I am delighted to be in Newry and to have the opportunity to speak to you all today. Particular thanks to Newry Junior Chamber and Nicole Curran for organising this event.
Today's lunch is very aptly titled – Bordering on Brexit – a reflection of the very particular issues that the UK referendum result raises for border communities on this island.
I know that here in Newry there are deep and real concerns about any future arrangements that might harden the border.
I know what such a prospect would meanin terms of hardship and disruption for border communities - a past that we do not want to re-visit.
So I want to assure you today that I and my Government are doing our utmost to ensure that we maintain the free movement of goods, services and people across this island.
The practical implications of Brexit are nowhere more acutely recognised than here in Newry - less than 5 miles from the United Kingdom's only land border with an EU member state.
Many tens of thousands of people cross the border each day to work, to do business, to see family and friends, for tourism, for trade.
In 2014 total cross border trade in manufacturing came to over 3 billion euro or just under 2.5 billion pounds. That is a 7.1 per cent increase on the total cross-border goods trade in 2013.
I want to see this trend continuing.
Trade and traffic are growing, in part because we have worked together, through Tourism Ireland, InterTradeIreland, in common endeavours, to build links to our mutual benefit.
More recently we have seen a growth in the number of shoppers crossing the border to take advantage of cheaper sterling. Of course this is a phenomenon that we have seen before and are likely to see more of in the run-up to Christmas.
I am conscious that while this is good news for retailers here in Newry, on the other side of the border the sterling effect is a real challenge. This is something that was brought home to me during my visit to Dundalk earlier today.
But overall, the freeflow across the Border has been good for this island.
We remember what a hard border was like. We remember the cost – both in practical and psychological terms.
And we are in agreement with the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive that we will work hard to avoid barriers to cross-border traffic and economic activity.
Our economies are intricately linked - there is nothing to be gained from one-upmanship on either side of the border.
What is good for the Northern Ireland economy is good for the Southern economy and vice versa.
Any downturn in our respective economies would have a mutually negative effect and is not in any of our interests.
My Government is acutely aware of the potential economic impacts of Brexit for Ireland and we will absolutely seek to maximise any opportunities that arise.
We have worked hard to get the Irish economy back on to a sound footing and the economy is growing strongly and sustainably - with expected GDP growth of 4.2% in 2016, and 3.5% in 2017.
Ireland's competitiveness has improved significantly and unemployment is now below 8%.
However, the sterling depreciation is challenging for Irish exporters and we have introduced measures in our Budget to help mitigate this - particularly for agri-food.
But overall, we are confident that the prudent economic and fiscal policies implemented over recent years have placed Ireland in a stronger position to weather Brexit.
Throughout the island our investment in the North/South economy will stand to us in working through the associated issues. There is simply too much at stake for us to ignore our common interests.
Such common interest is clearly demonstrated in the EU's Peace and Interreg funding programmes. These have made an enormous contribution to cross border cooperation over the last quarter of a century and remain important drivers of regional development in a cross-border context. They are a key element of the European Union’s continuing commitment to the process of peace building and reconciliation.
I am glad that agreement has now been reached between Irish Government officials and their Northern Ireland counterparts on the terms of Letters of Offer for the PEACE and INTERREG Programmes.
It is important these letters are Brexit-proofed to the greatest extent possible so that programme beneficiaries can plan for the future with confidence.
Now that there is clarity around these issues, funding announcements can commence. It will be possible to proceed with the full implementation of the programmes on a firmer basis than would otherwise have been possible.
It is important that we work collaboratively to secure the programmes to 2020 and beyond.
Yesterday I was able to hear a wide range of views on the implications of Brexit for this Island when I hosted the first meeting of an All Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit, which some of you attended.
People from all parts of the Island North and South, East and West took part, representing a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups, non-governmental organisations and representatives from political parties.
This was an inclusive and open event, which heard a wide range of views from people, from all walks of life and from both sides of the border. Everybody is concerned about what Brexit might mean – for themselves, for their families, for their future economic prospects, and for their communities.
In my opening address, I expressed my own view that Brexit presents the most significant economic and social challenge of the past 50 years. It has the potential to impact everybody on this island – North and South. It has implications for so many aspects of our relationship.
When I opened yesterday’s dialogue, I said that we should consider how best to shape the narrative and ensure the best possible outcome for Ireland and for Northern Ireland.
I also acknowledged that the referendum result is not of our making, and the outcome was not what we, the Irish Government, and many others, wanted.
It is also the case that the electorate in Northern Ireland did not vote to leave the EU.
The task for political leaders on this island must now be to ensure that we work together for the best possible outcome for all of us.
My Government is clear on its priorities - the economy and trade; Northern Ireland and the peace process; the border and the Common Travel Area as well as the future of the EU itself.
I have raised the specific situation of Northern Ireland in meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel, with President Francois Hollande, with EU Council President Tusk and with European Commission representative Michel Barnier. I know that they understand the importance of addressing the specific issues that Brexit throws up for Ireland, North and South.
We remain committed to the Good Friday Agreement. I have agreed with Prime Minister Theresa May that there will be no return to the borders of the past and we have no desire to limit the freedom of people on both sides of the Irish sea to live, work, do business and travel freely across these islands.
Our preparations for Brexit negotiations are being intensified. Structures and resources are in place to ensure a whole-of-Government response - this work is being co-ordinated by a newly established Brexit Cabinet Committee which I am chairing.
Northern Ireland and the peace process remains front and centre of our priorities. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the UK Government to prepare.
I welcome the continuing commitment of the Executive parties to working through the issues in the context of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
At our meeting in July we agreed on arrangements to optimise North South joint planning and engagement on key issues arising following the UK referendum result.
This includes a full audit of work programmes in key North-South work programmes to establish risks and likely impacts arising from the UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU.
The next NSMC Summit, on 18 November in Armagh, will be extremely important. We will have completed our Brexit audit of North/South programmes and will consider how we can best protect the peace process and North-South interests in upcoming negotiations.
It is essential for the Irish and UK Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to have a shared understanding of the priorities which need to be addressed
All in all, there are serious challenges ahead but by working together North and South we can respond to these.
And of course we will continue our strong partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process, through the Good Friday and successor agreements.
This includes a firm joint commitment to preserving all of the achievements of the peace process in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
And we will, of course, work tirelessly to maintain and develop our existing trading relationship with Northern Ireland.
I will continue to work with the First and deputy First Minister in the North and with Prime Minister May to ensure that the benefits of the peace process are safeguarded and built upon for future generations, in whatever arrangements are negotiated.
Thank you for your attention.