Statement by the Tánaiste on Northern Ireland05 February 2014
- Check against delivery -
A Cheann Chomhairle,
I welcome this opportunity to reflect on developments in Northern Ireland, in particular on the recent political talks and on the contribution and role of the Irish Government in support of political progress, reconciliation and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Over the past few years, there have been significant developments across the agenda of Government in British –Irish relations. There is a mutual interest and ease in cooperation, trust and respect which goes across Government and which reaches beyond it into the official and civic spheres also.
I have experienced this on my visits to Britain, when I have encountered the assurance and confidence of the many younger Irish people who are succeeding in business, in the arts and in all sectors in Britain: Being Irish in Britain now has only positive connotations.
Engagement with the British Government is increasingly about our bilateral opportunities, our shared interests in Europe and internationally. Our economic inter-dependence is explicitly recognised and valued by both Governments with one billion worth of traded goods and services crossing the Irish Sea each week. We will continue to grow this area of cooperation.
Yet cooperation in support of reconciliation, prosperity and a shared perspective in Northern Ireland remains at the heart of the British-Irish relationship. The British-Irish bilateral relationship has been both a catalyst for positive change in Northern Ireland and it has benefited from that change. We want to ensure that the strengthening of the British-Irish bilateral relationship benefits, and is reflected fully in Northern Ireland.
Political Talks: Remaining Challenges
This is because, despite the enormous political progress of recent years, a number of significant challenges remain with respect to Northern Ireland. In my recent visits, I’ve been confronted with concerns about identities under threat, about work that is still needed to ensure parity of esteem, and about the virulence of sectarianism. And that is why reaching agreement around the proposals which emerged from the Panel of Parties talks is so important.
Parades, flags and emblems and contending with the Past can be touch-paper issues which, in the absence of agreement at Executive level on how best to deal with them, continue to disrupt other areas of government and civic life. We saw that happen on numerous occasions during 2013.
Agreement and unity on these issues would, I believe, inspire a new sense of security and confidence across communities in Northern Ireland. And the Northern Ireland parties deserve and require all the support they can get from across society and from the two Governments.
I confirm that this Government will provide that support to the full as the NI parties seek to complete their work on these issues. Both governments have made clear that we attach high importance to the Parties making progress on these issues and we aim to facilitate progress in any way we can.
This work is important in itself but it is also necessary so that the Parties can turn their attention to other serious pressing issues around unemployment, education, and economic recovery.
North South Opportunities
The fact is that the Irish Government has no closer political relationship than with the Northern Ireland Executive. And there is a shared interest currently to move North/South cooperation in a practical direction in support of recovery. Ministers have been reviewing priorities in their respective areas especially where they could cultivate more economic recovery, job creation, the best use of public funds and the most effective delivery of services. We are making real progress in these issues.
I would like to see a new approach to co-operation that would emphasise job creation and boosts exports and economic activity. Opportunities for greater cooperation in higher education, youth employment measures, transport, sport and health are also being looked at very carefully.
I have seen from visiting Derry that there are great synergies – real and potential – between Derry and Donegal. Since 2006, the Government and Executive have worked hard with local stakeholders, through the North West Gateway Initiative, to take the fullest advantage of the potential for cooperation at all levels within the region. There has been good progress with the Altnagelvin Radiotherapy Centre as a regional centre which will serve all the people of the North West. There is also excellent co-operation between the IDA and Invest NI on the North West Business Technology Zone which is providing linkages between industry, the colleges and Altnagelvin.
As well as looking at cooperation on this island, the Government and Northern Ireland Executive are looking also as how we can collaborate internationally, to ensure that where there are economies of scale which give us competitive advantage that we pursue those opportunities.
Implementation of the Agreements
The Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements have had an overwhelmingly positive and transformative effect on security, politics, economic and social opportunity on this island and in Northern Ireland most particularly. They came about as a result of a sustained effort over a number of years by the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Parties.
The US Government also played a crucial role, through its envoy George Mitchell, and directly, in facilitating Agreement in 1998. And the US administration continues to provide significant support and encouragement now in addressing current challenges. Vice President Biden, in particular, has made clear his support for the ongoing political talks and I would like to put on the record here today, my deep appreciation of his positive and ongoing contribution and that of the US Administration.
Taken together, the Agreements set out the guiding principles for peace, stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, namely; devolution, power-sharing; agreement on sovereignty; human rights; parity of esteem; support for the rule of law; and the continued shared responsibility of the two governments to guarantee these principles.
However the full potential of the Agreements has yet to be reached. We need to reflect honestly on where gaps remain and commitments are unfulfilled. As is the case in any comprehensive political agreement, implementation is essential to the integrity and balance of the whole.
I want to mention three issues I believe require particular effort. First is the strengthening of civic society in Northern Ireland. I support the establishment of a Civic Forum which would stimulate informed public debate in relation to key societal challenges.
As part of their work, Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan met with a variety of community groups and with representatives of wider civil society I believe that this consultation process enriched their work, in particular in relation to the proposals on contending with the Past.
I wish to put on the record today also my gratitude to them for their contribution in progressing so significantly public and political debate on the three contentious areas of Parades, Flags and Emblems and contending with the Past.
Through my Department’s Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds, we support the community sector to play itspart also. We enable organisations to pursue projects promoting genuine and lasting reconciliation and to build sustainable community relations. Grants totalling almost €2.7 million were made in 2013. I am pleased to confirm that an equivalent amount will be available in 2014 and I thank members of this House for their support through the estimates process for this important resource.
Second is the need for further progress in a rights-based approach to addressing contentious issues.
During my visits to Northern Ireland, I have been struck by the level of interest amongst a broad swathe of civic society in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Many of the contentious issues around culture and identity have rights at their core and progress on a Bill of Rights could provide a framework for the resolution of such issues.
Third is the need to give effects to the principle of parity of esteem.
I believe, for example,that an Irish Language Act should be introduced in Northern Ireland. All parties to the Good Friday Agreement recognised the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity.
Seeing through the implementation of the remaining elements of the Agreements is about supporting stability, prosperity and reconciliation. They are not add-ons, belonging to one party to the Agreement or another, they are integral to it. I am confident that working together the NI parties, with the support of the two Governments, will complete this important work.
I do not underestimate the nature, scale or complexity of the work ahead.
What started as a political process almost thirty years ago continues today as a journey toward reconciliation as complex and as challenging as any previous phase. But if we rise to the challenge, it will continue to be every bit as rewarding economically, socially and politically for every inhabitant on this island.
A Cheann Comhairle,
A few weeks ago we marked the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration – a landmark in British Irish relations and in the peace process that has helped redefine political relations on this island.
Every party in this House has played its part in shaping and guiding that process through challenges that often appeared insurmountable. That we have come so far is a tribute to this House which has long taken the view that this work lies above politics, above party advantage.
But we need to be vigilant, alert to the risk of complacency. We have come a long way and some may be tempted to say that “this good is good enough”. It is not.
If we cease moving forward, we risk handing the momentum to those would turn the clock back.
The challenges that face us now, whilst considerable, are far from insurmountable.
Parades can and should be regulated in a manner that encourages dialogue, respect and compromise.
Steps can and should be taken that provide for the respectful expression of British and Irish cultural identity – whether that is for the appropriate display of the Union flag as the sovereign flag of Northern Ireland or for affording the protections and status to the Irish language that are already afforded in Wales to the Welsh language.
And we do have to find a much better way of dealing with our past and of meeting the needs of those who were bereaved, hurt or damaged during the troubles.
That is why the political talks on these issues matter so much.
Speaking in Iveagh House recently, John Major reminded us that: “the task of building a normal society is still work-in-progress. The British and Irish Governments need to continue working together to help Northern Ireland become the tolerant, inclusive, shared society we all wish to see”.
That work of the two governments continues, as it must. I will be meeting tomorrow with the Secretary of State and we will consider what more the governments can do to help facilitate agreement.
I know that there is a great deal of scepticism that these talks will lead to agreement. I don’t share that scepticism. I believe that there is genuine desire by all party leaders to find agreement and that agreement is within reach and achievable. I encourage them to conclude this work now without further delay.
Today’s debate can help support that process.