Thank you, John.
Lord Mandelson, Ambassador Barnett, Minister Mitchell O’Connor, ladies and gentlemen.
I’d like to start by thanking Eoin and the Board of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce for the invitation to this evening’s Gala Dinner.
As Tánaiste and in my new role as Minister for Business, Enterprise & Innovation, I’m delighted to be here.
I look forward to working closely with you – our business leaders - in the time ahead and at this critical juncture.
I welcome Lord Mandelson in particular, for his work in strengthening British-Irish relations over the years and for his presence here tonight.
Although the British Irish Chamber was only founded in 2011 – ahead of the historical and wonderfully successful visit of Her Majesty The Queen - it already has had a huge impact. In the months and years ahead, the Chamber will have a critical role to play in acting as a forum to explore the most important issues for business across these islands.
This evening’s flagship event brings together business leaders from across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Tonight we recognise the close business links between our two countries.
We all understand the depth of connections between Ireland and the UK – not only in the economic sphere but also socially, culturally and politically.
We live in uncertain economic and political times. Massive technological disruption, and the urgent need to address issues such as climate change, adds to the challenges for small open economies like Ireland.
To remain competitive, we need to focus on what will be required to grow the economy both today and in the future.
This must involve a relentless focus on innovation, diversification, cutting costs and seeking new markets – things we should be doing anyway.
Ireland is again one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, with GDP growth of 5.1% in 2016 and expected growth of 4.3% this year.
More importantly, at 6.3%, unemployment is now back to levels last seen in 2008
But – And there is always a ‘BUT’!
As the Taoiseach put it recently “Ireland today faces undoubtedly the greatest set of political and economic challenges in a generation as a result of Brexit.”
Brexit is perhaps the most significant challenge for many Irish companies in the past 50 years and will involve long term, structural and disruptive change for indigenous enterprise.
The challenges are already manifest in the form of the currency situation, general business uncertainty and decisions about whether to invest or not.
This is why the Enterprise Agencies of my Department are working with exporters and potential investors, helping them to identify the challenges and opportunities and to become “Brexit ready”.
The strong trading relationship between and within our islands must continue with as little disruption to both our economies as possible.
The Government has worked hard to ensure that London and Brussels, and indeed all of our Member States, understand Ireland’s unique circumstances – and we believe they do.
I very much welcome the paper on Ireland published today by the Barnier Task Force.
This paper reflects the close engagement between Ireland and the Task Force, and indeed with the other Member States.
It makes clear that, when we talk about protecting the Good Friday Agreement, we have to take account of a complex set of inter-connected issues.
The Peace Process, which began almost 20 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement, has been a delicate journey, with the British and Irish Governments as co-guarantors.
The process remains fragile, and the absence of functioning institutions in Northern Ireland for eight months now is all the evidence we need to know that politics there is far from stable.
That is why the border issue is so critical in the context of Brexit. It is not just about the impact it would have on the flow of trade and business on this island, important though that is. It goes deeper than that. It’s about the impact on communities, on society. It’s about psychology and emotion.
Any re-introduction of the border, however much people think it can be managed or mitigated, will represent a reversal of the direction of travel of the peace process of the last 20 years.
That process, above all, has been about finding ways for the different communities on this island to be more comfortable living together. About finding and developing the things that they have in common. About facilitating reconciliation, and about forging a pathway forward together.
Anything that represents division, or brings back features of darker days, can only be seen as a setback.
That is why the Task Force Paper today seeks, unequivocally, to impress on the United Kingdom that it must propose a way forward which doesn’t reintroduce the border, which doesn’t turn the direction of travel of the peace process backwards, and which doesn’t inhibit the vital flow of trade here.
And it is why the Government has been more forthright in recent weeks about its concerns. Time is running out. Anxieties are rising, in business but also across society more generally. So we, respectfully, with our EU partners, are asking the UK Government to think again. There are options available, particularly around the single market and customs union, which can resolve this major problem, if the UK Government is minded to propose them.
We must absolutely ensure that future partnership negotiations are informed by the economic importance of the Irish-British trading relationship.
Ireland and the UK share a symbiotic trading partnership and I am determined to maintain this in the future regardless of any potential Brexit-related obstacles ahead.
From an Irish perspective, in terms of trade policy, we are clear on our priorities.
We absolutely regret – but respect – the decision of the UK to leave the EU. But we must achieve an orderly withdrawal.
We share the objective of having a close partnership with the UK after they leave, including the area of trade.
In my own Department, we are conducting research considering possible scenarios in relation to the impact on trade, including the imposition of WTO tariffs and the introduction of non-tariff barriers- this will help to inform our approach to the negotiations.
More generally, we are working on proposals to bring in a working capital loan guarantee scheme to alleviate the cash flow problems that companies are facing.
And I am working with Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue to ensure that 2018 Budget will support companies in as many ways as possible.
I am of course also aware of the recommendations in the policy paper published by the British Irish Chamber’s SME Committee.
For individual firms, Brexit forces a review of market diversification strategy; of investment in product and service innovation; and of cost control through lean and other tools.
An innovative mix of responses is required if we are to withstand new disruptive and competitive challenges and if we are to exploit the opportunities that will emerge.
Everything should be and is on the table.
I want to pay tribute to all of you – the very people who help to make our astounding trade statistics a reality.
You are part of the €1.2 billion a week traded between us.
You are the reason why the UK market remains the main export destination for Irish food and drink producers accounting for 37% of total exports in 2016.
You are the reason that the UK is also the most important market for other indigenous companies. In recent years, nearly 40% of Enterprise Ireland client companies’ exports went to the UK.
All of us, on every level, benefit from your collective endeavours, whether they are across the Irish Sea, within the EU or globally.
We invest significantly in each other’s economies, directly sustaining 400,000 jobs in communities the length and breadth of our two islands.
As a Government, we are focussed on ensuring Ireland’s objectives for the Brexit negotiations are achieved. But the negotiations are not a zero-sum game. We believe our objectives are aligned with the best interests of both the UK and the EU.
Finally, let me just add one important point. Ireland has been a proud, committed and constructive member of the EU since we joined in 1973.
And we will continue that course into the future. That is unquestionably in Ireland’s interests, and is supported consistently by the vast majority of people here.
Brexit or no Brexit, Ireland’s future is at the heart of Europe and firmly at the EU table.