Issued by the Government Press Office
3rd September 2021
Check against Delivery
Chairman Hugo MacNeill and Members of the Committee, Members of the Association, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Although I have had the privilege of attending the British Irish Association on a number of occasions, this is my first as Taoiseach, and I’m delighted that we can all gather again in person.
It is gatherings like these – allowing for honest reflection and robust debate amongst friends - which are the lifeblood of the vibrant relationships within and across these islands.
The adversity of the pandemic has, in many respects, hastened reflection and debate on how we shape our communities and societies in the years ahead.
What values do we need to reaffirm? What change is needed? How can we do better?
This Conference provides a moment to look, in that spirit, within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, at how we work together across these islands, for a shared future.
We have made hugely significant strides forward since 1998, with a whole generation in Northern Ireland growing up and coming of age, in peace.
But we also face enduring and difficult challenges in the peace process today.
There is much that has to be done, if we are to achieve the goal of a fully reconciled future.
This is also the first meeting of the Conference following the UK’s departure from the EU, and end of the transition period, on January 1st this year.
Brexit fundamentally alters the EU-UK relationship and, as we have seen, has profound implications for relationships on these islands and for the context in which we pursue our bilateral relationship.
At the core of our relationship is the role of the two Governments in joint stewardship of the Good Friday Agreement. I believe now is the time to reaffirm – and embody – that commitment.
It is through the two Governments working together that the peace process, and peace and stability in Northern Ireland, is best supported and fostered.
History has shown us, time and time again, that it is partnership which is the solution – not unilateral action.
The British Irish relationship is strong and deep, through our trade and interconnected economies, our shared historical community, cultural and family ties, and the rich contribution of Irish and British citizens in our respective countries.
These deep-rooted connections are underpinned by the Common Travel Area, which allows Irish and British citizens to live, work, and study across every part of these islands.
We are investing and expanding our footprint across Great Britain, and are committed to deepening relations with the devolved administrations.
At Government level, the UK’s departure from the EU requires us to re-think our relationship and how best to develop and foster it in a post Brexit context.
The Prime Minister and I have spoken about this and we can be ambitious.
I want to be ambitious. The British-Irish relationship is and always will be key.
But we must acknowledge also that there are troubling challenges in that relationship, including dealing with the legacy of the past and implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Prime Minister and I have also spoken about these issues.
We need to proceed on an agreed basis to deal with the painful legacy of the past for victims, families and survivors. I am very clear that all bereaved families should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrators.
I believe we can find our way through these issues but solutions must be grounded in partnership – between the two Governments, with the Northern Ireland Executive and, in the case of the NI Protocol, between the EU and the UK.
Brexit - and the UK decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union - was a unique and significant challenge for the island of Ireland.
The Protocol, reached after long and pain-staking
negotiations, is a response to that challenge. It is an intrinsic part of an international agreement.
My consistent position has been to get the Protocol working as smoothly as possible for people and for business in Northern Ireland. We have been engaging closely with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, and are listening carefully to concerns.
I have encouraged the European Commission to engage closely and I welcome Vice President Šefčovič’s recent useful engagement with the Assembly and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland and his commitment to maintain regular contact.
The EU is listening to Northern Ireland and it has demonstrated its ability to respond positively to the concerns of people in Northern Ireland.
With the right political will, I believe that it will be possible to find sensible solutions to some of the outstanding issues, within the framework of the Protocol.
I have no doubt that there is a willingness from the EU to engage and to work in good faith to minimise friction. And in my view progress is best made in the bodies set up under the Agreement, in a spirit of partnership, working at EU-UK level for agreed ways to resolve the issues that arise.
A positive and constructive future partnership is in everyone’s interest. But it will only be delivered if there is a relationship of trust, and a willingness to deliver on commitments entered into.
In the longer term, the real challenge will be to refocus the energy and capital currently being spent on Brexit to the task of reconciliation and of economic recovery
in Northern Ireland, and indeed across these islands.
The Protocol does offer the potential for significant trade, business and employment opportunities for Northern Ireland. Many in Northern Ireland business recognise this opportunity, and we are seeing a new and high FDI interest in the North.
Realising these opportunities, as our economies build back from the impact of Covid, should be the focus of our energy at this time, and the Irish Government is ready to play its part.
I do not underestimate the challenges and strains these issues place on the NI Executive, the North South Ministerial Council and British Irish relations.
Therefore, the priority must be to work together and ensure they do not derail the power-sharing institutions in Belfast and the gains of the Good Friday Agreement across the totality of relationships on these islands. This must be what guides us in these next months ahead.
For me there is also a broader task. How – in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement – we can work together for a shared future.
The Good Friday Agreement was transformative but, unfortunately the vision of the Agreement has so far not been brought to its full potential.
We have never had a sufficiently sustained, stable period for the power-sharing institutions in Belfast, and for the North South Ministerial Council and the East/West institutions of the Agreement to work to their full potential - to build a fully healed society that transcends the divisions of our past.
And we have to be honest and say that, twenty-three years on:
- division and mistrust between communities endures;
- politics in Northern Ireland remains structured by separate identity more than common interests;
- and there is much that we have to do consolidate the space for tolerance and reconciliation.
That is why the Irish Government has advanced our Shared Island initiative.
To engage with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
And to pursue the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver prosperity, progress and a fully healed society.
As a pivotal part of the Agreement, the people definitively resolved how we decide on the constitutional future for the island of Ireland, founded on the principle of consent.
Everyone on the island has the right to make the case for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland - whether they are nationalist, unionist, or do not identify with either tradition.
The great innovation of the Good Friday Agreement is that these provisions and rights on constitutional issues do not stand alone.
They are part of a comprehensive framework of political institutions, rights and obligations, with a commitment from all parties “to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation”.
These are not just warm words, but a real-world recognition of how politics, and people, work.
An understanding that the best way to approach the different, equally legitimate, futures that people may want for the island of Ireland, is to work together right now. Faithfully and effectively - for a more prosperous, trusting and reconciled society for all.
No one’s identity is compromised, nobody’s future ambitions are diminished, and everyone can gain.
We move beyond the narrow ground of identity difference to the broader space of a community of interests.
That is the prospectus for the future of the island of Ireland, that my Government is putting at the top of our agenda, through our Shared Island initiative.
We are seeking to work on a more strategic basis with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the British Government on the major common challenges we face - including recovery from the pandemic; tackling the climate emergency; and supporting economic opportunity across all regions, particularly for younger generations.
It also requires buy-in right across our politics and societies.
We need to:
- Re-energise efforts to deal with long-standing issues in the peace process.
- Develop new, positive, exciting dimensions to our partnerships, North/South and East/West.
- And to deal, in constructive, practical, holistic ways, with our interdependence.
The fact is that - come what may - there are diverse communities and political traditions that will always have their home on the island of Ireland.
So, we need to work together on our shared future.
We are doing this through my Government’s Shared Island initiative focused on:
- Building a Shared Island through increased resources and project investment;
- Understanding our Shared Island through independent analysis and research; and,
- Fostering open and inclusive Shared Island dialogue.
We are raising the ambition, commitment and level of resourcing for what we can achieve, through the Agreement, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government.
To back up our commitment, in the Budget last year the Irish Government established a Shared Island Fund, making €500m capital funding available out to 2025
We have made important progress with our shared island agenda in recent months:
- Backed by significant Government funding, we are now moving ahead with the long-standing Ulster Canal and Narrow Water Bridge projects - two landmark North/South investments that will better connect communities and grow sustainable tourism in border regions;
- The Government has also committed €40m in Shared Island funding for a new multi-annual North South Research Programme that will harness the capacity of institutions and researchers across the island to conduct world-leading research. Providing a vital knowledge base on strategic issues that we face together.
These new investments prove that we can progress significant cross-border cooperation when the will is there - with clear gains for both jurisdictions.
And this represents only the start of what the Government intends to achieve through all-island partnerships by 2025.
We want to work across all areas of mutual interest, including to:
- invest in new development opportunities for the North West and border regions;
- increase access and mobility in higher and further education;
- create new all-island research centres;
- grow both the all-island economy and the vital east/west trading relationship; and,
- do more at an all-island level on the common climate and biodiversity challenges we face.
The Government’s National Development Plan Review, to be published shortly, will reflect these priorities for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island.
Prosperity. Connectivity. Sustainability.
These are shared, strategic goals across these islands, that can be at the core of what the Good Friday Agreement delivers, for all communities and political traditions, in the years ahead.
And we are by no means claiming a monopoly on how best we build a shared future.
The shared island unit in my Department has commissioned a wide-ranging independent, published research programme, examining across a range of sectors, how we could do better on our shared island, looking both North/South and East/West.
On issues like how we do more together on providing health services; addressing educational under-achievement; and, attracting more high-value investment for good jobs in border regions.
And inclusive civic engagement is an integral part of our approach:
The Shared Island Dialogue series I launched last October is bringing people together from across communities, traditions and regions to hear their views on how we can work together on a shared future.
To listen to people’s ideas, questions, concerns, fears and hopes.
A priority is to see that we reflect the full diversity of our communities.
Over the years, women, minority communities and young people have not had the voice and influence in the peace process that they should.
We are ensuring that they are at the heart of civic dialogue on our shared future - significantly enhancing the range of perspective and experience that is brought to bear.
We are already seeing exciting projects emerging from the Dialogues, such as a newly established Women’s Forum bringing together women leaders from across the island to address underrepresentation and to further develop women’s role in peacebuilding and civic society.
These dialogues are proving to be hugely positive, practical, involving clear-eyed discussions on the opportunities, and the challenges, we face in striving for a more reconciled future.
They are also affirming just how much common ground, solidarity and readiness to work together there is, across communities and political traditions, while not shying away from hard questions
Almost 1,000 representatives from organisations, groups and sectors from across the island have participated so far.
The engagement has been open and inclusive.
Areas as diverse as the environment and climate, civil society engagement, equality, the economy and health cooperation have been addressed.
I have been heartened by the breath of vision and quality of ideas coming forward in these Dialogues.
Many of the participants, particularly younger people, want to move beyond the traditional narrative of binary identity politics.
Speaking about their aspirations for a Shared Island they talk about ‘a place where everybody feels welcome’; where there is ‘increased opportunity for everyone North and South’ and a ‘community where everybody lives without fear of difference’.
But there is plenty of questioning and challenging too of what Shared Island might mean for the future. One participant says she doesn’t identify as Irish and asks, ‘is there a place for me in a Shared Island’?
Another, speaking of loyalist band culture, asks are we ready to move not just from intolerance to tolerance, but to acceptance and celebration.
These are questions that we all need to think about profoundly, from all communities and traditions and from all parts of the island.
The Dialogues are providing a ferment of ideas, and bear out common priorities for young people North and South, on access to educational opportunities, tackling climate change and on mental health.
Other Dialogues have generated diverse ideas from ‘co-created solutions’ to the climate and biodiversity challenges, to cross border community apprenticeships, to all-island clusters of excellence in areas such as fintech, health and green technologies. To name but a few.
These are the kinds of issues and ideas that we need on the table in our political and civic engagements for the years ahead.
Progress on this positive agenda is not just an opportunity, it is an absolute imperative.
We need to lift our heads up, listen more to these diverse voices and deliver a shared future for them, and with them.
This is our task, this is our opportunity for the years ahead.
This is the challenge I place before this Conference.
I would like to conclude with some lines from the poetic contribution of award-winning young Northern Ireland naturalist and writer, Dara McAnulty, to our Shared Island Dialogue when he spoke about:
‘an island compact in its conflicts,
common ground is just that,
the soil we tread on,
that gently holds us together’
I very much look forward to hearing from you and to continuing these conversations over the course of this evening.