Speech by Mr. Eamonn Egan, President of BICC

Annual Conference, Intercontinental Hotel March 16, 2017

Lord Mayor, Minister(s), Ambassador, Members and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen you are all very welcome to this – the 5th annual British Irish Chamber of Commerce conference. 

It’s timely, and I suppose appropriate, that towards the end of another tumultuous week in the ever evolving relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union that we meet to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by current events.  Even within the United Kingdom, the grounds are shifting and once again the call for a referendum on Scottish independence throws a big question mark over the very future of the Union. 

When we met at last year’s conference, we thought the prospect of Brexit was a distinct possibility but few would have predicted the eventual outcome.  Scottish independence was still alive but was for the time being resting on the back burner.  Our second annual conference, held in Belfast, coincided with David Cameron’s announcement to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU.  The late Charles Kennedy, speaking at the event, pointed to the inherent risk in such a strategy.  How right he was.

We said last year that the Chamber had a particular role to play in the Brexit referendum debate.  Well, if we had a role to play in that debate, we surely have a role to play in trying to shape the fallout from the result.  That is why I believe it so appropriate that we gather today to discuss our continued relationship with Britain – yes in an economic sense but also in terms of our shared culture and community.  The question I would pose to us all is how we can promote Ireland’s place in the European Union, while building ever closer links to our closest neighbors – the United Kingdom.  The corollary is to identify the opportunities for UK and Ireland to work together when one country is a member of the European Union and the other is not.

Though Brexit has thrown this challenge into sharp relief over the past six months, we have in the past reconciled the need to work with Europe, while at the same time building a political relationship with Britain.  More than anyone else, the late TK Whitaker promoted the need to build relationships with Belfast, London and Brussels – at one and the same time.  I think it’s highly fitting that we remember him today as we look for answers about the future and the need to remain optimistic and hopeful at a time of flux.   60 years ago, Whitaker and Sean Lemass’s “Economic Development” lowered barriers and we cannot allow those barriers – economic or physical – to be re-erected. 

Too much has been achieved in recent years both in terms of economic recovery and the blossoming of the relationship between the two islands for things to rewind to the past.

I am also reminded that when we met at our conference last year, the Irish general election was just a week away and Minister Paschal Donohoe very generously attended and gave a very passionate speech on the intrinsic value of the European Union and the evolving relationship between both our islands.  All of that before he barreled off back to Dublin Central to try to retain his seat!  The election resulted in a rebalancing of the powers of the Executive with the Dáil and it’s fair to say that this has caused a very different dynamic in terms of policy formulation.  Though the speed and process around policy formulation has changed, there is some consistency.  The main political parties are, I believe, committed to a pro-business agenda and I think that at a time when many companies are reevaluating investment decisions, that message should not be lost. 

As representatives of businesses that are the heart of British and Irish trade, it is our responsibility to set out to the two governments – in Dublin and in London, what we see as the areas to safeguard and foster during the negotiations surrounding Britain’s exit from the Union.  In essence, we must look for opportunities but not seek to be opportunistic. 

Prime Minister May has acknowledged the special relationship that exists between Ireland and the United Kingdom.  This was a considerable feat and both countries’ diplomats deserve credit for such affirmation.  Such is the economic co-dependence between these two islands that a return to border controls, customs posts and other barriers to trade that we all thought were consigned to history would seem unbelievable.  We know we can take nothing for granted in what is essentially a political negotiation.  My abiding memory of the border was as a small boy travelling to Donegal for our summer holidays.  Even as a ten year old stopped in a car at the border checkpoint at Aughnacloy, I thought it frightening and bizarre that a soldier should be camouflaged in a ditch with a gun trained on approaching cars.  That’s a sight that I do not wish to see again.   

The Chamber knows its responsibility and that is to be a constructive and well-informed support for the tough job our public representatives and officials have to do, whether in Ireland, in the United Kingdom or in the European Union.  Positioned as a key resource for both the public and private sector, the Chamber not only talks the talk in its advocacy for the best conditions for conduct of business between these islands but we also walk the walk by delivering real business growth opportunities by connecting businesses in Ireland and the UK to new business partners on both islands so they can grow business and jobs together (just as last week we brought 70 businesses together in London to look at real practical new business opportunities in the United Kingdom for Irish firms, and in Ireland for UK businesses). That is the type of practical work we’ll keep doing, providing business stability and growth while constructive policymaking takes its inevitably longer course.

For my own part, I am very proud to have had the privilege of leading the Chamber over the past year, which has grown considerably both in membership and impact over just five short years.  I want to acknowledge the support of my company, Lloyd’s of London.  Like many British companies operating in Ireland, we have a proud history here and like many of our colleagues in the world of financial services, we will make any future decisions grounded in the best interests of the organization. 

The Chamber changed its model two years ago and it has gone from strength to strength.  Much of the credit for this must go to John McGrane, the then President Aidan Lynch and the Board for having the vision to broaden the scope and ambition of the Chamber.  It has resulted in growing competency in the areas of Energy, Finance, Agri-Food , Technology sector, Tourism Culture & Sport, Life Sciences, and Education and an increase in the number of events organized throughout the year. 

I want to thank the Board and Council of the Chamber and our executive team for all their continued hard work for our Members over the past year.  Without the good will and generosity of our Board we could not make the progress that we’ve made.  I want to pay particular tribute to Brian Britton who organised our first couple of conferences with great energy and gusto.  He can’t be with us today but we send him our best wishes.  Mention of generosity brings me to our sponsors and in particular, Ulster Bank who have provided great support to the Chamber not just this year but really since our inception and that is greatly appreciated.

We greatly value the close working relationships we enjoy with Governments, Ministers, Ambassadors and officials as well as the development agencies and their teams on both islands. We also thank all our sponsors for their financial support and our officers and committee chairs for their voluntary contribution.  One of the great perks of my involvement in the Chamber is the acquaintances and the friendships that I have made.  I must mention our previous Ambassador, Dominick Chilcott and his wife Jane, who I am proud to call friends and in the same breadth must welcome Ambassador Robin Barnett.  I look forward to getting to know you and your partner Aganieska over the coming months. 

I will be handing over the Presidential reins (because we don’t have a chain of office, I think this man would prefer a chain because he is not mad about reins!!!) to my successor Eoin O’Neill at our AGM in the coming weeks and I know that Eoin joins with me in thanking you, our members of the Chamber, for all your support and loyalty to our cause.  Increasingly, the Chamber is shaping the evolution of policy, while at the same time offering members a unique opportunity to network with fellow business people and Government members and their agencies. 

Days like today don’t just happen.  They require a huge effort and time and all credit must go to Eoin as Conference Chairman and his committee and the team in the Office at the Chamber. 

So thank you for being with us today. I hope you enjoy the day and I look forward to meeting you later and at our dinner tonight.