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Opening address at Institute for British Irish Studies Conference, UCD

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Tánaiste’s Opening Address to Institute for British Irish Studies Conference


Monday 16 June 2014


Your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be in UCD this morning to open your conference on ‘Constitutions and Culture Wars: Northern Ireland, the Irish State and the North-South Dimension’

One of the primary themes you have set yourselves the challenge of interrogating today is ‘the South’s ongoing salience in the North’ and I would like to say something about that this morning. I would also like to reflect on the North’s ongoing salience in the South

Before I begin I would like to take this opportunity to mark the retirement of Professor John Coakley, the founding director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies. John has made a significant contribution to the field of political science both in Ireland and abroad. He has been a well-known and respected voice on international academic platforms, including through his role as former Secretary General of the International Political Science Association. UCD’s central role in British-Irish scholarship can in large part be traced back to John’s vision and commitment. I would like to extend my very best wishes to you today, John on the occasion of your retirement.

North and South

Ireland North and South are of primary importance to each other. We are component parts of one island. Our relationship is given form and content by our shared geography, our history and our personal and political interactions. It is given legal definition in this age by the Good Friday Agreement. Influence and opportunity flow in both directions across our border.

Cooperation between North and South brings tangible benefits. When we speak of cooperation our focus is on improving lives – providing the best possible standard of and quality of life for our citizens, in particular those living in border areas.

Cross border trade is worth around €2.8 billion to companies on both sides of the border. This trade is of critical importance to smaller companies, in particular those in the food and drink sector.

Over 4000 students cross the border to study. Nearly 1.7 million tourists cross the border annually.

Just this week, with the publication jointly by the CSO and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency of findings from the Census 2011, we know that nearly 15,000 persons are regularly commuting between the jurisdictions for work or study.

Notwithstanding these good statistics, and the positive trends of recent years, which show that our cooperation can make a difference to our citizens, we must ask ourselves are we making enough progress, is this progress coming fast enough, or are we in danger of our efforts being undone. Are we happy that those regularly commuting across the border constitute just 0.4% of the Northern Ireland population, and 0.2% of the population of Ireland?

The reason we are doing this is because, despite the transformation brought about by of the Good Friday Agreement we have not completed what Garrett Fitzgerald once described, also in the terms of a leap, as ‘the imaginative leap of understanding’ necessary to break out of ‘ancient moulds and attitudes’.

We can say with certainty that through the work of successive British and Irish Governments, the Northern Ireland parties, our international friends and civil society, the tragedy of violent conflict and the injustice of majority rule was overcome in the seminal moment of the endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the people of this island, North and South. We have landed on the side of peace and have built a new home there. Yet we cannot escape the fact that we remain short of the line of reconciliation. ‘Ancient moulds and attitudes’ continue to haunt the political landscape in Northern Ireland and to hold back North South cooperation.

Does this suggest that the Good Friday Agreement and the agreements that have flowed from it, left us short? I do not believe so.  The framework and principles of the Agreements set the political and civic space necessary for reconciliation.    The question is whether we, North and South, have realised fully the vision of the Agreement.

The South’s continuing salience in the North

In the Declaration of Support in the Good Friday Agreement, the participants in its negotiation stated that the Agreement offered a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning. As part of the Agreement, the devolution of powers from Westminster to Stormont took place as one part of a rebalancing of relationships across these islands. The context for the establishment of the devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland differed radically from the context in which devolution to Scotland and Wales was occurring around that time. It happened in the specific and complex context of progression to a post-conflict society and as part of a realignment of the totality of relations across these islands which both Governments undertook to guarantee. This included agreement on the question of sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

The Declaration of Support also acknowledged the substantial differences between the participants’ continuing and equally legitimate political aspirations. Participants committed to work in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement. The absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues was a critical principle.

Participants to the negotiations also committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands. It was envisaged that these principles would animate and guide the work of both governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland not only at the moment of signature of the Agreement but henceforth.

The Irish Government takes seriously its responsibility to make sure that the potential of these principles is realised fully. Questions of culture and identity are complicated and the concept of legislating for and administering mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem” is difficult. And it is clear that these difficult issues have not yet been successfully negotiated within Northern Ireland and remain a work in progress. Work on flags, parades and dealing with the past, for instance, is ongoing among the party leaders.

This time of year we again commend the courageous work being carried out in interface areas. It though remains a very real concern that scenes of unrest in the coming months can have a very real impact, not just on business and trade, but on the lives of people in the communities affected, and those whose livelihoods are dependent on cross border cooperation.

Implementation of the Agreements goes beyond support for the institutions themselves. Such support only has value when coupled with support for the values and principles which should underpin the Northern Ireland Executive and the other institutions. This is the support which the South can offer the North. Both governments, and crucially the people of this island, North and South, signed up to these principles to guide the path ahead. Those principles can now provide a safety net for the political parties as they take the necessary leap forward in addressing contentious issues.

I am of the view that sixteen years on, the fundamentals of the peace agreements need to be remembered and restated. I am concerned that there has been a political drift from these principles. Human rights suffer where there is any ambivalence about mutual respect and tolerance. All of society suffers where the power-sharing institutions do not act in accordance with their foundational ethos.

The North’s continuing salience in the South

I think it equally valid to examine the continuing salience of North in the South. The north matters in the south, and to the south. Our role as guarantor of the Agreements means we have binding legal obligations in that regard, but our interest is driven by much more. Our vision as a Government is for a prosperous and reconciled Ireland. Our engagement with Northern Ireland is central to this vision.

When this Government took office, our task was to rebuild our society, our economy and our banking system. All of this would have been impossible had we taken our eye off the ball in Northern Ireland. International investors and tourists do not see the border on this small island. Key to this has been the ever-strengthening North-South relations.

I am convinced that the excellent bilateral relationship that now exists between Ireland and Britain, highlighted by the exchange of State Visits, can also encourage forward movement in North-South relations. Indeed, Peter Robinson commented recently that North-South relations are better than they have ever been. I share this view. However, there is still much more that can be achieved.

In the North South Ministerial Council, we are working with the Northern Ireland Executive to advance areas of practical co-operation, updating the priorities for co-operation with the focus on those areas that can lead to economic recovery, job creation, the best use of tax-payers’ funds and the most effective delivery of services.

Co-operation has forged ahead in recent months in a number of projects which have the potential to bring major benefits to the island and its economy. For example on joint trade missions, with the recent London-Dublin-Belfast joint visit to the Singapore air-show, the setting up of the all-island Horizon 2020 steering group overseeing our joint drawdown of research and innovation funding under the EU’s new €80 billion programme, and cooperation on the proposed all-island bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2023 which could result in major benefits to the tourism industry.

North South bodies such as Tourism Ireland and InterTradeIreland are already making critical contributions to economic recovery by promoting the island internationally and by boosting levels of trade, innovation and collaborative research at home.

The opportunities to work together in developing trade links with the key emerging markets on an all-island basis are also clear. I have therefore made our Embassy network available to assist Northern Ireland trade missions where possible to take advantage of opportunities for mutual cooperation. I have also sought to include companies and organisations from Northern Ireland in the workings of our Global Irish Economic Forum.

In the European context, the Government will continue to pursue and engage in initiatives with the Northern Ireland Executive on EU issues where we have clear shared interests such as research funding, regional development policy, the future of the common agricultural policy and the PEACE IV Programme.

A shared vision for reconciliation

I recently launched my Department’s Reconciliation Fund Strategy which will support the aspiration of a prosperous and reconciled island, focusing on repairing those issues that lead to division and conflict, and building a strong civil society that encompasses all communities. The Fund has been operating for more than thirty years now and has been an important tool supporting the gradual movement towards reconciliation. We will continue to support those who are driving forward transformative change in attitudes and relationships in communities across Northern Ireland and across the border.

Just as we - North and South, Britain and Ireland - have worked together successfully to build the peace and to maintain it, today we need to work together in support of reconciliation. Our salience to each other is that we can each have a positive effect on one another.

My thanks once again for the kind welcome, and I wish you the best with your important discussions here today.