It is a great pleasure for me to be in Dublin this morning to join you for your conference on Brexit and I would like to thank The Irish Times both for hosting this event and for inviting me to address you. It is of course extremely timely as the UK government develops our negotiating position in advance of triggering Article 50. There is no doubt that the democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is one of the most significant acts not just in post-war British history but European history too.
I appreciate the shock that many here in Ireland felt on the morning of 24 June. It will of course have lasting implications for the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Europe more widely. But while I agree with those who say it presents challenges, I firmly believe that it also provides us with opportunities and a new outlook on what the United Kingdom can achieve.
I say as someone who campaigned for remain that it is no good those who dislike or are uncomfortable with the result wishing it away or believing that the UK will somehow wake up in a few months believing it has made a terrible collective mistake and demanding another vote. We must respect and carry out the clear democratic instruction of the people of the United Kingdom in the referendum that has taken place. So Article 50 will be triggered and our negotiation with the EU will begin. The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by Act of Parliament and the Government is determined to respect the result of the referendum. That is why we will appeal last week’s judgment of the High Court.
The UK Government has a clear, measured plan for exiting the European Union. We are not seeking an ‘off the shelf’ deal but rather a solution that provides the best outcome for the United Kingdom and the EU. An agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that reflects the kind of mature, cooperative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy. We want a strong EU for the UK’s continued prosperity.
Also, in the next session of Parliament we will introduce a Great Repeal Bill to remove the European Communities Act from the statute book on the day we leave. This will mean that the authority of EU law in the United Kingdom will end and the United Kingdom will once again be free to make its own laws in its own Parliament accountable to its own people. Free to make decisions on matters such as how we control immigration, which was such a key issue during the referendum campaign.
But without giving a running commentary on the negotiation ahead, I do want to use the opportunity of today’s event to set out some key themes that will underpin our approach both to relations with Ireland and the position of Northern Ireland.
First, we are determined to maintain and strengthen the bonds within these islands. The United Kingdom and Ireland have a unique relationship. We are tied together by centuries of history, by geography, family, business, trade and culture and identity. And over recent years we have put past disputes and enmities behind us. so that today our two countries are unquestionably closer than at any point since Irish independence nearly a century ago. As we have seen this year even potentially sensitive anniversaries that might once have divided us are now handled in ways that are inclusive, respectful, and promote shared mutual understanding.
For our part the UK government is determined to build on these foundations to strengthen the relationship yet further and I most emphatically do not see our departure from the European Union as presenting any insurmountable impediment to that. As has been stressed before, the United Kingdom might be leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. So be in no doubt, we want the closest and strongest co-operation with our nearest neighbour and the only EU member with which we share a land border. That is why one of Theresa May’s first meetings as Prime Minister was with Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and they plan a further summit in the coming months.
Second, there must be no return to the borders of the past. The open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, along with the Common Travel Area, has served our peoples well. These arrangements existed long before our countries joined the European Union and both our respective governments, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, are determined to keep it as open as possible.
Third, I am also clear that there must be no let-up in the security co-operation between us that is so vital in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. So as the UK leaves the EU we will seek to put in place structures that safeguard the vital security and justice interests of both our countries. I have already held discussions on these matters with Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, and I look forward to continuing our dialogue later today.
One of the most important contributory factors to the strengthening bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland is the great progress made over the past two decades in Northern Ireland. As a result of the Belfast Agreement and its successors Northern Ireland today is enjoying the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the 1960’s. The economy is growing, while there are 64,000 more people in work than in 2010. And while the threat from dissident republicans remains severe, and we need to do more to tackle the scourge of paramilitary activity, the overall security situation is markedly different from the dark days of the troubles. As so many in this room are aware none of this has been easy, it has required a great deal of patience and effort from so many people over the years.
So fourth, the UK Government will not take any risks with this hard gained political stability. That means being faithful to the Belfast Agreement and its successors and I reject emphatically any suggestion that the decision to leave the EU will somehow weaken or imperil the political settlement in Northern Ireland or the peace and stability that we now have. Throughout Northern Ireland there remains continued overwhelming support for the current settlement, as successive opinion polls have demonstrated. Within the Assembly I am confident that all parties are fully committed to making devolution work and to pursuing their objectives by exclusively democratic and peaceful means.
The fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement remain solid. The consent principle that governs Northern Ireland’s constitutional status will continue to be paramount. The Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will all continue to reflect the unique political relationships throughout these islands. In addition those elements of the Agreements that deal with people’s rights and identity, the right of people to be British, Irish or both, will be upheld.
And of course I welcome the ruling in the High Court in Belfast that triggering Article 50 as planned would not be incompatible with the Belfast Agreement. We have always said that we will stand by our commitments under the Belfast Agreement and the outcome of the EU referendum in no way changes this.
Fifth, the UK Government will also continue to stand by its commitment to working closely with each of the devolved administrations, including the Northern Ireland Executive, as we formulate our negotiating position.
Let me be clear: the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the EU and it is the United Kingdom as a whole that will leave. But in that process we want to ensure that Northern Ireland’s particular and unique interests are protected and advanced and the level of engagement with the Executive is extensive. Within two weeks of becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May visited Stormont for meetings with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. In July the British-Irish Council met in Cardiff, with a further meeting scheduled for this month. A number of senior Cabinet Ministers have visited Northern Ireland; International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox and Business Secretary, Greg Clark, were there in August, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, visited in September on his first official visit outside of London.
A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee with the heads of each of the devolved administrations and the three territorial Secretaries of State. Following this meeting, it was announced that a new cross-nations forum, the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), would be established under the chairmanship of David Davis.
And of course I continue to hold regular meetings with the First and deputy First Ministers as well as other Executive Ministers. As we embark on a negotiation of huge national importance it is imperative that all the devolved administrations play their part in making it work. So I strongly welcome the joint letter that the First and deputy First Ministers sent to the Prime Minister on 10 August setting out the particular concerns of the Northern Ireland Executive. These included the border, access to labour, doing business with the single market, the all-Ireland energy market and the importance of the agri-food sector. The Executive needs to continue its work into the detail in each of these areas to provide as much information as possible to help ensure that we have a shared understanding of their interests and objectives. That will also help us to avoid any unintended consequences for Northern Ireland of decisions taken for the United Kingdom as a whole.
The sixth theme is that we want to give UK businesses, including those from within Northern Ireland, the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market and to let European businesses do the same here. So in addition to engaging with the Executive, in early September I established my own Business Advisory Group to ensure that. The Group has a core membership consisting of the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, my ministerial colleague, Lord Dunlop, and I have held a number of sectoral meetings across Northern Ireland between us covering construction, manufacturing, agri-foods, retail, financial services, energy and the creative industries. These meetings have proved invaluable in providing insights into the views of business, while also highlighting a number of the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead of us and I want to ensure that this high level of engagement continues as we trigger Article 50 and enter the negotiations ahead.
Finally, we will seek to provide certainty where we can, particularly to groups and organisations that rely heavily on EU funding. The Chancellor has already announced that the Treasury will guarantee direct payments to farmers on the same basis as currently paid under the cap until 2020 and guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects signed before the UK leaves the EU, even where projects continue after we leave. This includes funding for cross-jurisdiction programmes like PEACE and INTERREG, from which Northern Ireland has benefited hugely. We will also guarantee the payments of any awards won by UK organisations who bid directly to the EU for competitive funding, including infrastructure support, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. These assurances from the UK government give confidence that funding applications should continue as normal and provide more certainty following the country’s decision to leave the European Union.
So I want to be clear that where the Northern Ireland Executive signs up to structural and investment fund projects under their current EU budget allocation prior to Brexit, the government will ensure they are funded to meet these commitments. Of course longer term leaving the EU means we will want to take our own decisions about how to deliver the policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding, so we will continue to work closely with the Executive over the coming months to ensure Northern Ireland’s best interests are represented.
In conclusion, I am confident about the UK’s future as we seek to establish a new relationship with the European Union whilst being outside of the EU. That’s because the fundamentals of our economy remain strong with solid growth, record levels of employment and falling unemployment and because the UK will remain an outward looking, global trading nation. But I recognise that there are unique issues that affect Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. That is why we are committed to working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive, committed to working with the Irish government on the important issues of shared mutual interest.
So we approach the future with optimism and a positive sense of what we can achieve as we define a new future for the UK outside of the EU but doing so in ways that preserve stability in Northern Ireland, doing so in ways that recognise the factors that link our citizens together and continuing to strengthen our relations with Ireland and the common bonds we share together.