The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, ran the gamut of issues keeping local business directors awake at night during a stopover at the weekend when he invoked the spirit of Derry’s golden ship-building era in attempting to plot a course for the North West through the unpredictable trade winds of the present.
Mr. Varadkar had been invited by the President of the Chamber of Commerce, George Fleming, to address the business lobby’s 60th annual president’s dinner in the White Horse Hotel on Friday.
Before turning his attention to the pressing cares of the day - the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, the unaddressed fears over the potential re-erection of a physical border between Derry and Donegal, and the necessity for increased cross-border cooperation - the Taoiseach looked back to the 19th century when Derry was a thriving international trading post and a world leading manufacturer of ‘clippers’ - the fasted sailing ships of their day.
Shipping magnate Bartholomew McCorkell, the first ever president of the local Chamber of Commerce, had made his name in the trade, the Taoiseach reminded his audience.
His ships had included the ‘Minnehaha’, which had delivered thousands of starving people to safety during the Great Famine, and several other vessels, which had connected the anti-slavery Union states of North America with the outside world during the American Civil War, Mr. Varadkar noted.
“McCorkell and his family believed in serving this city and that same spirit of public service has continued throughout the years, right down to the present day and your current president.
“So tonight is an opportunity to celebrate the past as well as look forward to the challenges of the future,” said the Taoiseach.
And thus looking forward, Mr. Varadkar acknowledged the looming spectre of Brexit, about which businesses across Ireland and internationally have been continually seeking reassurance, was continuing to haunt Europe.
As early as March 2016 before the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum had even taken place, 81 per cent of Chamber of Commerce members in Derry had indicated their personal preference for remaining within the European Union.
Speaking at the time, Chief Executive Sinead McLaughlin, said: “Derry’s businesses trade on two sides of the border – as if the border does not exist.
“For most day-to-day purposes, the border actually does not exist. To recreate that border is unimaginable - yet is something we do now have to imagine.”
And as recently as this month the Chief Executive of Foyle Port, Brian McGrath, warned that Brexit uncertainty would “erode business confidence and deter investment”.
The Taoiseach accepted these were real concerns and addressed them comprehensively in his speech on Friday night.
“While Brexit creates many challenges across the EU, the challenges for the island of Ireland are unique and of a different scale,” he said.
“Perhaps no part of Europe will be affected by Brexit more than areas such as this one, straddling the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, between Ireland and the European Union.
“We will ensure that the particular challenges presented by Brexit on this island are fully understood, right across the European Union,” he said.
It’s been argued that an invisible border and unhindered cross-border trade have worked here in a similar manner to the former European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) on the continent, albeit on a smaller scale.
The ECSC, a proto-EU trade block, was created in 1951 to ensure big industrialists in France and Germany were so interdependent that peace became an integral part of their business strategies.
On Friday night the Taoiseach became the latest figure to suggest that recklessly damaging cross-border trade in Ireland would not be good for the peace process.
He said: “Our priorities are clear. We must protect the peace process and ensure there are no new barriers to trade or movement of people acrossour island.
“We are committed to safeguarding the Common Travel Area and the associated rights enjoyed by Irish and UK citizens - acommitment that is shared by the UK Government and supported by the EU.
“The Irish Government also wants a transitional arrangement in place.
“We were among the first to propose it will be needed to allow people and business to prepare for any permanent changes that may take place thereafter.”
Indicating that he remained on the same page as his United Kingdom counterpart, Theresa May, in desiring no return to the borders of the past, he nonetheless warned that a special Irish solution would be needed if Britain successfully dragged an unwilling North out of the single market and customs union.
“We also hope that the ultimate outcome of the negotiations will be the closest possible trade and customs relationship between the UK and the EU,” said the Taoiseach.
“So, if this is ultimately not attainable, then we will seek a unique solution for Northern Ireland, reflecting its unique history and geography.
“A solution which does not undermine the constitutional settlement in any way, rather one that takes account of the realities on this island and builds on common regulatory approaches, frameworks and systems,” he said.
The Taoiseach believes such a solution is achievable due to the level of sympathy that exists in the corridors of power in Brussels, Strasbourg, and in the capitals of the 26 EU member states, who unlike Ireland and the United Kindgom, don’t have any skin in the Irish border game.
“The best way to secure a unique solution for Northern Ireland is to ask for it. There is huge goodwill for Northern Ireland right across Europe. Everyone recognises what has been achieved and what can never be allowed to be lost,” he said.
“So there is a willingness to change the rules and create a flexible solution, a unique solution, one for Northern Ireland, one that may not be available to the rest of the UK or even the rest of Ireland.”
During his visit to Derry, Mr. Varadkar was also infected with a spatial awareness characteristic of Derry and Donegal’s response to the Brexit crisis, given the potential for disruption of lives and livelihoods in the border area.
“Standing only 4 miles from the border, I knowthe importance of maintaining the freemovement of people, goods and services on this island.
“Three border crossings between Donegal and Derry alone account for almost 60 per cent of the 95,000 daily crossings between North and South - representing the day-to-day reality of the cross-border worker or student who travels from Donegal to Derry.
“The Irish Government has been unequivocal in its position that Brexit must not give rise to any physical manifestation of a border on this island.
“I know that concern about the border extends far beyond the impact on trade and balance sheets, important though that is.
“It is also about the emotional impact on communities, North and South, which have become increasingly intertwined over the past two decades.
“There is, understandably, heightened concern among communities who are worried about how their rights will be protected, including rights arising from citizens in Northern Ireland retaining EU citizenship after Brexit.
“And, above all, there is concern that the reintroduction of a border will be a step backwards, a step in the wrong direction in terms of peace and political stability and the increased prosperity which has underpinned this.”
The Taoiseach confirmed that cross-border co-operation between the Dublin and Belfast administrations should and would continue regardless of Brexit.
This will cut across departments and disciplines, he promised.
For example, funding for the A5 road project, which has been listed by the Chamber of Commerce and its Letterkenny counterpart as a potentially game-changing infrastructural project, will be forthcoming.
“Our 10 year capital plan will support links between Dublin and Derry-Londonderry and Donegal,” said Mr. Varadkar.
“The Irish Government has already made a very significant contribution to the construction of the A5 dual-carriageway.
“The commitment is cast iron and the money has been allocated by the Minister for Finance. I want to see that project go ahead as quickly as possible.
“I also believe that the completion of routes from Dublin to Derry and Donegal should be a strategic priority for governments both north and south,” he said.
Cross-border co-operation on health will also continue, said Mr. Varadkar, a qualified doctor, who was actually in Derry last weekend as well, wearing his physician’s cap at an Irish Cardiologist Society dinner in the Guildhall.
“Since May 2016 a cross-border cardiology service gives Donegal patients suffering from a STEMI heart attack direct access toemergency services in Altnagelvin Hospital where previously, they had to be transported to University Hospital Galway, and of course that is only if there was time,” he pointed out.
He added: “Similarly cancer patients from Donegal that are now treated at radiotherapy unit Altnagelvin which the Irish Government helped fund to the tune of about €19 million.”
“This is exactly the kind of model of working together that provides a future for this region, and it will be even more important post Brexit.”