On 23 June, the electorate in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This was a very significant decision, the first ever exit vote by a member state, one of the EU's largest. The exit process will take some years to complete and will represent an enormous legal and political challenge for all concerned. It is something we need to get right. The Irish government, like the U.S. administration, was convinced that the best outcome to the referendum would have been a strong UK remaining within a strong EU. But we were as prepared as we could be for a different result. Our goal now is to work together to strengthen the European Union while ensuring as close a relationship as possible between the UK and EU. In Ireland we are very familiar with the challenges and unpredictability of referendums. We always felt a Brexit outcome was possible and for that reason the Irish government engaged in extensive contingency planning right across all sectors of government. As an open, globalised, diversified economy, we were determined to be as ready as possible.
The final settlement will be one agreed between the UK on the one hand and an EU of 27 member states, including Ireland on the other. It was therefore clear to us that it is important that Ireland's unique circumstances are well understood in the capitals of Europe. Since late June I have been engaging closely with all of my foreign minister counterparts around the EU setting out Ireland's particular concerns and our core principles and seeking the viewpoints of our friends and partners. We are, as ever, wholeheartedly committed to our membership of the European Union and of the Eurozone. Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe. My message to US investors is: Ireland will continue to serve as a gateway to the EU -- we offer an English-speaking, business-friendly, competitive environment. We have a track record in innovation, and most of all, a highly-educated and talented workforce. Our economy is growing steadily. We are open for business! Negotiations will begin once the UK government decides to trigger "Article 50". This is expected to happen early next year. In these negotiations, Ireland's focus will be on:
- Northern Ireland and the peace process;
-Retaining the open border with Northern Ireland and preserving the historic Common Travel Area between Ireland and Britain;
- Our close bilateral economic and trade relationship with the UK; and
- Our commitment to a strong European Union. While the peace settlement in Northern Ireland is by now well-established, we cannot afford to be complacent. Ongoing work is required to protect and preserve what has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was brokered with invaluable help from the United States. I have been Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for just over two years. During that time, I have been involved in two sets of talks, along with the UK government and Northern Ireland's political parties, resulting in two political agreements: The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 and the Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015. These agreements were necessary because from time to time Northern Ireland goes through moments of fragility and concerted political engagement is required to restore stability. I want to acknowledge the valuable role of former US Senator, Gary Hart, in the process. In this environment, Brexit presents a new and substantial challenge for Northern Ireland. In the referendum, 56% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted to remain in the European Union. Many are understandably concerned that leaving the EU would have implications for political stability, reconciliation and prosperity. We must be in the business of solutions as we face these challenges and thus the dialogue is firmly underway -- between Belfast and Dublin, between London and Dublin and with our EU partners. Voices from the U.S., as ever before in relation to Northern Ireland, will be welcome and valuable too in the months and years ahead. Ireland and Britain have long and intertwined histories. As next door neighbours we engage in a great deal of trade together: each week over €1.2 billion of goods and services is exchanged between the two islands. However, Ireland's trade dependence on the UK is very different compared to when both countries joined the then EEC in 1973. Today, the United States is overtaking the UK as Ireland's largest trading partner while the Eurozone economies now account for twice the goods trade we enjoy with the UK. We continue to expand on a global scale, across North America and also in Asia and elsewhere. A diversified Irish economy is better positioned, therefore, to meet the trade challenges around Brexit while seeking to maintain the strong flow of goods and services, both North and South on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. In terms of keeping the EU strong, last week in Bratislava, Slovakia, the leaders of the 27 states who will remain in the EU -- including Ireland's Taoiseach, Enda Kenny - worked on a broad agenda for the future focused on partnership, peace, and prosperity. Brexit is just one of a number of strategic challenges which the European Union is currently grappling with, and it must be seen in that context. These include the mass migration via the Mediterranean basin, the appalling conflict in Syria, the wider instability across the Middle East and elsewhere, to mention just a few. Make no mistake, then, Brexit is a challenge to all -- not least ourselves in Ireland. But Ireland and its people recovered with determination from the severe setback of the 2008 economic crisis, and we have rebuilt an open, dynamic and competitive economy. 700 U.S. companies have made Ireland their home and employ 140,000 people between them. We will continue to promote Ireland as an attractive location for mobile international investment and for talented people, because those things continue to be constant, regardless of the UK's decision to leave the European Union. By Charles Flanagan T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland