Wednesday 22 November 2017

Forget about the future, Ireland and the UK need to focus on the present - new British ambassador

The British Ambassador to Ireland, Robin Barnett pictured at The Ballsbridge Embassy
The British Ambassador to Ireland, Robin Barnett pictured at The Ballsbridge Embassy
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Irish businesses need to focus on the "here and now" as the UK will be in the European Union for at least another two years, the new British ambassador to Ireland has said.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Robin Barnett said he is concerned that people could get too caught up in the fallout from the June 23 vote in the UK and lose sight of the opportunities that are still up for grabs between the two countries.

"It is really important that we don't focus entirely on the future," Mr Barnett said.

"The UK will be inside the EU for more than two years to come, and one of the things that I'm really anxious is that people are not so focused on issues surrounding Brexit, that they fail to see that there are a lot of economic opportunities between us right now."

Mr Barnett said "there is good business to be done", even with the looming threat of a British exit from the EU.

"I'm really keen to see what more we can do to strengthen economic ties between our two countries. An area that I have noticed, after lots of conversations, that there's real interest in is supply chain.

"Are we really doing as much as we could on supply chain together in areas like construction, like food and drink, like medical and pharmaceuticals? So one of the other things that we need to focus on is the here and now," he said.

Mr Barnett said Ireland and the UK should be looking for more "joint ventures".

"We had a very successful joint trade mission to Singapore, so we should be focused on looking at some of the exciting opportunities out there, and not just one issue," the ambassador added.

He said Brexit should not get in the way of closer economic co-operation, predicting that there will be strong trade between Britain and the rest of the EU after the UK exits. "In recent years, some of Ireland's strongest export growth has been to markets outside the EU such as the US and Asia. Moreover, British companies will continue to trade actively with the EU in goods and services post-Brexit.

"So there are huge and exciting opportunities ahead," he said.

On the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Mr Barnett echoed claims made by both the Irish and UK governments that there was no desire to see a return to the borders of the past. He said there was a desire to preserve the common travel area.

Asked whether this was conceivable amid suggestions of a push towards a so-called 'hard' Brexit by the UK government, Mr Barnett said: "An immense amount has changed in the world of immigration.

"I was the director of UK visas from 2002 to 2006, an era when we began to use technology much more to facilitate travel, including for example the first introduction of biometrics, and things have come a very long way since then.

"I think there's a lot that has changed, so yes, my firm view is that we can find a way of ensuring that we don't return to the borders of the past."

Mr Barnett, Britain's former ambassador to Poland since 2011, replaced Dominick Chilcott, who left Dublin to return to London in July.

Asked his views on the fact that both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, and yet now face the prospect of being out of the EU, Mr Barnett added: "While it is true that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, the referendum was a United Kingdom vote. The job now is to get the best possible result for the whole of the United Kingdom from Brexit," he said. Mr Barnett, a self described Manchester United fanatic despite being from the south-east of England (his Dad was a fan of the Red Devils), is expected to serve as the UK's ambassador to Ireland for at least four years.

He began his career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1980 as desk officer for Indonesia and the Philippines. In addition to Ireland, he has been posted to Vienna, New York and Bucharest, where he was ambassador.

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