Tánaiste’s Remarks at the British Irish Association Conference
Speech01 September 2023
It is a pleasure to return to the British Irish Association, to continue with you the long tradition of challenge and conversation on issues of resonance in the relations on and between our islands.
This is a precious space, worthy of protection and nurture
It is a space where alternative perspectives, from those engaged in politics and those who work hard in so many other ways to improve people’s lives, can be expressed safely.
The BIA is a place where I have heard new ideas. It is a place where I have witnessed the reinvigoration of policy. It can be a place of import and real impact.
The BIA is at its best when it opens a space for honest discussion, respectfully robust, where participants feel challenged and able to challenge.
It is also a chance to develop new friendships, sparked in debate but very definitely cemented after dinner…
In that spirit, thank you Katy for your opening remarks, which help kick start our discussions.
Your ability to embrace the complexity and nuance of the politics and people of these islands, yet keep things accessible, is a particular skill.
This is a moment of complexity and nuance, even strain, in the relationships described in the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement.
The simple truth is that the great hope of 1998 has not delivered sufficiently for the people of Northern Ireland.
Politics is not working as we would have wished or, more importantly, as the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
Narratives of progress and potential are being replaced by those of loss – or, worse, in oppositional terms echoing the binaries of times that should be consigned to history.
Against this backdrop, I wanted to start our weekend here setting out a positive vision for relationships, for the implementation of the Agreement, and pose some questions which I hope might help provoke that honest discussion in this room and beyond that reflects the BIA at its best.
I start with the mandate established in 1998.
In referendums held concurrently in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, the people of the island overwhelmingly mandated a politics which works, and which works together – within Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland, and across these islands.
They voted to end the politics of division.
They voted for new relationships based on partnership, equality and mutual respect.
They voted for transformation.
That mandate must be respected.
That mandate for peace and reconciliation was the fruit of an amazing act of collective imagination, the Good Friday Agreement, which set out a path no longer to be determined not only by the hurt of the past but by the possibilities of a shared future.
How did we unlock our collective imaginations?
Through hard work, good will and partnership.
These three things helped achieve the Downing Street Declaration, 30 years ago next December. Working together, Albert Reynolds and John Major effected a step-change in political possibility. Many of its key elements became cornerstones of the Good Friday Agreement, having been fleshed out by the two governments in the Joint Framework Documents.
These included the need to resolve issues exclusively by political and democratic means underpinned by the principles of consent and democratic self-determination by the people of the island of Ireland.
Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ acknowledgement of the resentment caused by territorial claims in our Constitution as it then stood, and a willingness to address this as part of an enduring settlement set the frame for the amendment by referendum of Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution five years later. In the Good Friday Agreement, the two governments undertook ‘to propose and support changes in, respectively, the Constitution of Ireland and in British legislation relating to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.’
Prime Minister John Major’s assertion of the British Government having no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland was a powerful motor for peace.
It is worth recalling our agreement, in the Downing Street Declaration, in the Framework Documents, and in 1998 that substantive frameworks for cooperation across these islands were the basis for lasting peace.
This was of course made easier, as the governments then acknowledged, by the opportunity for normalisation afforded by our then common membership of the European Union. And with the UK now outside the European Union, we are all aware of the new complexities.
However, the hard work of successive governments in London and Dublin over decades, building on shared understandings, analyses and agreements, the collective navigation of challenges and the successful building of peace, provides us with a solid platform to deal with these complexities.
To build peace each Government had to stretch.
We asked leaders to break new ground.
Together the Governments took the lead, by making significant political compromises to kick-start peace negotiations or take the process forward.
We agreed on parity of esteem.
Two Governments confident in their ability to act in concert for shared benefit together changed Northern Ireland, and the relationships between our islands, forever.
It is time to rebuild that sense of common purpose and shared understanding, and the confidence that brings.
When we met here last year, the critical question was how to put EU-UK relations back on a stable footing. That has been achieved.
And with purpose, understanding, generosity and responsibility together we can get Northern Ireland back to stability, and restore the proper functioning of all three Strands of the Agreement. In short, to bring back the sense of possibility that people felt in 1998.
The Irish Government is deeply committed to a strong East West relationship in all its dimensions.
Given our overlapping histories, our ties of kinship and geography, this is just common-sense.
However, and particularly, during a time when the Strand One and Strand Two institutions have been prevented from functioning effectively, it is essential that momentum comes through the positive working of the Strand Three relationships. This is important in itself, but also a reminder of what we are missing with the other Strands of the Agreement not functioning.
The British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference now meets regularly at political level, discussing vital issues which impact on the everyday lives of citizens, from political stability in Northern Ireland, to security cooperation, to energy, research and innovation.
I believe that with a firm focus on the needs of people, we can look creatively at how the Conference works.
In November this year we will also host a summit-level meeting of the British Irish Council in Dublin, a unique coming together of representatives of both governments, the devolved administrations and representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. I sincerely hope Northern Ireland will be present, given the opportunity which the BIC provides for common actions and cooperation on matters of mutual interest.
Ireland is investing in partnerships across Great Britain, including through an increased diplomatic presence.
In addition, good progress is being made taking forward the Ireland-Wales Joint Action Plan: I look forward to taking stock of that progress when I meet First Minister Mark Drakeford next month.
Just a few weeks ago I met with Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson, to discuss the Ireland-Scotland Joint Bilateral Review.
All of this helps and flows in many ways from the fresh start provided by the Good Friday Agreement.
Let us remember, though, what is at the heart of that Agreement, a fresh start for Northern Ireland. And I think more needs to be done to reveal the full potential of peace there.
An entire generation has grown to adulthood without the awful direct experience of political violence. Those born 1998 are now making their own mark in politics, business, civic society and culture. The last Assembly contest saw the election of an MLA who was born a month after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Many of that generation would say, though, that they did not grow up free of the shadow of violence.
The Agreement has not translated into the truly reconciled relationships foreseen in 1998. There are too many individuals and communities who do not feel that they have benefited from the dividends of peace, and who are still struggling with the challenges endemic in any post-conflict society. There are genuine wellbeing challenges – poor health indicators, people who do not get the education they merit – and pockets of deep poverty. Many too feel a sense of loss, of retreat. That of course feeds into politics and it is through effective politics that we can best address these issues.
It is both easy and difficult to say that our focus should be on reconciliation. Reconciliation should not be trite, a throwaway line. It requires difficult work, an honest focus on points of division, being open to challenge, together with self-examination if it is to be achieved. Ultimately it requires us all to be open to do things differently. There is false comfort to be derived from repeating our failures. We can each do better.
What needs to be done to build a more prosperous, inclusive and confident society in which all traditions can feel at ease?
Those of us who hold office can lead by example.
How can we more effectively and authentically reach out to those from different communities and traditions, and challenge the voices within our own communities that try to hold us back?
How can we be more generous in our attempts to understand other perspectives and demonstrate, in word and deed, that we respect each other’s views even if we do not always share them?
How do we contribute to a politics of common interest?
How do we help rebuild the tradition of political and civic leaders of all traditions and communities working together, taking risks together, for better outcomes for all?
There are things that we can do thoughtfully to help answer these questions.
A big challenge is how to do politics which moves not just the head, or the pocket, but also the heart.
An essential question in Northern Ireland is who am I?
In the Agreement, we allowed people to be British or Irish or both. People in Northern Ireland could also be European. People could be one thing. They could be many things.
In recent years, answering that identity question has perhaps become more difficult. Some feel that their European or British or Irish sense of identity has been eroded, including by Brexit. More people say they are Northern Irish than ever before. And many who live in Northern Ireland began their lives elsewhere. But all call Northern Ireland home.
Tomorrow’s programme includes a panel of younger voices discussing what it means to be British in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that it will be a fascinating exploration of the diversity of views that exist within unionism and provide a challenge to those who seek to portray unionism as a monolith instead of a rich and varied community.
We need to listen to their voices and reflect on how to take forward their concerns about the place they call home.
We also need to hear the voices of those who call themselves Irish in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish in Northern Ireland, those both Irish and British, and those who don’t identify as such. Let’s remember too that each of these people has other identities – maybe defined by geography, perhaps by a hobby or a shared experience.
Let us work to find better ways and safer spaces to have such discourse, and by doing so make for better politics. Let us recommit to democracy, to using politics to work through those concerns.
The hard politics comes from reconciling the differing perspectives, in walking the hard yards of leadership to find the highest common denominator, to make Northern Ireland the best home possible for everyone. I worry that if we cannot achieve this, young people will ask why do I stay? I take hope from the fact that this was done before, twenty-five years ago, with the two governments at the helm.
That’s where, in my view, London and Dublin can and should help, bringing our experience and knowhow to work on the day-to-day issues that can make lives better. For example, I want to share our experiences in dealing with areas of multiple deprivation, with those left behind by education systems.
Imagine how much more we can each do for those most in need by being open to sharing experiences, by investing in each other. The three Civil Services working together. Using the North South bodies to deliver better healthcare, better food, better jobs to the benefit of all. And we have an example – the agreement of PeacePlus, to be launched later this month, shows how with good will and imagination we can and do work together to build a better place.
I have spoken before about the need to make good the promise of societal progress if reconciliation is to be achieved. We must do so for our children and for their children, regardless of our constitutional vision for the island of Ireland. We need to come together on issues such as climate change, biodiversity and energy security, things that go beyond borders but which if unaddressed will undermine the quality of life of generations to come.
We need also to break cycles. Why, twenty-five years later, are there still paramilitaries? Why is support for policing still conditional in many parts of Northern Ireland? Leadership is required, including from the Governments.
But we also need to challenge those who don’t want change, and support those who take risks in their community to build for the better. We need to help them feel supported, to be free to speak out for their children, for their future.
The common ground of the Agreement allows the connection, partnership, trust and safety needed for change.
My Government’s Shared Island initiative, which I established upon becoming Taoiseach, is an investment in connections, in those partnerships, in building trust.
Rooted in the principles of the Agreement it is a statement of ambition for all-island partnerships, working with the UK Government, across society and, I hope soon, with a functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The initiative is delivering on cross-border investment commitments.
More projects are being developed, focusing on major shared challenges for North and South – the publication over the summer of the all-island rail review is both a statement of ambition and need that we must take forward.
The development of the tertiary education cluster in the North West, between Ulster University’s Magee Campus and Atlantic Technological University will enable innovative pathways to higher education for young people in the region.
The Shared Island initiative has allowed broad-based all-island civic dialogue. A programme of published work is expanding our knowledge of what needs to be done to make the island a better place for everyone who calls it home.
This month, a new Shared Island Youth Forum comprising 80 young people from all communities North and South will allow a deliberative discussion on vision and values for a shared future on the island of Ireland.
There will be energy in that discussion, as there always is when young people come together, and I am very much looking forward to it.
Northern Ireland’s wider civil society has long brought great energy to solving problems. I am conscious that civil society is currently doing its work against a daunting backdrop, both financial and political. In that context I am pleased that my Government have doubled the budget of the Reconciliation Fund in recent years, and this year launched the Shared Island Civic Society Fund.
An explicit role for civil society was envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement and reaffirmed in 2020’s New Decade New Approach Agreement. We need to look again to explore how we can empower civil society to breathe new ideas into the body politic, and help leaders from all communities to build a political vision that recognises and acts on common interests.
How can we empower business leaders to play their part too in ensuring that the arc of change on this island bends towards reconciliation? How can we, as politicians, ensure that we help their enduring commitment and investment in reconciliation to become a reality?
Clearly one of the greatest challenges that any post-conflict society faces is dealing with the legacy of the past. We had hoped that with Stormont House Agreement an agreed way forward with the buy-in of all major stakeholders in Northern Ireland had been found: victims and survivors, political leaders, rights bodies, and the two Governments.
I am fearful that the British Government’s unilateral departure from this agreed approach, a source of real distress for the many families waiting for inquests or pursuing civil litigation in relation to the death of their loved ones, will damage the process of reconciliation. The Bill is expected to complete its final steps in Westminster in the coming days.
Some may be tempted to see the Bill’s enactment as drawing a line under the legacy issue. Sadly, it will not – instead, I fear it will ensure legacy remains a source of contention, suspicion and mistrust, with little truth, no apologies and hurt layered upon hurt. And while no approach would be perfect, it is a matter of great sadness that the agreed way forward was never given its chance.
In the absence of an agreed way forward on this most difficult of issues, I worry that the past will infect the politics of the future.
And, in honesty, we are not in the easiest of moments. Those elected to the Assembly in May 2022 have not yet been able to discharge the democratic responsibilities given to them by the people of Northern Ireland.
We have a duty, as democrats, to show that politics works.
That means showing up. Matches are not won from the side-lines.
I fully understand and appreciate the genuine concerns that underpin the current situation, and the sincere efforts that have been made to accommodate those concerns. Following great effort, in the Windsor Framework new arrangements have been reached which give Northern Ireland’s elected leaders a direct voice in managing any future challenges and opportunities that emerge. I want this voice to be heard loudly and clearly – in Dublin, in London, in Brussels.
For that to happen, we need to see the Executive and Assembly restored.
I want to work with Jeffrey, and with Michelle, Doug, Colum and Naomi, to make Northern Ireland as successful as possible. I believe there a real chance to breathe a sense of renewal into how we work together. I know that there is a repository of goodwill and people of good faith who want to make Northern Ireland work, in Dublin, Brussels, New York, Washington and in board rooms beyond. I heard this last week in Dublin, from hundreds of visiting US politicians from state and federal levels. All they ask is the restoration of political certainty and stability.
As a politician, it will not surprise you when I say that I strongly believe one of the most basic tenets of democracy is that citizens are entitled to be directly represented in political institutions by those that have earned their votes. Thwarted or deeply flawed democracy has featured too much in Northern Ireland’s history. How can we return to a politics where all mandates are respected?
The Agreement was designed so that its three strands mutually support and reinforce one another. In the Agreement we committed “to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established”. That puts a duty on the two governments to work closely together to support a return of the institutions.
If there is no positive resolution, then we must make every use of the East-West mechanisms to provide the direction and stability that Northern Ireland and its people urgently need.
The protracted nature of this crisis has caused many to ask difficult questions and to reflect on what is required to put political stability on a more sustainable basis. I have always said that the best time to have these conversations is when the institutions are up and running – but I recognise that the prolonged blockage is changing the political considerations for some.
We must work hard together to rebuild hope and momentum, to rebuild consensus around our shared political and civic life. If we fail to do so, the political vacuum will only prompt more questions without easy answers.
Our citizens rightly demand much of us as leaders. They expect us to respond to the challenges of today and also look to and prepare for what lies ahead.
The current impasse in Stormont incurs an enormous opportunity cost by preventing political leaders from working on and coming forward with answers on the short- and long-term issues that affect people’s quality of life.
We are all aware of the budgetary situation facing Northern Ireland – its people surely deserve to have local representatives making the decisions that shape their daily lives, from education to healthcare.
Even beyond these considerable immediate problems, the absence of an Executive means that there is no input from Northern Ireland’s leaders into the strategic questions that will shape people’s lives in the years and decades to come. These are fundamental issues on which I would like to be able to work with the British Government and a restored power-sharing Executive to make a real and positive difference.
In August 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, as First and deputy First Minister, together wrote to then Prime Minister Theresa May outlining the unique interests and sensitivities of Northern Ireland.
Shared concerns and a shared approach.
Pooling their political strength and using their joint office to amplify their voices.
We need to get back to that.
I would also urge Northern Ireland’s leaders to consider the effect that this crisis has on the weave of social fabric across Northern Ireland, particularly on those parts of society where the peace process is spread most thinly. One of the few moments in recent times of political unity came earlier this year in the wake of the horrifying attack on DCI Caldwell, when leaders from all parties and both governments condemned those responsible in the strongest terms.
This unity is very welcome in this awful context, but it cannot only be deployed in such circumstances. It needs to be deployed daily, to help Northern Ireland address the range of issues slowing its transition from a post-conflict society into a prosperous place.
The two governments must do better too to show that we can work together in partnership, to assist those through example and deed who daily in their communities take on and stand up to the cheerleaders of dysfunction.
Cheerleaders who see the failure of politics in the most selfish and opportunistic terms.
We cannot let those who thrive on social and political decay prevent society moving on to better things.
I want us to work better together, from Dublin and London, to renew people’s sense of hope in Northern Ireland’s politics, to help those who work daily to make reconciliation a reality within their own communities. The remedy of 1998 is the same remedy today – cooperation, shouldering our responsibilities, and a commitment to fully work the institutions.
We can create a new moment of hope for these islands. We are emerging from the challenges of recent years with a renewed appreciation of the importance of the connections between us.
In the Good Friday Agreement, we have the framework that we need to navigate the problems that remain – if we will only help one another use it.
Let’s find new ways to work together to deliver the serious reinvestment in relationships that is needed to ensure that all three Strands of the Agreement deliver as intended.
I promise you will find no greater champion for each of the Agreement’s Strands than this Irish Government. I want the North to be a better, happier, healthier and more prosperous place.
The first, essential, building block to achieving this is the two governments working in lock-step. When that falters, peace and progress falter.
The bilateral relationship, and our partnership on Northern Ireland, is, frankly, stronger than it was this time last year. But much more remains to be done. We must work together with common purpose, impartially, for everyone in Northern Ireland, and be seen to do so.
There may be tough days ahead of us, but there are much, much tougher days behind us.
We have a well-known phrase in the Irish language, Ní neart go cur le chéile - there is no strength without unity.
My message to everyone with a genuine interest in the peace and progress and prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland is this:
When we work together,
with common purpose,
nothing is beyond us.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
1 September 2023