Speech by Minister for Health Simon Harris TD at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference 16 March 2017

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IRELAND AND ENGLAND – the only game in town?

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The sporting motif for this conference is particularly apt given Ireland and England will go head-to-head in the Aviva on Saturday.  This no doubt will be a tightly fought and highly competitive match but whatever the outcome the end result will be the same – we will be on two different teams but remain always good friends.

So it is now with Brexit.  The British people have chosen one course – a choice we didn’t want but respect – and Ireland chooses another – to remain at the heart of Europe and open to the world.  When Article 50 is triggered and the negotiations begin, Ireland will be on the EU side of the table.
But our unique connection with Britain – historical, geographical, familial – and our friendship, which has only deepened in understanding in recent years, will remain.

For you and your members, your focus will be on the €1 billion a week in trade between our two islands and the 400,000 jobs it supports. As you will know, keeping the closest possible trading relationship between us is one of the key priorities for the Irish Government.

Ireland has recently come through one of the most difficult and traumatic economic periods of its history.  The previous Government, while mindful of the scale of the challenge, was determined to control the public finances, create jobs and restore economic sovereignty.  The actions necessary to achieve this were not easy for our people but, as a nation, we demonstrated the ability to not only withstand but to prevail.  Irish businesses like yours were at heart of overcoming this challenge and you know better than most – we have overcome challenges before and we will do so again.  Just as we were determined to restore our economy in 2011, we are now determined to protect our hard-won economic success and the Government’s plan for Brexit is based on four clear priorities:

•        Minimising the impact on trade and the economy
•        Protecting the Northern Ireland peace process
•        Maintaining the Common Travel Area
•        And influencing the future of the European Union

For businesses with interests in both countries, clearly big challenges present themselves.  However, the fact that there are some opportunities for Ireland cannot be dismissed.  We will be the only English-speaking country in the Eurozone and in the EU, with the fastest growing economy in the EU and the European HQ of so many multinational firms.

For my part, one such opportunity is the future location of the European Medicines Agency.  I believe Dublin offers us the best chance to minimise any disruption to the EMA’s vital work caused by the relocation.  We have a lot to offer current and future staff, and their spouses, partners and families.  We have the air connectivity, the infrastructure and the vibrant life sciences sector.  We know our bid has stiff competition but we will fight hard and I trust we have your support.

The EMA is not the only Brexit-related issue for me as Minister for Health.  Patients on the island of Ireland are benefiting from significant developments in cross-border health care activity over the last decade.

Cancer patients from the North West of Ireland can now attend the new Radiotherapy Unit in Altnagevin Hospital in Derry.  Cardiac patients from Letterkenny or Sligo receive emergency care in Altnagelvin.  Children with congenital heart disease across the island of Ireland all now have their emergency surgery centralised in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin here in Dublin.  My Department is fully playing its part in the interdepartmental group on Brexit with the priority of ensuring continuity of health services, both north and south, and, of course, between Ireland and the UK.

Protecting the care that people depend on is part of our values as a society.  A society that cares, supports and provides opportunity.  These are values we share with Britain.  We all want a society where everyone matters, where people can live without fear and be able to build a good life for themselves and their families.  That is why, for example, the government is committed to the goal of universal healthcare.   That same principle underpins the UK National Health Service – a good example of our shared values and vision.
We all want to invest in public services, particularly in health and education, for the benefit of all our citizens.

In Ireland, we particularly need to meaningfully tackle the homelessness crisis which is the most difficult and tragic legacy of the collapse of the housing bubble and my colleague, Minister Simon Coveney is working might and main to achieve that.

We want to keep creating real jobs and opportunities for Irish people, remove the spectre of emigration and bring home those who saw no choice but to leave.

Last year, over 1,000 jobs a week were created and a further 45,000 new jobs are expected this year.  And economic growth also facilitates reductions in taxes that drive innovation and enterprise that allow Ireland to compete globally and attract significant inward investment.

Continuing economic growth is key to underpinning continued increased investment in public services and that is why in the Brexit negotiations ahead, we must protect our economy, especially the sectors that are heavily reliant on the UK for their business.

We must maintain the closest possible trading relationship with the UK.

We want to maintain our Common Travel Area with the UK and the open border with the North.  We want to protect the Good Friday Agreement in both spirit and letter.  And we want an EU that works for its citizens and the European economy.

For Ireland, our membership of the EU has been fundamental to our economic strategy but it has also been the cornerstone of social progress in this country.  We are a European country with a distinctly European set of values including respect for human rights, workers’ rights and equality.

It is against this background that we work to identify those threats to our economy that are on the horizon and take the necessary steps to overcome them.

And we are.  We are committed to developing strong Irish companies – sustaining indigenous enterprise and employment as we export to both traditional and new overseas markets.

We will continue to strategically target Foreign Direct Investment for key sectors with clear linkages to our domestic firms, our higher education sector and our talented workforce.

We will attract enterprises that will thrive in a member country of a single market that will still number almost 450 million Europeans, as well as in the Middle East and Asia.

Measures to assist sectors of the economy which may be adversely affected by Brexit have already been introduced in the last Budget, with specific actions to help the agri-food sector and extra resources for the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, key Government Departments and our Diplomatic Service.

We recently began work on a National Planning Framework, which is essential if we are to achieve balanced regional and rural development.  This will be underpinned by a new 10 year national capital plan which sets out the key infrastructural investments needed to support a post-Brexit Irish economy.

In short, we cannot and will not let Brexit, or the other international challenges I mentioned, derail our vision for Ireland.  Our fundamental values and our goals are constant.

I mentioned the sporting motif at the beginning of my speech.  One might liken the Brexit challenge to the challenge facing the Irish rugby team on Saturday taking on a Grand Slam-seeking England rugby team.

You sit down and you identify the scale of the challenge, you look at your own strengths and weakness and those of your competition and, having done that, you find an approach that gives you the best chance of winning.

As business people, you do this all the time.  You know the ingenuity and the resilience it takes to survive, and to thrive.  And, as Irish businesses, you know what this country is capable of, no matter how great our adversary, we have prevailed before and we will do so again.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce.  The relationship between any two countries is not just one of Government to Government, but citizen to citizen, business to business, community to community.  The Chamber has a key role to play and this conference is another sign of your commitment to protecting business interests and trade across both islands.

I would like to thank you for inviting me here today and wish you well with the rest of the conference.