Minister for Foreign Affairs addresses the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, Dublin, 25 March, 2002
Speaking at today's 24th Plenary Meeting of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body in Dublin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD, took stock of progress towards implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and stated that "If we adhere to the totality of the Agreement - not selectively, not spinning it for our political comfort - I believe that the process will endure and succeed".
On Unionist concerns about the future, the Minister said that:
"The greatest reassurance that can be given to those who have genuine fears about the future is to highlight the central organising principle at the core of the Agreement - that is, the rigorous equality now prescribed between both communities in Northern Ireland. The Agreement recognised that, if the problems in Northern Ireland, stemmed from a failed hegemony of orange over green, the situation would be equally shameful and unworkable if it merely reversed the order".
"In terms of problems stemming from economic and social marginalisation, disadvantaged loyalist and nationalist areas have ultimately more in common than separates them. After all, the human indignity and demoralisation which results from material deprivation, poor educational attainment and lack of employment opportunities are no differently experienced on the Falls Road than they are on the Shankill...While accepting that the particular nature and dimensions of a problem may vary between communities, we must nevertheless recognise and act on the commonality of economic and social deprivation on both sides of the community. A segmented approach which politically prioritises the needs of one community merely risks displacing the alienation from one side of the equation to the other.
On the question of a possible border poll, the Minister said:
"Some on the nationalist side are keen to fast-forward the process and to focus on the context in which unionism would give its assent to a united Ireland. Others on the unionist side wish to arrest the debate by testing the matter in a border poll next May".
"The debate which would surround such an early poll would, inevitably, be divisive and polarising at a time when our immediate task must be to continue the work of implementing the Agreement; of consolidating within Northern Ireland its fundamental principles of partnership, equality, reconciliation and mutual trust".
".. I would have deep reservations about the wisdom of any border poll in the near future and I fear that it would distract from the urgent challenges we now need to address".
"What we need in the immediate term is a sustained period of political calm in which we can address these problems by demonstrating the tangible benefits of partnership politics across all communities in Northern Ireland; by consolidating the promised new beginning in policing so that the PSNI is welcome, accepted and supported in all communities in Northern Ireland; by ensuring that the process of putting arms beyond use is further progressed by the IRA and that it begins on the loyalist side; and by further securing the human rights and equality agendas at the heart of the Agreement".
The Minister also noted that
"The progress in Northern Ireland in recent years owes much, I believe, to the greatly improved climate in the wider British-Irish relationship. At all levels, the nexus of relationships between these islands now displays a remarkable vibrancy and maturity. Our political relationships have never been stronger ".