I propose to take Questions Nos. 75 and 78 together.
On Wednesday 6th December, I welcomed the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall to a special dinner at the Embassy of Ireland in London, hosted by Ambassador Adrian O’Neill. The dinner marked the start of the St. Patrick’s Day programme in Britain and celebrated the close ties and enduring friendship between our two countries.
We were joined by approximately 90 guests from across the worlds of politics, culture, business, media and the Irish community in order to mark the vibrant and positive bilateral connections we enjoy together.
During his speech at the dinner, Prince Charles reiterated his and the Duchess’ commitment to developing the relationship and the bonds between our two countries, saying
“We are friends, we are partners and we are the closest of near neighbours, bound together by everything that we have in common – and by just how far we have come together.”
In my own remarks, I spoke of "the extraordinarily vibrant and overwhelmingly positive connections that we now enjoy together - of culture and art, of economics and commerce, of friendship and family."
The dinner was obviously a social event and not a forum for discussion of policy issues. Therefore, I did not specifically discuss or address the recent letter from the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) to political parties in Northern Ireland on the grave economic implications of Brexit in a no deal scenario. Although I did have a separate meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the Embassy following the dinner, this focused on legacy issues.
The letter from the Head of the NICS follows on the UK Government’s paper of 26 February which notes that the cumulative impact from a ‘no deal’ scenario is expected to be more severe in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, and to last longer. The letter sets out the work which the Northern Ireland Departments have been doing across a range of sectors in advance of the UK leaving the EU and amplifies the UK Government assessment. It notes that, despite the considerable amount of mitigation work that has been undertaken to date across Departments, Northern Ireland will face considerable and unavoidable residual risks, notably on the local economy in ways that cannot be mitigated.
I share the letter’s assessment, including its stark warning about the changes to everyday life, potential border frictions, and the potential for profound and long lasting impact on society. I have repeatedly discussed my concerns around the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland with my British counterparts. I can assure the Deputy that the imperative of avoiding that scenario will continue to inform the Government’s approach. Indeed from the outset, I have highlighted the socio-economic risks which Brexit poses for Northern Ireland as well as for the wider political situation there. I have repeatedly stated that a no deal Brexit is in no one’s interests, least of all for the people of Northern Ireland who, as the report and letter confirm, will be most affected. Those risks only serve to further highlight the absolute need to agree the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.