Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny TD at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce President's Dinner
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen - members of the Chamber and honoured guests.
I would like to thank the Chamber for its kind invitation to this event and start by offering my congratulations and best wishes to your new President, Eamonn Egan.
The British Irish Chamber of Commerce has been and continues to be a central pillar in enhancing the close relations which exist between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Since the Chamber’s launch during the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011, the Chamber has quickly become a key stakeholder in the Irish UK relationship and a vital forum for our businesses.
When I last addressed the Chamber, as part of your joint Brexit seminar with the International Irish Business Network in London in January, we were about to enter an extremely busy and intense period in the run up to the UK’s EU referendum.
While the referendum result was not what we hoped for, it is nonetheless one that we fully respect.
The Irish Government recognises that the decision has been made and that we must now plan for a future in which the United Kingdom will no longer be a member of the European Union, but Ireland will be.
In all my recent meetings - with Chancellor Merkel; President Hollande and with Prime Minister May - I have stressed that Ireland will be a constructive and enthusiastic member of the EU. I also spoke of this with President of the European Council Tusk when I met with him yesterday.
There will be major challenges ahead, for the EU, the UK and for Ireland and we must work together at all levels to safeguard the future of all our people across Europe.
Because of the closeness of the British Irish relationship, the stakes have always been higher on this issue for Ireland, than for other EU Member States.
I continue to take every opportunity, both at the European Council itself and in other discussions, to underline Ireland’s unique relationship with the UK and our concerns in relation to Northern Ireland, North-South relations, the Common Travel Area and trade between the UK and Ireland.
The level of trade between our two countries is hugely significant with over €1.2 billion of goods and services exchanged across the Irish Sea on a weekly basis.
That trade provides 400,000 jobs, split evenly between the two islands, with many more in the supply chain.
What many people don’t know is that while the UK accounts for approximately 16% of Irish exports, we too are an important market for the UK. We are the UK’s fifth biggest export market.
It is important to note that the UK has not yet left the EU – indeed, formal withdrawal negotiations cannot begin until Article 50 has been triggered, and further, separate negotiations will be required over the future relationship between Britain and the EU after Brexit.
Yet even at this early stage it is clear that the closer the UK is to the EU, the better the outcome for Ireland. It is not in our collective interest for the UK and the EU to have anything but the best possible future relations.
Until the UK has indicated what kind of relationship it will seek with the EU, it is impossible to predict possible outcomes. In advance of this the Government will be as prepared as possible for the negotiations ahead.
We will be scaling up and intensifying work to mitigate risks across Government Departments and in key Agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and IDA at home and abroad.
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, I have been pro-active in setting out Ireland's concerns, putting plans in place and in ensuring that our voice is heard at the highest political level throughout the EU.
The day after the referendum result I set out the key issues and concerns for Ireland in the wake of the result and published details of the whole-of-government plan.
In all of my meetings with key leaders, I have stressed our absolute commitment to safeguarding the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have agreed to work together to ensure that the peace process is safeguarded; that Northern Ireland's interests are protected and the importance of North South co-operation is fully recognised in any new arrangements which emerge from negotiations. We agreed ten specific actions to optimise North South joint planning and engagement on key issues.
I have also announced structural changes to the workings of Government to ensure an effective whole-of-Government response to the challenges ahead. Today I chaired the first meeting of a new Cabinet Committee on Brexit that will oversee the overall Government response, including both the economic impact and the negotiations at EU level and with the administrations in London and Belfast.
There will be some re-structuring in my own Department and in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure a comprehensive approach and we will strengthen staffing in other key Departments and agencies and our missions abroad to ensure we have the capacity to deal with Brexit.
On 16 September I will attend an EU meeting of 27 EU States in Bratislava without any UK representative, where I will be the only political leader from these islands present. This will be an historic moment - but not one that I would have wished for. But I can assure you that I will do my utmost to ensure that the shared interests of all the people of Ireland are represented at that meeting.
Economic Uncertainty / Exporter Concerns
Although Brexit negotiations have yet to commence, the referendum result is already having an impact on business on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Volatility in the markets, notably in the currency markets, is creating significant challenges for Irish exporters with a large reliance on the UK market.
Enterprise Ireland has and will continue to provide support to companies exporting to the UK. They will provide support to help understand and manage currency risk; intensify UK market support; expand their ‘International Sector Clustering Strategy’; and provide additional market diversification support.
Because of our close economic ties, any negative impact on the UK economy in the coming years will have implications for the Irish economy.
It remains to be seen precisely what the impact on the UK economy will be and much will depend on the new arrangements, including on trade, that can be agreed with the EU.
Protecting the Recovery & Budget 2017
Despite the challenges ahead, Ireland faces into the coming years on a far better footing than when the previous Government entered office in 2011 when we were locked out of the international markets in the midst of an economic crisis.
Since then we have worked hard to rebuild the Irish economy, help people back to work, and repair the national finances.
These achievements were hard won. For a lot of our people the period of economic crisis was one of hardship and for some recovery has still not benefited them or their families.
But Ireland is recovering. We surpassed 2 million people at work last month for the first time since 2009, with employment growing across all regions and across most sectors.
The deficit is now set to be under 1% in 2016 and will be eliminated altogether by 2018. Ireland has an A grade rating from all major credit rating agencies.
After many tough years we have to learn the lessons of the past. We have to break the cycle of boom and bust.
The Brexit vote, in addition to rising international economic and political uncertainty, will have an impact on a small open economy such as Ireland.
This Government will avoid reckless risks and instead deliver on policies that will secure the recovery for the long term interests of our people.
The upcoming Budget in October is another stepping stone in our plan where we will prioritise new measures to help make people’s lives better, specifically for hard pressed working families.
Thanks to the careful economic management of recent years we now have the resources to target investments in key public services that will make a real difference to people’s lives. New front line public servants such as additional special needs assistants and thousands of new Garda recruits are all signs of recovery in our public services.
We have outlined in our Programme for Government that the Government will commit at least two thirds of available new resources to public services with the rest committed to lowering the high tax burden on low and middle income families.
We will also not lose sight of the absolute priory to reduce unemployment further and provide homes for our people. These key priorities will be reflected in the Budget.
The Action Plan on Housing launched by Minister Simon Coveney in July sets out a comprehensive set of actions to help bring greater stability to our housing market, particularly through measures to build more homes.
Given the potential significance of Brexit for the Irish economy and business community, I have asked Ministers Noonan and Donohoe to ensure that the Budget is ‘Brexit Proofed’ and to set out a national economic response.
In the weeks ahead there will be intense political and parliamentary debate about the best use of the limited resources.
If the stronger economy and public finances now allow us to make some choices as a people, the rising international risks remind us that our choices must be good ones, capable of delivering both a just and fair society and a secure and stable economy. Not all good suggestions will be affordable in the next 12 months but with continued economic recovery we will, in turn, be able to continue to deliver for hard pressed families.
I have no doubt that we will continue to build on the success and the closeness of the British Irish relationship in the years ahead.
Let us focus on the opportunities as well as the challenges and work together to ensure a future throughout these islands that is positive, profitable and above all peaceful.
Thank you for your attention and I hope that you enjoy the rest of the evening.