Brexit is likely to impact on those who can least afford it
“It is a pleasure to be here in Liverpool to meet with representatives of the Irish community.
I want to thank Conor McGinn for his invitation to be here.
Conor has long been a friend of the Irish Labour Party.
He often comes to Ireland to campaign alongside my party.
And so it is my pleasure to return the favour, and stand alongside him on such an important issue.
Conor’s is a familiar story to much of the Irish community living in Britain.
He’s an Irishman living in England.
A South Armagh man who has made St. Helen’s his home.
And in Britain he has found opportunity.
The opportunity to stand up for people.
And to campaign for progressive politics.
The people of St. Helen’s recognised his talent and ability a year ago.
And I have no doubt that they will continue to return him to Westminster for many years to come.
Of course, his story is far from unusual.
The last Census in the UK found over 370,000 Irish-born people living here.
And this figure doesn’t capture the very many second and third generation people who still identify as Irish.
There is no family in Ireland that does not have a close relative in the UK.
And this movement works both ways.
The last Census in Ireland found 290,000 people born in the United Kingdom resident in Ireland.
Immigrants all and proportionally a much higher figure!
100 years ago it was no different.
It’s small wonder that the ties between our countries run so deep.
The Irish people living in the UK, and the British people living in Ireland, are the cornerstone of the friendship between our nations.
And it is friendship that I want to focus on in my comments here today.
Because there are personal friendships that bind us – such as that between Conor and I.
But there is also a national friendship that has developed over recent decades.
And much of that friendship has developed during our time in the EU together.
Not only because of it, but certainly facilitated by it.
It is now 43 years since our two nations joined the European Economic Community.
In 1973, Ireland was a poor nation.
And a troubled nation.
The previous year saw the greatest loss of life of any year during the Northern troubles.
It was a difficult time for Irish people to live in Britain.
And a testy time for relations between our Governments.
Despite these difficulties, we entered the EEC alongside each other.
And I believe that our participation in the European project has benefitted us both.
It has certainly improved the lot of many of our people.
Women’s rights were improved because of Europe.
Workers’ rights were improved because of Europe.
And we are both considerably wealthier nations now than we were in 1973.
Ireland perhaps benefitted more from Europe over the last 43 years.
We had to.
We had a longer distance to travel.
We are no longer a small, poor, isolated island off the coast of Europe.
We are no longer treated with disdain when we travel, or subjected to the egregious caricatures that faced many of our people in the past.
In many ways, we have grown up as a country.
We are still a small country.
But we are a wealthier country.
A more confident country.
Secure in our own identity, and secure in our place in Europe and in the world.
And as our confidence has grown so too has our relationship with the UK.
No longer are we the resentful former colony.
We see ourselves as equals.
For so long our politics was defined by our relationship with the UK.
In this city there were Irish nationalist MPs being elected even after we won independence.
But as our horizons have broadened we have been more able to recognise what we have in common with the UK.
And indeed what we have contributed to it.
Ireland was at the centre of the development of democratic politics in this country in the nineteenth century.
From O’Connell’s mass movements to the Parnellite party British democracy bears an Irish imprint.
Irishmen like Michael Davitt played roles in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee.
The Irish Parliamentary Party voted alongside the British Labour Party on many issues.
And for the last forty years, Britain has stood alongside us on our journey.
What divides us is less than what unites us now.
The Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement are the outcomes of British and Irish politicians working together.
They represent the end to a ‘winner takes all’ view of politics.
And it is that perspective that has managed to put an end to violence in the North of Ireland.
It is a similar type of politics to that which inspired the founders of the European Union.
Before the EU, war was the common currency of Europe.
Wars which cost UK and Irish lives.
From Agincourt to Waterloo, and the Somme to Dunkirk, different generations of British people have decided that their strategic interests are moulded by what happens on the European continent.
What has changed now other than we deal our problems peacefully?
Don’t let the ‘Brexiters’ make dirty words of terms like compromise.
We know that the alternative to working together historically has been warring together.
The counter factual is always the hardest point to prove.
But can I put this to you.
What would the potential for political and military turmoil have been had the Communist East collapsed into the old Europe of nation states pursuing the policies of real politik?
It simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
The successful integration of the post Cold War East into Europe with hardly the loss of a European life is the EU’s defining achievement.
I’m not going to stand here and say the EU is perfect.
Far from it.
I’ve been critical about it this week.
The European Union is just another place where the battle of ideas takes place.
There are EU socialists and EU Tories.
Brussels no more than Whitehall, Hollyrood or Dublin is not perfect.
Concern about immigration is not confined to the UK.
It was Churchill who pointed out that democracy could only be measured against the alternatives.
So it is with the EU.
I’d like to see the EU encourage a massive programme of capital investment to prepare all our economies for the modern era.
But I know too that had it not been for the last Labour Government and Gordon Brown the economic recession in Europe would have been worse than it was.
As it is Europe has been slow to respond to the scale of its challenge.
But these are challenges that can only be met internationally.
As we’ve seen in recent days, even here, in one of the world’s largest economies the flow of international capital are bigger than single states.
We in Ireland have come through a period in which our economy was threatened with absolute ruin.
We would not have survived were it not for international solidarity.
From Europe and the UK.
Europe is often the place now where nation states settle differences, regulate markets and protect citizens.
The threats are international.
And Europe needs Britain as a strong voice.
The perspective of the common law tradition, the continents oldest democracy, its oldest nation state.
Friends, the border shared between my country and yours was for decades patrolled by armed soldiers.
And crossing that border was a fearful experience for many of us.
But those days are gone.
We found solutions to our problems in visions of the future not the resentments of the past.
We must not go back to those days.
In 43 years of shared EU membership, Ireland and Britain have achieved a lot together.
And we have become good friends.
Two years ago, the Queen stood in Dublin Castle.
And greeted the audience as gaeilge.
As one journalist noted the following day, “At the train station this morning people were chatting on the platform about her speech, about how she got the ‘h’ just right in ‘a chairde’.”
That was a moment those of us in Ireland will long remember.
And it was a symbol of how far we have come.
We are friendly nations now.
And friendship requires that we be honest with each other.
That we give advice when we think it’s warranted.
And that we listen when the other has something to say.
Ireland is united on the question that currently divides Britain.
All Irish political parties are standing together.
United, we are asking Britain to remain.
Because as your friends now, we are worried about the risks of Brexit.
We are worried about the fragile nature of the peace we have built in Northern Ireland; worried once more about that border that we share; worried about a return of those fearful trips.
We are worried about the economic impact, certainly.
Trade between our countries is worth €1.2bn a week nowadays, and we don’t want to see that threatened.
We want to see the UK economy growing.
And we are worried about the EU – a union we believe is stronger with the UK at the heart of it.
Most of all, perhaps, we are worried about our friendship.
A friendship forged from centuries of division.
And one that has come to value Ireland and Irishness as much as Britain and Britishness.
None of us can predict with certainty what will happen if the UK votes to leave.
But we know that the risks from decisions like these are much more likely to impact upon those who can least afford it.
These are complex times.
As events of the last few days have proven the world can be a dangerous place.
And it is easy to understand the attraction of political nostalgia in these times.
But think back fifty or sixty years.
Things were worse.
Poverty was rife.
Wars took place between states not factions.
Over the last forty years our two countries have formed a common bond.
We have a shared experience that has brought us closer.
Brexit won’t strengthen that.
It runs the risk of disentangling it.
It is not a place we want to be.
We need our energy for the challenges ahead not nostalgia for the past.
Britain has always been outward and forward looking.
It has always been her strength.
It would simply be a tragedy for her, at this point, to walk away from one of your defining characteristics.
And respectfully, and with affection, your Irish friends ask that you stay.”