Joint press conference with Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan

  • Transcript, E&OE

MINISTER FLANAGAN: I hope to see some of the photos taken today in your missives to your constituents, minister, and I know many of your constituents have Irish heritage. I haven't yet made an official visit to Australia but I am certain I will do so. I recently had the opportunity of engaging with a parliamentary delegation in 2012 and saw first-hand the unique operation of the politics in the chamber in Australia.

Can I say that my ministerial colleagues Padraig O'Donovan and Mr David Stanton will be down for St Patrick's Day, indeed Minister Stanton in Minister Bishop's native area of Western Australia. Can I also say that Ireland and Australia enjoy an excellent relationship - much of it thanks to ties forged by our diaspora. In the 2011 census nearly 2.1 million Australians indicated that they have Irish ancestry, some one in three Australians claim Irish heritage and many people identify strongly with their Irish roots. Indeed, no doubt these genes assist with sales of sun screen in Australia.

Your home state of Western Australia provided a particularly warm welcome and indeed proves really popular with more recent Irish emigrants. Can I say behind us we acknowledge that 2016, last year, represented the anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries and we are delighted to launch an exhibition of photographs celebrating the anniversary. The exhibition consists of seventy photos documenting the relationship between Ireland and Australia over the past seventy years and references our deep ongoing ties. You will see that the pictures in the exhibition onscreen will be available to view online on the website of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in Dublin.

On behalf of our business and trade can I just say that Australia is an increasingly important market for Irish companies, both in its own right and as a base for the Asia Pacific region. There are currently over a hundred and ten Irish companies with a visible presence in Australia while at least forty Australian companies have set up operations in Ireland in recent times. Ireland's exports to Australia were valued at 923 million euro in 2015 and I am also very pleased that the European Australian Business Council will visit Dublin as part of their annual mission to Europe later on this year, in June. The setting up of an Irish chapter of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce which Minister Bishop met with this morning has further enriched the business relationship between our two countries.

On the matter of tourism, Australia is the seventh largest market for visitors to Ireland. Two hundred thousand Australian visitors came to Ireland in 2015 and we are anxious to intensify and improve upon those figures.

In our meeting this afternoon we considered the very serious situation for Ireland on the matter of the withdrawal of our nearest neighbour the United Kingdom from the European Union. We discussed the challenges and the opportunities posed by Brexit. We discussed Ireland's deep commitment to the European Union and the Eurozone and the advantages of our position as an English speaking country at the heart of Europe to our trading partners. Although BREXIT will clearly be a major focus for the European Union in the period ahead we shouldn't lose sight of the fact for [inaudible]… ensuring concrete measures to continue on the European agenda for jobs and growth and security. Measures that continue to improve the lives of our citizens in the matter of delivering stability, peace and prosperity. An important part of this will be strengthening relations with friends outside of the European Union. I refer particularly to the matter of the Free Trade Agreement which we are anxious to develop between the European Union and Australia.

And can I say, in conclusion, we discussed the very important issue of the Rugby World Cup. This summer we will hold the Women's Rugby World Cup here in Ireland in August. And we are delighted that the Australian women's team has already qualified. And we look forward to giving them a very warm Irish welcome.

And I say that Ireland, as the Minister will already be aware, is also bidding to host the men's Rugby World Cup in 2023. The bid was launched last year by the Taoiseach and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland before Christmas. Australia can be assured that Ireland will deliver a tournament like no other full of Irish spirit, true to the core of the values of Irish rugby. And whilst we acknowledge of course that this is not a political decision we know that many of our friends in Australia are anxious to be supportive at this time. And I wish to acknowledge the very positive voice and encouraging influence of the recently arrived and newly appointed Ambassador Richard Andrews who is very welcome, and who plays a very strong and constructive role in ensuring that our relations are strong and positive notwithstanding the geographic distance between our two jurisdictions.

So Julie, I will let you say a few words.

MINISTER BISHOP: As counterpart foreign ministers we have met at meetings and summits around the world, but it is an absolute delight to be here in Dublin, to be here to discuss a range of issues. Of course this is the seventieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Ireland. It's also the ninetieth anniversary of when we started competing in rugby and I have to say that in relation to the not so subtle request for support for the Rugby World Cup in 2023, any team that can beat the All Blacks must have a head start in terms of Australia's support. We have suffered at the hands of the All Blacks. There's still the matter of the Australian women's rugby team that will be coming here later this year. An appropriate outcome there might be enough to persuade the Australian Rugby Union of the suitability of Dublin to host the World Cup. It's not a matter I determine but I will pass the message on to Bill Pulver and our representatives at the Australian Rugby Union.

Charlie, the discussion today underscored the strength of the relationship between Australia and Ireland. Yes, there is a significant diaspora in Australia and the Australians of Irish heritage have made an enormous contribution to our political, social, cultural, and economic makeup. Young Irish backpackers, those under working holiday visa arrangements, tourists, students are so welcome in Australia that we never want them to go home. We appreciate the enormous contribution that they make. They are welcome visitors and we hope that we can see more two-way exchange between young Australians travelling to Ireland and young Irish people coming to Australia, for that surely is our future. And for this relationship to endure we need an understanding amongst our young people of the importance of two countries that have so much in common.

We are open, liberal democracies. We are committed to freedoms, the rule of law, democratic institutions. We have both benefited from the international rules based order and have been advocates and promoters and defenders of it. We are both open, export orientated market economies and we have benefitted from our respective capacities to sell our goods and services around the world.

Australia has, over recent years, concluded very significant free trade agreements with the North Asia economic giants China and Japan and Korea. This has been of enormous benefit to Australia but it also presents us as a very attractive location, as a gateway into the dynamic and growing economies of South and North Asia.

Likewise, post Brexit we see enormous opportunities for Australia and Ireland to deepen and broaden and diversify our trade and investment relationship. We now see Ireland very much as a gateway for Australia and other countries into the European Union. And as you point out Minister, we are very keen to negotiate and conclude a free trade agreement between Australia and the European Union. We certainly look to Ireland to assist us in negotiating an outcome that would be of benefit I believe to the people of the European Union and certainly to Australia.

At a bilateral level I think that there's much more that we can do together as two like-minded nations. Infrastructure investment, I've noticed the number of cranes on the skyline here in Dublin. There is obviously significant investment going on here. Likewise we would welcome infrastructure investment in Australia. You have a dynamic innovation agenda and strategy. Likewise in Australia we are focusing on innovation and creativity and have a national innovation and science agenda. And I believe there are opportunities for more research and development collaboration between our two countries.

In the education sector, tourism, I believe there is much more that we can do together. We are natural partners and I look forward to taking the opportunities that the challenges facing our countries and facing the globe present to us. For every challenge there is an opportunity and I feel sure that Australia and Ireland will be able to embrace those opportunities together. I hope that there will be many more visits, at a Government to Government level, business to business, and people to people. I am deeply grateful for the hospitality that has been extended to me and I look forward to a return visit as soon as possible. And likewise I now, in front of your media, extend an official invitation for you to visit Australia in your capacity as Foreign Minister as soon as possible. You would be most welcome.


JOURNALIST: Minister Bishop, may I start with you. In terms of the opportunities to be presented post Brexit in Ireland, what industries are you talking about there, specifically? Are you talking agriculture or tourism?

Minister Bishop: In terms of the potential Australia-EU free trade agreement, we certainly see opportunities in agriculture, agri-business, services. I think there are many complementary aspects to the Australian economy and the European Union. In terms of our bilateral relationship with Ireland, I've mentioned some of them, I think on the infrastructure side of things there is much that can be done. We have a Northern Australia Development policy. We are looking for foreign investment into the development of the north of Australia. We would certainly welcome Irish investment. In the R&D/tech space as well, I think Dublin is a vibrant, high tech city with many of the significant tech companies operating here. I have to say its tax environment is enough to make corporate Australia weep. Twelve and a half percent corporate tax is a pretty attractive draw card and I also think that there is much more that we can do in services. So a range of areas where I believe that Australia's strengths will be matched by Irish strengths and most certainly in the EU.

JOURNALIST: Minister, could I just turn to Brexit please. The Taoiseach was yesterday in Brussels saying that any deal in negotiations should leave the way open for Northern Ireland to return to Europe and the possibility of an All-Ireland arrangement there. We have such a capacity in the Good Friday Agreement. Could you maybe elaborate how the Taoiseach has now gone further in statements on this issue today and yesterday and how you think they should be, this arrangement could be…. [inaudible]

Minister Flanagan: I want to fully endorse what the Taoiseach said in Brussels. In fact while he was speaking I was in Armagh and Belfast and we should under no circumstances underestimate the very serious challenge that the withdrawal of the UK poses for Ireland with particular reference to Northern Ireland and the peace process. Acknowledging the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland actually voted to remain within the European Union and having regard to the terms and conditions of the Good Friday Agreement, I wish to make it clear that the good Friday agreement will be centre stage in these negotiations. I am fully anxious that each and every term and condition of the Good Friday Agreement is honoured and in no way disrupted in the context of negotiations for the withdrawal of the UK. It is absolutely essential in the context of the peace process that the open border remains. That will be a challenge for the negotiations. The Taoiseach has received the support of many heads of state and governments over the last few weeks and months on that. I am encouraged by the response I have received from my EU colleagues across the European Union on the importance of the peace process to Europe and the particular circumstances that exist on the island of Ireland with reference to trade, with reference to the freedom of movement of people, and with reference to the open border that has been particularly evident since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Taoiseach makes an important point, clearly underlining the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement.

JOURNALIST: Nice to see you again, Minister. Just one more thing about the post Brexit environment. Is Australia prioritising an EU trade agreement with the EU as opposed to a bilateral agreement with UK? I mean they will probably be simultaneous but is the priority access to European Union through Ireland?

And Minister Flanagan if you would update us on the developments in regard to Ibrahim Halawa if you get a chance.

Minister Bishop:Thank you. My understanding is that we will seek to formalise the negotiation process with the EU some time this year. This is what Australia hopes to do. There are high level visits from the EU to Australia scheduled from the middle of the year. Discussions about a free trade agreement between Australia and the EU have been going on for some time and so we hope that we would be able to commence formal negotiations as soon as possible. I also understand that the UK will not be in a position to negotiate a free trade agreement with another country until such a time that Brexit has occurred and of course how that occurs will determine the position that the UK will be in to negotiate free trade agreements. So I think the natural priority will be EU and thereafter we would look to negotiate with the United Kingdom when it was appropriate to do so.

Minister Flanagan: Can I say the case of Ibrahim Halawa, Irish citizen detained in Cairo, remains my top priority in terms of consular services. I am concerned that this matter be resolved at the earliest opportunity. My diplomatic efforts continue. I want to acknowledge that during the course of a recent court hearing medical opinion was sought and I understand that these medical tests are currently underway. We are in contact with the authorities in Egypt and I am very anxious that the best medical treatment be made available to Ibrahim Halawa. That his health and welfare concerns are paramount and my understanding that he is receiving such treatment in accordance with a decision of the court. Which I understand stems from an application on his own part that he be medically examined. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions in recent times and while I would like to see the trial be completed and Ibrahim returned home. In the meantime, while he remains under detention his health and wellbeing is paramount.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Bishop, given your current trip involved meetings with Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Tillerson, I understand your visit did not involve meetings with US State officials, but would you have any advice for Minister Flanagan in dealing with this administration generally and also in terms of the undocumented people and to ensure the future that they are going to have.

MINISTER BISHOP:I have been in Washington this week and have had the opportunity to meet with Secretary Tillerson because his confirmation had gone through the Senate. I understand that at the time that Charlie was there he had not yet been confirmed. Likewise I met with Vice President Pence, and I also had the opportunity to meet with the new national security advisor, General McMaster, although I believe as a serving member of the defence force he has to go through a confirmation hearing.

I was delighted by the constructive nature of the discussions. There is a lot of goodwill towards Australia in the United States. After all the United States is our major security and defence ally, our largest source of foreign direct investment, our second largest trading partner. We are close allies, partners and friends. We had very constructive discussions about a whole range of issues facing the United States and Australia, globally, regionally, and very strong focus on our bilateral relationship. I wouldn't deign to give Charlie Flanagan advice on how to deal with his counterparts, I'm sure he's very capable of doing that.

We did discuss our perspectives, our insights, with the new Trump administration and I was very impressed with the members of the administration I met. They had an acute understanding of the United States' role in the world, as the largest economy and the largest military power in the world. I was pleased with the interest and understanding in our part of the world, India/Russia/Asia-Pacific and their willingness to listen. To ask for ideas, perspectives and insights, given that we have been involved in many efforts to bring peace and stability and security with the United States, in coalition with the United States over the years. It was heartening to have a conversation about a whole range of things.

In relation to the pronouncements or the executive orders from President Trump, clearly he campaigned on a certain platform and he's seeking to deliver on the promises he made to the American people during the campaign. But it's a matter for each country to determine its immigration policies, its border protection policies. Just as Australia determines our policies, so the United States is determining theirs. I feel we have an administration that we can work successfully with on a whole range of challenges as well as embracing the opportunities they will bring.

Minister Flanagan: Same as Julie, I was very pleased to have an early opportunity of visiting senior members of the new administration in the US. I think it's absolutely vital that we have early and positive engagement. I met some senior figures and as well as conveying the important message from Ireland in terms of continuing the very high level of engagement having regard to the special relationship between Ireland the US going back generations. I felt it was important that I have a face to face meeting with senior players and also of course in my capacity as a foreign minister in the European Union. I did express the concern of the Irish people in the matter of executive order on immigration but I also laid the grounding for the Taoiseach's visit on St Patrick's Day where he will have an opportunity of meeting directly with President Trump and other senior figures. I believe it is important that we engage at the highest level and that we continue to have a very, very strong and constructive and positive bilateral relationship between Ireland and the United States. It is a special relationship and I believe it is important that that continue.

JOURNALIST: Minister Bishop, is Australia taking the lead in the Trans Pacific Partnership now that the Americans have pulled out and how quickly will the process pick up and be concluded?

MINISTER BISHOP:All eleven members of the TPP, or twelve minus one as some describe it, have been maintaining contact to ensure that that the principles and the standards that were agreed and achieved in the TPP can survive. And the discussions continue as to how the TPP could operate without the United States, whether other nations would be interested in joining or whether it would become part of the broader discussion on an Asia Pacific free trade zone. So it's early days. There is a two year window for the TPP to be ratified and we still have ongoing discussions with the United States about how the spirit and principles of this high quality and comprehensive free trade agreement can be maintained in some form. I note that the United States, the new administration, has expressed a keen interest in pursuing some bilateral free trade agreements with individual members of the TPP including Japan so I think this discussion has a long way to go.

JOURNALIST: Minister, I would ask for some reflections on the last momentous week for Fine Gael in terms of the leadership and maybe what the parliamentary party members should do over the next month in terms of clarifying what they would like to see in a new leader.

Minister Flanagan:All weeks in politics are difficult and challenging. I think it's true to say that this was a particularly intensive week in terms of government and perhaps in terms of party. I'm very pleased that we had a very positive discussion at our parliamentary party meeting during the week. I believe it's important that every government minister focus now on the job to hand. We're coming up a very critical period now in terms of the invoking of the article 50 by the British Prime Minister and British Government. Our preparations for BREXIT are well under way. It is our wish that the formal negotiations would commence at the earliest opportunity. I acknowledge the very positive meeting yet again in Brussels yesterday between the Taoiseach and key European leaders. And can I say his influence, his expertise and his experience over the past number of years in Europe has been of huge advantage to Ireland and its people. I understand that it is the intention of the Taoiseach to continue that engagement over the next few months at the very least and I look forward to working very closely with him in my capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

There will be a leadership vacancy in Fine Gael over the next few months most likely. As soon as the formalities have been announced I know that those involved will engage with their electorate, the parliamentary party, the wider organisation in accordance with the constitution and rules. But let me say there will be no distraction from the job at hand. A minority government with a program for government in the course of implementation with very many challenges across a range of government departments.

I don't believe that the transition from Enda Kenny's leadership to his successor over the next number of months will lead in any way a distraction to the job at hand.

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