Good morning. It is a pleasure to be speaking to you today and many thanks to John McGrane and the British Irish Chamber of Commerce for giving me that opportunity.
The closeness of the British Irish relationship has meant that Brexit poses unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenges for Ireland.
That is why, for the past year and a half, the Irish Government has been pro-active, concerted and strategic in its approach to the forthcoming negotiations which will be complex and challenging for all parties.
We have been very clear in our commitment to EU membership, which is undoubtedly the best course for Ireland, while fully respecting the outcome of the UK referendum.
But while Britain and Ireland are taking different paths in terms of EU membership, we are also firmly committed to ensuring that our strong and unique relationship will remain constant. These two things should not be regarded as mutually exclusive.
While in the past, the relationship between Britain and Ireland has sometimes been fraught; in recent years I am pleased to say it has been that of close neighbours and friends.
This has been exemplified by recent State Visits between our two countries - something we would once have considered impossible.
In fact, just last week, I was delighted to welcome the Prince of Wales to Government Buildings during his third official visit to Ireland with the Duchess of Cornwall in as many years.
This improvement in relations has not happened by chance or by accident. Both our countries have worked to develop a mature relationship as two neighbouring island nations. We have worked to bring about and maintain a historically significant peace process, of which we are co-guarantors.
We continue to strive for a continuation of peace on the island of Ireland and I am hopeful that the current talks process, with the appropriate support and involvement of our two Governments, will continue to a successful conclusion.
It is critically important to see devolved Government restored and working effectively in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, not least in the context of Brexit.
My Government has sought to protect the interests of the island as a whole in its extensive preparatory work on Brexit and will continue to advocate very strongly for Northern Ireland's interests to be protected.
We have engaged intensively with our EU partners to ensure that the Northern Ireland Peace Process is fully protected and that the Good Friday Agreement, and successor agreements, are not undermined by Brexit.
Our hard work on this has paid off and ensured a firm acknowledgement in the EU negotiating guidelines of the legal standing of the Good Friday Agreement by all of the other Member States.
The European Council has also confirmed that the EU Treaties will apply to the entire territory of a united Ireland, in the event that this is realised under the Good Friday Agreement.
In doing this, the EU is continuing its commitment to supporting and protecting the peace process.
The depth of the British Irish connection, beyond the peace process, is also widely recognised.
We are deeply integrated in each other’s communities. Ireland is Britain’s only land border with another European country. Yet we travel lightly across our national boundaries to work, holiday and be with family.
So much has changed since we joined the then EEC in 1973 together. Ireland has learned to step out of the shadow of our bigger neighbour. We are much more open to the wider world than we used to be.
Though the inter-linkages between our two countries persist, the extent to which Ireland has made its own mark is clear and will stand to us as we look to our continued future within a strong EU, of which the UK is no longer a Member.
The partnership our politicians, diplomats and officials developed over the years in Brussels and elsewhere will serve us well as we enter this new phase in our bilateral relationship. We understand each other and think alike on many matters of importance.
We have longstanding arrangements in place for detailed and meaningful bilateral consultation, engagement and co-operation on a range of policy matters. This will continue.
I would also like to recognise the important contribution that you, the members of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, make to the strength of that bilateral relationship. Your connections, your perspective and your insights make a valuable contribution to our deliberations on the many challenges that we now face on both sides of the Irish sea.
I want to thank you for your generosity and engagement in working with Government to ensure that we plot the best course forward.
Quite rightly, much has been made of the volume and value of trade between our two countries.
Ireland has been increasingly diversifying to other markets. But nonetheless, in 2015 almost 14 per cent of our exports in goods and over 19 per cent of our exports in services still went to the UK.
Imports into Ireland from Great Britain accounted for 24 per cent of total goods imported in 2015.
Overall, Brexit presents many risks to the Irish economy. In particular, the food, retail and tourism sectors are particularly vulnerable to its effects and have already been impacted by sterling's depreciation.
That is why our absolute preference is to maintain the closest possible trading relationship based on a level playing field between the UK and the EU, including Ireland.
But also be clear that Ireland’s economic interests lie firmly in a strong and well-functioning EU with continued and unfettered access to the single market.
We want to minimise any negative impact on our economy and provide clarity and certainty for our businesses that are trading with the UK. I know that applies to so many of you in this room today.
There is a lot of negotiation to be done around trading arrangements and, by extension, the customs regime that might apply.
The Irish Government hopes we can see substantial progress in the initial phase of the negotiations so that we can start talks on the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU as early as possible.
The recognition of existing bilateral agreements between Britain and Ireland in the EU Negotiation Guidelines is also very welcome, particularly in respect of the Common Travel Area. We will work with the UK Government to ensure the successful operation of the Common Travel Area into the future.
Overall, I am also very encouraged by the commitment of both the EU and the UK to avoiding a hard border on the island while recognising that achieving this will take imagination and creativity.
More than anything we must not lose sight of the fact that this is about people’s lives. Relationships across the islands are strong and are many and we want them to continue and to flourish.
The Government is working to ensure that overall we are as ready and prepared as possible to achieve the best possible outcome from the negotiations.
On 2 May last, we published a comprehensive document on Ireland and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union under Article 50.
This document reflects the findings and outcomes of the extensive preparatory work and consultations undertaken to date. It demonstrates how these will be brought to bear in Ireland’s approach to the negotiations in the weeks and months ahead.
Now that the EU’s initial negotiating position is clear, we are intensifying our focus on the economic implications of Brexit.
This includes domestic policy measures to reinforce the competitiveness of the Irish economy, to protect it from potential negative impacts of Brexit, and to pursue all possible opportunities that might arise.
In order to underpin this, Government will prepare a further paper on economic implications of the Brexit challenge.
This will draw on the work to date across Departments and will reflect the core economic themes of my speech to the IIEA on 15 February last including:
· sustainable fiscal policies to ensure capacity to absorb and respond to economic shocks, not least from Brexit;
· policies to make Irish enterprise more diverse and resilient, to diversify trade and investment patterns, and to strengthen competitiveness;
· prioritising policy measures and dedicating resources to protect jobs and businesses in the sectors and regions most affected by Brexit;
· realising economic opportunities arising from Brexit, and helping businesses adjust to any new logistical or trade barriers arising; and
· making a strong case at EU level that Ireland will require support that recognises where Brexit represents a serious disturbance to the Irish economy.
The undertaking of this work underlines the fact that we are at the beginning, rather than the end, of what will be a long and complex process.
We cannot expect immediate answers to the many and complex issues.
Both sides – the EU and the UK – have to do what is necessary to achieve these objectives.
The Government will continue to engage with EU partners and with stakeholders through regular ongoing consultations, including the All Island Civic Dialogue process.
We will ensure that Ireland’s concerns and priorities continue to be reflected in the EU’s negotiating position as it evolves, and that we work towards a strong and constructive future relationship with the UK.
In doing this we will also work to foster and grow all aspects of the important and unique relationship that exists between Britain and Ireland.
So much is yet unknown on the specific aspects of Brexit. But for Britain and Ireland we can be sure of one thing - our friendship and our common interests will endure into the future.