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Address by An Taoiseach Micheál Martin to the IIEA 2021: Ambitions and Challenges for Ireland in a Changing World

Check Against Delivery

First of all, I would like to thank Ruairi, Michael and the IIEA as a whole for the invitation to make this address and to answer your questions.

During my time as leader of Fianna Fáil I have delivered a series of speeches which have provided our commentary on the many and changing challenges facing our country and Europe as a whole.

Last January, in the middle of our election campaign, I used one of these occasions to set out our core beliefs about how Ireland should work with urgency and as part of a strong international community.

This touched on a range of urgent social, economic, political and environmental issues.

A lot has changed since then.

The impact of a dramatic global pandemic and recession is beyond anything we talked about then. And, in truth, we have some way to go before we know the full extent of their impact.

If we look back at the pandemic that occurred just over a hundred years ago, it had political and social impacts which recent research shows caused a much longer crisis than we have previously understood.

By any measure, these are historic times – and they demand of us all that we step up and accept our part in responding.

The need for strong, rules-based structures to guide how countries behave is being challenged on many fronts.

Economic and social pressures are demanding an, at times, radical re-evaluation of policies which were accepted without question until recently.

And core values including the fundamentals of democracy are under attack in many places. In the place of a genuine ideological dispute, we are now confronted with a cynical strategy of division and misinformation.

The appalling events of last week in Washington are part of a wider and more complicated series of urgent challenges.

So, no matter how you look at it, it is impossible to look at the last few years and miss the fact that this is a historic moment.

No short address could possibly cover all of the issues involved, but what I would like to do is to give you a sense of how this Government intends to act.

How we intend to make sure that Ireland is an active, constructive and effective contributor to international developments.

The challenges are profound, but history teaches us that they can be overcome. Central to this must be cooperation by states who share core values and the reinvigoration of strong, rules-based organisations.

The Covid Pandemic

Before I do this, I want to talk about the current state of the pandemic.

We are at a moment balanced between deep danger and great hope. Just as in the past for deadly diseases like polio and smallpox, it is through vaccination that we will be able to put this terrible virus behind us.

Figures released yesterday show that vaccination here is moving forward at pace and primarily limited by the availability of the vaccine.

But our hospitals are experiencing their most terrible week so far of the pandemic. The scale and pace of the increase in cases which we have experienced has been well beyond anything predicted.

Tough measures limiting public activities must remain in place for the moment – and everyone will have to limit contacts for some time.

These are dark days - our ‘bearna bhaoil’, our ‘gap of danger’ – but, I know that we will get through it and we will see brighter times.

And, as I will set out in my remarks today, as we look to the year ahead and beyond, it is my belief that we can recover better and in a more sustainable way.
The Global Context
This pandemic has shown in a very sharp way how interlinked our world is. No country can stand aside and ignore the global context for global social and economic inequality, organised misinformation, the erosion of core values and the existential issue of climate change.

We have to do more than recognise these issues. We need to contribute actively to global, international and regional alliances and initiatives to tackle and to counter them.

And that is why Ireland puts such store in our international engagement, through the EU and the UN in particular.

The fundamentals on which our future peace, prosperity and planet depend can only be dealt with systematically and collectively by countries working together.

There was a time when a statement like this would be seen as banal and taken for granted – but the core of many of the political and economic crises of this moment has been an effort to strip this cooperation of legal strength and strong values.

This Government has taken up office with a shared determination that Ireland will not stand on the side-lines. With respect to all and an understanding of the limits of what a small state can expect to achieve, Ireland will be an engaged global actor.

We will do this as a committed member of the European Union, as an active member of other international bodies and, for the coming term, as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

And this active and progressive policy is also what drives the approach of my Government in terms of the island of Ireland and our relations with our nearest neighbour.

The Good Friday Agreement is founded on the conviction that by working together, on the basis of shared values and principles, we can transcend divisions and progress common interests.

This is the premise that inspires the work of the Shared Island Unit, which I have established.

I’ll return to its work later in my remarks.

The EU as a Global Player

While the pandemic has limited the number of bilateral contacts we have had between heads of state and government, since July there has been a very active series of summits and discussions about core issues facing Europe and the wider world.

External relations and global issues are becoming ever more prominent on our agenda. At last month’s European Council meeting we showed a shared commitment to moving forward on a range of issues at the same time.
We endorsed a binding EU target of a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 of at least 55%, compared to 1990 levels – a crucial step towards a climate-neutral EU by 2050. Europe is rightly aiming to be a genuine global leader on climate action.

We also addressed the urgent need to cooperate – at home and further afield – to tackle terrorism and violent extremism, both online and offline.

In what I hope is the start of a new transatlantic dynamic, leaders welcomed the incoming Biden/Harris Administration and committed us to working closely with them.
We will not agree on everything, but no serious progress on global challenges is possible without strong EU/US cooperation.

There are too many legitimate national interests within the EU to have a seamless common foreign policy. But I very much get a sense from colleagues that they understand that in this area we need to be more active, show more urgency and renew critical partnerships.

The discussions are becoming more open as well as frank and the spirit has been constructive. We will do everything possible to help this spirit to develop further.

Ireland’s ambition is for the EU to become an-ever stronger advocate and actor in support of resilient, open, rules-based political and economic multilateralism. This is the most effective and, indeed, the only effective way to advance our interests and defend our values.

Our Place in the EU

The coalition Government, which I lead, is unequivocally Euro-positive. We want a Union which is more effective, more resilient and more committed than ever to the values upon which it was founded and has grown.

Each of our parties comes to the issue of Europe from a different starting point – however we share a determination that the Union will prosper.

We reject the false idea that sovereignty is compromised by respecting common policies and the rule of law within the Union. In fact, it is an essential enabler of sovereignty.

It was once said that a small country is one which has to worry about its existence. If looked at that way, membership of the Union has been an unprecedented act of guaranteeing the sovereignty of once vulnerable states.

Seán Lemass, my predecessor as Taoiseach and as leader of my party, participated as a young man in the revolution which founded this state, and, in his final years, he led us towards Europe in order to protect and expand the sovereignty which that revolution won.

One of the striking things about the debate within the UK about Europe in the decades before the Brexit referendum was the constant repetition of the idea that sovereignty is a zero-sum issue.

We reject that idea and, just as importantly, we know that we must never let up in confronting those who spread it.

Anyone who cares to look can see how the European Union enhances opportunities for countries – the single market; shared trading policy; free movement; supports for agriculture; solidarity and cooperation in facing challenges like energy security and climate change; and the countless benefits to our citizens, from participation in schemes like Erasmus, to no roaming charges within the Union.

The picture of what life can be like without those benefits is also beginning to be revealed.

The Government’s position on this is clear – could not, in fact, be clearer. The EU is Ireland’s home.

And while there are those who would like to undermine the Union, Ireland stands with those who seek to strengthen and reform it.

This is why I strongly supported increasing the fiscal strength of the Union so that it can do more than limit countries, it can directly enable growth.

At July’s summit, Ireland, as a net-contributor, supported a shared European approach to recovery and growth. I argued for an ambitious budget and a new recovery package.

I believe an even more ambitious approach would have been justified, but what was agreed is historic and it demonstrates the learning of one of the many lessons of how the EU was not in a position to more effectively help the worst hit economies during the great recession.

Since joining the EU, Ireland has contributed and benefitted greatly in economic, social and financial terms. Over the next seven years, we will contribute significantly more to the EU budget than we will receive in direct allocations from the budget.

But the economic impact of the EU must stop being assessed purely on the basis of fiscal transfers. Every single member of the EU gets more out of it economically than it contributes in direct funding.

A huge element of the dynamism and strength of German, or French, or Dutch, or indeed Irish, export employment rests on participation in a strong Single-Market and strong trading-block. Millions of jobs and possibly trillions in taxes for funding social services have been enabled by the European Union.

I believe we must start being more assertive in making this, frankly unquestionable, argument for the economic necessity of Europe for all members. And we must see the benefit to all of cohesion and a recovery shared by all.

And I think it is also important to say that we must be more active in making the argument for free and fair trade across the globe.

United Nations.

Of course, Ireland’s focus on global issues will be especially strong now that we have taken our seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Ireland has a proud record at the United Nations, both within its framework for advancing important policy initiatives, and in our contribution to its vital peacekeeping efforts. We are committed to tackling global and international challenges in an orderly, rule-based manner. Members of the Irish Defence Forces have served under the UN flag with great distinction around the world, since we joined in 1955.

As I have said before, it is an enormous honour and responsibility for Ireland to serve on the Council for the next two years.

In our election campaign, we promised to bring the values of empathy, partnership and independence to bear in our work.
We will undertake that work in a spirit of determination, engagement and fairness. And we will work with all of our partners, including our partners in the European Union, as we take that work forward.

Brexit – managing the change

Of course, the European Union of which we are a part is now a different place. Our neighbours in the United Kingdom, unfortunately and sadly, have chosen to leave.

It was a decision based on a debate which I don’t think could be described as having been informed by the reality of what was being proposed.
After the past four years, indeed after forty years of the impact of English Euroscepticism on the operation of the European Union, we need to move on and start again. This is so even for those of us who remain convinced of the error of the decision.

When you first approached me to make this address, it was in November, and the immediate context you had in mind was the conclusion of the EU-UK negotiations, and what a post-Brexit landscape might look like from an Irish perspective.

As we know, ultimately an agreement came late in the day, on Christmas Eve, with the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement now being provisionally applied.
In overall terms, the Agreement reached on Christmas Eve, together with the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, means that Ireland’s key objectives in the Brexit process have been achieved.

In particular, the Agreements reached with the UK protect key elements of the Good Friday Agreement, including avoiding a hard border on the island; ensure tariff and quota free trade with the UK; and protect Ireland’s place in the Single Market.

I don’t think it can be repeated enough that the Good Friday Agreement was directly enabled by the fact that our countries shared membership of the European Union – and that the EU did everything possible to facilitate and support it.

And we deeply appreciate the support and solidarity of the European Union Member States and institutions, not least in addressing and defending those issues and concerns that were of particular or unique concern to Ireland, throughout the negotiations.

There is no avoiding the truth, however, that as much as we have worked to mitigate its impact, Brexit requires us to manage very damaging developments. These include considerable change and greater complexity, especially for anyone seeking to do business with Great Britain into the future.

Now that Brexit has become a reality, we are seeing operational effects on supply chains and in ports on trade between Great Britain and all EU countries, including Ireland.

We have put substantial resources into preparing for Brexit including: legislation; supports for business and other sectors; and stakeholder outreach.

I want to take the opportunity this afternoon to commend the many thousands of Irish companies, big and small, who have also prepared for these changes in the most difficult of circumstances.

I know that there are some who are still working to familiarise themselves with the new systems, checks and controls which go with trading with a non-EU country.

There never was such a thing as a ‘good Brexit’ for Ireland. But we are working hard to minimise the negative consequences. I believe the agreement reached is the least bad version of Brexit, given the political circumstances.

At many stages, throughout the negotiations of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement, there was an expectation in some quarters that competing national interests would cause EU 27 unity to crumble. There was undoubtedly support in some circles for what might be called a ‘divide and conquer’ approach.

Some of the, at times almost-feral, anti-EU forces hoped that they could even unravel the entire Union.

However, EU unity and solidarity held to the end, not least in the real commitment to protecting key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. The Union’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, did as they promised and delivered a final Agreement, which protects our interests and Europe’s interests. For this, we will always be grateful to them.

We see that solidarity reflected not just in the terms of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, but in the continuation of the PEACE Programme under the new financial framework of the Union to 2027, and in the Brexit Adjustment Reserve that offers support to Member States and sectors most affected by Brexit.

Brexit has also demonstrated the need to constantly take stock of where we stand as a country, and what we need to do to progress.

Our upcoming National Economic Plan will set out this new Government’s objectives for economic recovery post Brexit and Covid-19, and a pathway to shape and build a renewed economy for the future.

Our recovery will be underpinned by a two-pronged approach.

First, we will have renewed focus on domestic SMEs, a sector which has borne much of the brunt of Covid19 and Brexit, and which is critical to a broad-based jobs-led economic recovery right across our island.

For this sector, while Britain will remain an essential trading partner, in the medium to longer term, we are likely to see an accelerated diversification in Irish export products and markets; a re-orientation in certain supply chains away from the GB to EU sources; and greater incentives for Irish businesses to remain internationally competitive.

In 2021, the challenge will be to continue to support businesses as they make these changes.

Second, we will work hard to maintain our global positioning as a knowledge-based country which is secure, rules-based and connected; with a deep talent pool; taking a lead in digital and climate transformation; and part of the seamless trading environment of the EU’s single market.

All of this gives enormous strength, potential, resilience and sustainability to all sectors of a diversifying Irish economy, including our deep and broad multi-national sector.

Looking to this year and beyond, we continue to work to minimise lasting effects of Covid through the provision of labour market supports to those who have lost jobs or the opportunity to work throughout the pandemic.
The Irish economy has the capacity to recover relatively quickly from the crisis, once the circumstances allow.

Indeed, with the vaccination being rolled out over the coming months, the combination of our access to European supports as well as domestic policy supports, elevated household savings and pent-up demand should provide an environment for a sustainable recovery of the domestic economy.

We also have to be a strong voice for a strong and equitable global recovery – based on global access to vaccines and to finance, and continued support of open and fair trade.

Ireland-UK relations

I am extremely conscious that we must now write a new chapter in our relationship with the UK.

The UK will always be a close partner – we must now renew and strengthen a relationship which, for nearly half a century, involved a shared structure of debates, legislation and so much more.

Prime Minister Johnson and I have discussed this at length and we are agreed on that important goal. We have committed to putting arrangements in place in 2021 to underpin the next chapter.

We are committed to working together to develop an ambitious new agenda to reset and refresh our cooperation in the post-Brexit context.
Working together to enhance connectivity and to tackle climate change, to name but two, could deliver real and meaningful benefits to all of our people.

We are agreed on the need to develop structures for regular meetings at Heads of Government, Ministerial and Senior Official levels, in order to deliver on agreed programmes of work on matters of practical cooperation.

The Common Travel Area between these islands is essential and protecting its practical operation means we must develop and maintain a new level of cooperation.

We must not become strangers because we miss the deep daily connections we had in the European Union. We cannot just meet at high-profile events or to talk about distinct projects.

During my time as a member of government, I always valued the exchanges I had with counterparts in London and the devolved governments. This helped with policy development, with anticipating problems, and creating a foundation of trust so that problems could be prevented from becoming crises.

As well as putting in place a new framework for Ireland/UK relations, I look forward also to the opportunity to deepen Ireland’s relationship with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. We intend to develop distinct programmes of cooperation with each of those administrations in the coming months.

International Engagement

Looking beyond these islands, despite the turbulence of Brexit and the Covid19 pandemic, longer-term strategic work must continue.

Even with the enormous economic pressures of the pandemic, we are pushing ahead with a programme to significantly expand Ireland’s presence and impact internationally.
This year, we will open new Embassies in Manila, Rabat and Kyiv, as well as a new Consulate in Manchester, covering northern England. Plans for a Consulate in Miami are also underway.

In September, we announced the design for a new landmark Ireland House in Tokyo, which will serve as a flagship model for the concept across our mission network, when it opens its doors in early 2024. We are also finalising works for new Ireland Houses in Mumbai, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Across Government, we are supporting efforts to grow and diversify export markets, inward investment and tourism.

We are determined to strengthen our bilateral relations with like-minded countries, and to support the alliances necessary to advance Ireland’s interests in a rapidly-changing geopolitical landscape.

While the reach of our diaspora is global, I am particularly mindful speaking to you today that the United States of America, the home of perhaps Ireland’s largest diaspora, will in the coming days complete the transition from the Trump Presidency to that of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. The eyes of the world are on this transition, more so than ever after recent events.

In Ireland, we feel a particular affinity, given that Joe Biden has been a stalwart friend of Ireland throughout his long and decorated history of public service.

In my conversation with him in the days after his victory, it was clear that he is passionate about both his Irish heritage and the idea of Ireland as a constructive friend at a time of great challenge for his country and the world.

I think we must also recognise the election of Kamala Harris as Vice-President as a moment of tremendous significance and a positive milestone. In a world where all too often ideas of diversity and equality are being challenged, she will be a powerful new voice for progress.

In spite of the appalling events of recent days and weeks, I have great confidence in the strength of US democracy, and its commitment to democratic norms and the rule of law. The US has so often been a beacon to the world – and for the idea that nations must always seek to challenge themselves and address their deepest flaws.

It is a testament to the strength and resilience of the US’s democratic institutions that Congress resumed the process of certifying the Presidential election results just hours after the dramatic events at the Capitol.

From a bilateral Irish perspective, we look forward greatly to a Biden Presidency. A number of members of the incoming administration are well-known to us, and we will be starting from a point of mutual friendship and respect.

That is not to say that there will not be complex issues to be dealt with around trade and investment, around climate change and immigration, around peace and security. And that’s ok.

What is never ok is trying to pretend that complex bilateral and global issues can be solved by unilateral decrees. That is an approach built on sand.

Shared Island Initiative

All of this brings me back to where all this starts – at home, on this island. Because, of course, how we make our way in the world, starts with how we shape our lived experience on this island - our Shared Island.

The Government’s Shared Island initiative is about harnessing the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to build a better future for everyone on the island, North and South.

The goal which underpins and inspired the Good Friday Agreement is reconciliation. This has, unfortunately, not always been evident in the years since the Agreement was ratified by the votes of all parts of our island.
And - like the European Union - the goal of reconciliation is achieved through the Good Friday Agreement by working in sincere, ambitious and effective partnership across borders - to deliver meaningful improvements in people’s lives and address common challenges together.

The initiative puts a renewed focus on doing just that, so that, as the Agreement commits us “we strive in every practical way towards reconciliation”.

The genius of the Agreement is that it enables normal politics but creates extra shared space for old divisions to be overcome.

Each of us retains the right to seek different outcomes to the governance of the country – however, we also carry the duty to address other, entrenched problems.

In Budget 2021, we announced the Shared Island Fund.

The Fund, to which €0.5billion will be allocated, speaks to the scale of our ambition and of our readiness to pursue significant collaborative North/South investments that will benefit people across the island.

We are working now with the Northern Ireland Executive and through the North South Ministerial Council to drive the delivery of infrastructure projects that we have already agreed.
For instance, in December, the Government approved funding to launch the delivery of Phase 2 of the Ulster Canal. And we are working to progress joint investment with the Executive in the A5 road transport corridor and the Narrow Water Bridge project.

It is a powerful statement of what we can achieve that, where once our relations were defined by disputes, we are quite literally sitting down and discussing building bridges between us.

We also want to progress a new generation of North/South investments working with the Executive and with the British Government.

For example, we are actively looking at an all-island research programme, to bring together the capacities and expertise of universities and industry, North and South. As we have done in the past in critical areas like energy security, I know we can deliver world-leading research and innovation that can support new jobs and economic opportunities on the island.

We will commission a comprehensive programme of research, working with independent bodies. This research will contribute to considerations, both in government and in wider society, on how we can further develop a Shared Island agenda and harness the full potential for mutually beneficial cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement.

And it’s always good to keep talking – so I have also launched the Shared Island Dialogue series to support constructive and inclusive engagement by civil society, across a range of issues, such as the Environment, Health and Education – looking at how best we can collectively build a shared future on the island.

Our Shared Island initiative is a broad, positive and inclusive endeavour, which all communities and traditions can engage with in confidence.

It is how we will take the next necessary, essential steps on the journey to full reconciliation.

Concluding Remarks

The immediate work of limiting the damage of the pandemic dominates our work at the moment, as it does the work of all governments in Europe at the moment. However, this new Government is also moving forward with an ambitious new agenda for relations on this island, with our neighbour, with our fellow Member States of the European Union, and with the wider world.

We understand the breadth and depth of the unique challenges of this moment.

We are absolutely clear in the values which we believe must define how these challenges are overcome.

Ireland will be an advocate for a strong and effective European Union, defined by democracy, the rule of law and solidarity.

We will actively engage bilaterally, and through international organisations, to support open and fair trade, combat disinformation, protect democracies and promote understanding.

Whether we are acting globally or locally, challenges are best faced in solidarity together; and solutions are best found through partnership, with pragmatism and with principles.

Thank You.