Taoiseach warns against Brexit
A UK exit from the European Union would have profound implications for Northern Ireland, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has warned.
Addressing business figures in Belfast, Mr Kenny stressed the benefits the European Union had delivered in the region.
The issue of EU membership and the potential of a referendum on the issue in 2017 is set to be a key issue in the UK general election in May.
Addressing CBI Northern Ireland's annual dinner, Mr Kenny said the specific impact of the EU on Northern Ireland had not really been focused on in the debate to date.
He said it had been a "significant force for good" in the region.
"The implications of a British exit from the EU for Northern Ireland should not be forgotten," he said.
He said the EU had facilitated contact and engagement between Britain and Ireland during the peace process and also brought many economic benefits to Northern Ireland, highlighting European structural and agricultural funding.
"It has helped to both cement the foundation and knit the infrastructural skeleton of the economy here," he said.
"Membership of the common market has been an obvious boon to Northern Irish exporters and businesses. It has brought jobs and investment and put more money in peoples' pockets. We shouldn't forget too that it's a major factor in attracting foreign companies to our shores.
"Being part of the EU's commercial and economic framework has mitigated our island's relative geographic remoteness. Although we are on the periphery, we are seamlessly part of the European economy.
"This is all the more important because of the globalised world we live in. Economies like those in the Republic, or in Northern Ireland, can't afford to go it alone.
"Economic heft and strength - especially when it comes to negotiating trade deals and creating a vast home market - is to be found in unity, not isolation. That's why disengaging from the EU would therefore be - in my view - a retrograde economic step for Northern Ireland.
"I hope that the majority of the business community here agrees with me when it comes to the importance of EU membership for the Northern Irish economy. And so, I ask that you not be shy in making your voices heard. That's because, when it comes to a fundamental debate such as this, citizens respect the voice of enterprise. They know that your view will be formed with jobs and growth in mind.
"You therefore have real influence and standing and I hope that you wield it wisely."
In his keynote speech, Mr Kenny also reiterated his government's support for the recent Stormont House political deal - an accord that has been stalled by another row over welfare reform policies between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
"The Stormont House Agreement now sets a roadmap for the Northern Executive to put its finances on a sustainable footing for the future and to move forward with the necessary rebalancing of its economy to promote growth and jobs," he said.
"Implementing the Agreement will be challenging, and will require concerted efforts from all involved.
"Developments in recent weeks saw the first significant challenge, on the issue of welfare reform. The people of Northern Ireland deserve comprehensive solutions to the challenges before them, and it is the task of political leaders to provide this regardless of unforeseen difficulties.
"I know that the Northern Ireland party leaders have been meeting regularly on this issue and have demonstrated the will and energy needed to find a resolution.
"My government will continue to play its part. We will continue to work with the Northern Executive and engage in close political cooperation. We will work for ever closer and practical economic cooperation to accelerate growth and secure the creation of sustainable jobs on this island. We will also continue our close engagement with the British government."