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Speech by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, at the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the All Island Civic Dialogue, Dundalk Institute of Technology, 30 April, 2018


Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you today for this fourth plenary meeting of the All Island Civic Dialogue.

I want to thank Dr Michael Mulvey, President of Dundalk Institute of Technology, for hosting us.

I’d also like to extend a very special welcome to Michel Barnier, and thank him for the job he is doing leading the EU Commission’s Task Force on the Brexit negotiations. Your presence here in Dundalk today reflects the very real understanding at the heart of the EU of the serious challenges presented by Brexit to Ireland, Northern Ireland and the peace process. The Irish people are grateful to you and the Task Force for your expertise and support in these negotiations.

I also want to welcome everyone participating in this Civic Dialogue today - those attending for the first time, as well as those who have been involved previously.

By being here you are participating in a nationwide conversation that so far has involved over 1,500 civic society and industry representatives from across the island.

Today we will examine how enterprises and communities can prepare for Brexit. We will also examine how young people can respond to the challenges that it poses.

When I spoke to you at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham last September, we were working to secure a satisfactory conclusion to Phase 1 of the negotiations by December – on the Irish Issues as well as Citizens’ Rights and the Financial Settlement.

In December, a political declaration, the Joint EU UK Report committed both the UK and the EU to protection of the Good Friday Agreement and for everyone born in Northern Ireland to continue to have the right to Irish and therefore EU citizenship.

It is significant that the United Kingdom committed to avoiding a hard border with no physical infrastructure or related checks or controls.

We have consistently said that our preference is for this to be achieved, not through a unique solution for Northern Ireland, but rather through the new future relationship between the EU and the UK, in a manner that allows us to continue trading as we do now - on this island, and also between Ireland and Britain.

I do not want a hard border between Dublin and Holyhead, between Rosslare and Fishguard, any more than I want to see one between Dundalk and Newry, or Larne and Stranraer for that matter.

Recognising though that this might not be possible, principally due to the UK government’s red lines on the Customs Union and Single Market, we also agreed a backstop arrangement in December, which will apply as a last resort unless and until a better arrangement can be agreed and implemented. Under this backstop, Northern Ireland would maintain full alignment with the rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which are relevant to the avoidance of a border, north-south co-operation and the all-island economy.

Building on this, the draft EU UK withdrawal agreement, published by the European Commission at the end of February, sets out the legal provisions which it considers necessary to put this into effect.

By the time of the European Council meeting in March good progress had also been made on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and transition period, and this has allowed discussions on the framework for the future EU UK relationship to move ahead.

We want to see close and deep partnership between the EU and the UK, which ensures a level playing field, fair competition and the integrity of the Single Market. The only barrier to this is the UK’s own self-imposed red lines. If these soften, the EU will be flexible too.

Over the coming weeks, I hope and expect that we will see further progress in the negotiations on developing a close overall relationship between the EU and the UK, as well as on the necessary completion of the legal text on the backstop.

Of course I recognise that we are, once again, at a difficult point in the negotiations. And we will be at a decisive point again in a few weeks time.

Different people, understandably, have different aims and objectives.

And, some people are busy speaking for others instead of themselves. I’m struck by how often I read of motives and objectives ascribed to others, not because they are true or accurate, because it somehow suit someone else’s agenda to suggest them.

For my part, I want to assure you of the Irish Government’s position.

We are resolutely committed to protecting and nurturing the Peace Process on this island, powersharing in the North, North/South co-operation, peace on our island.

We don’t want things going backwards.

We have to acknowledge that the continued absence of functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland is, at least partly, a consequence of concerns about, and different positions on, Brexit.

I know that some in the unionist community are worried by recent political developments, and that Brexit could be used to undermine the Union.

I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda.

Our agenda is fully transparent – it is respect for the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement and everything it represents for the people of these islands.

That includes the principle of consent, peaceful politics, democratic institutions, reconciliation and co-operation.

So, I am determined to work with the British Government with the political parties in Northern Ireland with the unionist and nationalist communities to chart a way ahead.

We want to see all parts of the Agreement operating and I also want to see the great strides that we have made on North/South Cooperation continue and grow in the years ahead.

We are on good ground here at the Institute of Technology in Dundalk where the Sixth Plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council was held in February 2008.

That was a time when North South Cooperation was just getting back on track following the St Andrew’s Agreement, which paved the way to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

Since then, whether it is co-operation on school bus services; the A5/N2; providing critical cross-border health services in Altnagelvin and Crumlin Children’s Hospital, or the promotion of tourism, we have seen the practical benefits grow across the island.

It is about practical, sensible and effective cooperation that delivers better lives and services for people irrespective of which part of the island they live on, or which community or tradition they come from.

In marking the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement earlier this month, we reflected on the achievements of the peace process and how it has allowed us to build a better future in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

And while, twenty years on, the Agreement faces new and different challenges, I firmly believe that it represents the best – indeed the only – basis for moving forward.

Against this background it is especially fitting that today’s Plenary has a focus on young people and how Brexit could impact on your lives. This is about building the best future that we can – across communities and across this island and I look forward to hearing your views at this morning’s session.

We still have much work to do. The European Council will review all the withdrawal issues at our meeting in June, with a view to finalising work on the withdrawal agreement in October. It is essential that we see real and solid progress by June if the negotiations are to move forward. There is less than a year until the UK leaves. And without a solution to the Irish border there can be no Withdrawal Agreement. Let there be no doubt about that.

Here in the border-town of Dundalk – half-way between Dublin and Belfast – the importance of having an effective solution to the border problem in the Withdrawal Agreement becomes ever clearer. It is in all of our interests.

Thank you.