Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan TD
Chamber of Commerce Annual President’s Dinner
Derry 21 October, 2016
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, deputy First Minister, Minister Hamilton, Madam Mayor, distinguished guests.
I want to thank Gavin, Sinead and the Chamber for the opportunity to join you here this evening.
When I last met with Chamber members in May, I outlined the Government's concerns about the impact of UK departure from the European Union and the challenges and risks for Northern Ireland in particular.
While my views about the merits of the Brexit proposition for this island have not changed, I must respect the overall decision reached in the referendum. I am very conscious however that many of you here this evening have very real anxieties about what Brexit will mean, not just as business people but as a community living close to the border.
I want to emphasise two points to you here this evening about the UK departure from the EU.
Firstly, I acknowledge and share your concerns. The challenges are very real, cannot be minimised and I do not pretend that there are easy answers or quick fixes. There are a series of very complex negotiations ahead and we will need to draw on all of the political, economic, social, diplomatic and technical expertise available to us on this island to ensure the best outcome for all of us.
A UK departure from the EU poses serious challenges which will impact on the lives of all of our people. Rising to those challenges requires us all to move beyond the comfort zones of politics as usual – the political leaderships in Dublin, London and Belfast must urgently and intensively work together to secure the best possible outcome for this island as a whole.
Secondly the Irish Government is very clear about our obligations as they relate to Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit. I view my role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement as a solemn duty and – together with the Taoiseach - will be working to ensure that all aspects of that international agreement are fully respected in the new arrangements between the EU and the UK. Ireland has a seat at the EU table which we will use in the best interests of the whole island.
We are continuing to engage with Northern Ireland Executive on the range of issues involved and I welcome the commitment of the Executive parties to work through the issues in the context of the North South Ministerial Council. Next month’s plenary meeting of the Council in Armagh, bringing together the full Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive, will be hugely significant. By then, 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 the forthcoming negotiations. It is important that we all work together constructively to safeguard the interests of the people of this island. Therefore, this evening’s event - which bring together the business community in this region along with the deputy First Minister, Minister Hamilton, and a representative of the Irish Government - is an apt expression of the solidarity and partnership which must be enhanced in facing up to the immense challenges posed by Brexit.
Prime Minister May will submit the Article 50 application by the end of March at the latest; the clock is therefore ticking and both administrations on this island need to be ready to engage on what will be crucial negotiations for all of our people. By the end of this year, we need to be clear on what are Northern Ireland’s asks for the UK-EU negotiations.
I also look forward to a broader conversation with civic society beginning next month at the initial all-island Civic Dialogue conference. I welcome the participation of this Chamber in these ongoing discussions - both because of your insight into the issues and your track record of success in working on a cross-border basis.
Let me say that while the Civic Dialogue is receiving a lot of media attention, it is just one of a broad range of ongoing consultations taking place on the issues arising from Brexit. As well as being in Derry tonight I will be in Northern Ireland several times over the next number of weeks and I look forward to continued engagement with political parties, business interests and civic society.
This Chamber of Commerce can take real pride in its commitment to growing the regional economy. The creativity, innovation and resilience of all of you in this room have played an important part in the ongoing regeneration of this city.
Through the hard work and vision of communities, citizens and business leaders, this city has become an exemplar on the island of the highest quality of leadership. It is marked by a shared vision of a prosperous and peaceful future, a future not defined by a narrow perspective on the past.
The handling of parades, ever respectful of traditions is an outstanding example of leadership and unity here, and an example to others. In that regard, I want to commend your own Jim Roddy and others for their recent success in helping resolve long-standing tensions in North Belfast.
I appreciate the strong relationship your Chamber has forged with numerous stakeholders across the city and the region. There have been significant developments recently in cross-border co-operation here in the North-West.
I want to commend Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council for their vision in coming together to develop a new and strong relationship in partnership with the regional Chambers of Commerce and business, higher education institutes and other important stakeholders.
The Irish Government and indeed my own Department has been proud to assist in the formation of these new cross-border structures. Under the Fresh Start Agreement, we agreed with the NI Executive to establish a North West Development Fund to assist the work of the Councils.
I am hopeful that the Fund will be operational very soon to help develop proposals to realise the full potential of this region [and I welcome Martin's confirmation that the matched funding from the Executive has now been secured.]
Behind the development of these new structures and the support of our Government lies the recognition that the hinterland of this island’s fourth largest city looks west to Donegal and Letterkenny, as much as east to Belfast.
North South cooperation is delivering real benefits here in the North West. It is in the interest of all our people that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive work together closely on economic growth, job creation, health or any other areas where cooperation delivers clear benefits for our citizens.
Under our Programme for a Partnership Government we are committed to advancing North South co-operation. This includes advancing the Fresh Start and Stormont House Agreement commitments on issues of North South cooperation in the crucial area of infrastructure. I hope that construction will commence next year on the A5 road project to which we have committed 75 million pounds. I know that members of the Chamber are very active in seeking increased connectivity through Derry Airport and I look forward to hearing more about that in my conversations with you all here this evening.
In concluding I want to applaud Sinead, Gavin, George and the Chamber for the leadership you have shown in building consensus among the business community to have your concerns around Brexit heard.
We will welcome you to our all-island dialogue next month in Dublin and value your views as a business community in a city which overwhelmingly demonstrated its wish to stay part of the broader European community.
So to conclude, rest assured we will address the challenges ahead posed by the referendum decision, challenges which are magnified for this city and the North West region. At the heart of addressing those challenges is our conviction that to succeed we must work together – Irish Government, British Government and Northern Ireland Executive and we must not allow the political fault-lines of the past to obstruct securing a better future for all of our citizens.
Despite the wider uncertainty, we can at least take comfort in the fact that Derry City will be in Europe next year – I congratulate the Candystripes for qualifying for the Europa League.
I thank the Chamber again for the invitation here this evening and I wish you all a very enjoyable evening.
21 October 2016