The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, convened a meeting of the Export Trade Council yesterday at Iveagh House. The Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton attended, with regrets from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Minister for the Marine and Transport, Tourism and Sport. The focus of Ministers, senior officials, private sector representative organisation and other private sector members for this meeting was on the Brexit referendum.
In his remarks, Minister Flanagan noted the itinerary of visits recently undertaken and underway, including Minister of State Paul Kehoe to Birmingham, his own to Liverpool and Manchester, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s visit to Leeds the day before, Minister Paschal Donohoe travel to Edinburgh and Newcastle and Ministers of State Joe McHugh and Dara Murphy in the London area . The Taoiseach will also travel to Britain and to Northern Ireland in the coming week.
He acknowledged the commitment and energy of colleagues serving in the Embassy London, the Consulate in Edinburgh and our offices in Northern Ireland to efforts to communicate the Irish perspective in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, along with that of the Irish state agencies and various business associations. He then invited the members of the Council to offer their views and advice.
I should say from the outset that my own personal view was that at the end of the day, the British voter would opt to stay in the EU, would choose familiarity over uncertainty, would found their judgement on rational arguments rather than whimsy or illusion. After all, the British successfully fended off great European powers like Spain, France and Germany, all the while building one of the largest global imperial powers, through a doughty realism, mercantilism, and industrialisation. These successes were in turn founded on empiricism, the philosophy of experience not theory.
So I was surprised to listen to the contributions around the table. They were very sobering. The news from members who had been in Britain lately was that momentum currently lies with the Leave campaign although two crucial weeks remain, traditionally the period in which undecided voters make up their minds. This impression converges with data from recent opinion polls which at best puts both sides neck and neck or gives the edge to the Brexiteers, though of course opinion polls are to be treated with some skepticism.
Export Trade Council members on the ground in the UK are finding that their arguments, convincing on any number of grounds, were pushed back in favour of counterpoints that were not well founded – counterpoints that suggested those in favour of leaving did not believe that there would be consequences for sterling or trade were Britain to leave. Or that immigration would somehow be “solved” by leaving. Or that British influence in the world would be projected not diminished by leaving the EU.
The inputs from members of the Council were valuable and will help inform the Government’s efforts in this last crucial phase of the campaign to declare and convey our clear interests in Britain staying within the community of nations that has brought such peace, prosperity and progress to its members, even if its processes are complex and frustrating at times.
Aside from the very real impact on trade, the new and historic comity between Ireland and Britain, not to mention our mutual achievements in the Northern Ireland peace process are jeopardised by what may flow from a Brexit. The impact of the EU itself would be profound and Ireland would face a whole new set of challenges in a post-Brexit EU.
The intervention of wise counsels will help as will a sober cost-benefit assessment. Still, a Leave result is possible. We will not know until the vote is counted. Ireland therefore will have a clear plan in place to deal with the implications of a UK vote to Leave should it happen. A framework has been developed on a whole of government basis to identify contingencies that may arise in the days, weeks and months that follow.
As the meeting of the Council concluded, the Minister drew attention to the trade related aspects of the Programme for Government. Work will be taken forward on this expeditiously. For if the Brexit debate reminds us of anything, it is that the welfare and prosperity of our people depends on how we trade: the need to deepen our penetration of traditional markets, to explore potential in new markets and to do everything we can to build our economic resilience through trading better.
DG Trade Division