'We have to stay connected': Irish ex-Unilever boss pleads to avoid another Brexit

Niall FitzGerald says it’s worrying when people blame trade for being less well-off.

By Paul O'Donoghue

ONE OF IRELAND’S most prominent business leaders will warn against a ‘growing trend of isolationism’ in the wake of events such as the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

Sligo native Niall FitzGerald, who served as the chairman and chief executive of consumer goods giant Unilever, is set to address the British Irish Chamber of Commerce’s council meeting in London later today.

FitzGerald, who also held senior positions at a huge range of companies including Reuters, Bank of Ireland and Ericsson, will say that he is hopeful that a trend of “going it alone” does not catch on.

“The strategic purpose of the EU was to deliver for the people of Europe, peace, power and prosperity, and on this it has exceeded beyond anything imagined in 1955 or 1973,” he will say.

“And going it alone in the world also brings some very real dangers. Because it turns out that Britain’s decision to take back control – and the sense thus far that it seems to be working out OK – (which is dangerous in my view) is already echoing elsewhere.

“Recent events in the US have only added to the dangers that we were already seeing building up closer to home.”

niall fitzgerald unilever British Chamber patron and former Unilever CEO Niall Fitzgerald
Source: Youtube

Perception and reality

He acknowledges that the UK will “rightly” look to begin the process of leaving the EU the next year, noting that it was the democratic will of the voters.

However, he will add that trade is “at the heart of working peaceably across boundaries and borders”.

“We need to be concerned when people start to blame trade for being less well off,” he will say.

“When they say that business is part of the problem, not the solution. If they feel they’ve been left behind and without a voice, as has clearly been a factor for voters in both the UK and the US this year, then business, as well as politics, needs to help address both the reality and the perception.”


FitzGerald will argue that “open, connected markets grow trade and more trade enables more jobs and wellbeing in our local domestic communities”.

“The role of politicians is then to ensure that the benefits are distributed fairly and the role of business is to lead by example,” he will say.

“When people don’t believe that the ability to work for a firm which does business beyond its locality is something that makes them better off, not worse, it’s as much a challenge to business as to our politicians and we have to work together to deliver the answers people seek.”

Earlier this year FitzGerald appealed to Irish companies to focus on trading more with the UK rather than less in the wake of the Brexit vote and said that Ireland and the UK need to form education partnerships in an effort to prevent a “brain drain”.