Speech by Minister of State Roche, The North/South Dimension in Ireland's Future Relationship with Europe, 8th Sept 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am honoured to be able to speak to you here today in the ecclesiastical capital of our island. A centre of learning for so many years with a rich heritage of links to Europe, Armagh is also, of course, well known as a historical centre of Astronomy on this island, with the foundation of the Armagh Observatory by Archbishop Robinson over two hundred years ago. Its sister institute, the Armagh Planetarium, recently played host to a major all-island exhibition by the European Space Agency entitled “Europe in Space: Exploring the new Frontier”.
Given the subject of my speech today, this title is somehow apt because whilst the North/South dimension in Ireland's future relationship with Europe may not be quite of a celestial nature, it truly is exploring a new frontier.
Speaking of new frontiers, it would be remiss of me in this setting not to congratulate Armagh and Tyrone on giving us the first All-Ireland Football Final to be contested exclusively by Ulster teams! A tremendous achievement by both counties and every good luck to them. It should be a wonderful occasion. You will not be surprised to learn that I intend to stay out of speculation as to the precise destination of Sam Maguire this year, but as a politician I am certainly happy to observe that with two Northern teams and their thousands of supporters gracing Croke Park in Dublin, it will certainly be a great day for North/South co-operation! There is hope for Wicklow yet!
Since Ireland and the United Kingdom both joined the then EEC in 1973, there has been a growing and significant degree of co-operation within our islands in both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. That this should be the case is hardly surprising. Our legal & administrative traditions spring from a common fountainhead. The geography of our common island knows no boundaries. Many of the issues that arise in the EU affect us equally.
We live together on an island off an island off the coast of Europe. It makes good sense that we face the common problems in a co-ordinated and in a concerted manner.
In this regard I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Northern MEPs, who, it is well known, frequently put their political differences aside for the benefit of all the citizens of the North, regardless of tradition.
In that regard, I am very pleased to note that one of them, Jim Nicholson, is here with us at this conference.
The European Union itself has made a substantial contribution to the peace process from the very start. It recognised that the EU had a clear interest and vital role to play in maintaining the momentum for peace and reconciliation on this island. As part of its contribution to the peace process, the EU decided to establish a special Peace and Reconciliation Fund for the benefit of Northern Ireland and the six border counties following the European Council of Essen in 1994. At their meeting in Berlin in March 1999, the European Council approved a successor on to this fund until 2004. These funds, which we now know as PEACE I and II, as well the EU's INTERREG Funds, have made a huge impact on the economic and social infrastructure of the North and the border regions.
Armagh, for example, has seen the benefits of EU membership with several new developments including the Armagh City Hotel, in which we are meeting today, having been built with the assistance of European funds.
As John Hume has frequently pointed out, Europe has been critical to our journey, both as a model for reconciliation and a friend providing practical support.
Latterly, the Good Friday Agreement has opened the way for greater North/South co-operation in Ireland's relationship with Europe. The most obvious manifestation of this has been the establishment of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) as a North/South Implementation Body under the Strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement. Under the direction of the North/South Ministerial Council, the Special EU Programmes Body is the designated Managing Authority for the PEACE II and INTERREG IIIA Programmes. It also makes a considerable input to the development of North/South co-operative actions across all of the EU Programmes. The EU Programmes Body also has specific responsibility for monitoring and promoting the implementation of North/South co-operative actions through the medium of the Common Chapter in the National Development Plan for Ireland and the Northern Ireland Structural Funds Plan.
Nuala Kerr has already spoken to you in detail about the work of the Special EU Programmes Body and I would like to thank Nuala and her team for their ongoing work and wish them continued success in the implementation of these critical programmes in the years ahead.
The Good Friday Agreement also specifically envisaged a European dimension to the work of the North/South Ministerial Council. Specifically, the Agreement stated that this would include consideration of the implementation of “EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework”. The Agreement also provided for arrangements to be made “to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings”.
In the period when the North/South Ministerial Council was in normal operation, that is from December 1999 to the suspension of the Northern institutions last October, good progress had been made in exploring the European dimension of its work.
Agriculture is one of the major sectors of European competence. Agriculture is vital North & South of the border. Very close co-operation in this critical area in the both jurisdictions was developed by Ministers Joe Walsh and Brid Rodgers in the North/South Ministerial Council. We all recall the particularly sterling and hugely important work they did together in preventing the spread of Foot and Mouth disease on the island during the crisis of 2001. That episode certainly demonstrated graphically the added value of North/South co-operation.
The North/South Ministerial Council has also progressed cross border co-operation in other important EU sectors such as the Environment.
Both jurisdictions have worked together in identifying International River Basin Districts (IRBDs) on the island, as provided for under the EU's Water Framework Directive. A cross-border Working Group on water quality was formed for this purpose under the direction of the Ministerial Council. The Group continues to work in consultation on the transposition and implementation of this Directive in both jurisdictions. There have also been joint consultations on other critical EU priorities such as waste management.
These are just some practical examples of the kind of work that was underway in the North/South Ministerial Council in terms of the European dimension.
Prior to the suspension of the Northern institutions, the North/South Ministerial Council had started to give consideration to the issue of how its views could be taken into account and represented appropriately at EU level. The academics in the audience and indeed other practitioners in the European field would see this as an issue of real interest, not to mention complexity. For instance, addressing the reality that Northern Ireland is a region within the EU, whereas the South is a full Member State, will bring its own challenges in institutional representation terms, but with goodwill all round they are challenges that can be successfully met. Unfortunately, the temporary absence of Northern Ministers has meant that the issue is on hold for now but it is one to which the Ministerial Council will be giving early attention on its return.
When the Ministerial Council does resume its deliberations on the issue, it will be able to build on a number of practical developments already in place.
The Irish Government is represented in Brussels by the Irish Permanent Representation to the European Union. Since 2001, the Northern Ireland Executive has maintained a regional office in Brussels under the umbrella of the UK Permanent Representation and it has been agreed that they should meet regularly with officials of the Irish Permanent Representation to review issues of common interest. This process has been found by both sides to be very useful.
Also, in the context of its Governance initiative, the European Commission is increasingly consulting on policy issues at an early stage, for instance through published Green Papers. This could provide scope for the two administrations to agree common positions in advance. Clearly, further consideration will need to be given to the practicalities of agreeing common positions on such consultation exercises, possibly with a formal North/South Ministerial Council response as an output.
What is beyond doubt is that there is very great potential for both parts of the island in a common approach on European issues. For the Irish Government's part, we look forward to developing that potential our Northern Ireland colleagues and, indeed with our European partners, in the months and years ahead.
I wanted to turn now to a number of other issues in the European area which are of particular importance at the moment. The European Union is undergoing a process of significant change. The European Convention, where I represented the Irish Government, has produced a draft Constitutional Treaty that I hope will go a long way towards addressing the sense of disconnection between the Union and its citizens.
Parts I and II of the Constitutional Treaty are where I hope this disconnection will be best addressed. Part I outlines the values, objectives and competences of the Union. It tries to set out as clearly as possible what the Union is and what the Union does. It clarifies where responsibility lies, where the Union can act, and the degree to which it is entitled to act. It simplifies the decision-making structures, reducing the number of legislative instruments dramatically and renaming them to make their scope and application clearer. And it simplifies the often obscure legalistic language to make the Treaties more accessible to all.
Part II of the draft Treaty incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights in a way that makes it absolutely clear that the Charter applies to the EU institutions and to the Member States when they are implementing Union law. However, it does not of itself extend the Union competence.
The regions have not been ignored by the Convention. A new Protocol on subsidiarity obliges the Commission to consult as widely as possible on new legislative proposals and to take account of the regional and local dimension. Power is also to be granted to the Committee of the Regions to challenge a legislative act before the Court of Justice on the grounds of infringement of subsidiarity.
As you will be aware, Ireland will hold the Presidency of the Council from January to June next year. 2004 will be a special year for the Union with the biggest enlargement in its history taking place on 1 May. As the Presidency, Ireland is greatly looking forward to welcoming the ten new Member States and we are already organizing a country wide celebration to mark this historic occasion.
We will also, of course, be working hard to ensure the integration of the new Member States into the institutions of the Union, and making sure that the Council continues to function as smoothly and effectively as before. In this regard we are looking forward to the early conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference on the new Constitutional Treaty and the signature of the new Treaty, either under the Italian or Irish Presidencies, depending on how quickly progress is made.
Against this background of reform and renewal, our Presidency priorities will include the revitalized implementation of the Lisbon agenda – by which the Union has set itself the objective of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010, capable of sustained economic growth with more and better jobs.
This group will I know be interested to learn that a meeting of European Regional Affairs Ministers will be held in Portlaoise in February. Among the issues which are under consideration will be the future of the Union's economic and social cohesion and regional development policies, as negotiations get underway in relation to the post 2006 EU financial perspectives. These are of course areas on which North/South Cooperation has traditionally been strong and we look forward to continuing our cooperation in this regard.
While this is not the appropriate occasion for a detailed discussion on the current political situation in Northern Ireland, I could not let the opportunity pass without expressing the hope that the current efforts on the part of the two Governments and the parties to resolve the remaining difficulties in relation to the full implementation Good Friday Agreement will be successful. It is clear to us all that great progress has been made in recent years and we must all stay the course now in addressing the challenges that still remain.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the organisers of this important conference for giving me the opportunity to speak to you here today at a time of great significance in the future of Northern Ireland and the European Union. We all recognise that there are major challenges and opportunities ahead for us in the shared European journey and, for my part and that of my Government, we look forward to making our fullest contribution in addressing them.