Speech by Minister Cowen on the National Day of Commemoration (Part 1)
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to extend a very warm welcome to all of you today.
I deeply appreciate your presence at our National Day of Commemoration, a day on which we honour all of the Irish men and women who died in past wars, or on service with the United Nations. Today we also honour peacemakers and their work throughout the world.
We also remember those who lost their lives in the troubles in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in these islands. We have worked in partnership with the British Government over the last year, to implement the positive agenda of change represented in the Good Friday Agreement. Steady progress has been made in the areas of policing, criminal justice, human rights and equality. In addition, constructive programmes of work continue to be taken forward within the North/South and East/West frameworks of co-operation.
Regrettably, however, the political institutions within Northern Ireland remain suspended. The elections to the Assembly last November marked the emergence of a new political landscape with the DUP and Sinn Féin becoming, respectively, the largest parties in the unionist and nationalist communities. The Irish Government fully accepts and respects the electoral mandates conferred on both parties. We also expect them to exercise those mandates responsibly and in the broader interest of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.
In Lancaster House on 25 June the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister announced their intention to convene talks in early September for the purpose of reaching agreement on the four key outstanding issues – ending paramilitary activity, completing the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, ensuring the stability of the political institutions and creating a policing dispensation that has the support and participation of the entire community.
A comprehensive agreement on these issues can and should be reached in the autumn. They have been exhaustively debated and defined. The critical question is whether the parties concerned have the will, the courage and the generosity to bring them to a successful finality. We cannot let matters drift without end. In the absence of agreement among the parties, the two Governments will have to consider how best to advance the process.
However, I firmly believe that all the relevant parties do want an honourable accommodation that fully and irreversibly secures peace and partnership politics in Northern Ireland. The people of this island deserve no less and will rightly demand that the window of opportunity for agreement in the autumn must be positively seized.
As you are all aware, the first six-months of this year were a busy period for us in Ireland, as well as a momentous one for the European Union as a whole. Ireland was particularly privileged to hold the Presidency at the moment of enlargement, on May 1 2004. We worked with the Commission to ensure a smooth transition to enlargement and to ensure that the on-going enlargement negotiations achieved results. We are pleased to have secured the provisional completion of the negotiations with Bulgaria and to have made substantial progress with Romania. We are also pleased that the June European Council decided to grant Croatia candidate status.
The EU, as it continues to widen and deepen, will face new challenges. Last month’s agreement on the new European Constitution will, however, enable it to meet those challenges with confidence. It will equip the Union to function effectively internally and externally and, importantly, will help to reconnect the Union to its citizens. There is a very great deal in this new Constitution, the culmination of more than two years work in the European Convention and in the IGC, which we can all welcome – the clear and concise statement of the Union’s shared values and objectives, the clear division of powers between the Union and its Member States, the renewed opportunity for the Union to take a leading and effective role in the world. After signature later this year, the next step will be ratification of the new Constitution in all the Member States. It is important that we make all the necessary efforts to explain the Constitution to our citizens and make the case for this exciting European project.
In the external relations area, the past six months have been especially busy as we have taken forward the Union’s engagement with the wider world. During this time, the Taoiseach chaired five Summits: with Canada, Russia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Japan and the US. I hosted an Informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Tullamore in April, as well as two large meetings in Ireland between EU Foreign Ministers and their colleagues from Asian and Mediterranean countries. I also conducted, on behalf of the Union, over 50 Ministerial meetings with key bilateral partners throughout the world.
In guiding the Union’s foreign policy agenda, we focused on the key foreign policy priorities which we set out in the Presidency programme - promoting democratic values and human rights; advancing support for an effective multilateral system based on the primacy of the UN; supporting the Middle East peace process through the Quartet and developing a strategic partnership with the wider Middle East and Mediterranean region; strengthening the EU’s relationships with its key partners, not least the US, China and Russia; and working with African partners to address the enormous development and security challenges facing the continent. These are all issues which have traditionally been at the core of Irish foreign policy. Top