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Address by the Tánaiste to the SDLP Annual Conference

Northern Ireland Peace Process, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Northern Ireland, 2013

Réamhrá

Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo i measc baill agus cairde an SDLP inniú. 

Le fada an lá, tá dea-chlú toillte ag an SDLP in Éirinn agus thar sáile as an saothar a rinne sibh, agus atá fós idir lámha agaibh, ar son na síochána, ar son athmhuintearais agus ar son rath geilleagrach an phobail i dTuaisceart Éireann.  Gan amhras, ní mór a aithint freisin go mothaítear na buntáistí a thagann ó shíochán, ó dhul chun cinn maidir le athmhuintearas agus ó thaobh na heacnamaíochta de ar dhá thaobh na teorainne.  

Is léir go bhfuil an SDLP ar aon intinn leis an bPáirtí Lucht Oibre agus le Rialtas na hÉireann i gcoitianta nach bhfuilimid ag baint lán-úsáide ná buntáiste as na feidearachtaí agus na hachmhainne a bheadh ar fáil do mhuintir an oileáin seo dá mba rud é go mbeimid toilteanach oibriú níos dlúithe agus níos straitéiseacha le chéile Thuaidh Theas.

Molaim ról láidir an SDLP san comhoibriú idir Rialtas na hÉireann agus Feidhmeannas Thuaisceart Éireann mar chuid den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas.  

Ina theannta sin,  tá mé an-bhuíoch thar ceann mo Pháirtí agus Rialtas na nÉireann as an buan-sheasamh atá tógtha agaibh le cúig bliana deag anuas le Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.

The SDLP as a party

I am honoured to address this conference of a Party with a distinguished and honourable record of achievement.  A Party which,  like the Irish Labour Party, came into being to address grave social and economic injustices and inequalities.  A Party which, like the Irish Labour Party, is proud of its origins, of its past and recent record.  A Sister Party which shares our aims of changing our society for the better through social and economic justice in line with the best European Social Democratic tradition.

Today we meet under the banner of ‘Hope and Ambition for Ireland’ and I come here today to affirm that message and to call on the SDLP to work with the Irish Government to realise that ambition for Ireland, North and South. 

The Troika paid their final visit to Dublin this week, as Ireland prepares to exit the bailout. The past two and a half years have been a tough, exacting and, at times, frustrating course.  The economic collapse affected every person in the country.  It affected employment, pay and services.  It affected confidence.  It affected Ireland’s reputation.   It affected the capacity of the Government to make the level of investment in an all-island economy that we would have liked to make.

But we were determined – determined that Ireland would, once again, offer its people a secure future, a bright future.  

Determined that Ireland would be Europe’s success story.

That is why we took decisive action to recapitalise and restructure our banks.  That is why we insisted on re-writing the terms and conditions of our bail-out, and we tore up the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note. That is why we have not shirked our deficit targets.  That is why we instigated major reform of our welfare services, so that we do not have – as we did in the nineties – years of jobless growth.  That is why we have prioritised investment in the infrastructure, the training, the reforms that reflect not just our needs now, but our aspirations for the future.

And it is that future which we look forward to here today. 

This is a good time to have great hope and ambition for Ireland.  I would like to touch on two areas where the SDLP and Irish Government can work collaboratively to realize the ambitions which we share – (1) Removing the brakes on an all-Island Economic Relationship and (2) Renewing our commitments to Reconciliation.

Renewing our commitment to Reconciliation

This year, as we mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I am particularly pleased to be here today with the Party whose guiding principles, whose ambition and political action were critical to the origins of, the genesis of and the ultimate achievement of the Agreement.   And on this 15th anniversary of the Agreement we need to take stock of where we are in terms of peace and reconciliation, potential and prosperity a decade and a half after the transformational moment of the signing of the Agreement.  

In recent weeks a number of events have again served as reminders of the devastation that the conflict wrought on families and communities.  Allegations of collusion and the murders described in Anne Cadwallader’s book Lethal Allies, the BBC and RTÉ documentary on The Disappeared this week, the anniversaries of the Shankill and Greysteel bombs, and the first anniversary of the murder of David Black continue to reverberate through society. 

And it is right that they do.  However painful, we must find ways to acknowledge and to deal with what has happened. 

This was the message that four of my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party gave to representatives of the Families of the Disappeared when they met them – at the invitation of the SDLP – in Belfast City Hall on Friday. And that is why we in the Labour Party will facilitate the Families of the Disappeared in bringing their exhibition on their loved ones to towns and cities throughout Ireland.  

In terms of how we collectively deal with the past, there is much in the Eames/Bradley report of five years ago that we can use for addressing this outstanding issue. That is a point I made to Dr Richard Haass when I met him in Dublin last week and that I will continue to emphasise as those discussions reach their conclusion.

The theme of today’s conference also recalls the hope and ambition of the Good Friday Agreement.  And astounding progress has been made in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement by the people of Ireland, North and South.  And I commend those of all parties who have shown courageous and constructive leadership in the period since. 

But this has been a fraught year for community and political relations.  It is now a time to have honest conversations about the causes of strains and stresses, about the ongoing hurt of so many and about the political and societal absences which confound matters at best and aggravate them at worst. 

But thanks to the work of those who worked to produce the Good Friday Agreement, we are not starting with a blank sheet.  The Good Friday Agreement provided a framework, at least in part, to guide us. 

In my view, we need to do three things:

We need to reaffirm our commitment to fundamental principles on which the peace process was founded:  power-sharing, equality; ending division; human rights; parity of esteem; support for the rule of law and for the devolved institutions; and the continued shared responsibility of the two Governments to act as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

We need to realise in full the potential of the Agreement and all its parts including a bill of rights, a civic forum, greater participation of women in political life, integrated education and shared housing.  We cannot be selectively blind to those parts we find difficult.  When we pick and choose the balance and integrity of the whole is picked apart.

We need to recall and renew the hope, ambition and political leadership which made the Agreement possible in order to deal with the challenges which we are currently facing including in the context of the ongoing Haass process.

These are substantial and ambitious undertakings and they can only be achieved through close and honest cooperation between the two Governments and parties in the North.  It also requires a broader mobilisation of opinion across business, community, faith and other sectors to demand real and consistent investment by all in a more reconciled and prosperous future.  I commend the approach which the SDLP, represented by Alex Attwood and Joe Byrne, have taken to the current talks process.  The rigour of your analysis and thinking sets the bar high for all other participants.  We share your level of ambition in the context of the talks process.  This is a time for hope and the ambition to see further progress made towards advancing reconciliation and the creation of a truly reconciled society. 

Removing the brakes on an All-Island Economic Relationship

Nowhere is the thinking of the Irish Government and the SDLP closer than on our shared ambition to realise the potential of all-island Economic Cooperation. 

And this is the right time to reinvigorate this work.  We are now creating 3,000 new jobs each month – a stark contrast with thirty months ago when 7000 jobs a month were being lost.    Unemployment has fallen to below 400,000 last month for the first time in four years.  Exports are growing.  Confidence is growing.  With the ECB interest rate cut last Thursday, businesses now have an increased incentive to invest and to expand.

Arguably consideration of an all-island economy evokes the classic question of whether the glass is ‘half-full or half-empty’.

And certainly, on the one hand, there is so much to be positive about.  And I am not thinking here only of the future fortunes of the Republic of Ireland football team and its prospects under Ireland’s most anticipated new North-South partnership, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane!

Yesterday’s North South Ministerial Council Plenary here in Armagh provided an opportunity to highlight progress across a range of areas

I said yesterday that we need to seize the opportunities now available on an all-island basis to build trade links with the key emerging markets.  And we are working to do that.   Our Embassies continue to be available to assist trade missions from both parts of the island and also individual companies working in either the North or South or on an all-island basis in these endeavours and to take advantage of opportunities they present for mutual cooperation;

The agri-food sector is recognised as one of the key engines of economic growth in the years ahead across this island.  There was Northern involvement the recent trade visit to the Gulf States which was led by Minister Coveney.  I would like to see more of this.

Yesterday youth unemployment was again on the agenda of the North South Ministerial Council and is now an area of agreed common concern.   We have to work together to tackle this matter which is of vital importance in both jurisdictions;

I know that youth employment features prominently in the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ strategy and that the issue is also a key theme in the proposals for the new PEACE Programme which emphasises youth unemployment as a potential challenge to developing the peace process.   There is therefore a great incentive for our administrations to work together on this and to make the most of the common approaches being taken North and South to deal with this key issue for the whole island.

I was clear that this year’s Global Irish Economic Forum should provide an opportunity to plan and to strategise on an all-island basis.  That is why I asked that one of the three regional events in advance of the Conference take place in Belfast.  Very significantly representatives of Northern companies and business groups also attended roundtable discussions with Network members as part of the main Forum event at Dublin Castle. The indications are that genuine contacts were established with real prospects for assisting the export growth of businesses with all-island business interests.

Their involvement has been very well received by the Northern business community. There has been recognition on their part of how much the economies North and South can gain from such co-operation;   InterTradeIreland provided valuable assistance in ensuring a strong level of Northern participation again underlining the importance on a practical and pragmatic basis of the North South bodies. 

The Government also used the opportunity of Ireland’s recent EU Presidency to invite members of the Executive, including Alex Attwood, to participate in Presidency-related events.  Speaking of Alex, I wish to pay tribute to him for his service on the Executive as Minister for the Environment.  I also take this opportunity to congratulate Mark H Durkan on his recent appointment as Minister and to wish him continued success in the task ahead. 

I have also availed of the opportunity of visits to the North to meet with representatives of the retail and business sector.  I believe firmly that we need to build up these networks of contacts and relationships.  And this is something which we can do at a personal, local, and party level as well as more formally through the Institutions. 

Following my recent visit to Derry I was particularly pleased that we had an opportunity yesterday to discuss the North West Gateway Initiative and we agreed a way to get forward momentum on that Initiative.  Derry and the North West have built up the relationships and have the drive and the capacity to make the most out of the Initiative.  I saw the fantastic job that Martin Reilly is doing as Mayor of that great city.

Again there are good examples in Derry of cross-border cooperation, perhaps most notably in terms of the cancer care services at Altnagelvin hospital.

But there is so much more that we could be doing.  Now is the time for an even greater emphasis on North-South co-operation from both the Irish Government and all the parties in the Executive.

There are gaps in services on both sides of the Border, in particular in rural areas, that could be alleviated more efficiently and effectively through North-South cooperation.  In fact, in the South it is precisely the border counties which record the highest rates of disadvantage across a number of indicators.    

I want to improve the lives and opportunities for ordinary people living in rural areas and in towns and villages along the border.  Pure and simple.  This goes to the heart of the mission of the Labour Party as it does to the SDLP. 

And so whilst I am sometimes frustrated by the pace of change, and there have been set-backs and potential unrealised, it is time to North South is on the right trajectory.  The work of the North South Ministerial Council was always meant to be about practical cooperation, and we need to keep working on the right methodologies to bring that about. 

Conclusion

Making progress, whether in the context of North-South relations or in the context of the Panel of Parties talks, relies on the maintenance, building and renewing of trust and friendship in the totality of relationships across these islands.

One-dimensional politics does not fit with the concept of the Good Friday Agreement, which  requires all of us, the SDLP, the government and others to all work together.

We cannot risk letting the germ of hope, opportunity and ambition which has taken hold in so many communities be left to go to seed.   I look forward also to working with the SDLP and with likeminded others to make this happen.