue to produce the high standard of work that it has become known for, in developing and nurturing the business relationship between our countries. 

 

Thank you once again, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening.

 

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