Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD
Londonderry Chamber of Commerce
24 May, 2016
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am really delighted to be here with you this evening. I want to thank Gavin, Sinead and the entire Chamber for the opportunity to join you.
This Bishop’s Gate Hotel is a really wonderful new venue for Derry. I want to congratulate Helen Quigley and all those who have worked with the Inner City Trust on its very fine restoration.
The efforts in restoring this heritage building are signs of a city’s great renewal, building on its historical fabric yet also looking to the future. They are signs of a confident and progressive city.
Derry and its people have endured more than their share of pain and suffering in the past. And yet, the city is now hailed as an exemplar of tolerance, progress and regeneration.
The unity of purpose which business, community and civic leaders have developed and sustained here is a remarkable example of mature leadership that all of us who are in positions of political responsibility might reflect on and seek to emulate.
Much of the progress has been driven by people like you - individuals and businesses who are imaginative, determined and prepared to take risks.
This Chamber of Commerce can take real pride in its commitment to growing the local economy and nurturing the city’s social fabric. The city has been transformed, from conflict to peace to growing prosperity. The creativity, resilience and hard work of people sitting in this room have played an important part in that regeneration.
Derry’s hinterland looks west to Donegal and Letterkenny, as much as east to Belfast. The free flow of people across the border, to commute, to work, play and live is a vital component of the economic and social infrastructure of this region and of the lives of our citizens.
It is that intertwining that lies at the heart of the ever-growing cross-border collaboration that is emerging here. The Councils working together. The Chambers of Commerce working together. The people of Derry and Donegal working and living together.
The Irish Government and my Department is supporting the ongoing work by your two Councils to realise the economic potential of this North West region.
I have allocated €2.5 million to the North West Development Fund, as per the Fresh Start Agreement, and I look forward to the match funding being provided by the Northern Ireland Executive so the Councils can get on with their work of developing this region and improving the lives of its citizens.
Cross-border cooperation has played a crucial part in helping to deliver growth. The North West Regional Science Park in Derry and Letterkenny, working with local business, is helping to drive innovation and skills, and I am pleased to see the regional colleges represented here this evening.
The Radiotherapy Unit at Altnagelvin will be operational later this year and what better example of cross-border cooperation delivering mutual benefit for our citizens – a benefit that literally may be a matter of life or death.
It is in the interest of all our people that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive work together closely on economic growth, job creation, health or any other areas where cooperation delivers clear benefits for our citizens.
In our new Programme for a Partnership Government we commit ourselves to advancing North South co-operation, particularly through the cross-border bodies and the North South Ministerial Council. This also includes advancing the Fresh Start and Stormont House Agreement commitments on issues of North South cooperation.
One of those includes a commitment of £75M to the construction of the A5 dual-carriageway, which we all hope will commence construction next year.
I am very conscious how important this road project is for the connectivity of Derry and Donegal to the rest of the island – indeed the deputy First Minister never tires of reminding the Taoiseach and me of the A5’s importance and we share his determination for this project to be advanced as rapidly as possible.
In 30 days time, the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls to vote in a vital referendum on the future of the UK in the European Union. And now that Assembly elections have taken place and an Executive is about to be formed, the referendum campaign is under way in earnest.
I hope the people of Northern Ireland will pay very close attention to this referendum campaign, that they will fully inform themselves on the issues, participate in the debate and – most crucial of all – turn out to vote on 23 June.
The outcome of the referendum will, I believe, have far reaching consequences for the people of Northern Ireland and indeed the island as a whole – the stakes are very high and any electoral apathy or indifference must be challenged.
All of my life experience and political judgement tell me that the causes of peace, reconciliation and prosperity in Northern Ireland have been immeasurably assisted by Ireland and the United Kingdom being common members of the European Union.
Our shared membership of the European Union has provided a wider political space in which to craft political solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of the once so called “narrow ground” of Northern Ireland.
We should remind ourselves that when the Troubles broke out in 1969, the British Government at the time did not consider that the Irish Government had a legitimate right to put forward its views on the nature of the problem.
Both Governments became partners in Europe before we developed the habit of partnership in regard to Northern Ireland.
It was no coincidence that the first attempt by both Governments to craft a political solution – Sunningdale in December 1973 – followed hard on the heels of Ireland’s and the UK’s accession to the then European Community in January 1973.
The regular and frequent interaction of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister of the day at EU summit meetings in the 1980s also created an opportunity for high level bilateral conversations on Northern Ireland – conversations that contributed to the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Nor was it an accident that the achievement of open internal borders in the EU in 1992 coincided with the beginning of an inclusive peace process that led to the achievement of ceasefires in 1994 and the beginning of multi-party talks in 1996, resulting in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
As I mentioned earlier, Derry has always been in the vanguard of progressive change. In many ways, the Troubles ended in Derry before they did across the rest of Northern Ireland. And Derry has also shown the way forward on the resolution of disputed parades.
And above all, it was a Derry man – John Hume – who provided the vision and the narrative for the resolution of a political problem bequeathed by history. Unlike many others, John did not subscribe to the fatalistic view that Northern Ireland was condemned to maintain the “integrity of its quarrel”.
In developing his analysis of the problem and his vision for a solution, John Hume understood the huge significance – both in practical and inspirational terms – of the EU for the cause of peace in Northern Ireland.
And from the moment of his election to the first directly elected European Parliament in 1979, John brought that cause directly to the heart of the EU.
John knew that pooling sovereignty for defined tasks within the European Union would soften the stand-off between competing national sovereignties on the island.
He understood that the removal of a hard border on the island of Ireland did not just relate to territory but also to peoples’ mind-sets.
John knew that sharing the European project would make it easier for the people of Northern Ireland to coexist together in the knowledge that their right to be British or Irish or both was fully respected – a right that was explicitly recognised in the Good Friday Agreement.
He recognised that the architecture and the working of the institutions of the European Union – where the interests of smaller Member States were fairly balanced against larger Member States – were a model for the power-sharing devolution that would be at the heart of a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
So what does the vision, work and legacy of John Hume tell us today?
They are a crucial and timely reminder that the political accommodation achieved between nationalists and unionists, represented in the Good Friday Agreement, was in significant measure facilitated by the over-arching framework of Ireland’s and Britain’s shared membership of the European Union.
The open and accommodating space of the European Union has served Northern Ireland, its people and the cause of peace well – why now risk a backward step to narrower ground?
There are of course also lots of tangible and pragmatic reasons why the UK leaving the European Union would be a backward step for Northern Ireland.
As this Chamber knows, today’s practically invisible border has greatly facilitated trade, investment, social mobility and cultural and sporting interaction between both parts of the island.
If the UK leaves the customs union of the EU, there may well have to be some form of customs control or inspection on the land border between both parts of the island, perhaps even some form of immigration controls – even though every effort would no doubt be made to reduce the disruption of such a regime.
We know that trade between both parts of the island amounts to about €3 billion per annum and that there is considerable potential to increase that level. InterTrade Ireland is indeed working hard to increase it.
We also know that the balance of that trade overwhelmingly favours Northern Ireland producers who, in a context of a UK exit, would not enjoy the same ease of access to the southern market.
We know that the prospects for attracting Foreign Direct Investment are critically linked to a number of key factors – (a) open access to a large export market; (b) an educated workforce and (c) a competitive corporate tax rate.
Just as Northern Ireland is on the cusp of securing a highly competitive tax rate in 2018, how from a potential investor’s perspective does it make sense to jeopardise access to an open market of 500 million people in the EU.
We know that Northern Ireland is expected to receive some €3 billion from EU Structural Funds between 2014 and 2020. This includes the vital support for Northern Ireland agriculture that comes from the CAP and some €550 million from the EU Peace and Interreg programmes designed with Northern Ireland specifically in mind.
Those who favour Leave argue that these vital supports will be offset by compensating transfers from the UK exchequer. In the context of increased fiscal pressures on the British Government over the next few years, one would need to be very confident about banking such an alternative source before saying goodbye to EU Structural Funds.
In conclusion, there are very many reasons why a UK exit from the EU would be bad for Ireland and bad for Irish-British relations. In my view, the negative implications for Northern Ireland and for relations between both parts of the island are particularly compelling and concerning.
All of us who value the progress made on the island over recent years and who care about the future we bestow to our children must use every ounce of energy to maximise turn-out at the polls on 23 June.
And we must also use every bit of influence we have to encourage those voters to remain within a European Union which, both in symbolic and practical terms, has meant so much for peace, reconciliation and prosperity on the island of Ireland.
Thank you for your attention.