A Cheann Comhairle,
Last Thursday, a majority of the UK electorate made a decision that will have a lasting impact on the future of these islands.
On Friday, Prime Minister Cameron telephoned to inform me personally of the result and of his intention to resign. He thanked the Irish Government for its support all through the process.
He committed to ensuring that there would be early bilateral engagement at senior official level on key issues now arising. These include Northern Ireland, the border and the common travel area.
While this is not the result that the Government wanted, we fully respect the UK voters’ sovereign choice.
I and my colleagues in Government have been very clear all along that a Leave result in this referendum would have very significant implications at a national, bilateral and international level.
Many Members of the House also supported that view and helpfully engaged in advocating Ireland’s position, particularly among the Irish and Irish-connected community who had a vote.
I believe a cross-party approach will be valuable in the time ahead. I briefed opposition leaders last Friday on contingency plans and next steps in the EU-UK negotiation process.
I was encouraged to hear that Members are willing to use their influence through party affiliations in Europe to ensure that Ireland’s position is well understood. I very much welcome this constructive approach.
While the referendum result is not the outcome we wanted, we always knew this result was possible. And we are ready for the challenges ahead.
The stakes have always been higher on this issue for Ireland than for any other EU Member State.
The reasons for this are well known:
· The economy and the relative importance of each other’s markets for trade;
· Northern Ireland, the Peace Process and British-Irish Relations;
· The Common Travel area and our shared land border;
· The role of the UK within the EU and its strategic value to Ireland in that context.
The Irish Government was, therefore, very active throughout this entire process in engaging with the UK Government, and with our EU partners, outlining our concerns and our interests.
We advocated for a remain outcome, having regard to the jurisdictional boundaries, because that was in our national interests.
In parallel, we also deepened our understanding of the implications of a UK vote to leave the EU. That was also in our national interests. Our primary goal now is to protect and advance those interests.
Prior to last year’s general election in the UK, I strengthened my own Department’s capacity to focus specifically on bilateral relations between Ireland and Britain, including issues that would arise in the context of a change in the EU-UK relationship.
Work commenced across Government Departments to identify the key strategic and sectoral issues that could arise for us if the UK were to vote to leave the EU.
We have a whole-of-government contingency framework, within which we will continue to track and develop key policy issues and negotiation positions.
This will be used in key economic areas such as trade, energy interconnection, social welfare arrangements, education and research cooperation. It will, in reality, extend right across every single area of Government activity.
Above all, our contingency management arrangements will prioritise the key political and strategic issues arising from the implications for Northern Ireland, the common travel area and the border.
We recognise that detailed contingency planning for a Brexit is particularly challenging.
This is for two reasons:
· first, we do not know the precise arrangements or the timescale for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU;
· second, we do not know what the new relationship between the UK and the EU will be.
Nevertheless, we will be scaling up and intensifying work to mitigate risks across Government Departments and in key Agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and IDA.
Detailed negotiation strategies will be prepared on each of the key points for use in negotiations in Brussels, London, Belfast and other capitals as appropriate. It is important to recall that Ireland will work within the EU context.
At the same time, Ireland has unique bilateral interests with the UK, including with regard to Northern Ireland. The Government will also have to work bilaterally in close contact with the UK Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.
I will travel to Brussels tomorrow for a meeting of the European Council, where there will be a first opportunity for a collective response to the situation by all member states. I will have an opportunity to underline our specific interests and concerns and to make clear our national position.
David Cameron will also attend tomorrow’s meeting, where he will have an opportunity to explain to the 27 other EU leaders his own interpretation of the outcome and of the next steps to be taken.
However, I expect that the following morning there will be a substantial discussion among the Heads of State or Government of the twenty-seven other Member States, without the UK present.
I have no doubt that it will be underlined that Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union is the only legal basis for a Member State to withdraw from the EU.
I also want to make clear that it is the European Council under the leadership of Donald Tusk, and not any other EU institution or subgroup, which has overall political control of the process.
I think that in other governments there is a full understanding that there has been a political earthquake in the UK, the consequences of which will take some time to work out.
I expect that there will be broad consensus that we will need to await the entry into office of a new British Prime Minister before a formal exit notification can be made.
So the negotiations on withdrawal are unlikely to commence for some months yet, and they will take a considerable time to complete - a two year timeframe is envisaged in the Treaty.
In the meantime, it is important that people are aware – as I mentioned earlier - that the UK has not for now left the EU. Until it does so following the Article 50 negotiations it remains a full Member, with its existing rights and obligations. There will be no early change to the free flow of people, goods and services between our islands.
I also want to underline that the withdrawal negotiations will be only one part of the story. They will prepare the way for exit, addressing issues such as the phasing out of UK budget payments, the completion of existing programmes in which the UK takes part, the status of UK officials in Brussels, and so forth. But they will not address the crucial question of the UK’s future relationship with the Union, as a third country outside it.
Separate negotiations on the new relationship between the UK and the EU will therefore take place, if that is what the UK seeks. It is in this second set of negotiations that such crucial questions as the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, and the movement of people to and from the UK, will be addressed.
It is expected that they will begin and be carried forward in parallel with the withdrawal negotiations.
Ireland’s starting point will be straightforward. A stable, prosperous, and outward-looking UK is clearly in our own interests and those of the EU as a whole.
The closer the UK is to the EU, the better for all of us, and above all for Ireland.
However, it will be up to the UK itself to work out what it wants to achieve, and how it sees its future.
Within the EU, Ireland will argue that the negotiations should be conducted in a positive and constructive way. But this will also depend on the UK’s approach. I will be encouraging the next British Prime Minister to set realistic and achievable objectives and to build confidence in the UK’s good faith.
I also want to be clear that in so doing Ireland will not be alone. It is in nobody’s interests for the UK and the EU to have anything but the best possible future relations. Among the other twenty-six Member States there will be a number of others who will, like us, be especially anxious to see such an outcome, and we will co-operate particularly closely with them.
Our first priority will be to ensure that our own specific interests are protected to the maximum possible degree. We will in parallel take forward with the UK those matters which can be settled bilaterally, in whole or in part. But in many crucial areas, above all those where the EU has the strongest competence such as trade, it will be the outcome of the wider negotiations which will be decisive.
Building on our strong partnerships, political relationships, and using our teams of experienced officials in Dublin, Brussels and EU capitals, the Government will ensure the EU approach to these negotiations takes account of Ireland’s special concerns and interests, including in relation to Northern Ireland.
Indeed we have been actively engaging with our counterparts across Europe for some time now to make sure there is a clear understanding and appreciation of these aspects, and I am confident that this is so. I also want to make clear that I or my officials will be at the table for every major decision on the negotiations.
Trade and Investment
It is important to recall that the majority of our goods and services exports are to the Euro area (34%) and the US (17%) - the UK accounts for around 16% of exports.
The UK remains a member of the Single Market until such time as negotiations are concluded and overall, our trading relationship continues as normal. Currency fluctuations will present some challenges in the short-term for indigenous SMEs and the Agri-food Sector in particular.
Enterprise Ireland is implementing a plan to help exporters and a short term strategy identifying other options and possible instruments will be developed to protect jobs in vulnerable sectors. The impact on enterprise and trade in Border counties will be monitored closely.
As part of overall contingency planning a dedicated unit has been established in the Department of Agriculture to work on relevant sectoral issues and the Minister will convene a consultative committee of stakeholders to ensure a full exchange of information as the negotiations proceed.
Bord Bia will provide practical guidance to SMEs to assist them in dealing with marketing challenges and the management of volatility arising in the short term.
The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will be working to ensure that there is certainty as early as possible on the terms of future trading relationships, including the extent of access by the UK to the EU’s single market.
Of course, Ireland remains a strong, competitive and open economy.
Our talent pool, competitive and consistent tax regime and long track record of working with foreign companies is something that companies are interested in.
The fact that Ireland is English-speaking and a member of the EU and Eurozone is also attractive.
IDA Ireland will continue to market Ireland across the globe as the number one location for foreign direct investment.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s clear statement that Northern Ireland’s interests will be fully reflected in the British Government’s negotiating position.
The Government fully recognises that the outcome of the UK referendum creates particular concerns in Northern Ireland.
I fully understand why many people in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned that Northern Ireland will be outside of a project that has delivered so much for political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity.
We will continue to work urgently and intensively with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to see how collectively we can ensure that the gains of the last two decades are fully protected in whatever post-exit arrangements are negotiated.
All three administrations share the common objective of wanting to preserve the Common Travel Area and an open border on the island of Ireland.
This work has already commenced through a round of telephone calls that Minister Flanagan undertook on Friday. Next Monday’s plenary meeting of the NSMC in Dublin, which I will chair, will provide an opportunity for the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to have a strategic discussion around how we are going to work together to protect the interests of all our citizens on the island of Ireland.
I will travel to Brussels for a meeting of the European Council tomorrow.
At that meeting I will clearly set out our national position. I will ensure that our particular national interests are fully respected as we prepare to enter the next phase of negotiations.
Ireland is in an important position given the strength of our relationship with the UK on one hand and our connectedness to the EU on the other.
Our Ministers and officials are well respected and well connected in both London and Brussels.
We will not be found wanting in contributing constructively to discussions in the days ahead.
However let me be absolutely clear: my primary goal is Ireland’s national interests and that goal will be foremost in any discussions: with the UK; with our EU partners; and between the EU collectively and the UK.
These negotiations may not commence for some months yet, and will take a considerable amount of time to complete.
We will play our full part.