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Address by Tánaiste at Queen's University Belfast Policy Engagement Lecture Series


Address by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney T.D.

Queen's University Belfast Policy Engagement Lecture Series
9 January 2019



Firstly, let me thank Queen’s University and particularly the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Vice Chancellor Ian Greer, as well as Ryan Feeney, Head of Public Engagement, for arranging this event and for the opportunity to be here this evening.

In passing, I would also like to congratulate Ryan on his recent appointment as Head of Communications for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Ryan, I and my Government colleagues wish you every success in your hugely important new role. As Chief Constable George Hamilton said on your appointment, communications and engagement are key to further enhancing confidence in policing in Northern Ireland, and no better person to take on that challenge at this critical time.

I would also like to congratulate Queen’s on your commitment to supporting an ongoing thoughtful and diverse public conversation.

Indeed, we need to find more ways and provide more spaces for such public conversations, where passionate beliefs and imaginative ideas can be aired in an environment that is as calm and considered as possible. Universities like Queen’s are the perfect places to do that, as they engage our young people while stressing the values of objectivity and high-quality research, as well as inclusivity and mutual respect.

Queen’s Public Engagement Programme is a wonderful practical example of how a university can bring that spirit, and open that space, to the benefit of the entire community.

We need such debate now. It is sorely needed.

Today, it is exactly two years since we last had a working Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland. And a fully operational North South Ministerial Council.

The vision of the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people in referenda North and South, was for a broad, ambitious, balanced and complex settlement.

Right at the heart of it was the idea that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland would come together and work on behalf of both communities and all the people, to show leadership, and to solve problems democratically, peacefully and cooperatively.

This is still what drives us. It cannot be otherwise.

The ongoing failure, not just to restore the Assembly and Executive to full operation, but even to come together again and re-start negotiations, is unacceptable.

To everyone.

I have regular conversations with the parties. I talk to the Secretary of State, to Karen, all the time. This sense that the situation we find ourselves in is unsustainable is an absolutely shared one.

It should be by far the dominant political issue of the day.

It has, however, been overshadowed and complicated by another question.

So, while it is not what I want to focus on this evening, let me recognise reality and talk a little bit about the UK exit from the European Union.

I understand there might be those in this room suffering from Brexit fatigue. I sympathise with that.

But I am also conscious of the deep concerns that this long, important and uncertain process has raised, for people across Northern Ireland, in border counties, across the island of Ireland, in Britain and in Europe.

I am conscious of the heat that has entered the debate, and the risk of misunderstandings and mutual mistrust.

That debate is of course at an intense and sensitive stage this week in Westminster.

And I have no wish to do or say anything to complicate those deliberations.

So let me simply be as open as I can about our perspective, and start from first principles.

We didn’t want the UK to decide to leave the European Union. We believed that the European Union worked for the UK and enhanced its role in the world, as it does ours.

And we believed that the European Union was better with the UK in it, benefitting from its place in the Single Market and the UK’s voice around the table of European leaders, and benefitting above all from the weight of its strong advocacy of a liberal and outward-looking Europe.

And an EU with the UK as a member has been better, by far, for Ireland too. Better economically, politically and, most importantly of all, as a context and support for an extraordinarily positive relationship between our two countries and our greatest joint achievement – the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

However, we respect fully the democratic decision of the UK electorate.

We do not seek to undermine it. And we do not seek to use it to our advantage – because, frankly, there are no advantages to be had from it.

To the extent that we have an ‘agenda’ in the process of securing a Withdrawal Agreement, it isn’t hidden. It’s the first sentence of every intervention we make.

We want to make sure that UK withdrawal from the European Union doesn’t jeopardise the foundation of the shared, peaceful future for everyone on this island provided by the Good Friday Agreement. That is our agenda.

And I’ll say something else. We’ll have an agenda in the future relationship talks too. It will be full-throatedly in support of as close and positive a relationship between the UK and the European Union as humanly possible.

We have no interest at all in being in an adversarial relationship with the UK. We want to be partners.

We have no wish to damage the relationship we have. We want to protect and build on what we have won together.

We recognise that people have genuine concerns in this process. Fears even. A change, like that presented by Brexit, raises great uncertainty about the future – for families, for businesses and for farm-owners, for every citizen.

We have stepped up our contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. As have the UK and the European Union. It is the only responsible thing to do in this situation.

But we remain convinced that the best way to avoid that scenario is the ratification by the EU and UK of the Withdrawal Agreement that has been reached through long and arduous negotiations.

I hear and respect the deep concern expressed by some in the Unionist community, that the union may somehow be threatened by the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop, and that your sense of connectedness with Britain may be undermined.

I hear and respect the deep concern expressed by some in the Nationalist community that Brexit may undermine the rights you had counted on as Irish and EU citizens, or undermine your very right to be Irish and European. Or sunder once again your ever-closer ties and relationship with the rest of the island, with your fellow Irish men and women.

I hear and respect the deep concerns of all those in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland who fear that North-South cooperation and the all-island economy will be damaged and stalled.

And I hear and respect the deep concerns of so many on both islands that the sets of relationships at the heart of the Agreement – within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland – will be fractured once again.

For our part, we believe that the Withdrawal Agreement fully addresses those concerns.

It has explicit assurances on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, namely, that there will be no change in that constitutional status without the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland.

It also has explicit assurances on unfettered access to all markets for Northern Ireland businesses, both within the UK’s internal market and in the EU’s Single Market – a unique advantage for businesses and farmers here.

It has explicit assurances on no diminution of rights resulting from Brexit.

And, of course, the Common Travel Area will continue in place, allowing Irish citizens living in Britain and UK citizens living in Ireland to live, work, study and have access to healthcare and social security as heretofore.

Indeed, on this particular point, I want to provide a categorical assurance that the maintenance of the Common Travel Area – as agreed between the UK and Irish Governments, with the blessing of the EU – will ensure that the entitlement of individual citizens North and South to move freely across the border, and to access health, education and social welfare on the same basis as today, will be unaffected.

But, as I said, I understand that people have deep concerns. And we genuinely have heard, and tried to accommodate, all those concerns.

I know that there are some who feel that we haven’t always struck the right balance. We have tried to take that on board too. These are UK decisions we’re dealing with – in the referendum and afterwards in terms of setting red lines – but there is a responsibility on the Irish Government too to choose our words carefully.

We know that.

At all times, our overriding priority has been to ensure that there will not be a return to any hard border on this island – with all the negative impacts that would bring for the delicate balance of the peace process, for small businesses and farms dependent on seamless cross-border flows, and for people’s day to day lives in border counties.

We don’t want the backstop for it to be some kind of trap in which to ensnare and hold the UK or Northern Ireland.

Nor do we want the backstop as some kind of stepping stone to changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

In fact, we don’t want the backstop to be invoked at all. We want a future EU-UK relationship so close it is never needed.

Overall, we believe that the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship negotiated between the UK and the EU is a fair and balanced deal, with compromises shown on both sides.

We believe it opens the way for discussions on the future relationship, once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, that will be positive, ambitious and successful.

The finalised Agreement also secures the transition period in which those talks can happen, which is hugely important in giving certainty to citizens and businesses.

If more time is needed to finalise a full deal, it allows for more time to be made available.

And if that deal cannot be reached, and the backstop is invoked, we will work with urgency and determination to support the European Union and the UK Government in agreeing better and more sustainable arrangements so we can leave the backstop. This can be done while also making sure that there is no hard border on this island – a goal we all share.

The backstop is there to ensure that in no circumstances can there be a hard border – something that nobody wants. We have a collective responsibility to avoid that outcome.

Legal clarity is therefore required to guarantee that a hard border will not be re-created. The backstop involves using the means currently available to us to achieve that end – and it is tightly limited to what is strictly necessary.

Today, as you all know, the UK Government published a document setting out some additional unilateral commitments in relation to Northern Ireland and the backstop. We’ve been looking at it carefully of course.

The first thing I would say is that we absolutely share that wish that the backstop is never used and we want that deep and comprehensive future relationship agreement that avoids a hard border to be agreed by the end of 2020. Once again, I am adamant that we see it as an insurance policy, not a preferred option. That is clearly set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, and was further emphasised by the European Council last month.

We would also fully agree that it is very important that all the people of Northern Ireland should have a voice in the Brexit process through their elected representatives. This is exactly one of the reasons we need the Assembly and Executive up and running again – and to be working well. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that Northern Ireland’s leaders speaking with one voice on key concerns could have. And if the backstop were ever to be used, their voices should be heard at that stage too.

Of course, we fully expect the UK to fulfil its legal obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, but we are completely open to looking at any further clarifications which might be helpful.

In sum, we believe that ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement remains the best and most realistic way of avoiding the chaos of a ‘no-deal’ scenario.

We believe that ratifying it is the best practical way to safeguard the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, while also delivering on the UK Government’s commitment to act on the Brexit referendum result.

We need to remember that the Good Friday Agreement was reached at a time when being British or Irish also meant being European, and when so many practical aspects of life in Ireland and the UK were being harmonised in a European Union setting that it was assumed would always be there.

It was reached at a time when common EU membership removed the need for customs or regulatory checks or infrastructure. Then, through the leadership of those who reached agreement in 1998, a settlement was secured that provided the pathway for the removal of security infrastructure too.

Together, through the combined soft powers of the Good Friday Agreement and our common EU membership, it proved possible to tear down the customs posts and the security towers, and consign them to the painful pages of our past.

And together the Good Friday Agreement and our common EU membership brought us to where we are now – where every month there are almost 2 million car crossings along that border – people going to work, to study, to make deliveries to shops, to see a doctor, to see a friend, to seal a business deal, to attend a concert or sporting event.

And, here, I would take a moment to assure anyone in the audience who may bridle at what I’m saying about the border – we fully recognise that there is a political border on the island, and that that political border will remain in place unless and until the people of Northern Ireland decide otherwise, in line with the principle of consent written into the Good Friday Agreement.

But no one wants to see the unintentional loss of the enormous benefits that the border as it is now – seamless, unobtrusive, barely perceptible - brings to businesses and families on this island.

In our efforts to protect the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement through this process, we have been very conscious of the difficulties of honestly discussing the risks and the unknowns.

There is a delicate line to tread in speaking about the very real risks without exaggerating them. Speaking about the probability of negative outcomes, without increasing them or being seen to leverage them.

We have a passionate belief in the sea-change that the Good Friday Agreement brought to this island - and a corresponding deep-rooted fear of seeing that positive tide ebb away from us.

And to those who accuse of us being alarmist, or exaggerating those risks, I think we only really have to look around.

Power-sharing is in limbo. North/South cooperation is in limbo. The parties are not sitting around a table talking out their differences.

The lack of practical discussion and accommodation is polarising attitudes more. Brexit is polarising attitudes more.

The Good Friday Agreement sought to give all the people of Northern Ireland a feeling of security and confidence about the future, so that they could set about the work of cooperation in the present.

It was not meant to be the end point of reconciliation. It was supposed to set the stage for it.

The Irish Government takes seriously its responsibility, in concert with the British Government, to see the Agreement implemented and protected in full, in all its parts.

We had a referendum on that too, North and South. And we were given a mandate which we take very seriously.

How the Brexit process goes forward is a deeply important question for people in Northern Ireland, our whole island, Britain, Europe and beyond. But as it continues, we cannot let it paralyse our politics or our societies as we take on the other pressing challenges of right now, or as we plan and prepare for building up our communities and our societies in the long term.

I can tell you, nobody in the Oireachtas got into politics so they could spend years of their lives managing the impact of Brexit. And nobody got into politics so that they could engage in an unproductive stand-off with other parties.

We got into politics to help our neighbours, and our communities, help our towns and villages and cities thrive. We got into it, not to get bogged down in process, but to secure positive outcomes. To deliver.

I think that’s true for the overwhelming majority of TDs, MPs, MEPs and MLAs alike.

Last year, we rightly marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and we honoured those from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and from Dublin, London, Washington DC and elsewhere who made that achievement possible. We honoured them in this very place. And rightly so.

But life moves on.

1998 was the year I became a TD.

There’s an excellent book on the Good Friday Agreement written by someone – Siobhan Fenton - who was 5 when it was signed.

Here in Queen’s, and in universities across the island, we have young people who weren’t born when the Agreement was signed.

Life moves on. It doesn’t wait for Brexit. It doesn’t wait for the perfect political moment to finally open up. To be honest, it doesn’t wait for “Hope and History to rhyme”.

We have a generation rising up for whom these years right now will be formative to their political outlook.

Not the heart-breaking years of the Troubles.

Not the tentative hopes of the ceasefires and the talks.

Not the extraordinary breakthrough of the Agreement.

Not the false starts and wrangles that followed.

Not the years of flawed, but functioning, power-sharing.

But this. This here and now.

This absence of political cooperation.

This absence of political contact.

This absence of respectful political dialogue.

This absence of political understanding and political compromise and political accommodation.

The very absence of normal politics.

If ever there was an acceptable amount of time to allow for the parties to come to agreement, that time has surely passed.

Whatever your view of what agreement should shape the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we need the parties to come together and talk now about how to restore an Assembly and Executive together, as well as fully functioning North-South Institutions.

Whatever constitutional future you believe in for Northern Ireland, we need – you need - the parties to come together now and start talking.

And if you are committed to a Northern Ireland that’s a place where people can start or run a business, employ people and contribute, and where young people want to stay and contribute and build their lives, then we need the parties to come together now and start talking.

There is no scenario where that doesn’t help. There is no scenario where that isn’t better.

And there’s no scenario where not doing it, doesn’t damage the painstaking progress Northern Ireland has made.

We don’t have a generation’s worth of time to waste, only to come back to this and try to put together some kind of a Good Friday Agreement for slow learners.

We don’t have that time.

But let me be clear. I’m not here to criticise or take a swipe at anyone. There can be a lot of frustration expressed at ‘the parties’. And indeed, with ‘the Governments’. Sometimes warranted, sometimes not.

But it should be remembered that there isn’t a party here that hasn’t taken risks in this process.

There isn’t one that hasn’t had to lead difficult conversations with their own members and communities to find the agreement needed.

It’s not easy but it’s been done before and I think there is a recognition it will need to be done again.

My point is, it’s been two years. Standing here in front of you on the day that we’ve marked two years gone, I would be shirking my responsibilities if I said anything other than this.

We’ve got to get to it. We can’t keep waiting for a better moment.

And our politics has to stop being so caught up in deadlock in the present that we have no space to engage constructively with the future – or, indeed, the legacy of the past.

Because that legacy hasn’t gone away. The framework agreed at Stormont House some years ago is the best chance we have to deal with it collectively and directly. And it needs and deserves the support, not just of both Governments, but of all the parties and the wider community.

If there are some changes that are needed, let them be addressed. But this is another case of us not being able to afford to let time slip away.

There is an opportunity now to comprehensively address the concerns of victims and families. I think that if we don’t take it forward collectively - with due consideration, but also due urgency - there is a clear risk that we could lose this opportunity too, as others have been lost before. That would be yet another bitter disappointment and another heartbreak that families who lost loved ones surely do not deserve.

And, just as we work together to address the legacy of the past, we have a responsibility to work together to set out how we will approach conversations about our future.

For anyone who wants to realise their desired future, they need to make clear how their vision has a space for all in it. A home for all.

That means more than just lip service to inclusivity.

It means being listened to, valued - and with thought given to how Northern Ireland, whatever its future constitutional status, can be a real and secure home for people of all traditions, and a place where they feel empowered and free to express every shade of their identity.

And if those are the values you hold, live them now.

Talk now. Listen now. Make that space now. Respect, fully respect, the identities and rich culture of all. Build those relationships now, that will strengthen your community and your society no matter which future comes about.

We all have our own personal views on the future we’d like to see for this island.

But I am unbreakably committed to the idea that the vision I have, and those that everyone else has, are completely and permanently subject to the principle of consent laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. As the Agreement makes clear, such consent must be freely given.

For whatever future you want for Northern Ireland, it must surely be about persuasion not coercion. We have had too much of that, far too much of that in the history of this island. Instead, it has to be about uniting people, not territory, it has to be about bringing people together.

No one should be afraid to express their vision for the future they want. But everyone should allow that no future is inevitable.

To tell people that the road is only going one way runs the clear risk that you will be heard as removing their freedom of choice, that the future is somehow pre-ordained and fixed.

And that persuasion is not really required, or is somehow a decorative add-on, whereas it is an imperative. And that goes for whichever constitutional future you’re advocating.

It’s pretty simple really. We need to make sure we don’t let people be bullied. And we need to make sure we don’t leap too quickly to decide we are being bullied.

And in the conversation, for my part I can tell you who I’ll listen to the most.

I’ll listen to those who approach these conversations with generosity, who listen as much as talk.

I’ll listen to those who don’t just talk about a shared future, but who are doing something right now to build it.

I’ll listen to those who are busy right now making Northern Ireland work for its people, who are getting on with it right now to make all the relationships talked about in the Good Friday Agreement, work.

The Irish Government wants to engage in exactly that way.

I doubt we’ll do this perfectly. We haven’t so far. I’m sure we’ll say things that people can reasonably hear much differently than we’d intended.

But the Taoiseach and I, together with our Government colleagues, have made it our business to meet with and listen to people from both sides of the community here about their concerns and their needs.
I have plenty of meetings, believe me, where people tell me face-to-face how we’re getting it wrong. And that’s as it should be. That’s part of getting it right.
We’re also trying to be part of building that shared future.

I am glad to be able to say, for instance, that this year we are expanding our Reconciliation Fund by €1 million, to assist more groups and in better ways – groups from all over the North and the border areas who are doing phenomenal work repairing broken relationships, or building them where they may have never existed.

Youth groups, arts groups, sports clubs, victims’ groups, women’s groups, communities at interfaces, schools – all the people who are doing their bit, and drawing communities together instead of letting them drift apart.

And we want to work in partnership with the British Government to support the parties in getting the Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement up and running again – the Assembly, the Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council, and indeed to have the First and Deputy First Minister participating once again at meetings of the British-Irish Council.

And we want to work in partnership with the British Government through the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and through new structures we are planning to develop together, to support the kind of close relationship we both want and which we have a responsibility to maintain.

I know we want to leave time for some questions and answers, so I will finish with one final thought.

The European Union was a context for what has been called a ‘habit of cooperation’.
As an idea, it’s a brilliant one.

It’s an idea that when it comes to divergent interests and aspirations, it’s not just a question of vicious circles.

There can also be virtuous circles.

Where cooperation leads to more cooperation, until it becomes a habit, a reflex, an assumption.

Where the idea of working together isn’t the end goal of a process, it’s the presumptive approach to all the challenges that come along.

It’s the reflex we need to keep when it comes to Britain and Europe, in or out of the European Union: that cooperation should be the default.

And it’s not different when it comes to the political process in Northern Ireland or the North-South relationship.

We want a habit of cooperation, a mindset of cooperation, to be the hallmark of all three relationships for which the Good Friday Agreement is the foundation.

That is the approach of the Irish Government.

That is what we want.

I talked earlier about what our agenda is.

That’s our agenda.

Thank you for welcoming me here tonight and I look forward to your questions.

Press Office
09 January 2019

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