Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear Francesca and Hugo, and your fellow BIA Committee Members,
Friends and colleagues, A chairde dílis,
It is wonderful to be back at the British-Irish Association – in Oxford this year rather than Cambridge. In suitably diplomatic style, I will stay out of the Oxford versus Cambridge debate. Suffice to say, both are excellent options for students who fail to gain entry to University College Cork.
It has been a long year since we last gathered together. And as it relates to Northern Ireland, a long year of meetings, and engagements, and disagreements, and discussions on the return of the devolved Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Often difficult discussions, with Brexit looming large over everything.
I want to acknowledge, however, the excellent working relationships I have had with former Secretary of State James Brokenshire and with current Secretary of State Karen Bradley. On a personal note, I am delighted that James has made such a speedy recovery and I was really pleased to welcome him to Dublin a fortnight ago.
The close working relationship between the Irish and British Governments has long been, and continues to be, the bedrock of the Northern Ireland peace process. In good times and bad, even at times of deep policy difference, that relationship has long been protected and nurtured by both Dublin and London, and that work continues today.
And it was in that vein and in that spirit that we re-convened the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference in July.
Ultimately, however, no matter how much contact there is between London and Dublin, no matter how determined we are to safeguard and restore the Institutions, agreement cannot be reached without the political parties stepping away from the microphones, getting into a renewed process and reaching the necessary compromises.
I know that Karen spoke on this theme last night. The need for a new inclusive political process where all the parties re-engage, to break the current impasse and get the Assembly, Executive and indeed the North-South Ministerial Council working again.
We fully share her views here, and would particularly highlight the urgency of the task at hand. You know, just as well as I, how much the citizens of Northern Ireland need and deserve good governance, with key decisions being made by their own elected representatives.
So I would appeal to all of you gathered here, especially representatives of Northern Ireland’s civic society, to play your part in encouraging political re-engagement – and yes, the necessary compromises across the board – which would lead to the return of devolved government.
We are not naïve however. We know the context of Brexit makes the challenge harder still.
I have spoken much this past year about Brexit and why we are so worried about its consequences, unintended or otherwise, for Northern Ireland. And I wanted to recall again this evening why we are doing this. Why Northern Ireland was a unique place in the past. Why it is a unique place today. And why it will be a unique place in the future, whatever that future may entail.
We won’t need to dwell on why Northern Ireland has been a unique region within the United Kingdom since the partition of the island of Ireland. So many of you lived that history. But we shouldn’t forget that Northern Ireland proved uniquely unsuited to majoritarian systems of government in the fifty years that followed the establishment of Stormont. And the civil rights protests which followed – and the appalling and unjustifiable violence in the decades afterwards – were remarkable not only for these islands, but also for the European Community which Ireland and the UK had joined in 1973.
No-one doubts this, even if – perhaps – we cast our minds back too infrequently. But I have to say, quite honestly, I have been surprised over the course of our Brexit negotiations at the extent to which even great friends of Northern Ireland forget why it is a unique place today. Why it needs the unique power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. The rare and remarkable entitlement to be Irish or British or both. The unique structures – North-South, East-West as well as cross-community – which were the genius of our agreement of 1998.
So it should not be surprising that Northern Ireland requires unique consideration and unique solutions in the context of a rupture as significant as Brexit. These issues and concerns are real, particularly around the return of a hard border. These concerns have not been fabricated by either Dublin or Brussels for negotiating purposes, as some pro-Brexit political representatives have asserted – quite vocally too in recent weeks.
I have made these points before, but they are worth repeating again here.
Firstly, removing any semblance of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was integral to the Peace Process. And a critical role was played in this regard by our common membership of the European Union and, with it, the Single Market and Customs Union. The removal of customs posts, followed in turn by the removal of hard security installations and checkpoints as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, combined with the long standing Common Travel Area, led to a situation where the border, while still a political fact, became invisible and irrelevant in the context of securing peace in Northern Ireland.
As you all know, the border of today is free-flowing and frictionless. This is of critical importance to the 7,400 businesses in Northern Ireland that trade across the border, supporting over 167,000 jobs. Cross-border trade represents the first export market for some 73% of Northern Ireland’s small and medium sized companies.
And the border is about far more than just trade, as you know. The invisible border is the most tangible product of the Peace Process, and has reinforced that peace in turn. It allows many tens of thousands of cross-border commercial, political and social relationships to thrive. Psychologically, it has transformed the landscape and allowed identity to breathe more freely. Protecting this precious achievement, a backbone to our hard-won peace, is the only motivation in prioritising Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.
These are real, not imagined, issues. And these are issues which must be addressed in the coming weeks if a positive outcome to the UK exit negotiations is to be secured.
Foremost in all our thoughts has to be – what will work best to preserve the peace and relative normality which has characterised these last twenty years. And, critically, what will offer the best opportunity for Northern Ireland to reconcile and prosper in the future.
Because make no mistake, Northern Ireland will continue to be a unique place in the future, regardless of its constitutional status.
Currently, conversations about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland are more prevalent than they have been in several decades. We should not fear a conversation, but it does need to be a conversation – a generous and respectful conversation, not shouted slogans and flag waving. The danger of oversimplifying complex constitutional questions and choices without sufficient regard to the consequences is something all of us should be mindful of.
I know – because it has been said to me in the clearest of terms – that many in Northern Ireland find this discussion genuinely unnerving and even threatening.
So let me absolutely clear. The challenges of these Brexit negotiations should never be twisted into tools for a constitutional agenda for Northern Ireland. To seek to do so would be reckless, risking increased division between communities in Northern Ireland and diverting focus from ensuring an EU-UK deal which best preserves our peace and normality.
That is the immediate task before us and future generations will not forgive us if we equivocate in our efforts to secure it.
Beyond Brexit, unionism and nationalism will continue to have different – indeed competing – aspirations. This is not news and neither does it have to mean division or unending animosity.
I often reflect on John Hume’s thoughts on this question when he said ‘Difference is an accident of birth, and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.’
We are all quick to challenge the viewpoint or assertions of ‘the other side’ of the constitutional question when really what is needed is for each of us to challenge ourselves – our assumptions, our preconceptions, our capacity for generosity.
Because when we step back from it all, away from grand notions of the nature of states and the future of nations – we are neighbours and always will be – within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and on these islands.
And so we must collectively prioritise policies which support reconciliation and allow society to move beyond the past, without forgetting it. In the words of Queen Elizabeth, “of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”
And this does not mean silencing or ignoring discussions about the constitutional future.
Rather, we should all work to normalise it so that these questions are treated not as a threat or a drama, but as thoughtful contributions on the society we wish to pass on to future generations.
So, to anyone who sees themselves as a persuader for any constitutional status, I issue these challenges:
– Demonstrate your bona fides in the here and now. Show those who disagree with you what you mean by tolerance and inclusivity and respect for those whose identity you do not share.
– Prove by your actions inside Northern Ireland that your vision of a shared future has room for those who are not like you.
– Help make Northern Ireland work, help make it a great place to live in, and work in, and raise a family in – whatever that family may look like – we come in all shapes and sizes these days.
– Work the institutions of the Agreement – the inclusive, interlocking Institutions of Strands 1, 2 and 3 – to the full in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect.
– And abide by the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement. Seek to strengthen the 3 relationships it set out to repair – unionist and nationalist, North and South, East and West.
Above all, within Northern Ireland and across these islands, let us talk with each other, and engage with each other, and listen to each other, in a spirit of respect and decency and understanding.
It worked before, and it can do so again.
On a final note, I have spoken earlier of the strength of the British-Irish relationship and the huge work put in by successive Governments in Dublin and London to bring this about.
In recent years, we have perhaps taken for granted the normality of our day-to-day exchanges as neighbours.
So many interactions have been made possible by our Common Travel Area and this, of course, will remain in operation after Brexit – the commitments of both our Governments in this respect are absolute. Our CTA, as much as our EU membership, has made it possible to work together and to respect each other’s perspectives, and to get to know each other and to like each other. And perhaps even to cheer on our respective football and hockey teams in World Cup campaigns!
But as governments, we need to ensure that we sustain key relationships, especially when British Ministers and officials and diplomats stop joining us in Brussels every week. We need to work harder and smarter to make up for what will be lost. Not only – or even mainly – the formal meetings, but the conversations in corridors or snatched cups of coffee in the margins of meetings. We need to continue “the habit of cooperation” and to breathe new life and imagination into the structures that exist for us to continue to be close friends and neighbours.
One of the concrete outcomes of the British- Irish Intergovernmental Conference in July was to take forward work on proposals for future East-West cooperation. In my view, this should be comprehensive across all policy areas of shared concern and should culminate in meetings at the highest political levels. Joint work which produces mutually beneficial outcomes but also builds relationships. I look forward to progressing this initiative in the months ahead, and to reporting to you next year on what we have agreed on, to protect and nurture this precious relationship of ours long into the future.
We all have important and urgent work to do in the weeks and months ahead. Like previous generations gathered here at the BIA, we face considerable challenges and obstacles.
And like previous generations, I have no doubt that we can succeed in overcoming these current difficulties if we show enough ingenuity, flexibility, and generosity in our work.
Let us not be downhearted or despondent at the scale of current difficulties; let us rather reflect on – and be inspired by – these words of John Hume when he reflected on the British-Irish relationship:
“… I have seen the friendship of Irish and British people transcend, even in times of misunderstanding and tensions, all narrower political differences. We are two neighbouring islands whose destiny is to live in friendship and amity with each other. We are friends and the achievement of peace will further strengthen that friendship and, together, allow us to build on the countless ties that unite us in so many ways…”
That is our shared inheritance of the peace process. And those are the words that must continue to guide us over the months and years ahead.
Thank you for welcoming me here tonight.