As Deputies are aware, a referendum on EU membership was held in the UK last year, on 23 June.
Conscious of its relevance for Ireland, the Government played an active role in advance of that referendum. This included working to ensure a far-reaching agreement between the UK and the EU last February, with a view to enabling then-Prime Minister Cameron to campaign for a vote to remain in the EU; and engaging with the Irish community in Britain – who had the right to vote in the referendum - to ensure that they were fully aware of the benefits of EU membership and the implications of a withdrawal.
The Government was unambiguous in its view that the UK’s departure from the Union would have significant political, economic and social implications for Ireland.
Clearly, therefore, the outcome of the referendum was not what we would have wished. However, we fully respect the democratic decision of the UK electorate.
Well before the UK referendum, the Government had started to analyse our main areas of concern and to prepare a contingency framework.
Following the referendum, this work intensified and, since last summer, there has been extensive engagement with all sectors across the island of Ireland, including sixteen All-Island Civic Dialogue events involving over one thousand, two hundred representatives; as well as nearly three hundred other meetings with stakeholders.
Restructuring took place, additional resources were put in place, and all Departments and Agencies were charged with making Brexit a top priority. There is now strong co-ordination on Brexit at key levels across Government.
Through the Cabinet Committee on Brexit, which I chair and which brings together all relevant Ministers and Departments, there has been a thorough analysis of our concerns; an identification of risks and mitigation measures, as well as an identification of opportunities; and the development of our negotiating priorities.
These priorities are to minimise the impact on our trade and the economy; to protect the Northern Ireland Peace Process, including through maintaining an open border; to continue the Common Travel Area with the UK; and to work for a positive future for the European Union. Our approach is to work towards the best possible outcome in the negotiations – a close and constructive economic and trading relationship between the EU and the UK – and to continue intensive work to make our economy resilient and future-proofed.
We have already taken important steps to prepare our economy, including in Budget 2017, the Action Plan for Jobs 2017, and our New Trade and Investment Strategy. Brexit will of course be a critical factor in our longer-term economic strategy: a new 10-year Capital Plan is in preparation; we’re reviewing our Enterprise 2025 policy to align our enterprise base and policies to reflect new international realities; and we are in active discussions with the European Investment Bank for a potential increase in investment in the country.
In the meantime, the Government’s enterprise agencies will continue to work with exporters and potential investors, helping them to deal with issues as they arise – making companies more competitive, diversifying market exposure, and up-skilling teams.
Last Wednesday, 29 March, as expected, and in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, Prime Minister May formally notified the European Council of the UK's intention to leave the EU. This means that we have entered a new phase, and the two-year exit process has commenced.
I was pleased that our particular concerns, including in relation to the Good Friday Agreement, were acknowledged in some detail by Prime Minister May in her letter. This reflected our engagement with the UK, including my own meetings with Prime Minister May, through the mechanisms set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and those established following the 2012 Joint Statement - while, of course, respecting the principle of ‘No Negotiations Without Notification’ agreed with our EU partners last June.
Now that Article 50 has been triggered, we will publish before the end of this month, a consolidated paper providing more detail about our priorities and our approach to the negotiations ahead.
On Friday 31 March, in response to Prime Minister May’s letter, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, circulated draft EU negotiating guidelines among the 27 remaining EU Heads of State and Government. These outline the main issues to be addressed in the withdrawal negotiations, and the principles and approach of the EU side.
The draft guidelines will be discussed at Ministerial and senior official level over the next few weeks; and the 27 EU Heads of State and Government will meet as the European Council on 29 April to agree them.
I am pleased that the draft guidelines include a very strong acknowledgement of Ireland’s unique circumstances, the need to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and our intention to maintain bilateral arrangements with the UK, like the Common Travel Area.
It is important to highlight, especially in this House, that the Resolution on the Brexit negotiations adopted by the European Parliament on Wednesday also contained strong references to our specific concerns.
These outcomes bear testament to our programme of strategic engagement over recent months, which has included almost 400 meetings with EU partners and the EU institutions in which we have highlighted, explained and contextualised the unique circumstances in relation to Ireland, and the need for these to be addressed in the upcoming negotiations. This programme has included engagement by myself as Head of Government; by the Minister for Foreign Affairs; the Minister for European Affairs; other Government Ministers; and our team of experienced senior officials and diplomats.
This engagement has also enabled us to gain a useful understanding of the objectives of other partners and to start to look more closely at potential alliances for the negotiations and, more generally, for the future.
Once the guidelines have been finalised, a more detailed negotiating mandate for the European Commission will be agreed by Ministers in May, and the negotiations with the UK can then begin.
It’s important to note that the European Commission Brexit Task Force, headed by Michel Barnier, will lead the day-to-day negotiations, but the European Council – that is, the 27 Heads of State and Government – will have constant oversight of the process. They will discuss and review the negotiations regularly, they will revise the guidelines as required, and they will take all final decisions. As the Member State with arguably the most at stake, we are fully engaged in this process and are in regular contact with the EU institutions and our EU partners. Indeed, I have just come from a meeting with the President of Croatia, the most recent EU Member State; and on Thursday, I will meet with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin.
Under Article 50, the exit negotiations – which will address issues such as the status of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in other EU Member States, and the UK’s financial commitments to the EU; as well as issues relating to the border - should be concluded within two years, including time for the agreement to be approved by the European Parliament and the UK Parliament.
While I believe that the exit negotiations should also involve discussion of the future relationship between the EU and the UK, the many complex and important issues involved – including trade, regulatory convergence and sectors such as fisheries, energy and aviation - are unlikely to be resolved for a considerable time. It is my strong view – and I have stressed this in my engagements - that a transitional arrangement between the exit agreement and the future relationship agreement will be required to ensure an orderly exit and to provide certainty for our citizens and our businesses.
So, we have achieved our goals so far. But this is just the beginning of what will be very long and difficult negotiations. We will need to remain united and focused, with a view to ensuring that the unique circumstances in Ireland and the particular concerns arising from Brexit continue to be understood and addressed.
I believe that, on any objective assessment, it is clear that EU membership is central to the success of our open, competitive economy and the basis for much of our political and social progress.
Our place must remain at the heart of Europe and so we will work with all our EU partners, as part of the EU team, to achieve the best possible outcome. These negotiations are not a case of Ireland versus the UK, or Ireland versus the EU or, indeed, of the EU versus the UK. Many EU partners share our concerns, and want to achieve as close a relationship as possible with the UK. For our part, we are determined to maintain our strong relations with both the EU and the UK.
So, despite the regrettable lack of agreement to date on establishing an Executive in Northern Ireland, we will continue our process of engagement with a view to ensuring that the negotiations take full account of all-island issues and Northern Ireland. Our Ministers understand the business of Europe, and our diplomats and officials, who support our Ministers, have extensive experience of challenging international negotiations. We understand our priorities, we have our structures in place, and we have strengthened relations with our EU partners and the EU institutions. We are well prepared for the challenges ahead.