It is an honour and a pleasure to address the British Irish Association which, for over forty years, has consistently interrogated some of the most complex and difficult aspects of relations between Britain and Ireland.
I can think of no better setting for reflection on how we mark what was, for so long, a divisive and often brutal historical relationship than in the place where Oliver Cromwell studied, and in a hall that he probably knew well.
Thankfully, that part of our history is now confined to exactly that – history –freeing us to look ahead. By turning your attention in recent years to the economic relationship, to devolution and to the EU relationship, the BIA has shown a determination to address the issues that will continue to shape our future together.
I also want to acknowledge two people present this evening whose role has been outstanding.
Thomas Packenham was present at the creation of the BIA and celebrated his 80th birthday this year.
Paul Bew is stepping down as Chair after several years of thoughtful leadership. On behalf of all here tonight, Paul, thank you.
I cannot let this evening pass without talking of a great friend of the BIA and a keen supporter of its objectives. Seamus Heaney was a moral compass to all of us through the years of division and violence. He once described the wind in West Clare that can come at you sideways “and catch the heart off guard and blow it open”.
His death did just that, catching our heart off guard, depriving us of a man we loved and of a voice we had come to recognize as our own. A week later, we are still coming to terms with the enormity of our loss.
British Irish Relations – Progress, Opportunity and Challenge
Two years ago I had the honour of welcoming Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to Ireland. I did so at an airfield named for Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist executed in 1916 for treason against the British state. Knighted previously by the crown, Roger Casement embodies the complexity and closeness of relations between these islands.
Because it was one hundred years since the previous visit by a British monarch to Dublin, Queen Elizabeth’s visit was widely reported as closing off an episode in our history, as “normalising” relations between our two countries.
In reality however, it opened a new chapter, allowing us to consider what “normal” means in practice.
Because of course there is nothing conventional or “normal” about our relations - no benchmark against which we can compare it. There is no relationship between any two other states in Europe where history, culture, people, economy, land and maritime proximity are intertwined in such a way.
To see an Olympic stadium packed with British and Irish boxing fans on August 9th last year, and to hear Irish fans cheer for Nicola Adams, a British boxer from Leeds, and then to hear the British fans cheer for Katie Taylor, an Irish boxer from Bray – that is to understand what the new normal is. (The two women were, of course, boxing in separate bouts.)
If we have reached this point then that is due, in part at least, to the fact that we have asked searching questions of each other – and of ourselves – over many years.
In that spirit then, I want to consider some of the issues that I believe will shape this relationship profoundly in the coming years and to consider some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves. I believe that four issues in particular will – and are already – shaping the relationship.
Economic recovery – a shared objective
First are the efforts that both governments are making towards economic recovery and job creation. Since the present Irish Government took office two and a half years ago, regaining our economic sovereignty and providing a viable future at home for our young people has been our government’s central and overriding priority.
Job creation and economic growth is a priority for the British government too and this is driving cooperation to a degree not widely appreciated.
Historian Niall Ferguson famously coined a neologism for the symbiotic relationship between China and the US. He called it Chimerica.
Our two economies are integrated and interdependent to an extraordinary degree. We each have over $65billion directly invested in each other’s economy. Our exports to each other support around 200,000 jobs in both Britain and Ireland. We each recognize that our efforts towards recovery simply have to take account of the integrated nature of our two economies.
We have coined no word for this economy (and perhaps it is wiser that we don’t!) but we are investing in it to an unprecedented degree. In two weeks’ time the Secretaries General and Permanent Secretaries of most government departments in London and Dublin will meet in Dublin to consider how we can step up that work. These regular meetings are quite unique to both our countries.
The European Union – a shared asset
Second, and closely linked, is our common membership of the European Union. When you are members of the same club with so many common interests and a similar way of doing business, you grow closer. We certainly have.
Our hard work in Europe over forty years has shaped the way we work with each other – from our export markets to our extradition arrangements. I cannot think of an area that has not been enhanced in some way by those efforts.
Our public servants have come to know, understand and respect each other through that work.
So when I detect that those voices advocating greater detachment from Europe are gaining in strength and volume, I grow concerned. Because I know that our bilateral cooperation is woven so tightly into – and benefits so much from – our membership of the EU that they cannot be treated as alternatives.
A UK detachment from Europe would be bad for Europe.
I believe it would be bad for Britain, diminishing, rather than enhancing, its voice in international affairs.
It would be bad for Northern Ireland which has benefitted immeasurably from the EU – economically, financially, socially and indeed politically.
It would be bad for the Republic if its most important economic partner were to distance itself from the European Union. And it would be bad for North-South cooperation.
But most pertinent for our purposes this weekend, I believe it would be bad for British-Irish relations. I don’t doubt that any consequences would be unintended, and that we would make every effort to mitigate them. But at best British detachment from Europe would slow and limit our efforts towards closer cooperation with each other. At worst it could reverse them.
And that is why the Irish Government will continue to work cooperatively in Dublin, London, Brussels and elsewhere to support a genuine process of reflection, and to help ensure that during the debate on the EU, every effort is made to outline fully to the British people the genuine economic and political choices they face as they address their future in the EU.
Devolution or independence – a shared interest
Third is the debate underway on Scottish independence and, more generally, on the balance of powers between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
Ireland is not a participant in this debate which is entirely and appropriately a matter for voters in Scotland. Our overwhelming concern will be to ensure that our relations with all parts of the UK continue to thrive and to prosper.
But neither are we disinterested. Uniquely, Ireland has a constitutional relationship with the UK, reflected in the Good Friday Agreement and in a binding international treaty. We will want to maintain that close relationship with the peoples of our islands, regardless of the constitutional configuration.
Any reshaping of powers, whether through Scottish independence or further devolution, will inevitably impact on political discussion in Northern Ireland and our work together in support of the peace process. But it will not, I am confident, diminish our determination to move forward.
Northern Ireland – a shared responsibility
I want to focus my remarks in the time remaining on the peace process which more than any other issue has re-shaped our relations, and will continue to do so.
Twenty years ago, Patrick Mayhew addressed the BIA against the background of intensive work by both governments. Three months later, he and John Major, Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring agreed the Downing Street Declaration.
This was the culmination of a decade of work by our governments – including by three successive Conservative governments.
It committed both governments to a process that is as vital and as challenging today as it was 20 years ago.
Devolution changed the roles played by each of the governments. Once the Northern Ireland Executive was established, the governments created space for it to exercise its responsibilities.
But where issues emerge that threaten to stifle the further development of the process, each Government has assisted – as we did at Hillsborough in 2010 when policing and justice were devolved, and as we do on a daily basis through intensive security cooperation.
Let there be no doubt. The peace, prosperity and political stability of Northern Ireland are matters of the highest national interest to the Republic. The Irish government remains acutely conscious of its responsibilities as regards Northern Ireland.
Last week in Belfast I had an opportunity to meet with business representatives who are concerned that political priorities are determined by those who shout loudest. Too often, those are the most extreme voices.
I met with people who do not recognize themselves or their interests in the positions championed by the largest parties in the Executive, who feel that some of the decisions taken and the things said neither represent them nor reflect their views.
I met with community leaders in interface areas and in areas of high social and economic deprivation – good, dedicated people who are under extreme pressure after a full year of almost continuous tensions.
Earlier this summer, I met with the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I have also met with sporting bodies including the GAA, the IRFU and the Special Olympics in recent times.
I received three clear messages.
People do not want to lose all that has been gained over the past fifteen years. They fear a return of sectarian violence. Communities are aware that their work, on its own, cannot deliver reconciliation. And they recognize how the two governments can bring helpful perspective and practical support, as can broader international focus.
I am concerned.
I am concerned at the way in which the past is exercising a corrosive effect on political life and on community relations.
I am concerned at the pervasive and undiminished influence of sectarianism on civil life – and not solely in the more deprived communities.
I am concerned that civil society does not yet have the support it needs to deal with these issues.
The Belfast poet Sinead Morrissey captured many of these concerns when she wrote about
“ a delicate unravelling of wishes that leaves the future unspoken”
Good Friday Agreement – a shared blueprint
In supporting the growth and development of the process over the past 15 years, from local to international level, the Governments have accentuated the positive, celebrated progress and highlighted the signs of better community relations, economic growth, and better security.
We must not lose sight of any of these things.
But we need to reflect honestly on where there have been gaps left or intentions and commitments left unfulfilled.
Northern Ireland is currently facing many difficult issues and it is neither sensible nor realistic to expect the political system to shoulder these on its own.
It is regrettable that vital civic voices are too rarely heard or heeded. The Good Friday Agreement recognized the need to elaborate the principles according to which society could be protected and flourish, and the need to provide a space in which civic society organizations could play their role to the full in building a reconciled and prosperous society, free from political patronage or influence.
This is why commitments such as the Bill of Rights and the Civic Forum matter. They are not optional extras. They are fundamental. A strong civic society could almost be seen as a further strand to the process. We neglect it at our cost. We believe in these voices and we will support them.
The Haass talks – a unique opportunity
Let me be clear. Northern Ireland is an immeasurably better place that it was even five years ago, notwithstanding the very real economic challenges we all face.
As I mentioned previously, the British and Irish governments have, in recent times, given the Executive and the Assembly the space to work out solutions to local challenges.
But there is now a need for both Governments to re-assert our roles as co-guarantors of the Agreement.
The events of recent months surrounding disputes over flags and parades and the tensions and disorder they have provoked, alongside the unresolved issues of how to deal with the past, are exerting a harmful and even regressive effect on politics and community relations.
This is not an issue on which either the nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist community can claim to be fully in the right or fully in the wrong.
I acknowledge that republicans in Castlederg are entitled to remember those republicans who died during the troubles – but I disagree with the way they did so this year. Their entitlement is tempered by responsibility to respect and be sensitive to the suffering of victims of the Troubles. I saw little of that respect or sensitivity in Castlederg last month.
Last week I spoke with residents in Short Strand, in Carrick Hill and in Ardoyne who are threatened and offended repeatedly by the manner in which the Loyal Orders conduct their parades. I respect their right to march, but that right too is tempered by respect for residents and the exercise of civic responsibility.
Both communities and the organisations which claim to represent them have the right to celebrate their history and traditions but if these events commemorate acts of conflict or involve displays of triumphalism or antagonism against their neighbour then people need to reflect more deeply about the value of such commemorations and how they are marked.
But I remain hopeful.
First, because I believe the political parties have recognised they cannot solve these problems alone.
Second, because Richard Haass brings enormous skill and experience to bear on the issues. He cannot work miracles. Every participant at the table carries responsibility to approach these talks in a spirit of genuine compromise. After all, every political party has pledged to work for reconciliation and the promotion of tolerance.
This means that emerging from the Haass talks we must have a clear way forward on all of the contentious issues – flags, parades, and the past.
The basis for agreement on these issues already exists. The talks therefore are a unique opportunity to resolve them. The ambition and resolve to do so is what is required.
Third, because I know from discussion with the President Obama, Vice President Biden and with Secretary of State John Kerry – who I met with this morning – that the US administration is committed to supporting these talks in every possible way.
Fourth, because the European Union continues to provide immense practical support. I made it a particular priority of our EU Presidency to ensure that that is sustained through the next budgetary cycle, with €150 million now allocated towards a fourth EU peace Programme.
And fifth, because I know how committed both governments are to supporting his work on each of these issues, including the past.
Responsibility for the past was never devolved in full to the Executive. The British and Irish governments bear responsibilities too.
I don’t believe we can address the past constructively unless we are each prepared to ask questions of ourselves and our own role, as Prime Minister Cameron did so memorably when he responded to the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday.
The Irish Government speaks on this from difficult experience. In recent months the Irish state has had to confront searching questions about its own role in relation to institutional abuse. We are better for having done so. Society is better.
In the same spirit, we need to acknowledge the neglect and disappointment of nationalists who feel that Irish governments did too little to address, or even recognise, their plight in the decades before the Troubles, notwithstanding the ground breaking initiatives undertaken by Seán Lemass.
We need to assure them that this Irish government is engaged and will continue to be.
We need to acknowledge those unionists who feel that, notwithstanding the sacrifices made by members of an Garda Síochána and the Irish Army throughout the Troubles, the Irish state could have done more to prevent the IRA’s murderous activities in border areas.
We also need to find new ways of approaching our history – not simply a decade of commemoration but a decade of reconciliation too.
In his poem Terminus, Heaney spoke of living in a world of duality and contrasts. He uses a series of images to convey that duality: the acorn and the rusted bolt, the factory chimney and the mountain, the engine and the trotting horse.
Our history is a dual history – most of us were raised on one of two primary narratives and we were inevitably formed by that. But unless we are attentive and respectful to both traditions, nationalist and unionist, we will remain a divided society.
We each bear a dual civic responsibility.
It is a responsibility to show up, to attend in a way that is respectful to the experience of all Irish men and women – my grandparents and yours – a century ago. Last November I attended the Remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Belfast and laid a wreath that honours all Irish men who died in the First World War, including those who fought to maintain the union. I intend to do so again this year.
And it is a responsibility to prepare and carry out our commemorations in a way that gives no offence and is mindful of the sensitivities of all citizens.
I don’t underestimate the challenges this will involve but I know they are surmountable, especially if we take our lead from the gracious and mutual respect shown by Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese in Dublin two years ago.
If we are true to the lead that they showed, then I would hope that we can host representatives of the Royal Family and the British Government, along with the leaders of unionism, in Dublin in three years’ time in remembering the Easter Rising. I hope also that three months later we can all respectfully remember those who gave their lives in British uniform at the battle of the Somme.
This dual responsibility extends also to the way elected representatives carry out their political, civic and cultural responsibilities, mindful of all citizens and not solely of those who vote a particular way. It extends also to the manner in which I believe they must approach the Haass talks.
When the British and Irish governments agreed that each would bear their burden, the peace process found the space to gradually grow and flourish, bringing in a range of voices and participants, civic and political.
Seamus Heaney concludes his reflection in Terminus with a metaphor we might do well to be guided by over the coming months:
“Two buckets were easier carried than one,
I grew up in between”