It is an honour and a pleasure to be here tonight to address the British-Irish Association for the first time. I am also delighted that this year’s conference is here in Pembroke College – a setting, according to the college itself, where “informality and distinction have always rubbed shoulders” since 1624.
That phrase also captures very well the great value of this annual gathering of the Association. The venerable institution that is the BIA provides a unique and necessary space in which to informally discuss important issues affecting the political, cultural and social landscape in these islands.
The conference theme this year concerns change and “Dealing with the Future”. I hope in this speech to focus on the future, conscious at all times of the experience of the past. I will also set out what I see as my own guiding principles for relations in these islands:
• being ambitious in terms of the work Britain and Ireland can do together across business, cultural and protocol spheres;
• delivering on the Good Friday Agreement and getting back to business; and
• having an honest, frank debate about the UK, Ireland and the European Union.
I was appointed to this role in July, just two months ago. I have been interested in British-Irish matters all my life, including as a former Vice Chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association and as my party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland in opposition.
I relish the opportunity to work on developing our relations in my new capacity. The same month I started, I visited Belfast and, yesterday in London, I had a series of engagements to see at first-hand just how broad and deep relations between these islands have now become. I also had an excellent discussion with Secretary of State Villiers.
Last year, the Association gathered soon after the passing of one of the greatest champions of British-Irish relations in the cultural world, Seamus Heaney. This year, we gather in the weeks following the sad passing of another great champion, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. His outstanding contribution to the Peace Process lives to this day, while the warm welcome extended at the funeral in Dublin to his friend and partner in that process – former Prime Minister Sir John Major – speaks volumes for what both men achieved together two decades ago. The Reynolds family are in all our thoughts.
The future of British-Irish Relations – change for the better
I became Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at a time when the relationships in these islands were basking in the immediate afterglow of the hugely successful State Visit to the UK by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. The visit showcased the myriad ties of family, culture, history and trade that make this relationship important to the lives of millions of people in these islands. The President’s programme also highlighted the lasting contribution that Irish people have made to the building of modern Britain over many centuries and it also served as a timely reminder of the economic interdependence across these islands. The positive effects of that visit, and of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s State Visit to Ireland in 2011, will undoubtedly continue to be enjoyed for a long time to come.
Both State Visits included significant moments which could be regarded as almost the embodiment of this conference’s focus on “change”. In this way, our recent history has shown us that change can be a very good thing.
So it is that through every period of change, we must strive to minimise uncertainty by paying due care to the maintenance of relationships, understanding and respecting the needs of our partners, taking time to listen to their concerns and their hopes, and to explain our own, while being ready to accommodate one another in order to safeguard those relationships, upon which we will continue to rely.
We rely on the strong relationships built up at political level, at community level and in the world of commerce. I firmly believe that despite or perhaps because of this period of change, the future for both nations is full of promise. The strengthening ties between these islands in the last few years show that we are not just close neighbours, but also formidable friends.
Understanding the future from experience of the past - commemorations
Our commitment to work together is not focussed solely on economic gain but also in how we approach our past. Commemorations ceremonies that took place during the State visits of this year and of 2011 reminded us of the powerful healing impact that remembering together can have.
This is evident during those moments that we have chosen to commemorate together, such as the Taoiseach's visit to Flanders in December of last year with Prime Minister Cameron and the dedication by the President of Ireland and HRH Prince Edward Duke of Kent of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice in Glasnevin Cemetery in July. The participation of President Higgins and Minister Heather Humphreys at 4 August ceremonies in Mons, Glasgow and Belfast are further examples of a commitment to remember the First World War together.
We do not presume that all the people of these islands remember historical events of this period in the same way. The narratives born from these events are complex, and this must be recognised. This decade yields a plurality of interpretations and I believe that this further enhances and deepens our understanding of this period of history. We recognise that remembering together can be a challenge at times, but in accepting the diversity of views that exist, we maintain and encourage an appreciation for difference.
The future – ever-changing relations, great opportunities and some challenges
Turning to the future, it must be recognised that while the British-Irish relationship is a close one, like any relationship, it is also an ever evolving one. The debates taking place in the UK at the moment concerning the future of the Union and, indeed, the future of that Union in Europe, require us to assess the implications for the relationship, and give us an opportunity to reflect on its value.
The Scottish referendum campaign is at its height and the question is a matter solely for decision by the people of Scotland - in just 12 days. Whatever the outcome, we will work with our partners in Edinburgh and in London to ensure that the strong relations with all our neighbours in these islands will endure and continue to thrive.
That commitment to maintaining the strong relationship applies very much to the ongoing debate over the UK’s place in Europe. EU partners are rightly engaging in this debate, about the very question of UK membership and about the various changes the UK is seeking to how the EU works and the UK’s relationship with the Union. Major global trading partners such as the United States and Japan are also weighing in. Ireland too has been straight-talking in offering its views on this question, as any friend and partner should in daily life.
Our view is simple - I, and my Government, firmly believe that the UK is better off within the EU and that the Union is stronger by having the UK in it. While we recognise that the British relationship with the EU must meet Britain’s needs, we will continue to highlight where we see clear implications for stability and prosperity in these islands.
There is so much work inside the EU Ireland and the UK do together - and can do together in the future – as joint champions of free trade, of competition, of the single market that has been an undisputed success story, especially for open economies like those of these islands. A scenario involving the UK not being at the table, having no influence and yet still being impacted by EU decisions is not one I want to see.
So, we will make clear our case for continued membership and I welcome Prime Minister Cameron’s ongoing emphasis on active engagement by the UK in the EU as this debate progresses.
The future - moving beyond a ‘negative’ peace in Northern Ireland
In accepting the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Taoiseach and I discussed the centrality of Northern Ireland to my work as Minister and to the work of the Government of Ireland as a whole. In my first discussions in July with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Executive party leaders, I underlined the Government’s unwavering commitment, not only to peace and stability but to effective partnership government within the Executive in Northern Ireland.
As I said earlier, I also made it a priority to visit Belfast within the first two weeks of taking up this office. During that visit, I met with a range of politicians, community representatives, academics and others. Their message was clear – the political process in Northern Ireland is not delivering sufficiently on the most important and contentious issues.
Many people expressed concern that support for the principles that brought us through the peace process is weakening. This is a very troubling message but it tallies with the concerns expressed by the Irish Government over the course of the past year as politics in Northern Ireland has atrophied across a range of issues; not only the reconciliation agenda, which goes to the heart of the peace process itself,
butother bread and butter issues have also fallen foul of disagreement within the Executive.
In looking at where there are logjams now in the peace process, I see parallels between the contentious issues around identity that are unsettling Northern Ireland now, as it is building a new society and politics after the trauma of the Troubles, and the issues of contention a century ago when people in a newly divided Ireland on both sides of the border were coming to terms with the losses of the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and civil war.
A century ago, all too quickly the ground narrowed and, arguably, continued to narrow over the following decades. People in villages and towns across the island of Ireland – and for a host of different reasons – found themselves, as it were, on the wrong side of history. We cannot let that happen again today. We cannot allow people in Northern Ireland or across these islands be forced onto narrow cultural and political ground. In particular, we cannot allow vestiges of community division and sectarianism to remain unchecked, to fester and to skew perspectives.
I am concerned that political logjams to the reconciliation agenda today have the potential to affect and infect all elements of life in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland, from the economy, to public safety, to cultural expression. I am also concerned that the concept of culture, which should be about liberating perspectives and connecting people to each other, is being used as an instrument to divide communities. The use of language such as “cultural war” is not only paradoxical in meaning but also sadly reflective of narrow mind-sets.
Assessing the situation in Northern Ireland today is of course a very different task to assessing it even fifteen years ago. So much has been achieved. The daily onslaught of murder, sectarian attacks, bombings and punishment beatings are no longer the grim and unrelenting backdrop to life across the North that they were throughout the Troubles. We have had twenty years of peace since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. We have had sixteen years of a new political dispensation across these islands, mandated by the people of Ireland North and South, now led by the Northern Ireland parties themselves and supported by the two sovereign governments and also by the international community.
Of course it has not been plain sailing in the intervening period. How could it have been plain sailing given the bereavements and betrayals, the divisions and destruction of the Troubles? And it may not be plain sailing for a number of years to come. We have to accept that. But what we cannot accept is people deciding now that it is too much work buffeting the political winds of reaction and regression. Politically and economically, neither dropping anchor nor drifting are long term solutions.
In the most recent edition of the Peace Monitoring Report, Dr. Paul Nolan warned that the moral basis of the Good Friday Agreement has evaporated and that the absence of trust at the political level is preventing resolution – not just of the so-called Haass issues, but of crucial economic questions too. Dr. Nolan has a striking phrase to describe this situation: “peace without reconciliation”. That is not an acceptable status quo. It is certainly not the vision of the Good Friday Agreement; nor is an Executive paralysed by economic and political indecision.
And so I am concerned that there is a risk that the political process in Northern Ireland thinks that it can settle for a ‘negative peace’ – that is a peace that delivers an absence or abatement of violence but not much more. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard, take heart from how much progress we have made thus far and reaffirm effective partnership government that finds solutions to economic, social and political issues.
The future - mapping a way forward together
The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” In Northern Ireland the parameters of change were agreed at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And so many people have worked so hard to deliver that change over the past sixteen years. This is not a job for Northern Ireland politicians alone but they are absolutely central to it. Change is only possible through dialogue and compromise. For these reasons, in the months ahead and in facing current challenges, there is no viable alternative to the early resumption of political talks and the Irish Government is committed to using its influence and resources to achieve that objective.
In the light of the current impasse in Northern Ireland, some parties have called on the two Governments to face up to their responsibilities and to actively intervene. It seems to me that, as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, a key responsibility of the two Governments is to respect the political institutions of that Agreement and the democratic mandates of the politicians who were elected to serve in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and who must now take decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Another broader, fundamental responsibility of both Governments is to safeguard the peace process itself and to ensure that across all strands we continue to make progress towards full realisation of the principles and vision of the Agreements themselves. Working with our co-guarantor in London, and with the parties that comprise the Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government remains determined to fulfil all of its responsibilities for peace, stability and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
In the Good Friday Agreement, we committed to partnership, as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands. As we consider how far we have come since that historic Easter weekend in Belfast, we can proudly say that we have not squandered the inheritance of the Good Friday Agreement but that we have built upon it. There have been leaps forward and the occasional backward step , but since 1998 the bedrock logic of politics North and South, East and West, has been this: dialogue delivers. There is no escaping this simple but powerful truth.
The story of peace and progress on this island is founded in the relationships that have changed and grown in recent decades – within Northern Ireland, North and South, and East and West. These relationships cannot be taken for granted. As President Higgins said in Windsor Castle last April “We celebrate what has been achieved but we must also constantly renew our commitment to a process that requires vigilance and care.”
Vigilance and care is required because it is in the very nature of relationships to change and evolve over time. Even (or especially) in our most important relationships, change is the only constant.
Sometimes maintaining and improving these relationships requires hard asks, forcing us to make compromises that seem counter-intuitive. An instinctive temptation can be often to resist but we must not underestimate people’s ability to absorb change. People know that complex situations require compromise, mutual understanding and respect. They gave unassailable proof of this in their overwhelming response to the referenda on the Good Friday Agreement, in which communities across the island were asked to make difficult compromises for the good of all.
I believe this is because the people understood that they were saying ‘yes’ not just to peace -although this important achievement must not be underplayed - they were also saying ‘yes’ to the principles and practicalities of the Agreement which promised a safer, fairer future based on respectful dialogue and constructive partnership. The world we live in has been shaped by the dividends of that affirmation.
Conclusion – three guiding principles
So, in the simple, honest, straight-talking spirit that characterises this important annual gathering, let me conclude by quickly setting out my own three guiding principles for the next year and for future relations within and between these islands:
1. First, following these recent years of historic exchanges through the two State Visits, there is so much potential for even more co-operation, trade, social and cultural links between all of us. At political level, through academia, media, business, sport and everything else, let’s resolve to move up another gear and invest even further in our relations.
2. Second, the people across the island of Ireland mandated us to deliver on the Good Friday Agreement. Let’s do it by getting back to business and to effective partnership government now and let’s be as assiduous in discharging our own responsibilities as we are in calling upon others to discharge theirs.
3. Thirdly and finally, let’s have an honest and frank debate about Ireland, the UK and the European Union. We joined together 41 years ago, let’s continue working together inside the Union. We don’t believe it is in anyone’s interests including your own that the UK does leave – so the good, substantial debate such as has taken place this weekend needs to continue.
Ladies and gentlemen, this gathering is all about friendship and the common bonds and differences that go with friendship. There’s so much to be positive about, while there is also a lot of work to do to ensure things become even better. I look
forward to working with you all in the coming year and beyond.