Mr Chairman, Minister, Member of Parliament, MLAs, Councillors and delegates.
I was delighted to be invited to address your Annual Conference.
The invitation comes at an opportune time as the electorate in both parts of Ireland will go to the polls in the coming months. The outcome of these elections will have significant implications for consolidating the peace process and strengthening the relationships between the institutions and peoples in both parts of this island to enable us to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
But before I deal with events of the year just started, I would briefly like to look back at the events of last year, particularly as they affected your own party.
2010 was a year of achievement for the Alliance Party. It was the 40th Anniversary of your foundation. Your Party leader, David Ford was elected as Minister of Justice and your deputy leader, Naomi Long, was elected as the first ever Alliance MP at Westminster. I congratulate them both and wish them well in these roles.
Their respective elections to these high offices are not only huge personal achievements – they are a just reward for the commitment and dedication of the Alliance Party members who have toiled for four decades to promote the philosophy of reconciliation throughout the most difficult, divisive and bloody period of Northern Ireland’s troubled history.
The Alliance Party’s unswerving commitment to the twin policy of partnership in Government between both traditions in Northern Ireland and friendly co-operation with the Republic of Ireland has justifiably earned you the respect of both Dublin and London and played a hugely significant role in shaping the Good Friday Agreement.
The implementation of this agreement has dramatically transformed life on the island of Ireland. However if history has taught us anything- it is that we must always be vigilant and never complacent.
On 9th December 1973 an historic and imaginative political Agreement was signed in Sunningdale. Tragically it was brought down and decades passed before we were able to construct a new Agreement which embodied much of what was at the heart of Sunningdale. Unfortunately, in the intervening period, we had thousands of people either losing their lives or being seriously injured- primarily in Northern Ireland but also in the Republic of Ireland and Britain. As well as the human cost, considerable damage was also inflicted on the economies of both countries.
Despite the fact that the current peace process enjoys the support of all Government and opposition parties throughout Britain and Ireland, there are a number of dissidents that still remain in existence.
Attacks carried out by these unrepresentative organisations increased by 70% last year and is an indication of their determination to undermine the current peace process. The Independent Monitoring Commission has repeatedly stated that these groups are actively recruiting and training young men without previous terrorist experence and are engaged in serious crininal activitiy like weapons acquisition.
If there is one clear message that I want to send out from this conference today – it is this.
On March 11th, if the people charge me with the responsibility of leading the next Government, I pledge that that Government will use every resource at its disposal to confront this threat. Our Minister for Justice will work hand in hand with the Assembly’s Minister of Justice, and the Gardaí will continue their excellent co-operation with the PSNI.
I want at this point to commend the very successful work currently being done jointly by our security forces and I mention in particular the smashing of bomb factories in Dromiskin Co. Louth last month and in Monasterevin, Co. Kildare earlier this month.
The Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the ordinary people of this island in simultaneous referenda in both parts of Ireland. We will not allow their democratic will to be thwarted by any organisation or group whatever its origins.
Dissidents and Drugs
We cannot overlook the direct links between organised crime and subversive organisations. In strengthening co-operation between our political, legal and security institutions, we can make an enormous contribution not only to eliminating the threat of terrorism but also to the apprehension of those that flood the towns and villages of the island of Ireland with drugs. This illegal trade is the major source of criminal activity and is responsible for wrecking the lives of thousands, especially our young people. Furthermore, their expansion into the illicit trade of counterfeit cigarettes is costing jobs, damaging businesses and depriving our exchequers of massive revenues at a time when we need it most.
Tackling these problems must be a joint priority of any new administrations that will emerge from the forthcoming elections. We must constantly monitor the resources that we make available to our frontline services who are confronting these evils.
Another priority for our new governments must be to use the structure of the Good Friday Agreement to strengthen co-operation between our political institutions and tackle the major economic and external policy developments we need to address. I see four critical points –
– we are both experiencing a major economic recession and accompanying high level of unemployment
– we both need to increase our competitiveness
– we both share an island on the periphery of Europe
– we both belong to the European Union and should seek benefit from a joint policy approach to current major EU policy initiatives. These will have an impact on important sectors in our respective economies particularly when we make common cause.
The Good Friday Agreement established six North – South Implementation Bodies. These bodies have been fostering economic co-operation between both parts of Ireland. In particular, Inter Trade Ireland and Tourism Ireland have done some excellent pioneering work in this area.
It is my firm belief that the development and marketing of the all- island economy using these elements of the Agreement offer tremendous opportunities to strengthen our competitiveness, overcome our structural economic problems, tackle unemployment, minimise our problems of peripherality and exploit the benefits of our joint membership of the European Union.
After the Assembly and Dáil elections, I would hope that both Administrations would agree to work on a detailed strategy to help this become a reality.
Elements of this strategy could include moving towards a harmonised corporate tax rate for the island, joint marketing of the island for tourism and attracting foreign investment (building upon what has already been done already). Fine Gael is firmly committed to retaining the current 12.5% corporation tax rate in the Republic and I am aware that discussions are ongoing on giving the Northern Ireland Executive powers in this area of taxation.
In a European Union context, we should consider developing a joint approach to influence the reform of the Common Agriculture and Structural Fund policies and their implementation post 2013.
There are practical reasons for adopting this approach. Agricultural practice is very similar in both parts of the island. It also plays an important part in both our economies as does the agri-food sector which is recognised to be of one of the engines of economic growth in the years ahead.
And given the serious decline in our respective economies we could make a strong bid for a share of EU structural funds for the development of the island economy during the 2013-2020 financial perspective.
The Good Friday Agreement was intended for use in this way – we would be failing the people of this island if we did not fully exploit its potential to alleviate the economic difficulties and hardship that too many families are currently experiencing. And none of this would threaten the right of each part of Ireland to maintain its own chosen character and constitutional integrity.
When I was considering what I should say to you today, I reflected on the changes over the last forty years and the changing priorities and challenges that faced the Governments and politicians throughout Britain and Ireland.
In the 70s and 80s, energy and focus were taken up with addressing the problem of violence and its consequences; in the 90s the emphasis had shifted to addressing the root causes of terrorism as well as its terrible consequences and the need to construct new political institutions. These had to be politically inclusive, address the complexity of relationships throughout our two islands and command the respect and support of all our peoples.
The fact that, today, my primary emphasis has been on economic issues, the normal agenda of stable democratic politics, is an indication of the real progress we have made.
However, no matter how much progress we have made there is no room for complacency.
One of my real concerns is that the current peace process is too much a creature of the politicians. We must ensure that ordinary citizens feel that they are stakeholders in the process as well. The Agreement provides for this but it has not been fully implemented.
Strand 2 of the Agreement proposed the establishment of a North South Consultative Forum to involve representatives of civil society from across the island. The intended objective was that they would provide advice to both administrations on social, cultural and economic issues of an all-island/cross-border nature. I believe that by drawing on the knowledge, expertise and insights of civil society we can construct a direct people-to-people experience which will be complementary to the Government-to-Government process.
The involvement of civil society has been successfully and widely used by our partners within the European Union and has been regarded positively. It would bring a new dimension to the working of the Agreement and would extend ownership of the process.
The structures and processes of the Good Friday Agreement are well rooted and working well. However their long-term security can only be guaranteed if it’s accompanied by the establishment of real trust and respect between people of differing traditions at community level.
It should not be forgotten that two world wars occurred in Europe in the last century during which millions of lives were lost and massive economic destruction took place. Those that spilled each other’s blood on the fields of Europe resolved that it would never happen again. Instead of allowing difference to be the cause of conflict, they chose instead to see diversity as an enriching contribution to the tapestry of a new
Europe. No-one was asked to abandon their cultural traditions or beliefs. Instead they learnt to respect difference. The richness of diversity was used as the cement for the building blocks from which they constructed the new peaceful Europe to which we both belong.
That success shows what is possible if the political will exists.
Peace-building must be an integral part of institution building on this island. It must be an integral part of all policy formulation.
Divisions will only be healed when true reconciliation takes place. I know this is a priority for Alliance Party members and also of many others inside and outside of politics working across the length and breadth of our island.
I will work alongside all who wish to achieve this.
I believe that, in doing so, we can ensure a brighter and prosperous future for all the people of this island.
The failure to achieve it keeps alive the nightmare that political instability could once again return to Northern Ireland.
I will do all in my power to ensure that this will never happen.