Co-Chairs Brendan Smith TD and Andrew Rosindell MP, members of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly I am delighted to join you today for your 60th Plenary session.
It is of course disappointing that circumstances do not allow us to welcome you here in person but I hope that you will have a productive meeting nonetheless.
The past year has been one of intense disruption. As we have all grappled with the pandemic, the significance of the end of the UK’s period of transition from the EU has been somewhat overshadowed.
However, in this Assembly, it is timely to offer some reflections on the profound significance of this shift in the history of the relationship between these islands.
For many decades, our shared membership of the EU was an important thread binding us together, framing the agenda and the context for much of our cooperation.
There are of course many other deep threads which bind us together: a shared history and heritage, rich cultural and family ties, our deeply interconnected economies, and joint stewardship of the Good Friday Agreement.
As we step through to a new chapter in our relationship with our nearest neighbour, we do so as a committed and engaged member of the European Union, and as a country and Government committed to a strong and multifaceted British Irish relationship.
The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the UK concluded late in December, alongside the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol, provide an agreed framework and a settled basis on which to found and develop the EU-UK relationship.
It is in all our interests to see a close and stable EU-UK relationship into the future, built on shared values and strong historical and economic ties.
Our commitment to our place at the heart of Europe is unwavering. It is my regret that the UK is no longer there with us and, in this new context, we will work now to enhance and strengthen our bilateral relationship.
While of course we cannot replace the daily interaction and shared policy agendas that we naturally enjoyed through the European Union, we need to think afresh about how we can renew and strengthen those connections.
We should be ambitious about what we can achieve across these islands in order to deliver real and meaningful benefits to all our people.
And I am very pleased that Prime Minister Johnson and I share an ambition to move forward with this new agenda to reset and refresh our cooperation in the post-Brexit context.
Let’s look at how we can work together to enhance connectivity across these islands, to deepen our cooperation on climate and biodiversity initiatives, to deliver sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic, as well as cooperating on international issues.
We will need to develop structures to underpin this engagement – with regular meetings by Heads of Government, at Ministerial and Senior Official levels, in order to build relationships and deliver on agreed programmes of work.
We have much to learn from each other – by sharing best practice on challenging public policy issues and working together to develop solutions, where appropriate.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on us all. It has also underlined the importance and benefit of cooperation to tackle this unprecedented challenge.
We have excellent ongoing communication between our Ministers, our Chief Medical Officers, and officials right across our systems, working together to understand our respective policy approaches and to coordinate to the greatest extent possible.
British and Irish citizens live in every part of these islands, enriching our respective communities, our economies and all areas of life.
This is underpinned by the Common Travel Area, which continues to be a bedrock of the unique British Irish relationship. In a Brexit context, both Governments moved quickly to copper fasten these arrangements in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in May 2019.
In a strong signal of the continuing importance of the bilateral relationship, the Government is investing in its footprint and relationships right across Great Britain.
We will open a new Consulate General to the North of England this summer, bringing the number of Irish diplomatic missions in Great Britain to four. The new Consulate in Manchester will join the recently opened Enterprise Ireland office there, deepening our collaboration with the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and enhancing our engagement with regional and local government.
We are also committed to deepening Ireland’s relationships with the devolved administrations. We recently launched a Joint Review of Ireland-Scotland relations which will enhance our cooperation and collaboration over the coming five years. And we look forward to taking forward a similar programme of cooperation with Wales in the near future.
We are seeing changes, since the beginning of this year, on flows and supply chains between Great Britain and Ireland, and indeed between all EU countries and Great Britain.
While we will continue to work to minimise disruptions where possible, the reality is that the UK is now outside of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and the flow of goods between the UK and its neighbours is now subject to controls both on the British and EU sides.
This brings serious new complexities and challenges, but Britain is and will remain a key trading partner and an important market for Ireland.
It is in all of our interests to help our businesses manage this change.
We all recognise the particular need to support our small and medium sized enterprises, which provide so much employment across all jurisdictions on these islands.
There is no version of Brexit that does not mean change, and change on this scale, by its very nature, can be difficult and challenging – especially in Northern Ireland where the Executive has been operating for little over a year following a long hiatus, and where there are many other important challenges on the agenda.
And that is why, as we navigate our way through these changes, I warmly welcome the work between Brussels and London to move forward and to find ways of easing implementation. Critically, this is being done in a context where both sides have underlined their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the full implementation of the Protocol.
There are many benefits and opportunities inherent in the Protocol for Northern Ireland and so it is right that we all work closely together to ensure that the Protocol works and that disruption is minimised to the greatest extent possible.
Members of this Assembly will know only too well the critical importance of parliamentarians in promoting and nurturing co-operation for the benefit of all the people on these islands.
I particularly wish to welcome the new members who have joined since the Irish and UK general elections. As new generations enter the political arena, each member of this Assembly should see themselves as a champion of this vital Irish-British relationship, encouraging their colleagues to learn more about it and engage with it.
Put simply, we must deepen and strengthen our understanding of each other and our engagement with each other. Once we can travel again safely, I want to see a steady flow of parliamentarians going in both directions from all chambers – whether it’s this Assembly, the North-South Inter Parliamentary Association, through Committees, informal delegations such as the ‘CHAMP’ organisation or the All Party Group on Ireland in Westminster.
I warmly welcome the creation of a new All-Party group, the Ireland-UK Friendship Group, here in the Oireachtas, convened by my party colleague Senator Lisa Chambers.
I believe there is an opportunity now for this Assembly to play a revitalised role in this new chapter of British Irish relations and I urge you to take up this challenge. Parliamentary links are a vital strand to our bilateral engagement – let’s be ambitious and use them to the full.
Since the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, we have witnessed the benefits of working together to build and sustain relationships, North-South and East-West. The Shared Island Initiative is a key priority for my Government in deepening and nurturing relationships at all levels, in the years ahead.
We have made immense progress through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement since 1998 - in politics, in society and economically.
But it is clear that we need to do more, collectively, in order to achieve a full reconciliation between all communities and traditions on this island.
We have seen, in recent times, more of a focus on the issue of constitutional change provided for under the Good Friday Agreement.
That is a clear part of the Agreement, recognised and validated by both the Irish and British Governments.
But these constitutional provisions do not stand apart from the rest of the Agreement, and the dynamic of working together - in Northern Ireland, North/South and East/West - to address common concerns and enhance our connections and mutual understanding.
Reconciliation is the core goal of the Good Friday Agreement, and it is of fundamental importance for our future on this island.
Our Shared Island initiative is focused on maximising what we can achieve in partnership through the Agreement, working with all communities and traditions on the island to build a consensus around a shared future.
This is a whole of Government priority, and I have established a Shared Island unit in my Department to act as a driver and coordinator for this work.
The Government wants to work with the Executive and with the British Government to address the shared strategic challenges that we face on this island.
We can achieve far more by working together on the challenges of our time - to ensure societal and economic recovery from the pandemic; to address the out-workings of Brexit; to make a just transition to a carbon neutral future; and to reverse biodiversity breakdown.
And there is more we could do together to maximise the potential of the all-island economy, increased connectivity on the island, and the mutual benefits of deeper cooperation in areas like health and higher education.
The Good Friday Agreement provides the North/South and East/West institutions and framework that we need to deliver meaningful progress on these issues together.
In recent months, through the North South Ministerial Council, the Government and Executive have put a focus on progressing long-standing cross-border investments, such as the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water Bridge.
We also aim to progress a new generation of cross-border projects for example on research and innovation, climate mitigation and enhanced rail connectivity.
I have had constructive engagement with Prime Minister Johnson on the Government’s Shared Island initiative and look forward to working on an East/West basis also as we take its work forward.
In October, the Irish Government established the Shared Island Fund, with €500m available over the next five years, ring-fenced for cross-border projects.
This confirms our readiness and ambition to invest in our shared future on the island.
The PEACE PLUS programme - funded by the European Union, Ireland, the UK Government and the Executive - will also provide essential support for a reconciled future.
As part of the Shared Island initiative, I have launched the Shared Island Dialogue series to foster inclusive civic discussion on key issues for the future - for instance on environment, health, education and economy.
We are seeking as broad a range of perspectives as possible through the dialogues, ensuring the participation of often under-represented voices in the Peace Process, including women, younger people and minority communities.
The Shared Island unit is also commissioning research that will be published to inform and to stimulate debate, on how we can take forward a shared island agenda in the years ahead.
In areas like environment, enterprise policy, regional development, tackling poverty and supporting social enterprise.
Strengthening social, economic and political links is a key focus.
And in this respect, I am fully supportive of seeing our inter-parliamentary institutions and connections that are part of the Good Friday Agreement, including this Assembly, invigorated and focused on the issues that matter most for the people we represent.
Through the Shared Island initiative, we are championing a holistic, constructive and resolute approach to all aspects of our shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
It is a broad and inclusive endeavour, which all communities and traditions, on the island of Ireland and in Britain, can contribute to with confidence.
I have been heartened by the positive engagement there has been so far to the initiative, from civil society, business, trade unions, educators and researchers and in communities.
And I encourage Members of this Assembly to play your role; to contribute your ideas and energies to realising the vision of a shared future founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
Ensuring that we harness that interest and goodwill, that we take up the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement framework, and that collectively we sustain progress on societal reconciliation, will remain a central priority for the Irish Government in the years ahead.
The UK’s departure from the EU is a moment of dramatic and profound change.
It requires us to rethink and reinvigorate the British Irish relationship.
And while there will undoubtedly be challenging times ahead as we navigate this new environment, I remain ambitious about what we can achieve by working together in a spirit of cooperation and I am convinced that we can move forward in a mutual respect and close partnership.
I wish you well in your deliberations today.