Thank you, President Nolan. Good morning everyone.
I would like first of all to express my appreciation to President Nolan and his colleagues at Maynooth University for hosting this Dialogue in such impressive surroundings and for their close cooperation with my Department on today’s programme. The Government is always glad to work with Maynooth University, and we do so across many areas. Indeed the Taoiseach was here only two weeks ago. It is always a great pleasure to visit this historic seat of learning, which is also a modern, world-class University.
I want to warmly welcome everyone here today. I appreciate the time that you have taken to participate, and I know that people have travelled from right across the island to be here. I am very pleased to see such broad participation, across the full range of interested sectors, North and South. This breadth of participation is the essence of the All-Island Civic Dialogue process that the Government has convened on Brexit.
We are by now all aware of the significant and complex issues raised for the island of Ireland by the UK's decision to leave the EU. Everyone will be affected in some respect - all regions, sectors, businesses and communities. It is essential therefore that the Government hears from as wide an audience as possible, on how Brexit is likely to impact and, most importantly, how we can seek to manage this collectively on an all-island basis. Both North and South, we share many interests and concerns. Under the Good Friday Agreement, we have a shared framework to uphold - and indeed to utilise fully - as we work together to manage the implications of Brexit.
At a time of many challenges, Brexit is undoubtedly the greatest one of all. Across Government ministers and their departments have been working assiduously for over a year first making contingency plans in case there was a negative outcome and then moving into a detailed analysis phase. All of this work is being coordinated by the Taoiseach through a series of structures including a special Cabinet Committee. The detailed work of government departments and agencies had been greatly enriched by a series of all island sectoral Civic Dialogues. Last November the Taoiseach and I hosted a plenary Civic Dialogue. We will host another on Friday. In the interim period ministers across government have hosted sectoral civic dialogues on areas ranging from fisheries to children's rights.
I am delighted today to host this important discussion on Human Rights under the Good Friday Agreement. These dialogues are an opportunity for you to hear from government about our work and for us to hear from you - about your concerns and your constructive proposals.
For eight months now I have been engaged in an intensive programme of diplomacy. There isn't a foreign minister in the EU who is not aware of the central importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the staunch determination of the Irish Government, its co-guarantor, to make sure its principles and provisions are protected and preserved in any future EU-UK agreement.
On Monday I had my third discussion with an Italian Foreign Minister in this regard. I spent Thursday in Brussels meeting Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator on Brexit; the European Parliament's representative Guy Verhofstadt and a number of very senior MEPs who occupy various positions of leadership. Speaking to the Irish MEPs, I reminded them of their important role in explaining Ireland's unique concerns. On Friday I met my Finnish counterpart in Helsinki. A frequent visitor to Ireland for the last 30 years, he pledged to do whatever he could to ensure the Peace Process is protected.
Time is of the essence now, and our focus at this stage is particularly on the issues that will need to be discussed and agreed in the EU-UK negotiations, in which Ireland will participate as a committed EU Member State, in a future Union of 27.
Our discussion today on human rights under the Good Friday Agreement is a vital part of the wider Civic Dialogue and of the Government’s overall work to manage Brexit. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government takes with the utmost seriousness and determination, our duty to ensure that all provisions of the Agreement are upheld and secured, through the process of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and thereafter.
The human rights provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are a fundamental pillar of the Agreement and of the peace process overall. In Northern Ireland, the human rights provisions support the confidence and willingness of all communities to participate in the agreed political institutions of the Agreement and ensure that every citizen is guaranteed equal status and equal protection under law. The Agreement also provided for consideration of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and this has been reiterated in the successor Agreements.
While there hasn’t to date been sufficient political consensus for a Bill of Rights to be achieved, the parties to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement reaffirmed their commitment “to promote equality and respect and to prevent discrimination.”
The Good Friday Agreement also provided that the protection of human rights in this jurisdiction be at least equivalent to that in Northern Ireland, as well as a strong all-island dimension, through a Joint Committee of the two Commissions, for consideration of human rights issues on the island of Ireland. I am very pleased that the two Human Rights Commissions are represented here today at a very senior level. I look forward to hearing their perspective, given their respective statutory remits and standing under the Good Friday Agreement. I want to acknowledge as well the important participation today of a number of other statutory Commissions, North and South, who also have responsibilities to discharge and important functions in the context of Brexit.
Human rights by definition concern everyone and of their nature touch on all sectors - government, business and the voluntary and community sectors. There is a very specific and framework of human rights protections under the Good Friday Agreement.
It is this system that the Government is responsible for upholding as a co-guarantor of the Agreement, and as I have said we are determined to do so.
To support this, I would ask for your assistance and collaboration today in focusing our discussions as directly as possible on the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. [To this end, a copy of the relevant provisions of the Agreement are on everyone’s seats]. There are other rights issues outside the framework of the Agreement and these are properly for discussion in other settings.
Our focus today is on Brexit and the rights provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. We have the benefit of our moderators and panellists today, and many others in the room, to help orient the discussion, so that we focus on these discrete provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. The foundation stone of the Agreement is what we can all rely on - legally and politically - as we deal with Brexit.
At the core of the Good Friday Agreement, and of the human rights pillar, is the commitment to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, North and South.
While Brexit raises many questions, one of the very certain answers we have in speaking of rights, is that there is a clear and continuing obligation under the Agreement on the Irish and British Governments to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights in statute for both jurisdictions on the island. This obligation is wholly unaffected by the UK’s decisions to exit the European Union. It provides very important reassurance and certainty for everyone, North and South, and it is a point I have made in the clearest terms to my colleagues in the British Government.
There are also a number of unimplemented provisions in the Good Friday Agreement - many relating to rights issues - that may also be of value in managing some of the legal changes that will be a consequence of Brexit. The Government has always supported full implementation of all provisions of the Agreement, but I am keen to hear perspectives in the room today on this.
Finally, I would also emphasise that in the crucial area of human rights, it is essential that both Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, should do all that we can, to engender confidence by demonstrating commitment to both the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement provisions.
I look forward to hearing the perspectives, experience and ideas on these fronts from each of the organisations and groups that I see represented across the room today.
There is a great depth of understanding and indeed passion here about the issues raised by Brexit. I believe there is also a shared perspective on the immeasurable value of human rights and of the Good Friday Agreement as a whole, for our people and for our communities, North and South.
Thank you in advance for your contribution and I look forward also to meeting with very many of you through the course of the day.