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Speech for Tánaiste Simon Coveney, T.D. Belfast Chamber of Commerce

 

Speech byTánaiste 

Belfast Chamber of Commerce

23 October 2019

 

Check against delivery 

 

Thank you, Simon, for those kind words of introduction and indeed for the invitation to address Belfast Chamber of Commerce. I wish you well in your new role as CEO; and welcome, too, the clear strategic vision that Belfast Chamber is articulating for the economy of this city.

 

I want to acknowledge in particular your determination to take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation between the key economic centres on this island.

 

Belfast and Dublin have a great deal to offer each other, and I am delighted to see the work that is being done to strengthen business links between the two cities. 

 

I am particularly pleased to see Niall Gibbons, President of Dublin Chamber, here today alongside his counterpart in Belfast Chamber, Rajesh Rana. I know that Niall’s presence here follows a visit that Simon and Rajesh made to Dublin Chamber just last month.

 

The developing links between the Chambers in the two largest cities on this island provide an important platform for cooperation between businesses on bothsides of the border. 

 

Together, the two Chambers represent more than 1,700 businesses, which between them sustain many hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

 

They represent the business communities in two cities that are engines of growth in our all-island economy. Cities define an economic corridor along the east coast that is home to a population of almost two million people. 

 

And they and part of each other’s natural hinterland. Each offers the other a nearby market of consumers, a pool of skills and talent, world-class universities and visitor attractions, a climate friendly to business and investment. And international connectivity through ports and three airports that together manage more than 35 million passengers every year.

 

The logic of closer cooperation between businesses in the two cities is obvious, and for our part, the Government of Ireland is determined to help unlock the opportunities that cooperation offers. Developing the economic potential of the Dublin-Belfast corridor has been identified as a key national policy objective, featuring prominently in the National Planning Framework set out as part of Project Ireland 2040.

 

The Chamber's vision, expressed in your theme today of "boosting business links between Belfast and Dublin", is one I wholeheartedly support. 

 

Turning now to that defining issue of our time, 

I would like, first of all, to say thank you to the Chamber and its members for engaging in the Brexitdebate in a serious and sustained way, representing the concerns and interests of business and, through that, your employees, your suppliers and your customers.  

 

This is another week of political drama, but also of very real anxiety and uncertainty. Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity to set out for you the position of the Irish Government on the EU-UK agreement reached last week.   

 

Firstly, we feel deep regret that the UK is leaving the EU, but we fully accept and respect that decision.That is, and has always been, a sovereign decision ofthe United Kingdom.  

 

Secondly, we feel deep concern at the uncertainty and anxiety which the Brexit decision, and the protracted Brexit negotiations, have given rise to in Northern Ireland and across this island over these past few difficult years.  

 

And thirdly, we feel a sense of relief – although so far only tentative relief – that an agreement has been reached between the UK Government and the European Union which, if ratified, will avert a no-deal and all its chaotic consequences.  

 

We have always known there is no Brexit solution that does not involve some compromise; but we have not, and will not, dismiss the genuinely-held fears and concerns of any community in Northern Ireland. And I very much include members of the unionistcommunity in that regard.

 

Indeed, it has been a cause of genuine regret and concern for us that these negotiations have impacted negatively on our relationships with unionism, on political and community relationships within Northern Ireland, and on wider UK-Irish relationships.  

 

It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can collectively to repair those relationships – urgently, and in a spirit of generosity and goodwill. 

 

For our part, we are determined - once we all can finally move on from this chapter – to rebuild, strengthen and energise relationships North-Southand East-West, for the benefit of all our businesses, and all our people. 

 

In respecting the UK decision to leave the EU, we have also consistently held to the view that the final Brexit outcome must include recognition of the unique circumstances of this shared island. With our EU partners, we have worked with the UK to ensure an orderly withdrawal. It has been important to find a deal that works for all sides, for Northern Ireland, for the UK as a whole, for Ireland and for the EU as a whole.

 

From the beginning, Ireland’s approach has been guided by the principle of securing a deal that worked for Northern Ireland. We have had to find ways to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border; to maintain the Common Travel Area; to protect the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it; and also to ensure that the British-Irish relationship remains strong, dynamic and positive. Our priorities have not changed, but we have been flexible.

 

Of course we would have been pleased if the UK Government had sought to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market. But their decision not to do so was taken early on. We worked with the EU,and when appropriate with the UK, to secure the Withdrawal Agreement published last Novemberwhich included the UK wide-customs arrangements. We were content with that deal. I know many of you were too.  

 

When that deal failed to pass through Parliament, the new UK Government sought changes. In a spirit of compromise, the EU moved once again; we moved once again. And we are also content with this new deal that is now on the table. It is not the endpoint we envisaged from the beginning. It has been reached after much discussion, compromise and flexibility. But we are content with it. 

 

I would like to turn now to the issue of democratic endorsement and support – or consent - for these new arrangements for Northern Ireland. 

 

Firstly, it’s important to say that this new EU-UK Agreement affirms in black and white the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as set out in the Good Friday Agreement; it also affirms that the Principle of Consent will continue to apply: namely, that any change to that constitutional status can only come about through the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. This is set out in the very first operative article of the new Protocol.  

 

This revised agreement is a change from the ‘backstop’, which was a temporary measure. It follows, therefore, that these unique arrangements for Northern Ireland could last indefinitely. And we do not want to see Northern Ireland remaining in arrangements indefinitely against its wishes. This meant that the EU and UK had to look again at how the people and elected representatives of Northern Ireland could have their say. 

 

 

In this new Protocol, the unique arrangements for Northern Ireland can only continue with the agreement of a majority of Northern Ireland’s elected MLAs. I know some concerns have been raised about this approach. I know some have questioned why the Assembly provisions for ‘parallel consent’ from unionist and nationalist representatives won’t apply. And I think it’s worth addressing this issue here today.

 

These matters – international treaties, international relations - are not devolved matters; they are instead Excepted Matters and would never normally come to the Executive or Assembly for decision. They are matters for the UK Government. 

 

The provisions for cross-community support have indeed applied to key decisions in the Assembly on devolved matters. And where there’s a proposal to significantly change the status quo on devolved matters, cross-community support is required.

 

The fact is that Brexit had already changed the status quo.  If cross-community support in the Assembly is required for any deal, the risk is paralysis, a zero sum game, and no solution at all. And I know those of you here today certainly don’t want that.  There is no way to set up a cross-community vote that doesn’t give one side or the other – in fact one party or one other – a practical veto.

 

That wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t solve this problem when, one way or another, we have to move forward, and the situation we started with before the UK referendum is not an option.   

 

So we have what was agreed last week. A simple majority vote, where neither unionism nornationalism has a controlling vote, or veto, or block.  Where the vote of each and every individual MLA is of equal weight and importance, and where the views of their constituents is of equal weight and importance.  

 

Where no one is ignored.   Where no one is getting everything they want. Where no one community or party can determine the outcome.

 

But everyone gets a say; an equal say.

 

The UK Government has given a commitment that before the vote there will be proper consultation with business and civil society. So that this decision isn’t a proxy for any other issue, but is based on the lived reality and experience of businesses, farmers and ordinary people. You will have a key role to play in this process. 

 

As we know, a clear majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain. It is also clear that a strong majority of people in Northern Ireland support a negotiated Brexit, and that business leadersand representative organisations see the Withdrawal Agreement as far preferable to a no deal scenario. We recognise and commend those who have spoken up to protect the gains of the past twenty years, and to promote economic stability and progress. 

 

As I said, every effort will be made to secure the broadest possible support in the Assembly for these arrangements. 

 

It’s important they work for everyone.  

 

And they can work for everyone. 

 

This agreement, endorsed unanimously by the European Council, represents a fair and balanced outcome for all parties, with compromises on all sides.

 

It gives certainty to citizens and businesses. 

 

It secures transition, it protects the rights of EU and UK citizens, including frontier workers, and it provides for a fair financial settlement.

 

It provides a legally operable solution, providing certainty that at the end of the transition period, the benefits of the peace process can continue to be enjoyed by all. 

 

It contains provision for the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, that North South cooperation can continue, and that the Single Electricity Market will be maintained. 

 

It also includes commitments to ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and it confirms that people in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens. 

 

These arrangements, which recognize the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, will allow growth and prosperity to continue. 

 

Strong business needs stability. We understand that.We want to see the continued normalisation of social, political and commercial relationships across the island of Ireland, as well as East West, and for them to develop in their own time.

 

I understand that there are concerns about how access to the wider UK and EU markets will continueunder the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and the associated procedures. 

 

First, let us be clear. Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s customs territory. UK authorities will be responsible for the collection of VAT. Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from any Free Trade Agreements the UK signs, but will also have access to the European Single Market, subject to rules of origin for goods produced here. 

 

Admittedly, there may be some administrative requirements to ensure the protection of the UK’s internal market in which Northern Ireland will remain. There may also be requirements to protect the European single market, which Northern Ireland will also be able to access. But, in exchange, Northern Irish companies will be able to produce goods for the UK market, and for the EU market. This is a unique opportunity. 

 

Entrepreneurship is about seeing the opportunityothers miss. Where others only see risk, business leaders such as yourselves see the accompanying reward. I hope you can see that this deal provides genuine opportunity for Northern Ireland.

 

It is also my hope and expectation that reaching agreement on this deal will then allow for the Institutions of Northern Ireland to start functioning again.

 

No one thinks it acceptable that it has been nearly three years since these devolved institutions ceased to deliver.  As co-Guarantor of the Agreement, we are committed to doing everything in our power to support the return of the institutions on a sustainable basis. We are also committed to fully functioning Strand II Institutions and arrangements. 

 

The North South implementation bodies, and the areas of formal cooperation under the North South Ministerial Council, are all vitally important for how this island now operates and conducts its business. North-South cooperation will continue, no matter what. Strand II is facing challenges in the ongoing absence of the North South Ministerial Council. We know that decisions need to be made. The Prime Minister has made welcome commitments to help boost economic growth and to support infrastructure projects, in particular those with a cross-border focus. We will play our part in making sure they work to further develop relationships across these islands. 

 

I do not want to dwell on the potential impacts of a no deal Brexit because I expect and hope that this will be avoided. If the UK cannot agree to the Withdrawal Agreement and leaves the EU without a deal, Ireland and our EU partners, and the UK, will all have responsibilities. 

 

As co-Guarantors, the two Governments will have our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. So we will still have to work together to deliver on the shared goal of avoiding the return of a hard border, deal or no deal. However, it is far preferable for us all to resolve this now, as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.

 

No matter what happens, in the coming weeks, months and years, the Irish Government will continue to place the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the Peace Process at the top of our agenda, working with the UK Government in partnership. 

 

We often underline the symbiotic relationship between peace and prosperity. Working together, I know that the two Governments, the political parties, businesses, civic society and the wider community will not allow the progress we have made over the past 20 years to be put at risk. 

 

Thank you.        

 

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