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Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan T.D.
British Irish Association Conference, Queens College, Cambridge
6 September 2015
Thank you Hugo and good morning to everyone.
As we enter these final sessions this morning, I want to thank Hugo MacNeill, Francesca Kay, the BIA Committee, Queens College and all those who contributed to another hugely valuable series of exchanges on British Irish relations.
I'm very happy to be back at the BIA conference, one year on from my first speech here in my capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
It's not an exaggeration to say that this conference helps set the agenda for each new political season.
Last year, Theresa Villiers and I set out our respective thoughts and plans for the coming year. We went on to spend a lot of time together through the Stormont House talks, along with some of you in this room. Last year also, we gathered shortly before voters went to the polls after what was an unforgettable referendum campaign in Scotland. We considered the then forthcoming British general election and its implications for key issues such as the UK's relationship with the EU.
Now, one year on, we know that the result of the general election here means a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017. The Taoiseach addressed this important issue on Friday night and I will speak on it at Chatham House in London tomorrow.
The coming year will again bring people to the polls – an Irish general election of course, as well as legislative elections for several devolved administrations. 2016 too will be a special year in centenary commemorations, which your Conference will be focusing on this morning.
My message to you for the time ahead is this: we must keep up the respectful dialogue, we must keep up the cooperative action and we must continue our efforts to consolidate peace, political stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Our citizens expect nothing less.
Over the summer I reflected on the past 12 months and established beyond doubt that I had fulfilled the modest travel itinerary I had set out for myself in my first days in office – namely, to dedicate the bulk of my time away from Dublin and Laois working in the cities of Belfast and Brussels. This is perhaps not a surprise for someone with my job. These two centres both demand and merit the attention they get.
But the work of a Foreign Minister doesn't stop there, especially in British-Irish relations. Work must continue in earnest on all tracks, whether it's trade, culture, political exchange or remembering the past.
This is why I have established strong working relationships with my UK government colleagues - Theresa Villiers and Philip Hammond, both of whom have been in Dublin on a number of occasions in the past year. Indeed, yesterday evening I arrived here from Luxembourg where Minister David Lidington and I both attended the EU informal Foreign Affairs Council. Over the last 12 months, our Governments have joined too to commemorate shared moments from the past, such as this year’s centenary at Gallipoli.
These personal interactions, together with the well established relationship between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron and the excellent relationships across other ministers and senior officials, are key enablers of the ever increasing co-operation and friendship between our two neighbouring islands.
Ireland and the UK work very well together within global multilateral institutions and all over the world, whether it is fighting Ebola, rolling out the joint visa scheme in China and India or responding together to tragedies such as the incident in Tunisia which saw a number of our citizens brutally murdered.
And it is not just a Dublin-London axis of co-operation. The Irish Government has also sought to work closer than ever with the devolved administrations – including our important North-South partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive and our work with Scotland, Wales and other members of the British Irish Council who we were delighted to host in Dublin in June.
I visited Edinburgh in February as part of this work and we have expanded our Consulate there. I am particularly delighted that the Scottish government is now to have representation in Dublin in the form of a "Scottish Hub" at the British Embassy, joining a Welsh colleague there.
Notwithstanding recent battles on the rugby pitch, these are relationships, networks and structures which should be used to the full.
And of course we had the visit to Ireland in May by Their Royal Highnesses, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, during which I represented the government during their memorable programme in County Sligo. There I heard first-hand the Prince's generous and very personal remarks of reconciliation.
I like to think that the racing tips I passed onto the royal couple before the Sligo race meeting at the end of their trip marked a perfect end to a special and moving visit that undoubtedly helped to further advance the normalisation of British Irish relations.
I say this not only because of the poignant moments of reconciliation most associated with the visit, including at Mullaghmore, but also because of elements with a lower media profile but still significant for the modern bilateral relationship. I am talking, for example, about 21st century research co-operation which Prince Charles experienced at our Marine Institute, NUI Galway and at the Institute of Technology in Sligo.
In contrast to all of this positivity and harmony in the wider Irish-British relationship, the current turbulence in Northern Ireland seems like a discordant aberration. It has been a significant focus of our discussions over the weekend, perhaps more so than we might have anticipated a month ago. The Taoiseach and Secretary of State Villiers have already outlined our respective Governments’ analyses and ambitions for the upcoming talks.
Over the past few days I have been asked incredulously by some “Another round of talks - how can you face into it again?”. I can only imagine that those of you who have been involved in the peace process for much longer than I have often been asked that question and have, perhaps, sometimes asked it of yourselves.
The real question however is not how we do it, but why we do it. And to that, the answer is not the inherent attractions of returning to the accommodations of Stormont House – even though Theresa and her team make every effort to welcome us and make us feel at home!
Most politicians enter their professions because at an intrinsic level they want to make peoples’ lives better. Growing up, I learned this at my late father’s knee. For most of my political career, my experience of helping people has been primarily through meeting constituents one-to-one at my clinics.
At Ministerial level of course, the scale is very different – indeed, for the Foreign Affairs Minister, it is international. In all of my engagements in Northern Ireland, it is the people of our island who are the forefront of my mind.
In my first week as Minister, my insightful officials arranged a visit to Belfast and made sure that I visited community centres, met civic society groups, learned about reconciliation projects – in others words, made sure that I understood clearly what the Peace Process has meant to people’s lives.
Most of us don’t go around every day with the thought that we are changing the world at the forefront of our minds. Nevertheless, working collectively, a generation of political and community leaders on these two islands have done just that in the last thirty years.
They have helped to change our small part of the world and much, much more importantly – working together - they have made the lives of the people of Northern Ireland immeasurably better.
That is an incredibly precious achievement and many in this room – who contributed to that transformation - know much better than I the extraordinary efforts and compromises that were necessary on the long road that led to the Good Friday Agreement and succeeding agreements.
Good Friday 1998 was not the end of the journey but it was a seismic moment when we forged a new shared path for how we would address the different aspirations and identities on this island. It is something of which we should be proud and something we have a duty to cherish because it was endorsed in a historic vote by the people North and South.
Over the last 17 years we have all I believe tried to honour that achievement and the decision of the people of this island.
We were not all parties to the Good Friday Agreement but we are all the servants of the people and have worked to fulfil their decision for this new beginning. There have been problems, there have been disagreements, there has been stasis and even temporary reverses. However, through it all we have persevered and, through that perseverance, forged further progress at St Andrews, at Hillsborough and at Stormont House.
Are the outcomes perfect? They are not.
Are the relationships perfect? They are not.
Has society fully normalised? Regrettably, not yet.
None of what has been achieved to date has been easy.
Compromise is always difficult and, where there are profound differences in ideology, identity and aspiration, agreement can, at times, seem impossible.
As a politician, I well know that sometimes while the loudest voices argue for retrenchment and a hard line to be taken, many more quietly desire brave leadership, progress and a reason to be hopeful.
This is not news in Northern Ireland where time and time again, the politicians and the people have proven that problems are not intractable, challenges are not insurmountable, agreement can be reached, and now must be reached again.
So as we face into urgent talks that will commence next Tuesday, I ask myself a number of questions:
Is Northern Ireland a better place to live than 30 years ago? Undoubtedly, it is.
Are Northern Ireland’s institutions better than direct rule? Undoubtedly, they are.
Is it worth all the effort? Unquestionably, it is.
And so, we keep going, we keep striving, we keep working.
Not simply because what we have is better than the alternative – which it is – but because we are capable of extraordinary things. We have brought peace to a place torn apart, we have a generation now who have not known the terror or trauma of the Troubles.
This is always brought home to me when I speak to my own daughters about my work in Belfast.
But we have more to do. To paraphrase the epitaph of the late Seamus Heaney, we must keep walking on air despite our better judgment.
We want to create the circumstances where, in the not too distant future, we have a generation in Northern Ireland that has not known sectarianism or the vestigial shadow of paramilitarism.
We want to complete our work in establishing institutions to deal with the legacy of the past so that justice and truth can bring what healing is possible to the bereaved.
We want to grow and develop the all island economy so that our children can choose to live, work and succeed where they grew up.
I have spoken in recent days to the leadership of all the Executive parties. I have heard very clearly the hurt and frustration that they feel – all of them. But underneath that, I have discerned a deep and steely resolve to save the power-sharing Institutions. Every party is “up for Talks” because – whether they are articulating it or not – every party knows what is at stake: the survival of the power-sharing Institutions themselves.
There is undoubtedly a realisation that the consequences of failure would constitute a serious set-back for the people of our island. And I know that my fellow politicians in Northern Ireland have invested too much in this project of transformation to allow it to fail. And so, it is incumbent of all of us to go forward in a spirit of positivity, knowing compromises and courage will be required from all participants.
Before concluding, I want to look back for a few moments to a century ago, when Belfast and Brussels were also to the fore of concerns of Irish and British politicians, although of course in a markedly different way to today.
A little over one hundred and one years ago, probably with an element of relief, the then British Government had put on hold the question of Irish Home Rule, to focus on the terrible war that was about to sweep across Europe.
By 1915, that war was raging, thousands of young men from Ireland and Britain were caught up in its horrors, at the Western Front, in Gallipoli, on land and at sea.
In Ireland, a resurgence of nationalism was steadily growing and Ireland was on the cusp of the transformative 1916 rebellion.
Since 2012, we have been commemorating key moments of that decade a century ago which had such a profound impact on modern Irish, and, indeed, modern British, history and on relations on these islands.
We will mark both the centenary of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme next year, two of the events which most profoundly affected people on the island of Ireland during that decade.
The Irish Government is committed to a respectful and inclusive approach to these commemorations. This means an acknowledgment of the complexity of historical events and their legacy and of the multiple identities and traditions that are part of that experience.
I have quoted before the words of the Irish Expert Advisory Group on commemorations who wisely said that “The aim should be to broaden sympathies, without having to abandon loyalties”.
We commemorate to mark the past and to remember the people caught up in the events of their time. But in the process, by looking again at that past, by questioning received truths and striving for a greater understanding of our history, in all its complexity, we can help to further reconciliation and strengthen good relations between all the people of these islands.
Ladies and Gentlemen, when this Association gathers once more in 12 months time where might we want to be? I’ll begin on a personal note and say I hope to have been re-elected, to see my Party remain the largest Party and to be attending the BIA in a ministerial capacity......
But, the clutch of elections on these islands will be a distant memory by the time this gathering assembles in Oxford next year so here are three tests we might all seek to have passed by September 2016:
First, that we can look back on yet more co-operation across the spectrum between Ireland and the United Kingdom – more business, more dialogue, more trade, more tourism, more friendship.
Second, for Ireland, that we have been constructive and engaged as the UK moves closer to deciding its future in the European Union. Everyone has a stake in this vital issue.
And third, that the stability promised in the Stormont House Agreement is firmly secured and the Peace Process has once again moved forward.