Dear friends, it's great to be here in Rosslare. My thanks to the Irish Hauliers and your very capable President Verona Murphy for organising this event.
Brexit is a bit like an articulated lorry coming over the brow of the hill – we can hear the rumble, the ground is shaking, we know it is going to be big… but we cannot see how it looks or what load it is carrying.
The question we need to be asking is “Are we, here in Ireland, ready?” Because Brexit is happening to us – even though no-one asked us if we wanted it or not.
And it will happen to us ten months from now. So the challenge is to be as prepared as possible, for as many outcomes as possible – including the worst ones.
There are no winners in Brexit. It is a matter of doing the least amount of damage. We know Brexit is going to give us a knock. Even on the best assumptions, economic forecasters say it will affect our wages, reduce our overall growth, and pose particular problems for rural areas through its effects on the agri-food sector.
We cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in our preparation. Brexit is mostly beyond our control. But the heaviness of the blow, and how we respond to it, is very much under our control. The more we think about it, the more we prepare, the easier it will be for us to shake off the effects and continue to improve our quality of life.
So let us take stock of what we know, and what we still do not know.
First and foremost is the problem of our land border with the UK.
In economic terms the border all but disappeared forty years ago and the island of Ireland has since developed an integrated economy.
And of course in social terms, the Good Friday Agreement built a new foundation of goodwill and cross-border cooperation as the last border posts disappeared.
Now that will change. We can expect to see, little by little, cross-border arrangements being scaled down and disappearing, with a consequent effect on jobs north and south. The very worst effect – which would be the reappearance of the hard, visible border that was dismantled by the Good Friday Agreement – has been avoided but this will not prevent economic readjustments.
The UK agreement to keep a soft, invisible border is one of the successes so far of the Brexit discussions. Although you would not think it to judge from the arguments – most of them in London – about how the soft border should be achieved.
The EU has been clear and consistent on this point from the start.
Unless the UK has a workable alternative that will secure the Union’s external frontier, the soft border will be achieved by maintaining regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU. This is the so-called backstop.
The latest episodes of the Brexit reality show have shown us Prime Minister May battling with the mutineers, and the mutineers battling with each other. This means that, less than two weeks out from a key meeting of EU leaders which is supposed to settle this very question, we are no closer to the UK converging around a real, workable solution.
One group prefers a cyber border. Another group prefers new-look documentation and inspection procedures. Both groups seem to agree on only one thing – that neither of the two approaches will work!
The European Commission received the UK's latest proposal for a customs solution last week, and it represents a small recognition by the UK of what they need to prepare in order to convince the EU that they can meet its negotiating mandate around Customs Union.
Hopefully, the UK government is beginning to realise that membership of the Customs Union and regulatory alignment is crucial to resolving many of their own national interests in relation to the future trading relationship with the EU, as well as resolving many of the difficulties relating to the island of Ireland.
As the UK becomes a so-called "third country", the closer the future trade relationship aligns with the present, the smaller will be the disruption to Ireland’s trade and economy.
At present, the Union is proposing something that is far distant, a free trade agreement like the ones we have with Canada or South Korea. This is, in effect, dictated by the UK’s red lines.
If they were to change, the Commission could propose something that would be less harmful.
But there is also the unmistakeable sense that the mood is changing in the UK. Public opinion is starting to move, and all recent polling shows the "Remain" side firmly ahead. This is an important change, because well into 2017, the polls showed a majority still in favour of Brexit.
British business is raising its voice in exasperation at the Government's lack of a plan.
The Freight Transport Association declared this week that the government's inaction has put Britain on a "road to nowhere" and that businesses are on the brink of being "destroyed".
Throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland, businesses are making contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, openly speaking about the damage that will be done to jobs and growth.
In response, the British Parliament - including an ebullient House of Lords – has assumed the role of the grown-up in the room, given the Conservative government's abject failure to do so.
The tide is finally starting to go out on the High Priests of Brexit, and not before time.
Arch-Brexiteers like Nigel Farage and Michael Gove are disowning their pre-referendum promises of a land of milk and honey, and a sense of panic is setting in among them that the British public is finally seeing through their deception and lies.
Calls are growing for some form of "people's referendum" on the final Brexit deal, if there is one. There is still a lot of ball to be played.
Mrs May’s dilemma is that she has to disappoint one group or the other within her own party.
She is trying to find a middle way – agreements on border management and future trade that will be acceptable to all. There are no signs that such a middle way exists.
She will have to choose. And there is still a real danger is that it will be the Rees-Mogg mutineers who will triumph.
They have controlled the narrative for 2 years now, but they sense that their time is running out, and they will try every trick in the book to keep the good ship Britannia steering towards a hard Brexit, even though the ship is full of leaks and the crew is hiding below deck.
With so much uncertainty still clouding the picture, economic operators in Ireland have to examine every possible Brexit scenario and identify the pitfalls and possibilities.
The EU is ready for the worst. It will not be surprised by a UK non-decision to crash out because the mutineers succeed in running down the clock. It is prepared in case the most painful Brexit becomes a reality.
The European Commission has been sending out this message loud and clear. President Juncker, acting on instructions from the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, has engaged the Commission's Secretariat General to issue 60 "preparedness notices" to key stakeholders.
For example, a preparedness notices was sent to stakeholders in the maritime transport sector covering vital issues such as: intra-union shipping services and third country traffic, maritime cabotage, maritime safety, port state control, operations of passenger ships, and the safety of fishing vessels.
And we must give credit to the Irish government for their work. If ever there was a time for all politicians, public servants and civil society to put on the "green jersey," this is it, and all parties have risen to the occasion.
In relation to ports, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has held a number of workshops with Maritime and other transport sectors on preparing for the possible impacts of Brexit on the sector.
Ports and shipping companies are exploring the feasibility of new shipping routes directly to Europe in the context of Brexit.
New initiatives have already being taken to enhance direct routes to Europe, with larger vessels which will have increased capacity.
Shipping companies are market driven and will respond to changing demands regarding direct routes to Europe.
The key state agencies, Revenue, Customs and Agriculture are also actively engaging with the Ports to prepare at this stage, as far as possible, for the potential implications of Brexit.
The Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) in conjunction with DTTAS has been undertaking a study into the use of the UK landbridge by Irish importers and exporters.
The purpose of this research is to establish the volume of traffic using the UK landbridge at present, the likely consequences that Brexit will have on landbridge usage and the various alternative options that may be viable. This piece of research is being finalised at present and is expected to be completed shortly.
On the Common Transit Convention, the UK has signalled its intention to join the Common Transit Convention - Ireland welcomes this move but further work would still be required in relation to the UK landbridge.
And I understand that Iarnród Éireann is completing a commercial review of Rosslare Europort and is currently in the process of preparing a detailed business plan for the port, to include consideration of the implications of Brexit.
I urge you to build on this foundation and continue planning ahead for Rosslare. Are you ready to trade with Britain as a third country? How can you maximise your commercial and economic opportunities in shipping directly to France, giving our road hauliers the chance to avoid possible bottlenecks at UK ports?
A new round of seven-year EU regional policy programmes will need to be prepared in the next year or so, to run from 2021 to 2026. Are you ready to take advantage of the funding opportunities?
Brexit is ten months away. We will be helped by the proposal for a transition period until the end of 2020, which will keep things as they are for a little longer. We are all well advised to use all the time we have for action. But, bearing in mind the scale of what we are talking about, let us keep one thing in mind: time is short. Thank you.