Speech by Owen Paterson to Members of the Institute of International and European Affairs (19 July 2012)
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Speech by Owen Paterson, then Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland, to Members of the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin (Thursday 19 July 2012)
"It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today.
As your impressive list of former and future speakers demonstrates, the IIEA is established as Ireland ’s pre-eminent think-tank on European and International Affairs.
At a time when Europe in particular faces such immense economic problems, with the potential to undermine both stability and democratic legitimacy, think-tanks like yours play a hugely important role in generating imaginative new ideas and policy options.
By bringing together such an array of politicians, academics, business people and other opinion formers you are extremely well placed to make a really serious contribution to debate and, ultimately, finding solutions to the challenges we face across our countries.
So I pay tribute to the important work that you do here at the Institute.
I would also like to thank your Director General, Daithi O’Ceallaigh, not just for actually inviting me today but for the sterling work he carried out on behalf of UK-Irish relations during his distinguished tenure as Ambassador in London from 2001-7.
I am pleased to say that your work is today being continued in fine style by Bobby McDonagh.
Today I want to talk about British-Irish relations in the 21st century, given another boost with the Joint Statement issued by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March.
I would like to emphasise how our close co-operation on Northern Ireland affairs over the past two decades has contributed to the very positive UK-Irish relationship, best exemplified by the visit of Her Majesty the Queen here last year.
And finally I shall explain why it is now time to move on beyond the politics of the peace process in Northern Ireland towards greater normalisation and, crucially, the politics of delivery by Stormont Executive.
A Unique Relationship
The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have a unique relationship, linked by history, politics, geography, business, culture, sport, travel and family.
Even when Ireland left the Commonwealth and became a Republic in 1948, she was given a unique status.
Today, British and Irish citizens can vote in each other’s elections.
We maintain a Common Travel Area – something which in Opposition I fought strongly to retain and to which the UK Government is firmly committed because it benefits both our countries.
In 2009 Ireland had over 3 million visitors from the UK , spending over €1bn, while nearly 3 million visits took place from Ireland to the UK , making Ireland the UK ’s second largest source of tourists.
Through family ties we remain indelibly linked. There are around six million people living in Britain who have an Irish grandparent. Here in Ireland around 100,000 people were actually born in Britain .
It is estimated that there are 40,000 Irish people serving on the boards of UK companies.
The UK remains the largest market for Irish goods, while Ireland is the UK ’s fifth largest export market. Until recently we exported more to the Republic of Ireland than to Brazil , Russia , India and China combined.
As the Taoiseach pointed out in March something like £1billion worth of trade takes place between our two countries every week.
So it is no exaggeration to say that the prosperity of both the UK and Ireland remains highly inter-dependent.
The UK Government recognised that in late 2010 when the scale of the crisis in the Irish banking system became apparent.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, asked for my advice and we agreed immediately that it was massively in the UK ’s national interest to help ensure that the economy in the Republic of Ireland grows.
That’s why we had no hesitation in offering substantial bilateral assistance in addition to that provided by the EU and the IMF.
We also recognised the crucial importance of the Republic to trade out of its difficulties. So we robustly defended your right to set your own corporate tax rates which were coming under attack from elements within the EU.
We did this as a close friend, partner and ally.
The blunt truth is that we both need stable, successful financial sectors. And we need to reduce burdens on business and barriers to trade if we are to return to sustainable growth.
What I’ve set out is a relationship in which the fortunes of our two countries are inextricably linked. Britain needs a successful Ireland and Ireland needs a successful Britain
And today the relationship has never been stronger.
Two events bear testimony to that.
The Queen’s Visit
First, the visit of Her Majesty the Queen in May 2011, the first state visit of a reigning British monarch since Ireland gained her independence ninety years before.
If ever there was a landmark event in the history of Britain and Ireland then it was surely this.
Who will forget the dignity and respect demonstrated by both Her Majesty and the former President as they attended sensitive memorials at Islandbridge and the Garden of Remembrance ?
Who wasn’t taken aback by the respect that Her Majesty showed for the Irish language in her speech at Dublin Castle ?
And who couldn’t have been moved by her expression of sympathy for those who have lost loved ones in the past and words in that speech that resonated across these islands:
‘With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’
Her Majesty was greeted with genuine affection and enthusiasm all the way from Dublin to Cashel and Cork .
And I saw at first hand Her Majesty’s joy at being here at the national stud in Kildare.
The visit was, in the words of the Prime Minister, one of those ‘magical moments in the relationship between our two countries and I think it was remarkable what was achieved through that visit and the great warmth that everyone who was there felt.’
Speaking to our recently appointed Ambassador here in Dublin I know just how much good will from the visit still reverberates over a year on.
The visit moved what were already good relations onto a whole new level. And it was something on which we were able to build last month with Her Majesty’s hugely successful Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland .
The Joint Statement
Second, there was the Joint Statement made by David Cameron and Enda Kenny in Downing Street on 12 March this year.
This was the first genuinely post-peace process declaration between our two countries.
I say that because while Northern Ireland formed an important part of it, the vast bulk of the statement covered the economy, trade, jobs, energy policy, possible joint approaches to some EU matters and how we might tackle other global issues.
The Joint Statement sets out an agenda for co-operation over the next decade. It has the potential to produce significant benefits for our peoples.
And both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are committed to meet annually in order to review progress.
In addition the UK looks forward to working closely with you in delivering a successful EU Presidency in 2013.
Co-operation on Northern Ireland
Regrettably, the relationship between our two countries hasn’t always been like this. All of us acknowledge that Britain and Ireland have had a troubled past.
The fact that we stand here today able to celebrate the strength of the British-Irish relationship is in very large part down to the progress that we have made, working together, on Northern Ireland over the past two decades.
I am very clear that without our two countries’ close co-operation – supported when necessary by successive administrations in the United States – such progress would never have happened.
So I pay tribute to all of those some departed, some retired and some still active who worked so tirelessly to make a reality of what we see in Northern Ireland today.
The UK-Irish relationship will prosper even when on occasion we might disagree.
Both our countries have a vital shared interest in ensuring that the small number of people on this island who reject democracy will never succeed in setting back the progress we have made.
These people do pose a very real threat, as has been demonstrated by a number of recent attacks, including the vile murder of PC Ronan Kerr last year.
So I am immensely grateful to the Government here and the Garda Commissioner for the unprecedented levels of security co-operation that exist between us. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this and it has undoubtedly saved lives.
We are also working very closely with the Irish Government on the decade of centenaries, a series of events which obviously did so much to define the relationship between Britain and Ireland .
In March, the Taoiseach attended the opening of an exhibition in Westminster Hall to mark the anniversary of the Third Home Rule Bill. In May that exhibition travelled to Leinster
House, where I attended the opening. And it will be located at Stormont throughout the summer.
My ministerial colleague, Hugo Swire, was in fact in Dublin on Tuesday to discuss commemorations with Jimmy Deenihan. In April they both attended and spoke at the Redmond lecture in Waterford and shortly afterwards shared a platform at an event to mark the Ulster Covenant, organised by the Presbyterian Church in Belfast City Hall.
Our joint approach to each of these anniversaries is to try and encourage greater understanding of often very divisive events. We want to demonstrate that one can be generous and respectful towards other traditions without in any way undermining ones own beliefs.
Upholding the Agreements
Of course the foundation stone of the political settlement we see today was the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. And I shall return to that shortly.
I would, however, like to reiterate the importance of an earlier document, the Joint Declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds December 1993. This helped to launch what became the peace process and set out the parameters for a political settlement.
It made clear that only parties committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means could be admitted to inclusive negotiations.
And it set out the fundamental principles that the future of Northern Ireland would only ever be determined by democracy and consent – and never by violence.
With the British and Irish Governments so clearly committed to those principles, backed by the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, it became increasingly clear that those who remained wedded to violence, republican and loyalist, had literally nowhere to go.
It was the Joint Declaration that led first to the paramilitary ceasefires and then the inclusive political negotiations that culminated in the 1998 Agreement.
We should never forget that the Agreement, and the arrangements it set out, were backed overwhelmingly across the island – 71 per cent in the North and 94 per cent here.
It clearly represents the will of the people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland .
Since the election in 2010, the Coalition Government has shown that it will faithfully uphold the Belfast Agreement and its successors.
We will never take risks with the hard won progress of the past two decades.
Today, politics in Northern Ireland is more stable than at any time in over a generation.
There is a fully functioning, inclusive Executive and Assembly at Stormont.
Relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have never been better.
And the great constitutional issues that divided us for so long are now clearly settled on the basis of consent.
As the Belfast Agreement makes clear, all the parties accept the “legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status”.
And, as all recent polls confirm, Northern Ireland remains freely and legitimately part of the United Kingdom . So there is no ambiguity about the constitutional position.
Naturally, as Conservatives, that is something that the Prime Minister and I welcome. We believe in the United Kingdom , want it to endure and will never be neutral in expressing our support for it.
We believe that together we are greater than the sum of all our parts.
Of course should the view of the people of Northern Ireland change, the UK Government is committed through the Agreement and constitutional legislation to give effect to their democratic wishes.
The constitutional future is entirely a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide.
And the same is true about how the devolved institutions themselves might evolve.
I hope shortly to publish a consultation paper covering a number of areas which might be covered by legislation in the current Parliament.
These include the size of the Assembly, the length of Assembly terms and ending dual mandates.
We will also be asking whether it is desirable in principle for the institutions to move to a more normal system of government and opposition and, if so, how this might be achieved.
As former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern said in 2008, ‘there will come a time when that system will suffer because there is no natural opposition…there will come a time where people will say “you need an opposition, you need an us and them”’.
Both the Prime Minister and I have said that we would like to see this happen over time. But we are clear that any changes must first command widespread support across the community and be consistent with inclusive government at the heart of the Agreement.
Moving beyond the peace process
Northern Ireland’s constitutional and political stability provides us with an opportunity to move on, beyond the politics of the peace process to the issues that really matter to people in their daily lives.
We need to focus on the future, rather than remain caught in the politics of the past.
We need to move from the politics of identity to the politics of delivery.
Party politics in Northern Ireland needs to move into the mainstream, to focus on predominantly economic and social concerns as they do in Great Britain and here in the Republic of Ireland .
How in Northern Ireland do we tackle division and sectarianism that comes at such a high economic and social cost?
How against the backdrop of the crisis in the eurozone do we generate growth, promote jobs and create the wealth that pays for our public services?
How do we build a welfare system that is fair to taxpayers, protects the vulnerable, yet rewards work and ends the cycle of poverty and benefits dependency that is far too common in society?
These are the kinds of issues that people want to see their politicians addressing.
Otherwise there is a real danger that public confidence in the institutions will decline – and voter turnout continue to fall.
As the Prime Minister made clear in the Northern Ireland Assembly last year, there are some things that are matters for the UK Government alone, some areas that are for the Northern Ireland Executive and other issues where we can work together.
On the economy we are working very closely with the Executive ministers to pursue our shared objective of ending Northern Ireland ’s over-dependence on public spending and boosting the private sector.
At the end of last year we established a ministerial working group to examine in detail some of the practical issues surrounding the possible devolution of corporation tax. Work will continue through into the autumn before we can decide next steps.
The Executive itself has an impressive record of attracting new inward investment projects into Northern Ireland .
Unemployment remains below the UK national average, though we are far from complacent and realise that much more needs to be done if we are to achieve our objective of rebalancing the economy.
In other areas, local politicians face huge challenges. I want to touch briefly on one of them.
It is profoundly disappointing that we are still awaiting publication of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy from the Executive.
For all the progress in recent years Northern Ireland remains at many levels a deeply divided society.
Over 90 per cent of public housing is segregated.
The number of so-called peace walls has actually increased since the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
As I have acknowledged many times, given the history of Northern Ireland this is not an easy issue. Overcoming the legacy of division will take time.
A start has to be made and we will support the devolved administration when they have to take difficult decisions.
We cannot have a Northern Ireland in which everything is carved up on sectarian grounds.
In the Prime Minister’s words we need a shared future not a shared out future.
There is a real window of opportunity here.
The Coalition Government has maintained public spending in Northern Ireland . In fact it is 25 per cent per head higher than in England .
In the 2010 Spending Review Northern Ireland faced reductions of only 6.9 per cent over four years, as opposed to an average 19 per cent across most of Whitehall .
But against a backdrop of the continuing need to bring down the record deficit we inherited and unprecedented pressures on public finances across Europe I cannot predict what future settlements will bring.
So the Executive does have a self interest in getting on with it. I urge them to seize the opportunity.
Over recent months we have witnessed some spectacularly successful events in Northern Ireland .
I’ve already referred to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee visit.
In addition we’ve had the Olympic Torch Relay – which exceptionally crossed the border to come here to Dublin – the Irish Open at Portrush and the new Titanic Signature Building .
The new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway has just opened.
Next year Derry- Londonderry – or give it its new name ‘Legenderry’ – will be the first UK city of culture.
Belfast is the second city in the UK for attracting foreign direct investment.
And we’ve had some economic good news in the past few days, with new orders for our largest company Bombardier that will boost local jobs.
All of this has highlighted a positive, new, Northern Ireland that is moving forward.
The UK Government, working closely with the local Executive is determined to maintain that momentum.
Nobody is under any illusions that we have a long way to go to build a Northern Ireland that is at ease with itself.
But with the constitutional and political stability we now enjoy we have the opportunity to make significant progress.
And the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland , so much strengthened in recent years, will be important in delivering it.
But today the UK-Irish relationship goes far beyond Northern Ireland .
As the Prime Minister made clear when launching the Joint Statement with the Taoiseach in March, it’s because of stability in Northern Ireland our relationship has moved onto a whole new level.
And the friendship between our two peoples and our two countries are at long last able to reach their fullest extent."
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