13 December 2016

Labour Party Brexit Seminar, RIA, Dawson Street, Dublin.

December 13th, 2016

Good evening.

Thank you all for being here tonight, and thanks to the speakers who have shared their differing perspectives.

Brexit will impact on all of us:

It will define the next decade and more.

To the people of Britain, it will have the most direct impact:

Severing long-nurtured ties with the European continent,

And bringing even more doubt, to people and communities already unsettled by globalisation.

To the other member states, the impact will be different:

More questioning of our shared European project is inevitable,

And the causes of Brexit will continue to cause disaffection all across the continent.

For us here in Ireland, we too face these challenges.

But we are also forced to confront our worst fears –

About the border that stretches from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough.

I grew up a long way away from the border.

Wexford is 150 miles from Newry.

And culturally, in the 1960s, it was lightyears away.

Growing up in Wexford, even in a very political household, the North was something discussed, almost in abstract terms.

It represented an oppression, or an ambition, or simply a far-away place.

During my lifetime, the landscape of this island, and our relationship with our neighbours, has changed utterly.

We moved from peace to war, and from war back to an enduring peace.

The peaceful, if unsatisfactory, settlement that existed in the 1950s, erupted in violence in the 1960s.

3,500 were killed, and more than 50,000 maimed, during three decades of violence.

That violence persisted even as Ireland and the UK entered the EU, and began inching towards a relationship of equals.

In 1998, of course, the Good Friday agreement created a framework for peace on this Island.

Some now seek to suggest that one party, or one individual, was largely responsible for that peaceful settlement.

But in truth, we were all part of it.

A messy political compromise led to peace.

Which shouldn’t surprise us – that is always the way it is.

There were leaders, of course: 

Giants of this island.

They included the recently deceased Peter Barry, in the 1980s.

Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring took up the mantle in the 1990s, alongside John Hume, and David Trimble, and Bertie Ahern.

In the end, even Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley found their way to peace.

Those are the names we remember.

But there were many, many more who played a part. 

Monica McWilliams, Pearl Sagar, Brid Rodgers and Dawn Purvis are just some of the women who we are inclined to forget.

For 17 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, an initially fragile settlement grew roots.

Every so often, some event would lead to the suspension of the assembly, or a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

But peace endured;

Economic prosperity reached most parts of the island; 

And our relationship with Britain started to look like a mature one.

When the Queen uttered her cúpla focal in Dublin Castle, we were all forced to pause and realise how far we had come.

We know better than to be complacent.

Maintaining peace, and reconciling ourselves with a violent past is, and will continue to be, a process.

But we woke up last June on the morning after the Brexit vote.

And suddenly, we once more had cause for concern, about the fragility of our lasting peace.

I speak about the North tonight, because I am struck by how absent the impact on Ireland is within the British debate.

I am even more struck by how absent Ireland seems to be from the thinking amongst those who will negotiate Brexit on behalf of the EU.

Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the EU, held his first press conference last week.

He set out his four principles for negotiation:

Put simply those principles are:

The unity of the EU;

The protection of those within the EU;

The indivisibility of the freedoms of the single market, and;

No negotiations prior to article 50 being triggered.

Ireland doesn’t get a mention.

Barnier did separately say that the EU would ‘do our utmost…to preserve the Good Friday process’.

But, that there is a question about whether it can be preserved, should give us all pause for thought.

It is reasonable, I think, to be worried about negotiations taking place, between parties that pay little attention to the impact on Ireland.

An absence of a discrete negotiating principle, that recognises the vulnerability of peace, is, in my view, a careless one.

And when the British Prime Minister refers to a red, white and blue Brexit, it’s pretty clear she hasn’t given much thought to the green, white and orange that flies over most of this island.

Thankfully, the House of Lords at least, seems to have a better sense of the dangers that could lie ahead.

Their EU committee has noted that “the impact of Brexit on the Republic of Ireland, will be more profound, than for any of the other member states”.

They point out that “Ireland now faces challenges, that are not of its own making”

They also argue, correctly in my view, that we cannot allow Northern Ireland to become the collateral damage of Brexit.

To make sure this is not the case, as I have said before, we have a responsibility to all of the people on this island.

It is clear those in Northern Ireland are being side-lined in the British preparations for Article 50 negotiations –

A casualty of those who are pushing for a hard Brexit.

They should not find themselves similarly locked out of Ireland’s preparations.

When Article 50 is triggered, we need to be ready.

This is made harder, of course, by the fact that, as Colum Eastwood has noted, nobody knows what ‘Brexit means Brexit’, actually means!


An absence of an explicit recognition by Michel Barnier of the issues facing Ireland is extremely worrying.

Worrying, as I have said, because of the risks to the peace process.

But equally worrying for other reasons.

The economic impacts on Ireland as a result of Brexit will be significant.

Irish trade with the UK amounts to a billion euros each and every week.

Over the last fortnight, we have seen a spate of reports that spell out some of the economic risks.

The German Chamber of Commerce reported last week that “Ireland… will suffer most from the market volatility and unpredictability that Brexit brings in its wake.”

Our own ESRI has found that Ireland “would lose 4% of its total exports under the hard Brexit outcome.”

4% is huge. 

It would hit most in job-intensive sectors, such as agri-food and tourism.

4% of our exports in 2015, would have amounted to four and a half billion euros.

As Ireland’s recovery takes hold;

As our people start to feel some relief after a mostly lost decade;

This couldn’t come at a worse time.

That is why we have argued for advance planning on the European side.

We argue for the expansion of tools such as the European Globalisation Fund, which should be mobilised, to support those whose sectors are impacted by Brexit.

Our Government has been silent on this point.

And it is why we will also argue that Ireland must take up the opportunities that Brexit will offer to some of our sectors.

We will argue for answers to these economic questions.

In the meantime, the risks to our economy are the reason, why we in the Irish Labour Party, support the efforts being made by the British Labour Party, to prevent the hard Brexit option.

As Hilary is doing today, Keir Starmer visited Dublin last month.

We appreciate their solidarity on the issues Ireland faces.

Hilary has outlined his views here this evening, and to our press throughout the day.

He has also been open to hearing about the risks to Ireland.

And he has committed to continuing to work closely with us, to mitigate against some of these risks.

I was delighted to see our colleagues in Westminster secure a significant climb-down from the Conservatives last week.

The Labour Party got the House of Commons to agree, that the British Government will have to publish their plan for Brexit, before triggering Article 50.

At least then we might begin to see the detail of “Brexit means Brexit”.

After that, the negotiations will last for a while – 2 years we thought initially;

18 months now seems more likely.

The negotiations will only lead to an interim arrangement.

But still, at the end of that time, the United Kingdom will face a choice once more.

And I will argue again, as I did at the British Labour Party Conference:

That the British people should once more get to have their say.

Last weekend saw the publication of two more opinion polls in Britain.

Both were clear – the British people will not support a Brexit which damages their economy.

That fact makes me more determined on this point.

In my view, the Brexit campaign was won by deceit and untruths.

When the lies have been proven;

When the £350m a week fails to appear;

The British people should have the chance to have their say once more;

On whether they support the exit deal, or not.

Because the ramifications of that deal will be with us, for generations to come.

The British people should get to vote again – with full knowledge of what type of border will be created in Ireland, alongside answers to all the other open questions.

What we have in the meantime is a dialogue of the deaf;

Where both sides speak at each other, but nobody really hears.

Those in Europe must realise, that what the UK will demand is very far from what the EU wants to offer.

Those in the United Kingdom must realise, that Europe will not just give them anything they want.

That is where Ireland can have a critical role to play.


A side effect of the Brexit vote, has been some chatter about an Irish exit from the European Union.

That is not what Labour wants.

And it’s not what the Irish people want.

One columnist, and a small minority of people in an opinion poll, do not constitute a movement.

And the media need to be cautious about giving continuing oxygen, to a fringe in Irish society.

We have seen in the UK, and in the US, the danger of giving populism a free ride.

In truth, there has been no rush towards support for an Irish exit.

For all of its flaws, and there are many, the support of the Irish people for the European project remains strong.

That, however, should not be taken as an agreement with those who argue for more Europe, as the solution to our current malaise.

Those of us who champion the European Union, must also be at the forefront of reforming it.

Because a Europe, that drifts ever further from meeting the expectations of our people, cannot hold.

I have argued for some time that we need to make greater investment in our societies;

So that what we deliver as politicians, can begin to match the legitimate expectations of our people.

We need to make investments which can be felt by people across Europe;

Investments that make a noticeable difference to people’s lives. 

Investments in hospitals and nursing homes;

In roads and trains;

In schools and sports centres.

All of these are investments in our people.

And in my judgement, these policies will help us meet the challenge of rising populism.  

Too often, over the past number of years, the belief that only populist politicians have answers to public fears, has gone unchallenged.

We must meet this challenge to democracy, by providing people with real and workable answers.

We are too constrained from doing so, by some of the strictures of the stability and growth pact, and the fiscal rules.

In the main, this is because what the rules require of our states is that we measure fiscal performance, but not social measures.

Why do we have a set of rules that measure our debt to GDP ratio, but don’t require any routine monitoring of basic poverty levels.

Why do we focus on fiscal medium-term objectives, but not on the health of our environment, or of our people.

As we speak, the rules that govern the European Union are forcing Government inactivity;

And this at a time when people across this continent are crying our for Government action!

The Irish Labour Party has begun two pieces of work to seek to rectify this problem.

Domestically, we have drafted a Genuine Progress Indicators Bill, which we will launch early in the New Year.

It will require, as a matter of law, that we publish a national set of indicators each year – indicators much broader than just the size of our economy.

By looking in the round at our social progress;

At the state of our environment;

And at the health of our economy;

We can better measure whether Government is serving us well.

There’s probably little doubt about that question at the moment:

Our current Government produced less legislation in this session, than a greatly reduced Labour Party did.

But in the longer term, the performance of a Government will, and should be, a source of national debate.

Reforms should be driven not by anecdotal failures;

But by an honest assessment of what we do well, and what we don’t.

Making sure that social progress matters – just as much as economic progress – is one step towards achieving that.

Because social progress is what matters to our people.

And as social democrats, we need to once more connect what we do, with what our people want.

But even with the best intentions in the world, Ireland could not achieve real social progress on our own.

The European rules that currently prevent additional capital expenditure are daft.

Ten days ago, I raised this issue with the leaders of social democratic parties across Europe.

We agreed to a sensible process, that will hopefully move us towards real change.

At my suggestion, a group of economists and fiscal experts will meet early in 2017.

And they will draft a set of proposals, to modify the stability and growth pact, including the fiscal rules.

These changes will not undermine fiscal discipline, but should add an urgency to investment in our societies, and place the monitoring of our social good on a par with the strength of our economies.

To prevent Brexit contagion from spreading across this continent, this is the sort of action we all need to take.

I invite Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny, to do something similar with their Christian Democratic colleagues; and Micheál Martin with the Liberals.


All of this brings me to the role that I believe, the Irish Labour Party needs to play in response to Brexit.

Domestically, we will focus on the three themes I have spoken about tonight:

So that a young lad growing up in Wexford today, will not consider the North to be a far-away place.

Responding robustly to the economic challenges raised by Brexit;

So that a move to appease a Conservative hardliner in Surrey, doesn’t destroy the lives of workers in Strabane.

And arguing for a Europe that our citizens can connect with once more;

One which our people can believe in;

One that will help them realise their ambitions;

So election results start to look more like the result in Austria, than the result in Italy.

To achieve this, we will work might and mane to broaden the debate in Ireland –

Tonight is just one small part of that.

I have sought, and will continue to fight for our Taoiseach to provide weekly updates on Brexit preparations, to the Dáil.

Next month, we will publish a discussion paper, and seek to involve more and more Irish people, in planning for what lies ahead.

As the months go by, the debate will deepen.

The Labour Party will stand at the centre of that debate.

Internationally, we will stand with our sister parties across the European Union.

We are an international family of social democrats.

As a family, we mourn together when we lose. 

And we celebrate together when we win.

But on this, the most decisive issue to confront our continent in a generation, we must do more than we usually do.

Gathering occasionally to reflect on the state of Europe won’t be enough.

We need to be bold; we need to be determined.

And we need to stand together.

In doing so, we will work to make Europe better.

Next February, the PES leaders will gather together once more in London, for a special discussion on Brexit.

We will argue for greater public investment in what our people need;

For a relaxation of the rules that restrict states from making such investments.

And we will work to reinvigorate a Social Europe.

We need to rekindle the idealism that saw, from the ashes of war, the potential to build a continent of equality, prosperity, and peace.


Stay up to date

Receive our latest updates in your inbox.
By subscribing you agree to receive emails about our campaigns, policies, appeals and opportunities to get involved. Privacy Policy

Follow us

Connect with us on social media