27 February 2015

Speech at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference

Good Morning,

May I thank the Chair of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, Aidan Lynch, for the kind invitation to address you this morning.  I would also like to thank the Chair of this session, Richard Eardley, for the opportunity to address you on the relevance of Europe to the British-Irish relationship.  I believe it is important that we celebrate the scale and potential of our trade links but also consider the strength of the relationship that goes well beyond trade.

As well as our British-Irish champions of business and trade, I also welcome political colleagues from our neighbouring island – Grant Shapps from the Conservative Party and Fiona Hyslop from the Scottish Government.   I am also very happy to see Alasdair McDonnell from the SDLP here today.  I am sure Alasdair will remind us of the particular importance of North-South trade links.

Thanks too and congratulations to the Chamber – established just four years ago at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit to Ireland - to promote business interests and policies that will help further develop the trading relationship between both countries. Already, your membership combines over €33 billion of business interests, supplying approximately 55,000 jobs on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Primary credit for the strength and depth of the trading links between our two islands rests with our respective businessmen and businesswomen, many of whom are here today. You have – through your enterprise, energy and effectiveness – fostered and maintained strong bonds between businesses and customers on both sides of the Irish Sea. The products of your respective labour include jobs, growth and better opportunities for both the British and Irish people. These are real, tangible achievements and I applaud you for them.

So, while the theme of the conference ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ has an obvious rugby connotation, I am glad that we are meeting in advance of the big game on Sunday when all of this friendliness and bonhomie will have to be suspended, even if it is only for 80 minutes of sporting battle! 

The Shoulder to Shoulder theme very aptly describes the interdependent nature of the British-Irish business relationship.  The numbers will be mentioned throughout today’s debates, but it’s worth highlighting from the outset that the United Kingdom accounts for 16% of our total exports and 34% of our imports.  The UK is, by far, Ireland’s largest two-way trading partner.  That trade between the two islands amounts to approximately €1 billion per week and spans almost every sector of the two economies.  British-Irish trade supports over 400,000 jobs, half of them in each jurisdiction.

Free access to the UK market is especially important to indigenous Irish businesses who sell 43% of their exports to the UK.  The UK remains the market of ‘first resort’ for new Irish exporters, particularly those trying to get a foothold before taking on further challenges around the globe.

In terms of investment flows, many Irish and British companies set up operations on the other island, simply because it makes business sense to do so.  This is why British retail groups alone employ tens of thousands of people in Ireland, and why many Irish food companies have plants in Britain.

Our work together promoting trade and business extends well beyond these islands, in line with the joint economic strategy agreed by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and Prime Minister Cameron in recent years.

A strong example of the cooperation between our two governments is the recent joint trade mission to Dubai led by my colleague, Minister of State for Business and Employment, Ged Nash T.D., together with Lord Howe, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Northern Ireland Minister Arlene Foster.  This was the second joint trade mission involving UK, Irish and Northern Irish Trade Ministers and makes good business sense – not least in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Government was privileged to work with the political parties and with the British government towards achieving the Stormont House Agreement late last December.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the work being done to strengthen ties by the British Ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott, and by the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall, both of whom will be addressing you later today.

All of this work matters deeply.  As well as producing practical benefits for both jurisdictions, it also helps to build the trust and understanding that is necessary for sustaining peace and prosperity into the future.
I’d like now though to turn more closely to the EU and to the vital role it has played in bringing both our economies and societies closer together.

I think it’s fair to say that business communities, both here and in the UK, do their best to encourage the conditions that will facilitate and encourage economic growth. That means, in practice, supporting policies that aim to create and sustain open, modern trading economies.

What is often overlooked – or maybe misunderstood – is that Ireland and the UK, and the respective businesses within them, have a big ally to call upon in pursuit of this agenda. And that ally is the European Union.

The EU’s Single Market is quite simply a massively important tool for economic good, especially for trading relations between our two countries. Its benefits are, in my view, manifest and myriad: it breaks down barriers to trade, it better connects buyers and suppliers, and it leads to improved commercial efficiency across the Union. It has, certainly, provided a common umbrella under which our two economies have moved ever closer over 40 years of EU membership.

There is still, I believe, a strong appreciation within the Irish business community of the role the EU has played here in economic terms. And it’s not hard to see why. Because, while we have certainly had our ups-and-downs over the last 40 years, our economy has been transformed by our membership of the Union.

It’s therefore heartening for us in Ireland – given that we dearly want our closest neighbour to continue as a full, integral member of the EU – to see the strong support from within British business for the UK’s continued membership.  Indeed, according to the Confederation of British Industry, nearly 80% of British firms want to stay in the EU.  And there seems to be weekly affirmations of the EU’s importance to the UK economy by champions of British industry.

I know, of course, that not everyone in the UK shares that same sense of enthusiasm for the EU. My colleagues and I across the Irish Government are very much aware that there are concerns, felt deeply by many Britons, about the direction and focus of the Union.  The Irish Government understands these concerns and indeed we share some of them.

For example, we share the British government’s desire for a Union that is especially focused on jobs, investment, and growth. We also want a true digital single market so that the EU can not only catch up with, but in fact lead, the rest of the world in e-commerce and next generation telecoms.  And we too want less red-tape for businesses and a better, more streamlined approach to the EU’s approach to regulation in general.

The good news, though, is that the EU is increasingly pursuing this agenda. The Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, has made it clear that he wants a more productive and competitive EU and is acting on it through his restructuring of the Commission itself.  And we are seeing a renewed focus on trade deals, especially the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which promises to ignite growth and job creation on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the strength of the relationship between the UK and Ireland goes way beyond trade.  As Minister for Justice and Equality, I work in close partnership with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, with the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford.  At Justice and Home Affairs Councils in Brussels and Luxembourg, Ireland and the United Kingdom often take similar policy positions – not simply because we are neighbours, but because we share similar values.

Of course, Ireland and the UK share a Common Travel Area, and free movement between our two jurisdictions has existed long before the EU was ever thought of.  It is in this context that we often work in tandem on EU immigration and border control matters.

Over the past few years there has been a remarkable increase in co-operation between Ireland and the UK in relation to the Common Travel Area.  This has helped facilitate tourism and business visits to both jurisdictions as well as helping to secure our borders.

Last October, the Home Secretary and I launched the new British-Irish Visa Scheme.  This scheme allows tourism and business visitors to travel to and around Ireland and the UK on a single visa, with first arrival in either country.  The Scheme, which was initially launched in China, was extended to India earlier this month and it is intended that it will eventually be rolled out worldwide.  These developments are facilitated by the special position of Ireland and the UK in relation to the Common Visa Policy of the EU. 

Earlier this week, I was a guest of the British government at a Global Law Summit in London.  The Summit was organised to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta.  This ancient charter was the foundation stone for civil freedoms, democracy and the rule of law in Britain and far beyond.  These values are integral to the legal traditions of our two islands, but they are also at the core of the European Union and the vital role it plays in maintaining peace, security and social and economic progress across the continent.  The Lisbon Treaty, and its predecessors as far back as the Treaty of Maastricht, have enshrined an area of Freedom, Security and Justice which provides an invaluable framework for co-operation in justice and home affairs matters. 

This, in turn, has enabled ever greater co-operation between Ireland and the UK and very real benefits for our people.  In the civil law area this includes numerous judicial co-operation measures that make life easier for citizens and businesses across a wide range of cross-border activities.  In the area of police and criminal law, there is now a suite of measures that enable much stronger co-operation between our law enforcement authorities. 

One particularly notable example is the European Arrest Warrant, which allows for the swift and efficient surrender of serious criminal suspects who have fled the jurisdiction in which they are sought.  Previously, Ireland and the UK had to rely on bilateral extradition arrangements which were deeply cumbersome and fraught with legal and political difficulties. 
This is to give you just a small flavour of the ongoing cooperation between our two countries on justice and home affairs matters in a European context.

I know the likelihood is that many of you here don’t need to be convinced of the merits of EU co-operation.  However, before I move on, there are two points I’d like to stress about the EU in the context of Irish-British relations.

The first is that the UK is our best friend and ally within the Union and we greatly value its support on a variety of fundamental issues.  The prospect of the EU without the UK is therefore one that we would not like to contemplate.

The second is that the business community in the UK will have a growing and important role to play in the EU debate as it develops. That’s because your views matter and because people know business will speak with the bottom line and jobs in mind.

So, to those of you who are based in the UK, I ask for your help in underlining and emphasising – whenever you can – the importance Ireland attaches to British membership of the Union.

Of course, I understand that the decision on the UK membership of the EU is ultimately a matter for the UK itself, and that is as it should be. But I hope that, through working together, we can help to highlight the broader importance of the EU to Irish-British relations and to the ties between Irish and British businesses.

May I thank you for your attention, and wish you all a successful conference today.

As for the rugby, I can only hope it is a fair and well fought game with the team in green winning out in the end!