Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be with you all today at this, the second Plenary meeting of the All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit.
When we started this process last November, I spoke of the importance of having the widest possible conversation on the implications of Brexit for this island, North and South.
Our meeting in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was the first step in a process that is a very important component of the Government’s Brexit preparations.
At that first Plenary we heard of the broad range of concerns raised by Brexit throughout the island – for the economy, for society, for the peace process and for North/South co-operation.
We heard your views on the importance of sustaining our economy and the challenges that Brexit will pose for the different sectors.
The importance of Ireland’s position as a member of the EU and the paramount importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement were other clear messages on the day.
Other key themes highlighted were free movement on these islands as part of the Common Travel Area and the potential impact of Brexit on border communities and the perspective of the Irish community in Britain.
There were a broad range of perspectives and opinions in the room.
But what struck me that day in particular, was a genuine desire amongst participants to discuss the issues and engage in a respectful and meaningful way with each other.
And there was agreement that this dialogue must continue, deepen and develop.
In response to this, we worked with departments and Ministers to put in place a series of sectoral dialogues around the country.
So far, fourteen such Minister-led consultative events have taken place around the country, in Carrick-on-Shannon, in Cavan, in Meath, in Roscommon, in Dundalk and in Dublin.
Events have focused on key sectors such as agri-food, energy, transport, tourism, education and training, research, human rights and the Good Friday Agreement, social welfare rights and children and young people.
Over 1,100 people participated in these events and I want to thank all of them – this has allowed us to hear from a very broad and diverse range of interests and civic society.
We have captured the key issues raised at all of these events and they provide an important input to this Government’s preparations for the Article 50 negotiations which will commence after the UK has triggered Article 50.
Today is an opportunity for us all to further develop this dialogue and to pull together the many strands that it has explored to date.
As well as allowing the Government to hear more from you, it also gives us the opportunity to share with you some detail on our overall preparations for the Brexit negotiations and how we are organising and structuring ourselves around that.
In my keynote speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs on Wednesday, I set out in some detail my Government’s position on key aspects of Brexit.
I spoke of Ireland’s at times tumultuous history, our culture, our relationships and our ability to endure and succeed. I spoke of the strong external forces at work and the major challenges posed by Brexit to our peace and prosperity.
The message is clear:
As we enter a new era of our history its essential lessons are the same:
- We must remain at the heart of Europe and open to the world;
- We must protect the hard-won peace on our island, and;
- We must pursue thoughtful, prudent but ambitious economic policies.
The Government’s plan for Brexit combines these three essential elements.
To succeed as an open economy and a welcoming society, we must remain at the heart of Europe.
Our membership of the European Union has brought us enormous benefits, and the Irish people have consistently endorsed that membership.
Ireland’s membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union are absolutely fundamental to our economic strategy.
The EU has also been the cornerstone of much of Ireland’s social progress over the last generation.
As members of a Union with other like-minded democracies, we have a much more powerful voice on the global stage.
And our interests are absolutely best served from within the Union, helping to shape and influence it for the times ahead.
As I made clear on Wednesday, I utterly reject any suggestion that we would leave the European Union.
I also emphasised that Brexit is a British policy, not an Irish or an EU policy.
I continue to believe it is bad for Britain, for Ireland and for Europe.
But I respect the referendum result, and I recognise that Brexit is now going to happen.
Unfortunately, its most severe impact could well be felt on this island.
That is why protecting the peace process and the Common Travel Area are priority objectives for the Government.
After the UK referendum, we made good progress through the North South Ministerial Council in scoping out the implications of Brexit and agreeing joint principles for moving forward.
Those principles include:
- Recognition of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, bearing in mind its geography and history;
- Ensuring that the treaties and agreements between Ireland and the UK are fully taken into account;
- Protecting the free movement of people, goods, capital and services, and
- Maintaining the economic and social benefits of co-operation.
The Government will keep to these principles, and remain engaged with the political parties during the election period, but bringing this work forward is now undoubtedly more difficult.
With the dissolution of the Assembly, there is a very real danger that the absence of political leadership in Northern Ireland will see a retreat to partisan debate and an even greater marginalization of Northern Ireland’s concerns.
Of course I will do my best to put forward the interests of the North in the Brexit negotiations.
I will defend the Good Friday Agreement, in its spirit as well as its letter.
The Irish Government will oppose a hard border, argue for free movement on this island, seek EU funding for cross-border projects and protect the rights of EU citizens, whether from North or South.
We must not return to a hard border or create a new border of the future…
This is a political matter, not a legal or technical matter.
It will have to be solved by political leadership with creativity, imagination and innovation.
I have stressed this point to every European leader I have met.
We must also protect and grow our economy – that continues to mean the closest possible economic and trading relationship between the EU and the UK, even without UK membership of the Single Market.
That close relationship is in the interests of not just Ireland, but of all of our fellow EU member states.
Crucially, Ireland’s economy will remain open: open to investment; open to trade; and open to talented people coming here to study, to work, to start a business.
Now, we are moving to the next and decisive phase of our economic response to Brexit.
Firstly, we will implement 20 specific actions to respond to Brexit set out in the Action Plan for Jobs for 2017.
These actions aim to diversify our export markets, improve our competitiveness, realise opportunities for Ireland, and support sectors under particular pressure, like agri-food, where the Government will continue to help industry respond to the effects of Brexit.
Next, the Government will publish a new Trade and Investment Strategy before St Patrick’s Day, with targets and actions to grow and diversify markets for Irish exports and investment. This will include a focus on the many opportunities in Eurozone markets.
Based on that strategy, we will undertake the largest ever programme of Ministerial trade missions in 2017.
We are starting work on a new 10-year National Capital Plan.
That new Plan will show how we will invest in roads, in public transport, in energy, in water, in schools, in higher education and in hospitals and health facilities.
The Government has also commenced a review of our industrial policy, Enterprise 2025, which will also be completed this year. It will prioritise policies and investments to make Irish enterprise more diverse and resilient.
We will also make a strong case at EU level that Ireland will require support that recognises where Brexit represents a serious disturbance to the Irish economy.
After Article 50 is triggered and discussions on the exit commence, we will also need very detailed discussions on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Our negotiations with the UK must recognise the wider, long-term interests of Europe and all of her people.
We must place the vision of a bright future for our continent and for our European values at the heart of our discussions.
But one thing is absolutely clear – Ireland will be on the EU side of the table, one of the 27, when the negotiations begin.
We will negotiate from a position of unity and strength.
When the British Prime Minister sends the Article 50 notification, Ireland then faces the most important negotiations in our history as an independent state.
The Government will be fully prepared.
We have set out our key priorities – trade and the economy, the peace process, the Common Travel Area and the future of Europe.
To ensure that these are recognised and understood, we have mounted a major diplomatic campaign with all of our EU partners and the EU institutions.
We have made structural changes within Government and allocated additional resources to key areas.
The Government is seasoned in tough European negotiations, and our key officials can draw on decades on experience at the highest level across Europe.
We are firmly focused on winning the argument and on getting the best deal for Ireland.
Thank you for your attention and thank you for participating in this critical exercise.
I look forward to listening to you all during the course of the day and to hearing your views and concerns.
I have every confidence that today we will pull together all of the strands of this dialogue to ensure that we make best use of this input to our preparations for negotiations and in shaping our domestic policy response to Brexit.
The challenges of Brexit will require a supreme national effort. I am encouraged by what I have seen so far from the Civic Dialogue process. Working together, I believe that….
we will enter the negotiations with a clear sense of purpose,
we can mitigate the risks from Brexit for our people, and
we can seize any opportunities that arise.