A joint Irish/UK economic "powerhouse plan" is needed amid negotiations over Britain's departure from the EU, said former Unilever chairman and chief executive Niall FitzGerald. He warned that a bad trade deal for our near neighbour will inevitably be detrimental for Ireland.
At the annual conference of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce in Dublin on Thursday, Mr FitzGerald spoke of the many opportunities arising from a closer relationship with the UK, arguing that it could lead to greater co-operation in areas such as agrifood, medtech, pharma and energy.
Mr FitzGerald also said Ireland's strong bonds with the UK, its cordial relations with the US and its membership of the European Union meant that the country is in a position where it could become a major global player in a post-Brexit world.
“We have a unique opportunity within the European Union but also being adjacent to the UK and having an extraordinary warm relationship with the US to lead the world through this very difficult time through leading by example,” he said.
Mr FitzGerald added, however, that Ireland shouldn’t define itself purely in terms of its relationship with the UK, EU or US.
“We’re fit to fix ourselves for the changes coming and to stay the fittest in a world of constant change. We need to take care of ourselves and to care for all our relationships,” he said.
Mr FitzGerald jokingly said that after spending more than 800 years trying to get out from under British rule, the Irish had become very accomplished at getting on with people.
“It is in our genetic make-up [and] in a world which is becoming irritated with itself, Ireland is still a place where people like to come,” he said.
The Irish-born businessman, who spent 37 years with Unilever, and is a former chairman of the British Museum , stressed though that Ireland’s relationship with the UK remained particularly important.
“While we absolutely support the ideals of the EU and our ongoing membership of it – our unique circumstances mean that a bad deal for the UK in trade with the EU or indeed no deal, will inevitably be bad for Ireland,” he said.
Calling for a joint UK/Ireland powerhouse plan, he highlighted the many opportunities that could arise from this, including new co-operation among shared research and learning faculties, the joint development of innovative energy sources, and the building of world class clusters of pharma and medical devices.
He also spoke of possible gains from the ability to make more of Ireland’s surplus supply of high-quality food and to harness Britain’s advanced materials, manufacturing and finance experience with our burgeoning creative technology base.
Mr FitzGerald referred to the fallout from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as being somewhat surreal.
“In recent weeks you’d have to pinch yourself to be sure you hadn’t woken up in the middle of some surreal drama, with a walk-on part in a movie or TV show – somewhere between La La Land and The Great British Bakeoff,” he said.
Elsewhere at the conference there were plenty of pleas made for assistance to help industries at threat from Brexit, with special focus on the agrifood sector.
The Government was urged by EU food lawyer and British Irish Chamber representative Maree Gallagher to show "brave leadership" by establishing a strategic plan for the sector.
“Looking at the global crash it was easy to know who to blame in hindsight. We don’t want to find ourselves in five years doing the same with our agrifood sector,” she said.
However, independent Senator Gerard Craughwell warned companies not to look to Leinster House for Brexit-related solutions.
Referring to the problems arising from Brexit as being too comprehensive for politicians to deal with, he said companies would be the ones who would have to find a way to deal with the fallout from Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Also speaking at the conference, Brian Hayes MEP warned of the dangers of Ireland being “railroaded by other member states into something that is not on our national interests”.
“It’s crucial that the EU makes it clear, especially from Ireland’s perspective, that the divorce, effectively the end of article 50, can only come about by way of unanimity,” he said.
Separately, Minister for Health Simon Harris stressed that while Irish businesses faced big challenges in the year ahead, there were also plenty of opportunities in a post-Brexit world.