Speech to Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry by Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe TD

17th September, 2018

Madam President,

Members of the Chamber,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a pleasure to be back in Belfast. This is a city built on industry and trade, and I am delighted to be here at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry today.


I know the Chamber has a long and distinguished history, and that your members today are drawn from over 1,200 businesses, representing sectors as diverse as agri-food and manufacturing. I was impressed to learn that, together, Chamber members employ over 100,000 people, supporting families and creating opportunities around Northern Ireland.


I believe that groups like the Chamber play an important role, not just as the voice of the business community, but also as a mirror to society. Because of your size and scope, you can reflect not just the concerns of your members, but also those of society as a whole.


And so it is a welcome opportunity for me to be with you today. I would like to thank Ellvena Graham, President of the Chamber, and Ann McGregor, your Chief Executive, for the invitation to address you, and I look forward to what I am sure will be an interesting exchange of ideas.


The issue I would like to speak to you about today is one of immediate concern to all of us here, , one that will affect all of us on the island of Ireland, namely the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union.


Brexit is an unprecedented challenge; for Ireland, for the United Kingdom, and for the European Union.


It will have significant implications in particular for the island of Ireland. Be it the impact on trade, the impact on agriculture, the impact on tourism, the challenge of Brexit is not something that can be underestimated.


But the very first impact that we have to manage is on the Good Friday Agreement and the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.


Good Friday Agreement


The Irish Government has, from the outset, recognised this challenge and has been focused on protecting the achievements of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, twenty years after its signature, now in its twentieth year. A key element in this approach is to ensure there can be no hard border between us.


This is a position shared by the other members of the European Union.


I know that Prime Minister May and the British Government are also committed to avoiding a return to a hard border.


I think everyone in this room will understand why removing the border was integral to the peace process.  


Ireland and the United Kingdom’s shared membership of the EU also played a key role, as the Single Market and Customs Union removed the need for customs posts and checks.


With the removal of security installations and checkpoints as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, the border, while still a political fact, became almost invisible, enabling businesses and communities on either side to engage freely.


Every day, over thirty thousand people cross the border, to work, to go to school, to visit friends and family.


As you all know, the border of today is free-flowing and frictionless. This is of critical importance to the 7,400 businesses in Northern Ireland that trade across the border, supporting over 167,000 jobs. Cross-border trade represents the first export market for some 73% of Northern Ireland’s small and medium sized companies.


Many of you will have supply chains, distribution networks, and customers on both sides of the border.

And the border is about far more than just trade, as this audience knows very well. The invisible border allows over 100,000 cross-border relationships, commercial, political and social, to thrive.


Psychologically, it has transformed the landscape and allowed identity to breathe more freely.

Protecting this precious achievement, a backbone to our hard-won peace, is critical for all parties in the Brexit negotiations.


Brexit Negotiations


We are at another critical stage of those negotiations. In fact it might be more accurate to say that every stage of the Brexit negotiations have been critical, and that we are now entering the final stage.


It is welcome that talks are taking place continuously, and that both sets of negotiators are committed to intensifying negotiations in the coming weeks.


We have confidence in the European Union negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team, and are in close touch with him and his staff. He and the other Member States understand the importance of avoiding a hard border.


Our priority now is to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which encompasses the backstop for the border.


I would urge the British Government to engage with all the issues identified in the Protocol. At various stages in this process, Prime Minister May and her Government have made clear commitments on guaranteeing that there will be no hard border. There is now a short period left in which to deliver on these commitments.


For our part, the Irish Government’s position on the backstop remains clear. While our preference is for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues, it remains essential that a backstop is agreed which provides certainty that a hard border will be avoided in any circumstances.


This means that a backstop must be in place unless and until another solution is found. It cannot be temporary. The absence of a hard border has to be guaranteed no matter what the future relationship will be.


This is about providing certainty for businesses and people living on either side of the border and about protecting the gains of the hard won peace. We are not motivated by any other aim.


The European Council made it clear in June that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This means that there can be no Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore no transition, without an agreement on the backstop.


So it is my hope that progress can be achieved in the coming weeks to find agreement on a legally operable backstop as an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement.


It is our wish that these negotiations will be successful.


As a Government and an economy, we are facing the huge challenges posed by Brexit from a position of strength, having laid the foundations for a solid and sustained recovery over recent years. We are confident that our economy is resilient and that appropriate fiscal policies are in place to help us to adjust to the economic effects of the UK’s negotiated withdrawal from the EU.


While focused on reaching an agreement, these negotiations are so important to us, and the consequences so far-reaching, that we are taking all necessary steps to prepare for all eventualities. It would be remiss of the Government not to have the appropriate contingency plans in place for all outcomes given their potential impact.


Of course, I fully recognise that for many of you, England, Scotland and Wales are important markets. East-West trade is significant and important for all of us, North and South. Protecting that trade and commerce is also vital.


It is in all our interest that agreement is reached, that the transition period – so important for providing certainty for business and society as a whole – is put in place, and that agreement can be reached on the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom.


It is the Irish Government’s view that any EU-UK future relationship agreement should be comprehensive, ambitious, and as wide as possible in its scope – avoiding any tariff barriers and minimising to the greatest extent possible any non-tariff barriers, while ensuring a level playing field.


At the same time, the Irish Government is mindful of the importance of protecting the integrity of the EU’s Single Market, which is central to our continuing prosperity.


The closest possible relationship would greatly benefit both parts of our island and, I believe, benefit the UK as a whole, and the whole of the EU. How close that relationship can be will depend on the wishes of the British Government.


Restoration of Power-Sharing


We find ourselves at a key juncture for Ireland, the UK, and the European Union.

The decisions that are taken in the coming weeks and months will have lasting consequences for politics, the economy, and relations in these islands.


It is thus regrettable that the power-sharing Executive and Assembly have not been in place now for nineteen months. This situation means that the North South Ministerial Council provided for under the Good Friday Agreement also cannot operate, at a critical moment for the island of Ireland.


In these final stages of the negotiations, I think everyone recognises the importance of there being a voice for Northern Ireland on Brexit, and on the range of other issues that require attention by the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.


It is my hope that progress can be found between the political parties to enable an early restoration of the Executive.


I know the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, is working closely with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, even as we speak, on how the two Governments can support a way forward. 



Ireland-UK Relationship


We are also committed to maintaining the close and strong ties of friendship and cooperation between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The UK is our important partner and nearest neighbour. I do not need to enumerate the many ties of family, culture, history, and business which we share. It is for this reasons that both Governments have prioritised maintaining the Common Travel Area is the context of Brexit.


Even if Brexit means Ireland and the United Kingdom will no longer be partners in the EU, we will remain indispensable partners.


PEACE Programme


Our responsibility – as politicians, business leaders, and members of society – is to create a society of opportunity for all, and to build a better future for the next generation.


This means taking forward the vital work of peace and reconciliation between our communities and between the different traditions on this island that we share. This is something the Irish and British Governments are committed to supporting.


The European Union is also making an important contribution in his area, through the funding it provides under the PEACE and INTERREG programmes. Between 2014 – 2020 PEACE and INTERREG will provide €550 million funding, supporting projects which aim to foster reconciliation and cooperation, and to assist some of the most marginalised members of society.


I will visit one of these projects in North Belfast later today. Springboard’s Journeys project aims to help young people who have been disadvantaged, and I look forward to hearing from them about their experiences and hopes for the future.


The Irish Government, the EU and the UK are committed to ensuring the successful implementation of the current PEACE and INTERREG programmes. WE are also committed to putting in place successor arrangements in the post-2020 period. The European Commission’s proposal in May for a special new PEACE PLUS programme, to build on the work of PEACE and INTERREG is thus very welcome.



Brexit is a challenge of historic proportion for the island of Ireland, for all of us in the Irish and British Governments, and this challenge is more difficult because of the uncertainty about the final outcome.  This uncertainty makes preparation difficult for any Government or business but I know that we are all preparing as best we can.


While the challenges being faced are clear, so too are the risks of not rising to meet them, and with continued goodwill from all sides and good work in the coming weeks I believe that an agreement can be reached. Future generations will not thank us if we do not reach the right deal.


I think it is probably safe to say that most people in this room would agree with that approach and I hope that when next I’m here it is to discuss how we can make the best of that comprehensive and ambitious agreement.