Next 72 days will be pivotal in deciding if UK remains in EU
Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30
The outcome of the forthcoming UK referendum on European Union (EU) membership is in the hands of UK voters - but the island of Ireland would be significantly impacted in myriad ways should our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner opt to end its EU membership.
On a visit to London last week, it was made clear to me by both government and opposition politicians that the large and influential Irish community across the UK has a great deal to contribute to the debate that is now under way.
The scale of Irish-British links is extraordinary. Up to one in four people in Britain has some Irish heritage. More than 600,000 people born on the island of Ireland live in Britain, with many more second and third-generation Irish too. Close to 60,000 company directors in the UK are Irish-born.
Our annual trade in goods and services is growing, and currently amounts to more than €62bn, or €1.2bn per week. Ireland - ahead of Brazil, India and China combined - is the UK's fifth-biggest export market in the world.
The UK plays a valuable role within the EU and we joined the then-EEC together in 1973, giving us a new means to work together at a time when contact between us was a small fraction of what it has become today.
Irish governments have spent recent decades working together with British governments to facilitate peace and sustainable prosperity in Northern Ireland, aided by valuable supports from the EU. Almost every week, members of both governments participate with their EU colleagues at meetings in Brussels, providing opportunities to discuss bilaterally other matters of mutual concern.
Without doubt, ours is a unique relationship, which is best-served by continuing UK membership of the EU. It is impossible to argue that a UK exit will in any way improve this positive progress.
With Taoiseach Enda Kenny having played a central role in helping secure agreement on the UK's settlement deal with its EU partners in February, our focus since then has been on the referendum itself.
We're now 72 days away from the day on which the UK electorate, which includes a sizeable Irish community, gives its verdict. Between now and then, I believe Ireland and the Irish community in Britain have a constructive role to play, and last week I undertook a busy programme of meetings in London, the latest visit in a sustained process of Irish government engagement on this issue.
I had a lengthy discussion with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and met with a group of actively campaigning Labour MPs with strong connections to Ireland. I also met with more than 30 Irish business and community organisations and spoke to British-based Irish community media to convey the government's clear view that the UK should remain in the EU and to respond to some questions being raised by Irish citizens living there.
Listening to the Foreign Secretary and to the Labour parliamentarians, it was crystal clear that the Irish dimension to the UK's EU membership was important to them - and that Irish voices were most welcome in the debate.
When listening to leading figures in the Irish community across the UK - whose work is almost entirely voluntary and whose contribution to British-Irish relations has been outstanding - it was clear that there is a hunger to be informed on this referendum and to engage in the debate.
I am acutely conscious that the decision is for the UK electorate to make on 23 June. It is for them and them alone to judge in the end if they agree with Prime Minister David Cameron's proposition that remaining in a reformed EU is the best decision for the UK.
What is appropriate and right for us as neighbours, EU partners and friends is to set out Ireland's interests and what we believe to be in the best interests of British-Irish relations. Our position is one that enjoys strong political and public consensus here at home.
The Government's work continues. This week I will meet with a cross-section of Irish employers and business groups to hear first-hand from them how they view the referendum, what actions they are taking and where we might work together. Our diplomatic staff at my department in Dublin, across Britain and Northern Ireland and in Brussels and further afield will continue working actively on this issue, just as they have for over three years now since the referendum was first proposed.
Meanwhile, some of the Irish in Britain have organised among themselves and created an independent campaign group, Ireland4Europe, to encourage UK-based Irish citizens to register to vote and to vote to remain in the EU. Meeting some of their leadership last week as part of my programme in London, I encountered the energy and determination that characterises Ireland's place in Britain today.
In our discussions, they told me of their hope that friends and relatives back home in Ireland, along with national and local Irish media, would join with them in reaching out across the UK to as many members of the Irish community as is possible.
Making the Irish voice heard will be a national endeavour that I encourage everyone to get involved in. This is important - let's all play our part.
Charlie Flanagan TD is acting Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade