FOREIGN Affairs Minister and Tánaiste Simon Coveney told a business briefing in Kinsale last week that Brexit negotiations are a ‘damage limitation’ exercise where there are no winners.
Speaking at the business breakfast, hosted in the Blue Haven Hotel by Senator Tim Lombard, Minister Coveney said that a lot of progress had been made in recent weeks, adding: ‘We are 85% there now.’
The briefing had been organised, Sen Lombard told the packed room, after a survey conducted by his Kinsale constituency office showed that Brexit ranked highly on the list of concerns for local business people.
He said that with so many local firms connected to tourism or agriculture, the role of Brexit and the health of sterling were of huge importance in the constituency.
Minister Coveney congratulated Fitzgerald & Partners on the Doing Business in Kinsale handbook initiative which, he said, had been copied by other towns around Ireland.
The book, which will be launched next month, was designed and printed by Southern Star Creative, Minister Coveney noted.
Referring to Brexit, the Foreign Affairs Minister said that we were now ‘gone beyond the slick presentations and slideshows’ and now into the business of making it work.
And he said he didn’t believe all the ‘hype’ that suggested we were moving towards a no-deal Brexit. ‘I don’t believe that will happen,’ he said, adding that nobody was in favour of that outcome.
But, he said, we must be in no doubt that the talks are all about limiting the damage done by the Brexit vote. ‘It’s lose, lose, lose for everybody’ he said. ‘The EU will be hurt by a big trading partner like Britain leaving, and we will be hurt too.’
He reminded the audience that there are 38,000 Irish SMEs – employing 200,000 people – doing business in the UK and ‘hundreds of thousands’ more linked to those firms.
The trade relationship between both countries is worth €70bn, he said.
Minister Coveney also said that there were now more Irish people living in the UK than in Connaught so there is the ‘equivalent of an Irish province’ in the UK who are all watching Brexit closely.
But, he said, everybody accepts that there will be a transition period of about two years so that on the morning after March 29th 2019, in effect, ‘nothing will happen’.
During that period the negotiations will continue on a number of sensitive issues like security, defence, and fisheries, and more.
Among the victories of the negotiations was the agreement that Irish citizens would retain their privileged status to come and go from the UK for study purposes. ‘But that wasn’t easily won,’ he said. ‘We have marked the Irish out for special treatment in the UK despite the fact that there are more Polish people living in the UK than Irish.’
He also noted that there were 200 different nationalities working in Ireland but that the government had negotiated a deal whereby Irish citizens working for multinationals that had offices in the UK would be able to continue to travel between both countries on business. Other nationalities will probably need to get some kind of documentation in order to travel to the UK with work, he said. He could see this as an issue for local firms like Eli Lilly, which has offices in 18 countries.
Their Irish staff would be able to travel relatively unhindered to the UK but that might be an issue for other nationalities working there, he said. He added that the government was also arguing for UK citizens in Northern Ireland to have the same status as Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.
UK citizens in Scotland, for example, would not have the same rights but, he explained, ‘if we are to be true to the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, we have to argue for all citizens. This is where it gets really complicated – but we are working through that,’ added Minister Coveney.
And he warned: ‘People are looking to build political reputations on the back of these kind of negotiations and unfortunately that triggers a sense of nationalism rather than pragmatism.’
The final outcome was that Ireland wanted a relationship which would be ‘as close as possible’ with the UK and to secure the future of the peace process.
MEP Deirdre Clune said she was reassured by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, in his State of the Union address, referring to the importance of the Good Friday Agreement in the talks.
In a question and answer session afterwards, Chief Supt Con Cadogan wondered about immigration checks, especially in light of the increased cruise line traffic into Cork. Passengers’ passports are currently checked at Southampton, he said.
Minister Coveney said he didn’t envisage any issue with people travelling for leisure purposes. ‘The challenge will be when people are coming here to stay or work,’ he said.
Minister Coveney said that the British concern regarding immigration was largely down to their experiences in recent years. ‘Britain has been really traumatised by terrorism in recent times, and sometimes we don’t quite get that in this country,’ he said.
Speaking to The Southern Star afterwards, Minister Coveney said businesses in West Cork would soon have an opportunity to attend an information roadshow and question the State agencies, including Minister Coveney himself, and voice their concerns or ask advice on any aspect of Brexit.