Ireland Fund of Great Britain Annual Luncheon: Remarks by Minister Cowen
I am honoured to be in the company of so many distinguished Irishmen and women - and of good friends of Ireland, whatever your nationality. The Ireland Funds, including that of Great Britain, continue to do wonderful work, aimed at cultural and social development and at promoting peace and reconciliation on our island and between our traditions. I am delighted to pay tribute to your generosity over the years.
Looking around, I am struck by how this gathering symbolises the new relationship between Britain and Ireland - a mature, intimate and balanced relationship of partners, who are very close to one another while respecting their individual identities.
Our partnership in Europe has been crucial in normalising and deepening that relationship. Around the table in Brussels, the Irish and British Governments have learned to work together in a context almost entirely removed from past and ancient differences - and this indeed has made it easier to approach those old quarrels in a new spirit. Within the European Union, Ireland has also found a new economic framework, bringing with it a remarkable diversification in the pattern of our economic activity. This has been fundamental to our progress as a country.
Last month's second referendum on the Treaty of Nice, therefore, was vitally important for Ireland. But it was also crucial for the European Union as a whole, and for the enlargement process. And it became in effect a debate on Ireland and Europe.
I know that there were some commentators who found it strange that a development of huge significance to Europe as a whole should depend on the verdict of the electorate of one of the smallest states. They argued, rightly, that the details of the Treaty of Nice were technical and complex. However, as a result of the referendum, I would bet that the number of people in Ireland who now question their politicians on issues such as Qualified Majority Voting or Enhanced Cooperation would be very many times higher than in any other Member State!
For three reasons in particular, I would reject the implicit, and sometimes explicit, suggestion that it was “wrong” that our ratification of Nice required popular support. First of all, there is - rightly - much talk about the need to reduce the sense of disconnection between the Union and its citizens, to address the so-called democratic deficit. I would strongly argue that those who speak theoretically of democratic legitimacy should also be prepared to see and accept it operating in practice.
Secondly, the Irish Constitution, as interpreted by our Supreme Court, requires referendums to be held on significant EU Treaties. If respect for the national identities and constitutional traditions of the individual Member States is fundamental to the Union - as it must be - then it is surely up to each Member State to determine its own procedures. In saying this, I, of course, respect and understand those constitutional traditions in which referendums are rare or indeed prohibited - but each of us must be able to proceed as is appropriate in our own country.
Thirdly, I have to say that I found the referendum campaign inspiring as well as exhausting. There was a real national debate, in the media and on the ground. It was by no means confined to the politicians - indeed the active involvement of civil society and the social partners was crucial. I would pay tribute here to the significant personal interventions of the Chairman of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain, Peter Sutherland. And I would also like to laud the exceptional work of our National Forum on Europe, under the distinguished Chairmanship of Senator Maurice Hayes.
Ultimately, I think three factors were crucial in determining a positive outcome. Firstly, people felt that a serious effort had been made to convince and to explain, that they were not being taken for granted. They saw that those of us supporting Nice were not just going through the motions, but were pulling out all the stops - that we believed deeply and passionately in the message we were conveying, and that a real national interest was at stake. And they responded with great seriousness and purpose.
Secondly, there was a more rounded and fuller discussion than ever before of what the European Union has meant and continues to mean for Ireland - not just financially, but in terms of opportunity, modernisation, and our growth as a nation. Here the impact of the Union on our relationship with Britain was one of the factors. The simple fact that we have done well in Europe, and that we must have the confidence to continue to be at the heart of Europe, weighed very heavily at the end of the day.
Finally, people in Ireland have a natural sympathy for the candidate countries given their particularly difficult political and economic histories. As such, the Irish people were open to the “Yes side” making an appeal to their idealism. They were convinced that enlargement, for all the wrangling about the detail, is at its heart a profoundly important political opportunity and moral imperative, from which we can all gain in the long run. Dr. Hayes and the Forum played a critical part in developing a national consensus on this.
Ultimately, our debate, like any real political debate, was not about the finer points but about fundamentals - about who we are as a people, where our interests lie, and where we belong. It was deeply important because its outcome involved the reassertion by the people directly of their commitment to Ireland's place in the European Union, and a fresh confirmation of their democratic ownership of the process.
I would not, of course, offer a view on the choice which the British people will eventually be making about participation in the Euro - though from an Irish perspective, and indeed from an all-Ireland perspective, I believe a positive decision would be strongly to our mutual benefit. But I will say, on the basis of our experience, that if a such a decision is taken, the fact of its being rooted in the democratic support of the people would be deeply important and helpful in terms of the UK's overall relationship with Europe.
At a time when the Union is now engaged in a further round of debate about its future, I feel that the Irish Government has particularly good reason to know what it is that our people want and expect. Everyone speaks of bringing Europe closer to the people. But there is no reality check quite as exacting as a referendum. Yes, the Irish people are strongly committed to the Union. But not without concerns, and not without a desire for reform.
They, and we as their Government, want to see greater clarity, coherence and intelligibility in Europe. That is why I welcome the draft outline of a Constitutional Treaty which President Giscard published last week. It is very much a skeleton and there is a great deal of work to be done in fleshing it out. But it holds out the prospect of a more rationally ordered, and more understandable basic Treaty. Such a Treaty should make clear in broad terms both what the European Union is - and what it is not. It is not, and will not be, a United States of Europe. But the draft itself offers a reasonable first stab atdefinition: “A Union of European States which, while retaining their national
identities, closely coordinate their policies at the European level, and administer certain common competences on a federal basis.” This is not the federal superstate of Eurosceptic myth.
More broadly, a basic or constitutional treaty - I genuinely do not see any particular significance in the choice of any one term - should be clearer about the allocation of responsibility for different policy areas. It should set out, in a meaningful way, how the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality are to be made effective - so that decisions are actually taken at the lowest appropriate level. One thing which is very clear to me is that the Irish people at least - and I imagine many others - have no great hunger for changing the areas of responsibility which are entrusted to the Union. The broad mix of policies is about right. What we want is more clarity of definition and more efficiency and effectiveness in delivery. It is encouraging that these are the general messages coming out from the Convention.
We also think the allocation of powers to the institutions is about right as it now is. The current balances serve the interests of both big and small states, and they keep the drive for integration and the preservation of national authority properly aligned. So while we are open to further adjustments to enhance the efficiency, and indeed the democratic legitimacy, of the institutions, we are not convinced and have many doubts about the introduction of new and perhaps competing centres of power, such as a permanent President of the European Council.
The European Union has been, all things considered, a unique and extraordinary success story. It, of course, needs to be modernised and made more transparent. As the Economist said last week, it may proceed by “lurch
and muddle”. But despite everything, it survives, it works, and it has new members queuing up to join. Reform is necessary - but in this process we must
not lose that combination of elements which has made the Union what it is.
One final point: As Giscard himself argues, and I have heard Pat Cox, European Parliament President, say the same, the current process must be the last exercise in Treaty-making for many years. We must get it right - and make it last. We cannot be constantly digging up the plant and inspecting its roots. Nothing in life, or politics, is ever final - but I believe that the Irish people - and people all over Europe - would be greatly reassured if they could be guaranteed that a new Constitutional Treaty would stand for decades at least.
Just as the Nice referendum day approached, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were suspended once again. The fundamental cause was a breakdown in trust between unionists and republicans. And if we are honest we have to admit that, despite the huge political progress made in recent years - the extent of which far too many people forget or discount - true reconciliation has not moved at quite the same pace.
At the same time, I am essentially optimistic about the future. Things are not at all the same as they were. Various fundamental principles - consent, power-sharing, co-operation between North and South on the island - are no longer contested. There is a rock-solid relationship between the two Governments.
But, over and above all this, I am confident because I believe that the means out of the present difficulties are already at hand. They are there within the Good Friday Agreement itself. In both letter and spirit, it places obligations on all sides. Very many of those obligations have been or are being fulfilled. But some remain outstanding. It is now time to move decisively towards their final
implementation. Each side must feel certain about the determination and capacity of every other to make its move or moves, as part of a comprehensive and definitive resolution of the issues in the round. This must be spelled out in
clear and unambiguous language, and must then be delivered on.
I believe that all serious political leaders know that interconnected and irreversible acts of completion are what is required. When the people of Ireland, North and South, voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998 they were above all - just as was the case in the Nice referendum - voting on broad principles: in this case, a future of peace and partnership. Their democratic endorsement gives the Agreement its enduring strength. I absolutely believe that many of those who feel disappointed with the rate of progress, have not lost faith in the vision of the Agreement, but are unhappy with the delay in its realisation. That is why it should be possible, with the necessary political will, for both Governments and the political parties to construct a way out of our current difficulties, and to win back the trust of both communities. That is what everyone is entitled to expect, and that is the challenge to which we have to rise over the next weeks and months. It will not be easy. But it can be done.