Address by Brian Cowen, TD, - Annual Conference of Local Authority Members Association
I am delighted to have been invited to Kilkenny today for your annual conference. In some ways, this ancient but vibrant city is symbolic of Ireland as a whole. It is beautiful, with a rich history and diverse traditions of which it is justly proud. But it is also developing fast to meet the needs and expectations of its citizens in the twenty-first century. The challenge Kilkenny faces, as does Ireland, is how to preserve what is best and most treasured from the past while at the same time responding to the new requirements of our transformed situation.
Local government has a central role to play both in dealing with change and, more actively, in setting the agenda for the future. My colleague Noel Dempsey will set out to you later this evening the Government's vision of how local government, and you who are involved in it, can play a reinvigorated role in forging the Ireland of tomorrow. But the challenge of change faces every one of us holding public office. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I deal every day with the turbulent international environment in which Ireland's future course must be steered.
We are inevitably profoundly affected by developments in that greater world. These developments are complex and their long-term effects can be hard to predict. Our level of control over them, even as part of the European Union, is far from complete. But ignoring change is not an option, and nor is simply letting events take their course. Our success as a country over the past ten years shows that planning for the future is vital. As a Government, we are determined to continue that process, in all aspects of our work.
Over the past thirty years, developments in Northern Ireland have also had a huge impact on this State and on our public life. For too long, that impact was negative and divisive, though the problems and costs we in the South had to face were the palest shadow of what people across the North suffered. Clearly, in this jurisdiction the greatest burden fell, and has continued to fall, on our border counties, which have been particularly affected by the economic and social effects of partition. But the effects on the rest of the State, and on the reputation and morale of the island as a whole, were far from negligible. Equally, while co-operation between North and South can bring particular benefits to the border region, it has the potential to make a positive contribution to all aspects of our economic and social life, in all parts of the island.
There has always been a rich network of human, sporting, business, professional and trade union links connecting all parts of the island. Those links endured during the worst years of the Troubles. But over recent years there has been a substantial expansion of that network of connections. Bodies North and South have come together, in an increasingly structured way, to identify their shared interests and to press for necessary cross-border or all-island action.
The local authorities North and South have been playing a major role in ending what David Trimble has called the cold war on our island. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the efforts of the three major border region networks - ICBAN, covering the central border region, the East Border Region and the North West Region Cross Border Group. These groups have been showing the mutual benefits in practical terms of being organised on a cross-border basis. I want also to commend the very good work that has been done over the years through initiatives such as the Annual Joint Conferences between your Association and representatives of the Northern Ireland Region of the National Association of Councillors in Britain. Moreover, the Local Authority Linkages Programme of Co-operation Ireland, with assistance from the EU, has been the catalyst for much valuable work between local authorities in both parts of the island.
Government Departments and public agencies, North and South, have developed their relationships over the past ten years or so. Not only are contacts across the board much more extensive than they were, but there has been a series of valuable joint initiatives.
Levels of cross-border trade have also expanded considerably over recent years, even if they still remain below what might be expected. Northern Ireland was the Republic's ninth largest export market in 1998 - though the term export sounds strange in this context. The total value of trade between the two parts of the island is about £2 billion annually. Many companies, through expansion or through mergers and acquisitions, operate throughout the island. We have an increasingly mobile workforce. Tourists and shoppers move easily from one jurisdiction to the other.
This is impressive: but much more is achievable. Many issues still need to be addressed, from market information to transport connections and credit risks. And there is a need continually to widen the focus of co-operation beyond the border region alone.
The background is, therefore, increasingly positive. But the challenges we face remain very considerable. The scope for new forms of common action and co-operation is still vast. We have, I believe, only begun to appreciate its full potential.
The list of prospective areas for consultation, co-operation and common action is long. For example, the North/South Chapter of our National Development Plan, 2000-2006, lists nine priority areas: energy; communications and e-commerce; human resource development; agriculture; tourism; transport; environment; education; and health.
Inevitably, many specific issues arise from the existence of the border and of two jurisdictions on the island. For example, the mutual recognition of teacher qualifications, and infrastructure development in the border regions.
It is also important that we look at issues such as the impact of currency, tax and social welfare differentials on economic development and the labour market. Unfortunately, however, many of these problems - above all those which relate to the Sterling/Euro exchange rate - will only be resolved in a much wider framework than that of this island alone.
But we also need to look at the North/South relationship from the wider perspective of our overall development priorities. Politically and economically, the intrinsic value of North/South co-operation is obvious. The key point I would wish to make is that it also has great potential value in helping to address other challenges. The all-island dimension is important across the full range of government activity.
To mention just four policy challenges:
we need to develop individual companies, and clusters of companies, to a scale which equips them to compete in an increasingly global market-place;
we need to develop human resources on an all-island basis, to promote labour mobility and to address skills shortages;
we aim to promote regional centres in the border area as part of the overall National Spatial Strategy aimed at tacking the problems of unbalanced regional development;
we seek to develop e-commerce and the information society on an all-island basis.
In each of these areas, there are potential synergies and economies of scale to be gained from focussed and co-ordinated North/South co-operation. Northern Ireland faces similar challenges, and has, given its economic profile, perhaps even more to gain from co-operation and common action.
During the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government and the nationalist parties made clear that for us the creation of meaningful North/South structures would be an essential aspect of any settlement. We never concealed the political significance we saw in such institutions, as a tangible expression of nationalists' all-island identity, and as a counterweight to internal Northern Ireland arrangements. But at the same time we also insisted that North/South institutions be designed to deliver real mutual benefit, and had to operate by agreement.
One of the enormous achievements of the negotiations, and of the subsequent discussions on the implementation of its North/South chapter, was the realisation on all sides that North/South co-operation can benefit everybody and need not threaten anybody. This was also a result of that underlying trend, led by the private sector and by the social partners, towards working together without reference to the border or to political affiliation. What only a short time ago was hugely controversial is now largely non-contentious. This radical transformation of perceptions is a lasting gain. But it makes the current stalemate all the more frustrating. We all know that there's a lot of work out there to be done. Moreover, that work got off to a flying start.
In the short 72 days between the coming into being of the institutions on 2 December last and the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly on 11 February, we got a glimpse of just how good the future could be. The Executive and the Assembly, comprising representatives of unionism and nationalism, of republicanism and loyalism and those of neither core allegiance, worked ably and constructively together in common cause. And, I should say, they confirmed what was clear from the operation of many local authorities throughout the North: that cross-community partnership can work and can be effective.
The six new North/South Implementation Bodies began the specific tasks that had been assigned to them on an all-island basis and got off to an excellent start. Similarly, the British Irish Council and the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference had their first meetings and began the task of putting historical differences between the peoples of these two islands behind us and charting a more positive future based on partnership and mutual interest.
The North/South Ministerial Council has, potentially, even greater importance than the Implementation Bodies. As a forum which brings together on a structured and regular basis the political representatives of both main traditions and both jurisdictions on the island, it has a major role to play in ensuring that the future in Ireland is very different to the past. At a practical level, it places co-operation on a new, systematic plane. Because all decisions must be by agreement, and because of the careful checks and balances that are built in, it will threaten no-one. Rather, it will place a focus on a huge range of exciting new things to be done together on this island, to the benefit of all. The Council can range over all matters of mutual concern and, by agreement, take decisions on how to promote our shared interests. The Council's first plenary meeting, held in the Armagh Council offices, was a huge success. Four subsequent meetings in sectoral form were held in January and February. And the Council's standing joint secretariat, based in Armagh, got down to work.
Knowing all of this - having a sense of the kind of shared future which is truly within our grasp - makes the current political stalemate all the more frustrating, indeed infuriating. By Easter Monday, the Executive and Assembly had been suspended for longer than they had been fully operational. The North/South Ministerial Council cannot meet in the absence of Northern representatives. While the Implementation Bodies continue as best they can to discharge their basic operational remits, the fact that the Council cannot meet clearly has serious implications for them, given the Council's role in their oversight and direction. The Governments are closely monitoring the situation and, as necessary, will be consulting on how to proceed in the light of the wider political situation as it develops.
We are continuing urgently to work for the restoration of the institutions and for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects, as is the clearly stated will of the Irish people. The two Governments, led by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, are still exploring intensively with the parties how confidence can be built and how we can all, individually and collectively, discharge our responsibilities. Let me be clear on this: we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make the Agreement work. While it has, crucially, a legal and indeed a constitutional dimension, it is fundamentally a political charter and to succeed it needs an acceptance on all sides that it must be sustained politically. This means that we have not just to bring our own constituencies with us, but that we have to be conscious of the needs of others, that we have to reach out to them for an accommodation. Moreover, while huge patience is required, the reality is that time is not unlimited if the credibility of the Agreement is to be sustained.
To fail, in this endeavour would be, to quote Napoleon, worse than a crime: it would be a folly. The Agreement is fundamentally in the interests of all of us, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist. Its fundamental objectives are reconciliation and partnership. The practical benefits the institutions can bring will ultimately depend more on the development of that spirit than on anything else. Furthermore, irrespective of how the constitutional question ultimately comes to be decided on the basis of the consent principle, the future will be dark and difficult if it is not founded in reconciliation and partnership. Any other scenario is deeply unappealing.
As we stand on the verge of a further concerted effort to bridge the gap and to find a basis for the restoration of the institutions, I draw comfort from the fact that we've had difficult periods before in this process. The two Governments and all of the pro-Agreement parties have at all times been tremendously encouraged by the continuing support of everyone on the island who understands just how much we have to gain. In urging us not to give up, to continue looking for a fair and balanced resolution of the problems we face, you speak on behalf of the great majority. As politicians and as public representatives, we have a sacred duty to do all we can to ensure that the will of the people is indeed honoured. Top