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Peace and reconciliation is a collective investment, with a collective return - Minister Sherlock

Northern Ireland Peace Process, MoS Sean Sherlock, Trade, Speech, Northern Ireland, Ireland, 2015


It is a privilege to address the fiftieth plenary session of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

I am delighted to see that members of the Assembly have had such an interesting and varied programme in Dublin over the last few days. I want particularly to mention your visit to the Garden of Remembrance yesterday. This visit, and the laying of wreaths by the Co-Chairs to honour those who gave their lives for Irish freedom, is significant and welcome.

I know that you also visited the GAA headquarters of Croke Park and, while on the subject of commemorations, I want to acknowledge the work of the GAA on remembering the often forgotten Ulster GAA volunteers who fought in the First World War. I was pleased to speak at a remarkable event in Belfast last October launching the GAA-led research into these “Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers”.

In my capacity as Minister for North-South Co-operation, and particularly during the time I spent at Stormont House before Christmas, I have come to realise how the past very much affects our present: addressing the legacy of the past is essential to achieving reconciliation.

As we move through this Decade of Centenaries, commemorative acts that honour and celebrate all our histories: national, regional and personal, can help move us closer to understanding ourselves and each other better.

Next year will see the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was a seminal event in Ireland’s path to independence. The Irish Government will shortly announce the programme to commemorate the events of 1916, a programme which will aim to deepen understanding and promote reconciliation.

Easter 2016 will be followed just a few weeks later by the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, where so many from these islands lost their lives. While moments of solemn reflection will be at the core of our commemorations, these centenary anniversaries are also a chance to reflect on and celebrate all that has been achieved on these islands in the last one hundred years.

A path travelled together

Over twenty-five years, the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly has provided a unique forum for parliamentarians across these islands to come together to discuss issues of mutual concern. Those years span a generation; a generation which has seen fundamental, positive change, ever-stronger ties between our political institutions, increased cooperation to the benefit of our citizens and an enduring peace and stability on this island that could only be dreamed of in 1990. Today, I will focus my remarks on the enormous work that has been done in the name of peace, stability and cooperation on this island.

The path that has brought us here has been neither short nor easy but despite a number of challenges we have not faltered and, perhaps most importantly, we have always travelled it together. There have been many milestones along this path –

  • the historic Agreements from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to Saint Andrews in 2006, Hillsborough in 2010 and most recently the Stormont House Agreement;
  • the establishment of the devolved institutions at Stormont;
  • historic moments such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s State Visit to Ireland in 2011, and the return State Visit to the United Kingdom in 2014 by President Higgins;
  • the series of gracious and symbolic gestures during those visits to further peace and reconciliation;
  • and, a matter close to my heart as Ireland’s first ever Minister for North South Cooperation: the growing importance of cross-border cooperation.

Such progress has required (and will continue to require) sustained cooperation, engagement and investment, including from people in this room today. I wish to pay tribute to these collective efforts.

Today, with functioning partnership government in Northern Ireland, an agreed way forward on a number of complex and sensitive issues and increased North-South cooperation, we may take for granted things which were aspirational at the time of this body’s first meeting.

A new beginning: the Stormont House Agreement

Turning to the Stormont House Agreement, I am pleased to have been part of the negotiating team, together with Minister Flanagan, that – working closely with our British counterparts, Theresa Villiers and Andrew Murrison, and of course with the Northern Ireland parties – played an important role in helping to broker the Agreement on 23 December 2014. This represented the culmination of many months of negotiation, but also many years of close relationship building.

The Agreement addresses a number of complex issues that had been a significant source of political deadlock and a source of frustration for the wider public. The Agreement lays a firm foundation for Northern Ireland, its politicians, and its people, to look outward and to move forward together. It comprehensively covers a broad range of political, economic and social issues.

In particular, the Agreement:

  • Sets out a plan for financial and welfare reform;
  • Proposes a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the establishment of a commission;
  • Envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with proposals on parading to be brought to the Executive by June 2015;
  • Establishes a programme of institutional reform at Stormont;
  • and Progresses a number of outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements.

Significantly, the Agreement also establishes a new comprehensive framework for dealing with the legacy of the past. This includes a new Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, and an Oral History Archive.

In the months ahead, the work of the two Governments together with the Northern Ireland parties will focus on the effective and expeditious implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, which is likely to be as challenging as was its negotiation. Important steps have already been taken in this regard.

Under the terms of the Agreement, both Governments will convene quarterly implementation and review meetings and publish six-monthly progress reports. The first of these implementation and review meetings took place on 30 January, at which a detailed implementation timeline was agreed. It was clear from that meeting that all stakeholders are taking seriously their responsibilities to see the full potential of the Agreement realised.

Already, the Irish Government has fulfilled its commitment to allocate €5m to the International Fund for Ireland, to assist with its important reconciliation work North and South. In line with relevant provisions of the Agreement, important work in the North-South space is taking place, which I shall turn to shortly.

As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is conscious of our responsibilities to all of the people of this island. In the months ahead, we will continue to advance political progress and to play our part in the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

North South Cooperation

Peace and reconciliation is a collective investment, with a collective return. One important way this manifests itself is in North-South cooperation on a range of policy areas.

The Government’s commitment to North-South and all-island economic co-operation remains a priority. My role as the first ever Minister for North South Cooperation is tangible evidence of the importance the Government attaches to seeing progress in this area.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly for your recent report on “Cross-border Police Cooperation and Illicit Trade”. The report is very welcome and recognises the good North-South work which is being done in this area. I also welcome the decision by the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow the remit of the UK National Crime Agency to be extended fully to Northern Ireland. An Garda Síochána already enjoys effective cooperation with the NCA and this extension in the remit of the NCA should facilitate increased co-operation.

I am particularly pleased that the Stormont House Agreement included some significant decisions in the North South space.

The agreement includes the provision that new sectoral priorities for North South cooperation will be the subject of a report to the North South Ministerial Council before the end of this month. I look forward to that meeting and to ensuring that opportunities for mutual economic benefit are to the fore in any discussion of new priorities.

Practical work is being taken forward in many other areas of course, all of which are benefitting communities and economies on both sides of the border.

In the area of transport, there is ongoing co-operation in developing the strategic road and sustainable transport networks on the island. Opportunities are being explored to pursue EU funding for the development of cross border Greenways. In addition, we have reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the A5 road project, a road which will benefit the North West region.

Tourism Ireland continues to do an excellent job in encouraging international visitors to the island which has resulted in the creation of more jobs and the strengthening of our economies. We will look to building on last year’s record growth even further in 2015 when the tourism sector on the island will look to benefit from the recently launched British-Irish visa scheme.

Many citizens of this island will flock across the Irish Sea later this year to attend the Rugby World Cup in England and Wales. We wish the organisers every success with hosting the event and hope very much to welcome a return visit to these shores in 2023. Our government’s support - along with that of the Northern Ireland Executive - for the IRFU’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup presents a remarkable opportunity to showcase what this island can offer. And what a wonderful display of North South cooperation to portray to the audience of the world’s 4th largest sporting event.

Job creation and exports are crucial to both economies on the island. InterTradeIreland continues to support and grow cross border business and is making a significant impact on building the capability of SMEs in both jurisdictions. The most recent trade statistics show that the cross border economy is showing significant growth. Cross-border trade in 2013 was worth over €3 billion, an increase of over 7% on 2012.

InterTradeIreland also chairs the all-island Horizon 2020 steering group of partner agencies and departments, North and South. This group is a manifestation of tangible North South cooperation, as we aim to maximise our drawdown of funds from the €80 billion EU research and innovation fund. The group has set itself the ambitious target of €175 million for specific North South projects by 2020.

To date 70% of Northern Ireland’s Horizon 2020 drawdown is from North South collaborative projects. A significant percentage of our own is also down to cross border partnerships, showing that cooperation is vital to us all. Involvement in such projects is essential for building research capacity on the island, creating jobs and opportunities and ensuring we become world leaders in innovation. We speak the same language, we are geographically close. It just makes sense to collaborate, especially when the success rate of North South applications is higher than the EU average.

In the field of the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency continue to work together to identify emerging research needs and strategic planning of research funding programmes.

Education is another sector of great promise. Among the joint work being undertaken by the two Education Departments on the island is the Middletown Centre for Autism which seeks to provide best possible educational outcomes for children and young people with autism.

Concluding remarks

The potential that cooperation between and across these islands has is bounded only by our desire to pursue it. Increased North-South cooperation and the recent achievement of the Stormont House Agreement are two of the most significant examples of this. Unlocking this potential further will require the sustained engagement of political leaders North and South, East and West. I look forward to exchanging views with you all on these important topics.