With just nine weeks to go to polling day in the UK’s referendum on its EU membership, I welcome this opportunity to debate this vital strategic interest for Ireland.
As the referendum comes ever closer, I might first set out the government’s core policy position. I will then set out the government’s actions in this area, as well as my hopes for active engagement in this debate by as many people as possible across Britain and Ireland.
I also wish to take this opportunity to speak in some detail in relation to Northern Ireland and the border.
We believe Ireland has a unique perspective and interest in the outcome of the referendum:
- as a fellow EU member state
- as a neighbour sharing a land border;
- as a partner in transforming British-Irish relations in recent years;
- as co-partner too in our €62 billion-per-year trading relationship, which is growing;
- and as facilitators and co-guarantors of successive agreements aimed at securing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Given this context and progress, the government has been actively expressing the view that we believe British-Irish relations are better served by the UK remaining in the EU. I know from my own contacts, including with my UK counterpart Philip Hammond and British Labour parliamentarians, that Irish voices are welcome in the debate and that the debate is a richer one when different perspectives are heard as voters seek to inform themselves.
However, I wish to stress that we fully respect that the question of whether the UK remains a member or leaves the EU is ultimately for its electorate to decide. I should also reiterate the clear position of the Irish Government that, irrespective of the outcome of the British referendum, Ireland will remain a committed member of the European Union and of the Eurozone.
In terms of the importance of the UK’s EU membership to Ireland, this can perhaps be broken down into three areas:
First, the economy. Study after study has shown that there would be an adverse impact on both the British economy and in turn on the Irish economy if the UK leaves the EU. Not one single study has said the overall impact could or would be positive. Only earlier this week, the UK Treasury itself published a comprehensive report concluding that the UK economy would be “permanently poorer” in any scenario should they leave the EU.
In terms of bilateral trade, we have over €1.2 billion in goods and services being traded between us every week. Anything that might get in the way of this seamless flow of goods, services, capital and people would be regressive. And any negative effect on UK GDP will spill over to Ireland.
Secondly, the Northern Ireland dimension is a critical concern for the government and for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The EU has been an important, if often low-profile, factor in sustaining peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. It provides a broader and benign context for relations on these islands. Much-needed funding, including through programmes like PEACE and INTERREG, will provide almost €3 billion in the six years to 2020.
In essence, North-South cooperation is far more straightforward when both jurisdictions are members of the same Union. I will come back to this point again later in my statement.
Finally, there is the EU itself, its historic achievements and its wider goals for the future.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am acutely aware of the conflicts and violence in many parts of the world, including near to the borders of the EU itself. However, in a year when we will commemorate the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme where so many Irish soldiers lost their lives, it is important to reflect on the origins of the EU and on the peace, stability and prosperity that this has delivered for our continent. As has been said many times before, the EU itself is, at heart, a peace process. And it is one that must succeed.
The UK and Ireland joined the EU at the same time and over the 43 years since our accession, it has been clear that for historical and cultural reasons, we share many common perspectives on policy matters. The UK is an important voice at the table in Brussels. We want that voice to continue being heard. We are allies on many of the key challenges facing the EU, above all on economic issues. We want to ensure that the EU is competitive, with a fully functioning single market, including in the digital area. We want a sustained focus on completing trade agreements with global partners.
The withdrawal of the UK would shift the balance of opinion within the Union on these issues. More broadly, it would weaken the Union in substance and reputationally at a time of serious challenges. I know that this is a view shared by partners around the world, including by the US Administration. I heard it directly myself when hosting the British and US Ambassadors at a business event at Iveagh House earlier this week.
The government and our diplomatic teams in Britain, Northern Ireland, Brussels and across the EU have been very active on this issue since the moment Prime Minister Cameron signaled his support for a referendum in 2013. The momentum of this work has never eased at any stage with work continuing at official level across government during the recent general election campaign.
Our first core objective was to help get agreement on a settlement package for the UK which would be acceptable to all EU partners, and which would enable Prime Minister Cameron to recommend and campaign for the UK to remain in the EU. The Taoiseach was heavily involved in working to secure such an outcome at the February European Council.
With that agreement reached, the focus turned to the referendum itself. In tandem with the EU negotiations, since 2013 we have also been systematically setting out the Irish case for the UK remaining in the EU.
The Taoiseach set out Ireland’s position in keynote addresses in both Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as with Prime Minister Cameron during their regular summit meetings.
For my part, I have addressed influential audiences at Chatham House and at the European Council for Foreign Relations in London, at the British Irish Association in Oxford and Cambridge, at Queens’ University in Belfast, at the University of Edinburgh and with many audiences here at home. I have also promoted the Irish perspective in media interviews including with Irish community-focussed media in the UK.
During these engagements, and in meetings with the UK Foreign Secretary, the Scottish Government, party leaders in the UK and many other stakeholders, the Irish Government perspective has been welcomed.
At all stages I, other government colleagues, our diplomats and officials have ensured regular contact with the Irish communities across Britain and it is to these communities that we appeal for participation in this vital decision for all of us.
I say this because under UK electoral laws, Irish citizens resident in the UK are eligible to vote in the referendum. I take this opportunity to reiterate my call on those eligible to please register to vote and to please inform themselves on the issue. I hope everyone inside and outside this House will play their part in echoing that call.
The British Embassy has estimated that at least 120,000 British citizens living in Ireland will be eligible to vote and I welcome and support the active outreach efforts undertaken by the Embassy in encouraging their citizens living here to register and to vote. Ambassador Chilcott updated me on the progress of this campaign at an engagement in Iveagh House earlier this week.
During my most recent visit to London on 5 April, I met with over 30 Irish community organisations and encouraged them to inform and involve their members, most of whom as Irish citizens resident in the UK are eligible to vote in this referendum.
I also met last week with a cross-section of Irish employers and business groups to hear their views on the referendum and to hear what actions they were taking. I was heartened to hear some of them talk of plans to hold meetings of their UK-based staff and would encourage others to do the same.
Our own particular experiences with EU referendums over the years mean that we are acutely conscious of what is at stake in a referendum such as the one facing UK voters – and we are also well aware of the challenges of engaging and motivating voters. I believe the Irish business community who are in regular contact with UK partners have a very important role to play in communicating their concerns and points of view.
The Irish interest in referendums is also visible in the UK where some leading individuals in the Irish community have come together to form an independent campaign group, Irish4Europe, and I met with some of its representatives during my recent visit to London. They told me that they are open to anyone who wishes to help them with their important work, both on the ground in Britain and also through contacts from home to relatives in the UK.
In this context I also welcome European Movement Ireland’s “Phone a Friend” registration drive launched this week.
In Northern Ireland, I and my officials discuss the referendum with politicians and with civic society groups, in particular underlining our view that the EU has made – and continues to make – a significant contribution to the promotion of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
The fact that Ireland and the UK have both been members of the EU for 43 years has provided a shared, valuable and reassuring context for the people of Northern Ireland, whether they consider themselves Irish or British – or both. There is also the valuable EU funding and the fact that the island as a whole is currently within the EU single market.
The border between north and south is an open border between two EU member states with all that has to offer. Today, this practically invisible border is a major symbol of normalisation and development in north-south relations.
Any implications for the current border arrangements would only arise if the UK voted to leave and, in that event, their future would depend heavily on the terms and conditions of a new relationship between the UK and the EU.
In other words, the border’s destiny would not be determined by the sole wishes of the Irish and British governments. The outcome would be the result of a wider negotiation involving all of the EU and therefore no-one can say with certainty that nothing will change with the border if the UK votes to leave.
If anyone needs proof of that uncertainty, they need only look at two official reports published in recent months by the UK Government.
The UK Treasury report on “the long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives” states:
“Outside the [EU] customs union, goods being exported across the border could be subject to various forms of customs controls and their liability to duty determined according to complex rules of origin. This would affect the current high level of cross-border activity and trade flows.”
Another earlier report from the UK Cabinet Office referred to implications for the border and for EU funding. It said:
“if the UK left the EU, these arrangements could be put at risk. It is not clear that the Common Travel Area could continue to operate with the UK outside the EU, and Ireland inside, in the same way that it did before both countries joined the EU in 1973”.
In the event that the UK voted to leave the EU, customs posts would not of course be set up overnight. A negotiation period of two years or more would apply. Ireland would work hard with the UK and with our EU partners to avoid customs posts being established and to preserve the benefits of the Common Travel Area as a whole.
As regards contingency planning more widely, the government continues to deepen its understanding and analysis of the impact of a possible British exit from the EU.
The government commissioned important economic research on the issue and there has been valuable work carried out by the Central Bank, the NTMA, Teagasc and bodies such as IBEC and the IIEA. However, I would repeat that the full implications for Ireland cannot be assessed without knowing the terms and conditions of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, which would in all likelihood take several years to negotiate.
Ceann Comhairle, the referendum is still ahead of us. 46 million voters are entitled to cast their vote and it is solely in their hands on 23 June.
Our task between now and then is to put forward our view to those who may factor the Irish dimension into their decision – whether they are Irish citizens, people with close links to Ireland, or members of the British public who want to be reassured that they have partners and friends in Europe.
This is a task for all of us here in Ireland and I hope that today’s debate will demonstrate a large consensus among the people’s representatives across this House. A consensus that Ireland wants the UK to stay in the European Union - in our own interests, in the interests of Irish-British relations and in the interests of the EU as a whole.