Cowen: Speech to Institute of Directors' North/South Dinner
I am delighted to be with you this evening and wish to thank Gillian Bowler and her Northern Ireland colleague Eric Bell for the kind invitation to address this Institute of Directors North/South dinner.
I am very conscious of the pioneering role which the IOD has played in furthering North-South relations and recall a major conference on the subject of the EU Internal Market which you organised in Belfast in 1990 and to which you invited the President in office of the European Council, who also happened to be the Taoiseach of the day. As you know, that invitation caused some controversy at the time. Eleven years later, IOD events involving representatives of the Irish Government are, thankfully, considered as routine. This fact, in itself, illustrates the progress we have made in normalising the relationship between both parts of our shared island.
Reflecting on his work on cross-border business relationships, Professor John Bradley of the ESRI recently commented that he regarded his research as being a part of "the process of rebuilding the shattered community of common interests on the island and improving the quality and security of our lives". His words , I would suggest, are a very eloquent mission statement for the project of North-South co-operation.
Today the people of this island are more at ease with each other than ever before. This is a testament to the endurance of the many networks of human, sporting, business, professional and trade-union links across the island which persevered during the worst years of the conflict. Like other organisations, the Institute of Directors played a very important role in keeping open the channels of communication during difficult times.
The ease in the relationship is also due to two more recent developments, namely the Good Friday Agreement and the phenomenon of the Celtic Tiger, which happily now roams on both sides of the border.
The Agreement transformed the relationship between both parts of island, one which is now based on the principles of consent, partnership, equality and co-operation. A central focus of that new relationship is the North-South Ministerial Council and the related all-island Implementation Bodies.
Through these structures the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are working closely together to improve the quality and security of the lives of our people. In its short life of sixteen months, the North/South Ministerial Council has progressively become an intrinsic part of government administration, North and South. This is the result of the dedicated work of Ministers and public servants on both sides of the border, as well as the assistance and goodwill that have been forthcoming from all strands of civic society, including the business community.
When the Agreement was being negotiated, the North-South dimension was regarded as one of the most difficult and sensitive. Three years later the operation of these structures gives rise to far less controversy than might have been anticipated. This is because, in areas of common challenges and opportunities, most reasonable people now regard North/South cooperation as simply making practical sense.
Whether it is the area of energy infrastructure, the protection of our shared water catchments, the rational delivery of costly health procedures in the border region, the promotion of our tourism product in overseas markets or the maintenance of our vital animal and plant health status, it is demonstrably sensible to adopt an island-wide approach where it delivers tangible benefits to our people.
The sad events of recent weeks have made it abundantly clear why an island-wide approach to animal health is vital to ensure the economic well-being of our people. There has for many years been a tradition of strong technical co-operation between our two Departments of Agriculture in this area. Led by Ministers Walsh and Rodgers, the two Departments have done an outstanding job, both separately and together, in combatting the Foot and Mouth outbreak. The Ministers and their officials are meeting again tomorrow in Dublin, within the framework of the North/South Ministerial Council, to review the co-operation between both Administrations. When the current crisis has abated and we can turn our minds to longer-term perspectives, it would - in my view - be timely for a serious examination, in consultation with all of the interested parties, of the merits and feasibility of a single all-island policy for animal health. I am encouraged by the fact that the Ulster Farmers Union and the Irish Farmers Association are of similar mind.
A further illustration of the commonality of purpose which transcends the border was in evidence last Friday when Ministers Empey and McDaid met in Letterkenny, under the aegis of the North/South Ministerial Council, to discuss tourism matters. While very conscious of the need to support the island-wide campaign against Foot and Mouth Disease, their joint message that Ireland remained open for tourism business was an important signal of reassurance for an industry that is experiencing serious collateral damage. They also made important progress on the establishment and development of Tourism Ireland, the new marketing company which will be responsible for promoting the island as a single destination in overseas markets.
I would like to pay tribute to the contribution which all of the pro-Agreement Northern Ireland Ministers have made to the work of the North-South Ministerial Council. Regardless of political affiliation, they have all been assiduous in fulfilling their obligations and in actively pursuing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Given the very constructive approach of Ulster Unionist Ministers to the work of the Council, it is particularly regrettable that the action taken by the Ulster Unionist Council on 28 October last has prevented the North/South Ministerial Council from operating to its fullest potential.
The Irish Government is determined to see that all aspects of the Agreement are implemented, including the putting beyond use of illegal arms, and is working hard to achieve that outcome. However, we strongly believe that seeking to remedy a difficulty of implementation in one area of the Agreement by creating another is both wrong in principle and counter-productive in effect. Rather than a sterile round of sanction and reaction, we need to create a virtuous cycle of confidence building, from all sides, leading to the complete implementation of the Agreement
In addition to the North/South Ministerial Council, the six Implementation Bodies are making a major contribution to the new dispensation on the island. One of these Bodies, InterTradeIreland, will be of particular interest to the members of the IOD. Its aim is to assist the development of enterprise capability and competitiveness in both economies and in their business communities. It acts as a catalyst for the enhancement of North/South trade and business development. In developing its role and agenda, InterTradeIreland is fortunate that its Board is led by business people of the calibre of Martin Naughton and Harold Ennis, each of whom has hands-on experience of doing business in both parts of the island.
The peace process has been described as a process of building bridges between the two communities and between both parts of the island. So I was intrigued to learn recently that Harland and Wolff had taken this metaphor to heart and were coming to Dublin to build on the Liffey. The East Belfast shipyard has won the contract, not only to renovate the historic Ha'penny Bridge, but also to build an additional bridge across the Liffey. In what can only be a welcome development, particularly for the frustrated commuters of Dublin, the image of Harland and Wolff building bridges in Dublin has a positive resonance for all of us.
This linking of East Belfast and Dublin through business is, perhaps, an apt expression of the fact that, at last, our two economies are beginning to face each other rather than exist back to back. Between January and November 2000 over IR£2 Billion was traded in goods and services between both parts of the island, an increase of nearly 9% on the previous year.
Equally, by taking a quick glance at unemployment figures we can see real evidence of how far we have come in such a short period of time. The unemployment levels, North and South, have dropped by 44% and 63% respectively in just six years. In terms of the opportunities at our feet and the resources at our disposal, we now have the capacity to ensure a vibrant and profitable future for all of the people on this island.
Our economic success has, in part, been made possible by the businesses that operate on an all-island basis. There are many outstanding examples of Companies whose operations straddle the border. Indeed two of the top ten employers in Northern Ireland, employing between them some 6,000 people, are headquartered in the South.
Similarly, a number of successful Companies from Northern Ireland have invested considerably in the South. Those of you who travelled down this evening, whether by train or car, will have had first hand experience of the work of Graham Construction from Co. Down. It was responsible for both the refurbishment of Connolly Rail Station and also the construction of the recently opened Dunleer bypass. This Company is a good example of how by working together we can bring each other closer; in this case, reducing the journey time between the two principal cities on this island.
One of the biggest changes being undertaken in the South at the moment is preparing for 1 January 2002, the date that the Euro becomes a living reality for many of us. On that day, euro notes and coins will be introduced and the old Irish pound notes and coins will begin to be withdrawn. On 9 February 2002, legal tender status is to be withdrawn from the Irish pound. For our leading businesses, the euro is already a working reality and many have completed or are completing their changeover plans.
Being in a single monetary zone with some of our major trading partners will be of great benefit to us in the South. The euro means increased certainty in transactions with other eurozone countries and reduced transaction costs through the elimination of exchange rate risk. It also means that there will be widespread price transparency across the whole eurozone, with increased export and import opportunities and challenges as our businesses compete in the European Single Market, of which the euro represents the final and most ambitious step.
While not within the eurozone, Northern Ireland will nevertheless be affected. Because the euro is the second largest world currency, it will be used, not only within the eurozone, but also by companies doing business with the eurozone. So companies, North and South, will have adjustments to make, not only in their internal operations but also in their strategic thinking. We can all learn from each other on how to approach this new scenario. Even though we are approaching the euro from different perspectives, it is important for the business community to understand and appreciate the different challenges that will affect each part of the island.
The search for peace and stability on this island has greatly benefitted from the support of our friends and Partners in the European Union. That support has been most manifest in the EU PEACE Programme designed to support the consolidation of peace, reconciliation and economic regeneration in Northern Ireland and the border counties in the South. The PEACE II Programme, recently launched in Belfast, will involve a financial injection of some 700 million Euro in this region over the next 4 years. On account of this EU support and solidarity, we readily appreciate the importance of an enlarged European Union for consolidating the historic changes now under way across the continent of Europe as a whole.
The Treaty of Nice makes the institutional changes necessary for enlargement. These will allow a larger Union to function effectively, while protecting the vital interests of all Member States. Ireland, North and South, is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities which enlargement offers. The Single Market will expand to over 500 million people. Irish companies have already demonstrated their capacity to thrive in these fast-growing markets. Irish investment in Poland already exceeds 1 billion US dollars. It is clear that enlargement will be good for business, and good for jobs, prosperity and growth. With their record of innovation and adaptation, I have no doubt that businesses on every part of this island will be highly successful in realising the potential offered by this exciting new phase in the life of the Union. Northern Ireland will be able to interact directly with the expanding Union through the new office which the Executive has recently established in Brussels, a development which I greatly welcome.
In conclusion, therefore, we face together an exciting future, both in terms of the development of the relationship between North and South and between the island and the wider world. The sterile politics of the past focused on mutually exclusive constitutional disputes are giving way to a new politics based on partnership and co-operation. In the new dispensation, founded on the principle of consent, North-South co-operation can only be seen in its true light; a process devoid of hidden agendas but transparently motivated by good business sense and the mutual interest of the people of both parts of the island.
The business community, including the IOD, has had a central part to play in the development of this new constructive agenda and will have an even stronger role as we seek to expand and enhance it in the years ahead. I commend you for what you have achieved thus far and urge you to remain engaged in achieving John Bradley's vision of the community of common interests on the island.
In 1972 the Ulster poet John Hewitt wrote that:
Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy.
Please continue keeping the country in good heart and we, the politicians, will do our best to address the other challenges.Top