Mr Chairman, Dominic, members of the Committee, members of the Association, Vice President Sefcovic, Secretary of State Vara, Ministers, and distinguished guests.
A sincere thank you for inviting me to speak to you this morning in Oxford – agus comhghairdeas do Dominic as do phost nua - which I have no doubt you will fulfill to the highest standard.
Deep appreciation also to Hugo McNeill for his stewardship of the BIA over the past 9 years.
It is a special honour to speak to you this year on the 50th anniversary of your establishment. I want to acknowledge the vision of your founders and the work of all those who have contributed to the BIA over the last five decades.
You should rightly be proud of all you have done fostering new conversations and engagements - often at very difficult times - and helping to craft the relationships we have today.
We continue to face compelling and critical new challenges on these islands and globally. A year ago when I last spoke at the BIA, we did not contemplate the war in Europe caused by the immoral Russian invasion of Ukraine.
For six months now, we have been witnessing devastating casualties, massive destruction of infrastructure and millions of Ukrainians displaced or seeking refuge in Europe.
The EU has responded forcefully and with generosity – united in its condemnation of the Russian invasion, imposing multiple sanctions packages; providing concrete support for the resilience and capacity of Ukraine and giving sanctuary to Ukraine’s refugees. The UK has been an important partner for us in this response.
I am proud that Ireland is playing its part at the UN, in the EU and on the ground, with more than 48,000 refugees being welcomed by the people of Ireland, and supported by the Government since last February.
Responding to the war in Ukraine has reminded us all that the UK and the EU remain vital partners at so many levels - at the UN, in Europe and in defence of the rules-based international order.
Brexit has fundamentally changed that relationship – we recognize that. But the UK remains an important partner for the EU.
It is critical therefore that we find a way through this undeniably difficult phase to build better relationships.
• Between the EU and the UK with our vast trade and intertwined economies, our shared global interests and our commitment to democratic values and norms. • But also knitting back together the relationship of partnership between the British and Irish Governments which is so vital for peace and prosperity on these islands.
Let us never forget the breadth and depth of the British-Irish relationship across so many sectors - trade, finance, economy, energy, agriculture and food. Our culture and arts continue to flourish based on personal friendships and family relationships across this land.
However, like all long-term relationships, there are times when we don’t understand each other as well, perhaps misunderstand each other’s actions and the resulting consequences, but ultimately we both want and need to make it work.
Regrettably, unilateral action on the Protocol and on legacy is at odds with the spirit of partnership that is needed to underpin the Good Friday Agreement.
It is testing and fraying that partnership between us.
It risks further instability in Northern Ireland and damage to key sectors of the economy.
That is why with the background of a terrible war in Europe and shifting political dynamics, the focus of my thoughts this morning is on the sustained political partnerships we need in support of the Good Friday Agreement with the British Government and with the Northern Ireland Executive.
I speak at a time of political change here, as we await the announcement on Monday of a new leader of the Conservative party and the new Prime Minister of the UK.
I wish them well in the challenging times ahead.
I want to work in an open and constructive way with the new British Prime Minister.
I sincerely believe that the EU would respond positively to a serious and genuine signal from the new British Prime Minister that their priority is to reach an agreed outcome on the issues around implementation of the Protocol.
Brexit marked a fundamental change in the EU-UK relationship, and the type of Brexit chosen by the British Government has meant that the trading relationships on these islands have been fundamentally altered.
That made finding a new set of arrangements – one that would not, and could not be, a return to the trading arrangements that operated before Brexit – absolutely imperative. The Protocol is the hard-won compromise between the UK and the EU designed to address the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and protecting the integrity of the single market.
It was agreed by the UK Government, ratified by Westminster and enacted into UK law.
I am deeply concerned about the British Government’s legislation which would unilaterally undo core elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Concerned by what it means for the partnership approach we want to see between the EU and the UK; concerned by the wider message it sends about a rules-based international order; and, most of all, concerned because it is neither in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland nor what they want.
The EU recognises that there have been genuine difficulties with aspects of the implementation of the Protocol. But we need to address these together. The EU has listened very carefully to the concerns of people in Northern Ireland.
It has already put forward practical proposals and I want to take a moment to thank Vice President Sefcovic for his very strong, engaged and constructive leadership of these efforts, and for his remarks last night.
I believe there is a path to an agreed way forward on outstanding issues regarding the Protocol if we keep our focus on addressing the real problems that affect people in Northern Ireland and on identifying pragmatic and operational solutions.
Only an agreed outcome between the EU and the UK will provide a durable solution and much needed legal and economic certainty for business and the people of Northern Ireland.
The benefits of doing so are clear. The risks of not doing so are significant.
And, at a time of great challenge and upheaval in the world – with war in Ukraine, with our citizens grappling with energy prices and cost-of-living increases – we have an obligation as leaders to demonstrate that democratic, serious politics work.
Ladies and Gentlemen, As we look forward to the 25th Anniversary next April of the Good Friday Agreement, it is fitting that the BIA members recognise the significance of this milestone and have based this weekend’s conference around it.
We have all – the people of Northern Ireland, people across these islands, the two Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties – reaped the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement. The benefits of peace, of strengthened relationships, of growing prosperity.
Fifty years ago in 1972, the year this organisation was founded, 480 people were killed in the troubles in Northern Ireland. The seminal work ‘Lost Lives’ said of 1972 that it was ‘a year of violence and political confusion with a death toll far higher than any other year’.
For some of you in this room this may seem like distant history. For many of us it was tragic lived reality. For the families of those killed and injured in that and all the other years of the troubles, they continue to deal with the resulting loss, pain and suffering.
As we as a society struggle to deal with the legacy of that past, my Government and I hold firm to the view that we must do so through a shared approach between the British and Irish Governments, the Northern Ireland political parties, and with the victims and families at its heart.
Here, on the cusp of the 25th anniversary of the Agreement it is vital that we do not forget what came before it and what it has achieved.
It effectively marked the end of 30 years of bloody violence which claimed over 3,500 lives.
It established a historic settlement taking account of all the relationships on these islands – within Northern Ireland, North/South and East/West.
It created an agreed path for determining the future of Northern Ireland, enshrining the principle of consent at its heart.
It is very important that we do not allow confusion to be introduced or to cloud those consent provisions which recognise ‘the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of people in Northern Ireland’, and that choice is defined as ‘whether they continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’.
The Agreement recognised the unique nature of Northern Ireland in a number of ways, including through the right of all to identify as British or Irish or both, and through the commitment that the Government with jurisdiction in Northern Ireland shall exercise its powers ‘with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people … in the diversity of their identities and traditions’.
It established interlocking institutions in the power sharing Northern Ireland Executive buttressed by a range of checks and balances, the unique North South Ministerial Council to foster cooperation on the island of Ireland, and East/West institutions of the British Irish Council and the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
It provided for robust human rights provisions including the incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The path since 1998 has not always been smooth or easy. Further difficult compromises were required and forged by agreement between the parties and the Governments.
We have not always lived up to the ideals embodied in the Agreement and the commitments we gave to work together ‘in partnership, equality and mutual respect’ and to ‘strive in every practical way towards reconciliation’. But history has shown us that is the only path forward.
It is 121 days since the Northern Ireland elections and the Assembly has not been able to operate or the Executive formed. The North South Ministerial Council is not meeting.
Ironically, and despite certain commentary, it is the East/West institutions that are the only ones currently fully functioning.
It is to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland that their Executive is not in place to take the decisions and provide the leadership that the North needs, particularly as we face into a difficult and economically challenging winter. It is a denial of the mandate they gave in the elections of the fifth of May.
What we are faced with is the decision of one political party not to participate in the Northern Ireland Executive, and by so doing, damaging the functioning of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. It is unacceptable.
I have been completely consistent on this issue and expressed my views in the same terms when Sinn Fein withdrew from the Executive in 2017.
When the Executive broke down on previous occasions the two Governments and the political parties worked together to resolve issues, make progress and restore the Institutions. That should be our approach now also, with issues regarding the Protocol addressed in parallel through EU-UK talks.
The death of David Trimble on the 25th of July and the tributes rightly and justly paid to him, reminded us all again of the ‘risks for peace’ taken by Northern Ireland political leaders and the two Governments at that time.
I am reminded again of his wise words in Oslo. He called politics “the bedrock to which all societies return”. That is precisely what is needed now. There can only be democratic, political solutions to the problems we are facing.
This is why the institutions of the Agreement must be allowed to function and I urge the parties to move forward so that Northern Ireland can once again have a functioning Assembly and Executive and the resume the work of the North South Ministerial Council.
As we look forward the Good Friday Agreement remains our indispensable framework; our bedrock.
The Good Friday Agreement and all we have achieved since 1998 is too important to be used for narrow political gain;
Too important not to do the difficult, painstaking work of compromise; Too important for us not to face, with courage, those in our parties and communities who seek to undermine its vision.
As we work through these considerable challenges, it is essential that we also take forward a more positive agenda under the Good Friday Agreement.
To focus not only on resolving differences and difficulties, but also on working together for true reconciliation and on our substantial shared interests, today and for the future.
And after 25 years - and a whole generation that has come of age in peace - we have an unprecedented opportunity to forge together a shared, reconciled future.
But it won’t just happen.
We have to prioritise, resource and work to build that shared future in practice,
- By deepening our civic and political relationships, North/South and East/West;
- Developing new opportunities to cooperate and invest across our borders and communities;
- And, by fostering the space to look at the future on the island of Ireland in a positive way, that doesn’t compromise anyone’s identity or aspirations - unionist, nationalist or neither.
This is the work we have been leading through the Shared Island Initiative, which I established upon becoming Taoiseach.
Doing the practical hard work of modernising infrastructure, addressing all island climate challenges, investing in the border region and tackling persistent social and economic challenges.
We are deploying the Shared Island Fund of €1bn now and over the coming decade through all-island partnerships, working with the Executive, UK Government, Local Authorities, education institutions and civil society.
This is very substantial funding, supporting new research and innovation partnerships on the island; making progress on long standing projects like the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water Bridge, and investing in border communities.
Through a major and unprecedented programme of commissioned research we are deepening our understanding on issues like education provision, cross border trade, primary healthcare, the services economy, FDI and productivity levels across the entire island.
Addressing for the first time in a strategic way the knowledge gaps on the island in terms of how our systems work – their similarities, differences and lessons learned.
This work is informing and stimulating public discussion on what sharing the island of Ireland means today and what it could mean in the years ahead.
And at the core of the Shared Island Initiative is bringing people together - from across all regions, communities and political traditions - to discuss how, in real terms, we could better share the island in the years ahead.
The Shared Island Dialogues have directly involved almost 2,000 citizens and civic representatives.
Through the Dialogue series, civil society is showing - in practical, non-partisan ways - how we can shape a shared future; engaging with the interests, experience, fears and hopes of all communities.
In June, I addressed a Dialogue in Derry with more than 150 young people, which heard from the coming generation on the broad theme of ‘identity’.
Asking if we can move from acceptance to a genuine celebration of our diverse community and personal identities on the island of Ireland?
The answer from young people at that Dialogue was a resounding yes.
The event highlighted just how little traditional markers of identity figure in the thinking of younger generations and the opportunity to move beyond those identity politics which too often stymies the potential for progress and reconciliation.
As intensive and wide-ranging as the Initiative has been so far, it is just the beginning of what we want to do in partnership to build a shared island.
My Government will seek to work with a new Executive in Northern Ireland and with the new British Prime Minister to significantly enhance what we achieve together as partners under the Good Friday Agreement:
- To move ahead with positive discussions and deliver major joint investments: in all-island research centres; cross-border innovation hubs; on educational attainment and on sustainable rail and climate action;
This work isn’t just about doing more together because it makes sense economically- though it does. Or because our environment is intrinsically shared – though it is.
This work is about diverse communities and political traditions, destined to share the island of Ireland, working together to reconcile and to unleash our massive, but so far untapped shared potential.
All of us on the island of Ireland are mutually-dependent and inter-connected. We can only realise the prosperous, reconciled future we all want by working together - Irish, British, both, neither.
And, this is my commitment to you.
I and my Government will work seriously, sincerely and openly with all communities and political traditions, to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to build consensus around a shared, reconciled future, for all on the island of Ireland. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go leir.