Remarks by Minister Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke, to representatives of the Foreign Press Association, London
Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Ray Burke, T.D.,
to representatives of the Foreign Press Association, London
May I begin by welcoming you to Dublin. I know that some of you are recently arrived on assignment in London and hope that you will be able to visit Ireland frequently in the period ahead. It is a matter of importance to us how we are portrayed abroad. The foreign press corps in London is of particular significance, as many of the stories which are carried about Ireland internationally are written by journalists based there. We know that the Foreign Press Association makes every effort to assist its members in their coverage of Ireland and we appreciate this very much.
In putting together this programme for the Foreign Press Association we wanted to give you a flavour of the country and to explain some of the important trends affecting Irish life. Without doubt, the most striking of these trends is the way the Irish economy has been transformed over the past forty years and how Ireland, once an impoverished, predominantly agricultural country, dependent on one main market, has become a highly competitive and diversified economy with living standards rapidly approaching the European average. We have also tried to stress Ireland's outstanding cultural heritage. At present, we are experiencing a period of great artistic and cultural energy and dynamism. This, I believe, is partly a function of our young population but it is also a result of a new self-confidence born of our success in meeting the challenges of development.
You have come here at a time when Ireland is much in the news internationally. The main reason for this is the very real prospect of momentous political progress in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland peace process has arrived at a genuine watershed. Questions of identity and allegiance that have divided the people of this island for centuries, and sustained a generation of conflict, are now in a position to be tackled within an exclusively democratic political context.
Just two days ago, Sinn Fein joined the Talks process for the first time. In doing so, they committed themselves to a set of democratic principles. I would like to quote these for you:
"total and absolute commitment
a) to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;
b) to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;
c) to agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission
d) to renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others to use force, or to threaten to use force, to influence the course, or the outcome, of all-party negotiations;
e) to agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations, and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree, and
f) to urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop, and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.
Sinn Féin's participation in the talks process is a far reaching development. What it means is that representatives of all shades of political opinion are now eligible to participate in political dialogue under the auspices of the Irish and British Governments. Such comprehensive negotiations have never been possible in the past. The existence of paramilitary cease-fires has made a crucial difference.
The aim of these negotiations is to produce a comprehensive political agreement to be put to the people of Ireland, North and South, for their approval by referendum in May next year. They will not be easy, but we do have reason to be hopeful. With cease-fires in place, they will proceed in a peaceful environment. Attitudes are changing rapidly on both sides of the Border. These circumstances give rise to possibilities that have not been present in the past. There is now a real chance for political leaders to create a society at peace with itself, where all can feel equal and enjoy a shared sense of belonging.
We often refer to three sets of relationships that must be part of any settlement. For those not fully versed in the language of our peace process, this concept may require some explanation. The three stranded relationship is an attempt to transcend the differences that divide Northern Ireland. In a situation where the two communities have different aspirations and allegiances, neither community can get everything it wants. Compromise is a necessity, but, for various reasons, the habit of political compromise and consensus-building has been slow to take root in Northern Ireland. The three relationships constitute a framework within which, in the view of the two Governments, political agreement can be sought.
The first relationship concerns the situation within Northern Ireland itself. The second deals with the key North-South relationship. This is crucial for Northern nationalists who require a real recognition of their Irish identity which has, until now, enjoyed little or no scope for expression in Northern Ireland. In the Framework Document, the two Governments have proposed the establishment of a North-South body with executive powers to deal with issues of common concern. The third relationship concerns the peoples of these islands who have, despite persistent political differences, a wealth of shared experience and a unique set of linkages which are capable of being further developed in the context of a comprehensive political settlement. It is the Irish Government's view, shared by the British Government, that any agreement emerging from the negotiations, if it is to have widespread support, will need to give adequate expression to these three relationships.
The Ulster Unionist Party is currently considering its position in relation to this historic process. I very much hope that they will take the imaginative decision to engage in comprehensive political negotiations from which, as the biggest party in Northern Ireland, they can have nothing to fear. Their contribution, on behalf of their community, is vitally important.
The Governments have given considerable thought and attention to the question of encouraging the paramilitary organisations to dispose of their arms. It is our view that the only realistic means of achieving such disarmament is in the context of comprehensive political negotiations leading to a lasting peaceful settlement. We have agreed to set up an Independent International Commission to assist with the decommissioning process and will shortly be appointing members from Finland, Canada and the United States to undertake this important task.
We are on the threshold of what I hope will be a fair and honourable solution to the Northern Ireland situation. Through perseverance, courage and imagination, and in particular sensitivity to the concerns of all sides, I am confident that the political process can deliver the prize of a future free from conflict that the people on this island rightly desire.
The Irish Economy
I would like to say a few words about our current economic resurgence. I know you have met with our Economic and Social Research Institute who will have given you a comprehensive briefing on the economy.
We have enjoyed an impressive rate of economic growth over several years. This is no accident or stroke of luck. It is the fruit of a long term strategy begun in the late 1950s. This set out to industrialise Ireland through inward investment; to ensure a well-educated work force; to open our markets to the world; and to encourage our industries to become competitive in the international marketplace. This sustained effort is now paying dividends.
We have the most open economy in Europe. Over 70% of our industrial output is exported. We have developed an advanced industrial sector with a high technology orientation. Our biggest exports are chemicals and computer products, both hardware and software. We have attracted substantial levels of investment, particularly from US computer companies. The conditions now exist for sustained growth and we are determined to consolidate the advances made. We are far from being complacent about our economic situation. Our economic progress is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is still much work to be done in developing our infrastructure, tackling long-term unemployment and achieving sustainable wealth levels on a par with the more prosperous parts of the European Union.
The European Union is central to Ireland's foreign policy and a major factor in our national well being. We have been a member since 1973, and this has been a highly positive factor in our recent development. Involvement in the Union has provided a setting in which our potential could be realised. Membership has altered our relationship with the United Kingdom. It has reunited us with ancient markets and revitalised links with our continental European neighbours.
We have benefitted from membership by virtue of better access to wider markets and enhanced appeal to foreign investors on account of our location within the EU. We have also contributed actively to the advancement of European integration and will continue to do so.
There are many challenges on the European horizon. The future enlargement of the Union to the east will be the most far reaching expansion in the Union's history. It represents an historic opportunity to overcome the artificial divisions that hampered Europe in the past. Enlargement on this scale will require considerable financial resources and will impact on existing EU policies. Our central concern is to preserve the achievements and effectiveness of the Union. The EU needs to reshape itself while retaining in the future the values, including cohesion and solidarity, that have made it such a remarkable success.
Ireland is ready to take on the challenges of Economic and Monetary Union. The crucial decision on participation in the single currency will be taken in the spring of next year and we are determined to be among the first group of countries to join. Our record of fiscal discipline and compliance with the Maastricht convergence criteria speaks for itself. Inflation is well under control; our current public deficit is comfortably within the permitted range; our total public debt is diminishing satisfactorily; the Irish pound is strong; and our interest rates are stable.
The development of the single currency is perhaps the most ambitious project undertaken by the European Union. We expect EMU to be good for Ireland. It will be contribute greatly to the smooth functioning of the Single Market. It will reduce interest rates, decrease exchange rate risks and bring savings on transaction costs. These factors are particularly important to Ireland given our open economy and our dependence on trade.
While the EU is a key component of Ireland's foreign policy, there are other influences that shape our international outlook. There are over 40 million US citizens claiming Irish ancestry. At least 25% of the population of Australia can do likewise. There are around one million Irish born people living in Britain.
We have a long and proud tradition of support for the United Nations and of providing troops to UN peacekeeping operations. The international pursuit of disarmament and the protection of human rights have consistently been at the heart of our foreign policy and are reflected in our contribution to the development of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy. We look forward to President Robinson's appointment as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which begins tomorrow. Our history has equipped us with a very keen sense of justice and an awareness of human rights concerns. Mary Robinson has articulated these concerns with distinction during her Presidency. I am certain that, in her new post, she will be an outstanding worldwide advocate of human rights.