17 May 2022
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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
Thank you, Christopher, for introducing me, and Peter for the invitation to join you this evening.
Thanks also to Andrew and the team here at Medley for their help in hosting the event.
Let me begin by sharing with you the opening sentence of an Irish Times editorial: ‘It cannot be wrong to do the neighbourly thing, even in the face of protocol, precedent, and privilege’. That was written 42 years ago, praising the work of your organisation, then called Co-operation North. Only a short time in existence, the sentiments were true in 1980, a time of uncertainty, fear and confusion on this island, and they are equally true today.
As we emerge from the grief and fear of the pandemic, into the light of a new day, we must keep with us the lessons of the past two years.
Fear is contagious, but hope is contagious too. It inoculates those who try to sow fear and division for their own purposes, from those who hide in the shadows and try to divide. So, thank you for all you have done over the past decades to bring people together and build a better future.
You helped make possible the peace we enjoy today. Our mission today must be to protect that peace, to build new relationships and repair old ones, and ensure that we never go back to the darkest days of the past.
To work to provide hope to a new generation. Your Future Leaders Programme is a good example of how to achieve that.
You are helping young people to find their feet, build their confidence and reimagine their futures. By equipping young people across the island with the skills, confidence, and networks to make a positive difference, you are empowering a new generation of leaders and peacebuilders. I know these programmes work. I participated in the Washington Ireland Programme, which also works to build peace and prosperity on our island. It’s great to see so many alumni elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Interactions break down perceived barriers, enhance understanding, and help find solutions.
They also provide a platform for people, no matter their background, to gain the confidence to become leaders in their communities. Your work helps create a vibrant economy and a peaceful society, built on reconciliation, and stronger and deeper relationships. Looking at political relationships north and south, as well as Ireland and Britain, it is clear to me that we need an approach based on hope, understanding and mutual respect. Civic and business leadership has an important role to play in resolving tensions and building reconciliation, helping to strengthen and deepen relationships. Our mission must be to create jobs, create wealth, and provide opportunities for young people in a prosperous and peaceful island for all.
This is an integral part of my work as Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment where I have set myself three objectives:
1. Helping businesses respond to Covid, Brexit and Ukraine – so they can survive and prosper.
2. Restoring and exceeding pre-pandemic employment levels. I believe we can achieve a record 2.5 million people in work by 2024. That means full employment – a job for anybody who wants one. It also means ensuring job opportunities in all parts of Ireland to achieve balanced regional development.
3. Creating jobs with better terms and conditions, that are more sustainable, secure and valued – so that work pays and is rewarded with a decent standard of living.
These priorities are all relevant to North-South co-operation. The first and second priorities can be assisted by greater economic co-operation. When it comes to the third priority on workers’ rights, alignment is crucial. At the moment I’m introducing Sick Pay in the Republic of Ireland, that currently exists in Northern Ireland, but it is only £90/week. I am concerned about the divergence in workers’ rights between North and South. This is something I want to talk to the Northern Ireland Executive about when it’s up and running because we don’t want to see jobs and business being lost in the border areas to the North because of inferior labour standards and lower pay north of the border.
Anyone with a good business idea, no matter their background, should be able to start and grow a company in Ireland. InterTrade’s “Seedcorn” initiative, for example, is designed to help start-ups get ‘investor ready’ – so they can develop credible business plans and learn how to deal with investors. I’d like to see InterTrade Ireland beefed up and strengthened as a North/South body. And I’d love to do joint trade missions with my Executive counterpart in years to come. I believe there is much more scope to ‘think all-island’ when it comes to the services economy and attracting foreign direct investment, and this brings economic and social benefits for all of us. One challenge is that cross-border trade in services is considerably lower than cross-border trade in goods. Services make up 26 per cent of the total trade going from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and 16 per cent of the trade going from the Republic of Ireland to the North. The low share of services in trade-flows from Ireland to Northern Ireland is in contrast with the high overall services content of Ireland’s exports to other markets.
It is encouraging to see the evidence that Northern Ireland’s continued access to the EU Single Market for goods, secured through the Protocol, provides a comparative advantage for attracting high-value FDI relative to anywhere in Britain. The market potential of the EU is a driver when high-value FDI is choosing locations, and that includes high-value FDI in manufacturing. It’s a pity that uncertainty about the future of the Protocol created by the British Government has undermined this potential advantage for Northern Ireland. It would be remiss of me not to speak tonight about some of the recent events:
(i) The Northern Ireland elections
(ii) The ongoing debate about the Protocol and
(iii) Calls for a border poll and the future of the Good Friday Agreement.
As we can see from the recent Assembly elections, the tectonic plates are shifting in Northern Ireland. There is no majority anymore.
There are three minorities, one that defines itself as British and unionist, another as Irish and nationalist, and a third and growing progressive middle ground, many born since the Good Friday Agreement, who refuse to be defined in this way. They see themselves as both Irish and British or perhaps simply Northern Irish.
I believe it is one of the most encouraging things that has happened since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The future is not yet written and nothing is inevitable.
- Sinn Fein is the largest party and therefore has the right to nominate a First Minister – but it did not gain any seats. It is the largest party because the unionist vote was divided three ways.
- The vote of nationalist parties – the three parties that designate as nationalist combined – has fallen below 40 per cent.
- The vote of the unionist parties has fallen as well and is just over 40 per cent.
- The Alliance vote is up substantially.
While we can debate about where People Before Profit and independent unionists should lie in this equation, it’s clear that there is no majority any more – no majority for unionism or nationalism and the only thing that’s growing is the middle ground. I know it’s not straightforward, but I believe an Executive needs to be formed as soon as possible.
We’ve had elections but the party leaders only have a mandate to speak for their parties. No party won a majority, so we need an Executive with a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister that can be the voice of Northern Ireland at the table. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government will help to facilitate the process. I appreciate there are significant concerns about the Protocol within the unionist community. These concerns cannot be dismissed. I don’t need to go into the history of it here this evening, but I will say this - the Protocol exists and it was co-designed by the UK and the EU/Ireland.
The Protocol is working:
- There is no hard border between north and south.
- The single market is protected and Ireland’s place in it.
- Northern Ireland is outperforming the UK economically.
- North/South trade has increased.
The Protocol can be improved and can be modified. The EU has been very flexible.
That has been demonstrated for example in changes we made in relation to medicines and other things. This flexibility has not been reciprocated by the UK Government and this is breeding mistrust in EU capitals.
The fact that the UK Government is talking openly about breaching international law is a matter of concern and stands in contrast with the enormous leadership the UK Government is showing in supporting Ukraine against Russia, which has breached international law in a very serious way through its invasion of Ukraine. We were always open to other solutions, including a Customs Union, Single Market and the Backstop, which I negotiated with Prime Minister May.
That would have eliminated the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Britain. Perhaps in the future, Britain might reconsider these options but that is not the case at the moment.
Above all, let’s not forget that around 60% of the MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly do not want the Protocol scrapped. Yes, they may want improvements, modifications, changes, ease some of the barriers, ease some of the checks, but the people of Northern Ireland voted, and they did not vote for a majority of MLAs who want the Protocol to be scrapped.
As you know, the Northern Ireland Assembly has the power to disapply the Protocol under the Agreement, but based on the outcome of the election that is not likely to happen. The British Government has to have regard to these facts – the democratic vote of the people of Northern Ireland. Any British Government that claims to be ‘pro-Union’ and any British Prime Minister who is also the Minister for the Union must understand the consequences of imposing on Northern Ireland a policy that is not supported by the majority of the people there and how that will further reduce support for the union, in my view.
We would like to work with the UK Government and the EU to improve the Protocol in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. It is best to do this when a Northern Ireland Executive is up-and-running. Its absence during the Brexit negotiations was a great disservice to the people of Northern Ireland. The aspiration to unification is a legitimate aspiration. The Good Friday Agreement provides for a border poll but in my view, the tests are not met. It’s very clear in the Good Friday Agreement that the Secretary of State shall call a border poll if it’s apparent that a majority of people will vote for it. Given the results of the Northern Ireland election, where there has been a decrease in the number of MLAs who support unification and a border poll, it is clear that test has not been met. I do think we’ll need to clarify the mechanism for calling a border poll. Surely it should involve the Northern Ireland Assembly and not just be the judgement of the Secretary of State. We would also need to know what the question was and have clear proposals as to what unification would look like.
The work being done by the Shared Island Unit in terms of comparative research on systems north and south is valuable in this regard. Should, after weeks or months of talks, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive not be established, direct rule cannot be accepted as an alternative. We’ll need to look at other options and this should be done under the auspices of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC).
Getting back to economic matters, although we are diversifying our trade links in response to Brexit, it’s important that we also strengthen our business links with the UK. Our expanding Embassy in London, our new Consulate General and Enterprise Ireland trade office in Manchester and our reopened consulate in Cardiff are all evidence of our commitment. It is essential that we have the discussions that people – including young people - want to be having, not simply rehearsing familiar arguments, or closing ranks along traditional lines. The work of reconciliation is not just the work of government. It is not limited to those in Northern Ireland, or in the border counties. It is the work of everyone on this island. That’s why I support the work of Cooperation Ireland and other organisation working to bring communities together, organisations that look more to the possibilities of the future than the binds of the past. To build a lasting future our approach must be ‘non-imperialist, non-triumphalist and non-aggressive’, a telling phrase from the Irish Times editorial of 12 March 1980 about the work of Co-operation Ireland.
That same editorial noted that ‘words are easy’, and that for too long they were our greatest export back and forth across the border. Thankfully that is no longer the case. As we work to build relationships, help reconciliation, create jobs and provide opportunities, we should remember that our greatest export goes both ways, and it is hope.