Chairman Nelson, Members of the InterTradeIreland Board, colleagues and friends,
We are here tonight in a historic location to mark what is a historic occasion.
InterTradeIreland is 20 years old.
Much has happened in the two decades since InterTradeIreland was established by the Good Friday Agreement.
The island of Ireland has had, I think we can all agree, its ups-and-downs over that period.
But the story of InterTradeIreland – ever since it was formed in 1999 – has been one of undoubted success and positivity.
It’s been a story of building and strengthening business and commerce between North and South.
It’s been a story of deepening political, institutional and human relationships on the island of Ireland.
And it’s been a story of evolution and dealing adeptly with the unexpected.
Those three different strands, which I will very shortly address in turn, have been enabled and supported by all of who are gathered here tonight.
And for that, let me say a big thank-you to each and every one of you.
I also want to thank the InterTradeIreland staff for all their hard work.
InterTradeIreland has consistently punched above its weight in helping businesses to expand, export and innovate.
And with its two sponsor Departments remaining firmly in its corner, there is no reason why that track record of success cannot be sustained well into the future.
Going back to the first strand of the InterTradeIreland story, it is important to recognise just how much it has helped to develop cross-border trade in Ireland.
There is no doubt that we have come a long way.
Those of us old enough to remember will attest that 1998 was very different in terms of the North-South commercial and economic landscape.
The cross-border business networks and trading ties – all of which can now almost be taken for granted – were then un-ripened and under-developed.
This meant that the great potential of cross-border trade – not just for our economies but for our peoples as a whole – was, to a large extent, being left untapped.
InterTradeIreland – through its painstaking work over 20 years – has been key to changing all of that.
It has helped to fertilise and enrich an economic relationship that had in many respects simply been left fallow.
The result is that our shared cross-border economic vista is now almost unrecognisable from before.
Trade between the two parts of the island has more than doubled and now stands at more than €7 billion per year.
Thousands of jobs, North and South, have been created, with employees in many cases living on one side and working in the other.
And productivity and innovation amongst those small firms engaging in cross-border trade has grown considerably, with R&D partnerships also flourishing.
It’s the businesses themselves, of course, who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for this.
They have grasped the opportunity to grow and trade, leveraging the support of InterTradeIreland to their advantage.
And it’s those same firms that have developed the highly integrated all-island supply chains that are now driving trade and competitiveness to our collective benefit.
This brings me to the second strand of the InterTradeIreland story – the effect this body has had on forging stronger relationships, commercial or otherwise, across this island.
Because without that impact, the successes of private businesses – to which I have just referred – may never have been possible.
Business opportunities do not just present themselves in isolation – they come attached to people.
That is why collaboration and networking is so important.
A key part of InterTradeIreland’s success has been fostering an environment between businesses, North and South, which allows those connections to be made.
It has, in simple terms, brought together the right people, at the right times, with the right supports.
It’s hard to attach a metric to this type of work but all of us know instinctively just how important it is.
And InterTradeIreland has not just helped bring businesses closer to one another – it has also cemented bonds between institutions, North and South.
Its two parent Departments – the Department for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland – now work better than ever before through their daily joint stewardship and support of InterTradeIreland.
And I am delighted that Noel Lavery, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for the Economy, is here this evening together with Orlaigh Quinn, the Secretary General of my own Department.
Thank you, Noel, for travelling to be with us all here tonight, and for the ongoing collaboration and cooperation of your Departmental team.
And it has, of course, been a busy period – to say the least – for both Orlaigh and Noel because of Brexit.
Which leads me to the final strand of the InterTradeIreland experience that I want to touch on tonight – its evolution and dealing with the unexpected.
One could certainly put Brexit in that category.
I think it would be fair to say that when InterTradeIreland was founded in 1999, it was not envisaged that it would be tasked with grappling with the cross-border trading implications of the UK’s departure from the European Union and the innumerable complications that attach to it.
Nothing, as we all know too well by this point in time, comes much more complicated and complex than that.
But ever since finding itself in the eye of the Brexit storm, InterTradeIreland has risen admirably to that challenge.
From June 2016 onwards, its team really has been in the front-line of our collective efforts, North and South, to help cross-border firms to prepare and cope with the uncertainty.
InterTradeIreland’s Brexit advisory service, voucher schemes and online tools and campaigns have been a vital resource for companies on both sides of the border.
Without InterTradeIreland, and without its team, firms on our shared island would simply be far less prepared than they are now.
Let me just say too that many of our Government’s principal objectives – when it comes to Brexit – really flow out of the Good Friday Agreement from which InterTradeIreland itself was born.
Our priority has always been to see that Agreement protected, in all its parts.
In practical terms that has meant securing an outcome that avoids a hard border, protects North-South cooperation and safeguards the all-island economy – the very essence, in effect, of what underpins InterTradeIreland’s own work.
Our work on preparing for Brexit will continue, come what may, and InterTradeIreland will be at the very heart of that.
The InterTradeIreland story – I trust you agree – is one of achievement, success and evolution.
And it’s also far from over – there are many strands still to be woven.
InterTradeIreland will have a key contribution to make to the Future Jobs Ireland plan, whether it’s in the transition to a low carbon economy, adjusting to automation and the advent of artificial intelligence or developing clusters in new parts of the economy.
Its track record over the last 20 years, supporting firms across our island, certainly bodes well for the next two decades.
So let me say thank you again to everyone for attending here this evening and for your continued support of InterTradeIreland and the work that it does.
Enjoy your evening.