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Thank you, Ambassador. Good evening to you all, and thank you for joining us.
As you all know, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all across the world as Ireland’s National Day. Yet one of the many complex ironies of these islands is that St. Patrick was a Brit – to be precise, a Briton from Wales. That’s why we have always looked kindly on our Welsh neighbours – excluding, of course, this Saturday afternoon in the Millennium Stadium when no quarter will be given by either side in the Rugby 6 Nations. May the best team win – so long as it is wearing greenand has no chariots.
I think it’s safe to say that those of you in Parliament, and those of you following it closely in the media, have had a very busy week – so we’re delighted to offer this opportunity for a relaxing respite, even if only briefly, and to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with us.
I won’t keep you long, but I do want to use these few minutes to reflect on current challenges, as well as looking to the future.
My visit has coincided with a critical week in the process of the UK leaving the EU. The confirmation by the House of Commons last night that it does not support leaving the UK without a deal is welcome. A no-deal Brexit is in no-one’s interests.
However, in order to avoid a no deal outcome, the UK must set out in concrete terms howthey propose to avoid it. For the Irish Government, our position is both consistent and clear:
Together with our EU partners, we remain firmly of the view that the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal, and to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the Single Market, is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.
The two-year negotiation has not been an easy process, and there have been compromises on both sides. The EU has worked hard to provide strong assurances and guarantees in response to the concerns raised in the UK.
It goes without saying that we regret that the UK is choosing a different path, after forty-six years of shared EU membership. However,Ireland’s future remains as a committed member of the European Union, which we have helped to build and shape.
I discussed all of this with my colleague, Chancellor Philip Hammond, earlier today. Indeed, I greatly value the opportunity of my visit to London to have key conversationsabout the future of the United Kingdom’s relations with the EU and, by extension, its relations with Ireland.
I am conscious, however, that Parliament here is still deliberating and that this is a sensitive time – so I will leave my comments on Brexit there for now.
Longer-term, we must protect and nurture the positive relationship the UK and Ireland have built in recent decades. It has flourished in every conceivable way – in people-to-people links, tourism, culture, technology, education…. the list goes on.
As the Minister in charge of Ireland’s economy, I know the value to both of us in terms of our trading relationship - more than €60 billion in two-way trade, with Ireland asthe UK’s fifth-largest export destination. Our businesses support 200,000 jobs in each of our countries. Over 60,000 Irish citizens are company directors here in the UK. And the Dublin-London air corridor is Europe’s busiest and the world’s second busiest, with multiple daily flights and ferries from multiple locations across both islands.
His Royal Highness Prince Charles said in this Embassy last week that “those who have traversed the Irish Sea have stitched together the fabrics of our societies and made us all the stronger for it”. He continued that “we are friends, we are partners and we are the closest of near neighbours, bound together by everything we have in common – and by just how far we have come together”.
The immediate challenges are there to see – Brexit, obviously, and of course the deeply regrettable lack of a functioning power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. The urgency of government being restored in Belfast – absent for two years – has never been so great.
Our job – our duty – together is to get past current challenges, find solutions to them and work for a positive future.
That’s why our governments are working to do just that. My colleague Simon Coveney, working with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is working with my old friend and colleague David Lidington on new structures and arrangements for dialogue and co-operation across our governments. This work is being done within the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, an institution of the Good Friday Agreement.
Indeed, dialogue and cooperation is somethingwe in my Department already do well, with regular contacts between myself andChancellor Philip Hammond and our senior management teams. Likewise, the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland works closely with the Governor of the Bank of England – and I was delighted to call on Governor Carney yesterday.
Such work of cooperation and partnership goes beyond government and into our parliamentary chambers, our businesses, our communities and our families. As Prime Minister May said in her recent speech in Belfast, the “ties of family and friendship between our countries are more important than they have ever been”.
Everyone here in this room can play a helpful part as we ensure that this cherished bilateral relationship does not suffer from the pressures of current challenges.
Ladies and gentlemen, this evening is about the friendly conversations you can have – with old friends and new. Let’s now continue those convivial conversations and enjoy our evening.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.