Uk referendum will have profound effect on Ireland

Seán Sherlock TD
21 April 2016

I have followed today’s proceedings with great interest. It has been reassuring to hear the general consensus across the House on this very important strategic issue for Ireland.

Although the outcome of this referendum is for the people of the United Kingdom to decide, today’s debate has shown how the decision that they make will have a profound effect on Ireland, both North and South.

As Minister with responsibility for North-South Cooperation at the Department of Foreign Affairs I am very conscious of the importance of cross-border economic and social cooperation and how this has benefitted the island as a whole. This cooperation is facilitated and enhanced by both the UK and Ireland being members of the European Union.

North South Bodies like Tourism Ireland and Inter Trade Ireland demonstrate what can be achieved when we pool our resources in key strategic areas, and they are making a considerable contribution towards the recent return to economic growth across the island.

North South cooperation also brings real day-to-day benefits to people on both sides of the border. I know from my own experience as Research Minister that R&D, one the important drivers of economic growth and employment, is a key focus for North-South co-operation. It is important that we continue to encourage and support this valuable area for EU supports under Horizon 2020, where there has been steady progress towards meeting the €175m target for specific North South projects.

Also in terms of projects directly supported by the EU, the upgrade to the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise rail service has recently been completed with clear benefits for enhancing people to people connectivity between both parts of the island.

As we have heard today there is no certainty that nothing will change with the border if the UK votes to leave the EU. While every effort would be made to minimise any impact in this scenario, any change to border arrangements has the potential to impact on this type of cooperation.

As has been stated earlier, the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner. Trade between Ireland and the UK runs at €1.2 billion per week or €62 billion per annum with a broad mix of goods and services. Also, according to a Teagasc report “Brexit: Implications for the Agri-food Sector” published earlier this week, our food industry represents about one-third of Ireland’s total merchandise exports to the UK, leaving this industry particularly concerned about a UK exit from the European Union.

This is not the only industry however that has concerns.  Successive studies have shown that a UK departure from the EU will have an adverse impact across the economy both in the UK and in Ireland. You have already heard today that the British Treasury has stated, just earlier this week, that the UK economy will be “permanently poorer” in any scenario where they leave the EU. Anything that negatively impacts on the level of trade between our two countries is not something to be welcomed.

While this decision is for the people of the United Kingdom, there is no doubt that a vote to leave would have a significant impact on us here in Ireland. The position of the Irish Government is clear – we want the UK to remain part of the EU for three main reasons (i) the clear economic business case which favours the maintenance of the status quo (ii) our shared interest in sustaining stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland and (iii) for retaining the UK as an important ally in the EU.

Entirely understandably, a focus of many interventions in this debate has been on Ireland’s preparedness for the possibility of a UK decision to leave the EU. Government colleagues have spoken on this issue throughout the day, however I believe it is useful to set out our approach.

If the vote is to leave the EU, a period of two years is provided for under the EU treaties, during which the UK’s exit terms would be negotiated. Although negotiations could well take significantly longer, any extension would need to be agreed unanimously by the remaining 27 EU Member States. Ireland, of course, will play its fullest part in such negotiations.

The Irish Government will continue to plan for any contingencies so that we are prepared to deal with the potential consequences in the event of a UK vote to Leave. An eventual agreement between the UK and the EU – as well as anything possible to be agreed between ourselves and the UK, using the bilateral structures the Taoiseach outlined at the outset of this debate – would determine and overall framework and set out the arrangements across very many sectors.

We do hope that on 24 June, we will be welcoming a Remain vote. If this is not the choice of the UK electorate, then we will be as prepared across all of government as it is possible to be – to manage the consequences and deal with the uncertainties that arise.

And whatever the outcome, with both the EU – where we will remain a member state and will remain in the euro – and with the UK, we will maintain strong, positive and productive relationships.

But nine weeks remain to polling day. I would urge all of those with family and friends living in the UK to encourage them to register to vote, to remind them of the unique perspective Ireland has on this debate, and to ask them to cast their vote on the 23rd June when voter turnout may be the deciding factor in this hugely important referendum.

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