Arriving in Newcastle today will bring many a fond memory back for me. That’s because before I entered Irish politics, I spent a very happy year working in sales here in Newcastle. And not only that, but it was here that I met the woman that was to become my wife. So I’ve a lot to thank Tyneside for – both personally and professionally.
What struck me then and what still captures me is the strength of the relationship between Newcastle and Ireland. Let alone our ties thanks to Damien Duff and Shay Given, the business connections between the North East and Ireland are very strong, with Irish owned companies operating here, including CRH, Jury’s Inn, Kerry Group, Glanbia, Flogas, among others. So many small businesses on both of our islands interact, make deals, trade goods and support jobs on a daily basis. It’s those connections that have resulted in the UK and Ireland trading goods and services between our countries to the tune of almost €1.2 billion each week. That isn’t a typo – that does say ‘billion’ and ‘per week’.
Given these connections, given we are your closest neighbour and given that Irish citizens resident in the UK hold a vote (yet another one of our connections), I wanted to outline the Irish government’s views on the topic that is of such major importance to all of us. That topic is of course, your upcoming EU referendum.
To be clear – it is our sincere hope that the UK will decide to stay and work with us for a better, more effective European Union. I say this for four main reasons. Firstly, for the sake of the EU itself. The EU needs renewal and we need a strong UK on board to help the Union become strong again through new reforms to deliver new jobs and opportunity for our people. You are good at the business of the European Union and we would like you to stay at that table.
Second, for the sake of Northern Ireland. While it is not always sufficiently acknowledged, the EU has made an important contribution to sustaining peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. The EU has directly provided and will continue to provide much-needed funding to Northern Ireland – almost €3 billion in the six years to 2020 – helping transition the Northern Ireland economy and creating new sustainable jobs. Successive economic analyses state that if the UK was to leave the EU, Northern Ireland would be the most adversely affected region of the UK.
Third, to stay is to ensure that the strong bonds between Britain and Ireland are preserved. Ireland is also the only EU Member State to have a land border with the UK. Our Common Travel Area, which allows free movement between Ireland and the UK for Irish citizens and British citizens, is particularly significant on an island where the border is largely invisible. The Common Travel Area has only ever operated where both Ireland and the UK were either outside of the EU, or within it. So, we do not know how it would work if the UK leaves the EU. As a border region yourself, you will well know the negative impact potentially closing any border could make.
Fourth, for the sake of sustaining our mutual economic growth. As I have already said, Ireland and the UK trade around €1.2 billion of goods and services every week between our two countries. We are convinced that no alternative arrangement will be better than the one we currently have: a single market and seamless flows of goods, services, capital and people. This trade sustains approximately 200,000 jobs on each side of the Irish Sea. We believe that any of the possible replacement trading arrangements being discussed would impede – not improve – trade flows.
To state again, this vote is clearly and ultimately a matter for the British people themselves to decide. It is however of profound importance to the EU and to Ireland and in outlining our position we do so as a close neighbour of the UK, an ally, a European partner and a co-guarantor of peace in Northern Ireland. As a friend. And regardless of whether you agree with my views outlined here – I hope that you take one thing from this. And that is to vote on the 23 June. For some many people who will be impacted by this referendum, it’s too important not to use that vote.