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Taoiseach’s address at Brookings Institution 'Ireland: Shaping the Future at Home and in the World'

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Thank you for your welcome John (Allen).  I am very pleased to join you and the Brookings Institution for today’s event and I look forward to my conversation with Tom (Wright).

For more than a year, humanity has together fought a pandemic, the likes of which none of us has seen in our lifetimes. It has had profound impact wherever it has struck, including in the US and in Ireland.

The fight is not yet over – far from it.

The virus has shown that it can mutate to find new and better ways to infect us, becoming more virulent, more able to attack and more able to spread. But humanity, too, has shown its capacity to fight back.

Through science, we have found new tests, new treatments and, most encouragingly, new vaccines that can push the virus back and help us to recover.


It will take time for all of the lessons of the past year to become clear, but one is already very obvious.

Humanity, when it pulls together, can prevail, even against seemingly impossible odds.

It is a principle that has always guided Irish foreign policy, and my own personal beliefs. It is something to which the new Biden administration is committed.

For a small country, a commitment to shared endeavour, and to effective multilateralism, has always made sense. We need a world in which there are rules, not least to protect the weak from the strong.

But the pandemic has made it clear that it makes sense for big countries too. We are all inter-connected. We all depend on each other. We share a single planet and we cannot solve global problems acting alone.


Ireland became an independent country almost a century ago. We did so in the shadow of a first World War that had destroyed Europe, decimated a generation, and swept old orders away.

 It was a time when a new approach was emerging, and the League of Nations - the first worldwide international organisation – was founded in 1920.

Even before Ireland was an independent country, even before the League itself was founded, the first Dáil – the parliament elected by the Irish people to seek independence – voted in April 1919 to seek membership of the League. We became members in 1923.

Since the very start, Irish foreign policy has been driven by a commitment to peace, to a rules-based order, and to effective institutions to protect them.

Over decades, we have done what we can to strengthen and promote cooperation- whether through our peacekeeping in UN helmets, our committed membership of the European Union, or our role in promoting human rights, disarmament and non-proliferation.

At the start of this year, we took up a seat for the fourth time as an elected member of the UN Security Council.

It is an honour for us to serve. Those of us who believe in the UN and all it stands for need to do what we can to defend and to strengthen it. 

President Biden’s assertion that ‘the US is back’, has given us great heart. The US was central to the establishment of the UN, its leadership is indispensable. Having its heft and ingenuity back at the table to tackle global challenges at scale is a game-changer.  

After the pandemic, the most pressing issue we face globally is climate change. The return of the US to the Paris Climate Accord is therefore enormously significant - we know John Kerry well in Ireland, he will make a dynamic contribution as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. 

Climate change is not only an existential threat, but a driver also of conflict and instability. Addressing this will be a key priority for Ireland during our Security Council membership.

I also welcome US re-engagement with the UN Human Rights Council; with the WHO and with UNFPA.

Decisions made in and by those bodies have impacts on the lives that real people live, especially in the most disadvantaged parts of the word.

My message to President Biden when we speak later this week will be that Ireland, not only appreciates the US’s reengagement, but we are committed to working with him to make it count.


I will also tell him that Ireland is committed to deepening the partnership between the United States and the European Union.

When the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU, Ireland did not, not even for a single moment, waver in its commitment to its membership of the EU – it is our home.

We will continue to work within the EU to shape its future, one that we hope will be outward looking, progressive and prosperous.

We want an EU that works hand-in-hand with its oldest ally and friend, the United States, on the big challenges the world faces.

The EU and the US share history and values – a commitment to democracy, human rights and freedom.

Our interests are frequently aligned, including on a fair and open approach to trade.

We should be working together to ensure that our efforts to drive economic recovery can have a multiplier effect – supporting each other, and the world, to gain back the ground lost to the pandemic as quickly as we can.

We also need to focus on new and emerging areas of common interest - including disinformation that is corroding trust in our democracies and the growing cyber threats we face.

President Biden and Secretary Blinken have made clear their interest in a renewed trans-Atlantic relationship. I know that it is reciprocated on the other side.

Working together, we can have real global impact.


Of course, Ireland’s deep and historic bilateral relationship with the United States will always remain profoundly important to us.  

It is a relationship that continues to mature and develop, renewing itself with each generation.

In recent decades we have seen particular growth in our economic ties, and our economic relationship has increasingly become one that delivers benefits to both sides - strongly integrated, and increasingly balanced.

The US is Ireland’s most important economic partner when it comes to trade and investment flows; and Irish investment in the US is growing, to the point where we are now the 9th largest source of FDI into the US.

Beyond that, the US has also been an unwavering supporter of the peace process in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It played an instrumental part in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement, the transformative document that underpins our peace.

In the more than two decades since the Agreement was signed, the US has supported and encouraged its implementation – holding parties to account and, helping them to make the tough decisions, when needed.

Support has been bipartisan, and it has always been forthcoming.

A generation has grown up and come of age in Northern Ireland without knowing the daily violence and fear that marked out the three decades of the Troubles that went before.

However, peace is fragile, and we never take it for granted.

The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union created a whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with in recent years.

Our shared membership of the EU had helped to create the context in which the Good Friday Agreement was secured. Changing that context, removed an important prop.

We worked hard to minimise and to mitigate its worst impacts, not least the risk of the return of a hard border to the island of Ireland.

In this, we had strong backing from our partners in the EU, but also, critically, from our friends in the US.

As a result, the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK includes a special Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland to address the unique circumstances of the island.

The Protocol is specifically designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and the achievements of the peace process. Crucially, it avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland.

It is the only agreed and viable means available to do so.

It also protects the all-island economy and Ireland’s place in the Single Market.

The Protocol will help us to minimise and mitigate the worst impacts of Brexit, but it cannot completely remove them.

The UK has decided to leave not only the EU, but also its Single Market and Customs Union, and that means increased trade friction.

What we are now seeing – the increased need for checks and controls; the form-filling and bureaucracy – is a direct consequence of that choice.

Where we can find pragmatic ways to minimise that friction, within the framework of the Protocol, the EU is ready to do so.

I do not for a moment dismiss genuinely held difficulties and concerns, and I will support EU engagement with the UK to find agreed ways forward, where we can.

In fact, the Withdrawal Agreement contains within it mechanisms specifically designed to deal with issues that arise – a Joint Committee and Specialised Committees.  That is where teething problems should be worked through, so that we can find common solutions.

Unilateral action to disapply or not to implement aspects of the Protocol does nothing but corrode trust, the only basis on which sustainable long-term solutions can be found.

It exacerbates uncertainty and instability; two things Northern Ireland can well do without.


The UK’s departure from the EU also removes a common space in which Irish and British Ministers and officials met to discuss all kinds of issues from the environment, to the economy, to health.

It challenges us to find new ways of ensuring that the closeness we have enjoyed with our nearest neighbours continues to flourish and grow in the years ahead.

I am strongly committed to strengthening our bilateral relationship with Great Britain, reflecting the extent of our shared history, inter-personal connections, along with our indispensable partnership as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

I am glad that it is an ambition fully shared by British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with whom I look forward to working to reset and refresh our relationship for a new era.  


I am also committed to working on shared challenges we face on the island of Ireland – shaping relationships for the future.

At home, every bit as much as in the world, we know that ultimately the most powerful driver of change and ambition is forging unity of purpose and of people, locally, regionally, nationally and globally, often simultaneously.

Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, in accepting the Prize 1998, jointly with David Trimble, described the Good Friday Agreement, which he had helped to craft, as an opportunity to shape the future on the island for the first time through “real unity of purpose”.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard President Biden, in his inaugural address, also speak profoundly of ‘unity’, describing it “as that most elusive of things in a democracy”,but the key to overcoming common challenges.

President Biden spoke of the “way of unity” - to see each other “not as adversaries but as neighbors”. And he said:

“Let us listen to one another.

Hear one another.

See one another.

Show respect to one another.”

President Biden’s words resonate for those of us on the island of Ireland who know the potential power of this approach.   It is hard work. 

Our peace process continues, to this day, to need ongoing care and resolute commitment on the journey to a full societal reconciliation.   We need to keep listening, keep hearing, keep showing respect. 

And we face undoubted challenges on the island – new difficulties raised by Brexit and its outworkings; enduring difficulties from the legacy of the Troubles; the recurrent tensions of power-sharing in Northern Ireland; and corrosive mistrust, at times, at community level.

All of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are operating again.   This is vital.   But, clearly, we have not yet realised the goal set in the Agreement of achieving “reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust”.

We cannot build the prosperous, promising future we all want for our children and grandchildren without better connection and understanding between the different political traditions that are destined to share the island – come what may.

Reconciliation is fundamental for our future on the island of Ireland.

That is why my Government has launched our ‘Shared Island’ initiative.   It puts the task of harnessing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to foster reconciliation back at the top of our agenda, and across the whole of Government.

At its heart is our vision of working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future.  To build the unity of purpose that I spoke of earlier. 

We want to work in ambitious partnership with the Executive in Northern Ireland and with the British Government to address the major challenges we face together on the island.

These include economic and societal recovery from the pandemic; working through the consequences of Brexit; just transition to a carbon neutral future.

We also want to fully take up the opportunities of our shared island, by cooperating North and South: to grow the all-island economy and deliver better public services for our people.

And, as part of the Shared Island initiative, we are initiating a programme of inclusive civic dialogue, and commissioning research, so that we support deeper reflection on our shared future.

Through the Good Friday Agreement, with the support and good counsel of the United States of America, we definitively resolved how we decide on the constitutional future for the island - founded on the principle of consent.

Everyone on the island has the right to advocate for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland - whether they aspire to a United Ireland, to remain a part of the United Kingdom, or whether they do not identify with either tradition.


I affirm that right as Taoiseach.

But we do not need to be defined solely by these issues.

These constitutional provisions do not stand apart from the rest of the Good Friday Agreement and the commitment to strive - in Northern Ireland, North/South on the island, and East/West – or, as we play our part in the wider world, -  to build a better future. 

 I am sure that - with the continuing vital support and engagement of our friends and partners in the United States - we will keep making progress.


Thank you.