“The EU has made a real difference”
Welcome to Dundalk. As a native son, I am delighted that you have come here today on the final leg of your official visit to Ireland. I am really pleased that you have the opportunity to meet with some of the men and women responsible for this city and this region’s success in recent years.
In particular, I would like to acknowledge all of our elected local, national and European representatives.
Their presence here today is a sign of the genuine respect which we all feel towards the European Union for its support over more than three decades during which Ireland, and indeed this particular region of our country, have been transformed. I am honoured that the speaker of our own national Parliament, Dr Rory O’ Hanlon, can join us, and I would like to pay tribute to him for the leadership he has shown throughout his political life in pressing to advance the wellbeing of our border counties.
The last President to visit Dundalk was Bill Clinton at what was a vital time for the Peace Process in our country. Your visit occurs at an equally important time for this town, county and region as a whole. You are here at a time of great political hope.
Nobody can deny the fact that we have seen signs of further progress towards power-sharing in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Many people would say – and not before time. But we have come a long way even since the beginning of this year. The Transitional Assembly is getting down to business.
The parties are sitting together in the Programme for Government Committee discussing their policy priorities. In the coming weeks they will discuss pressing practical issues in preparation for government: education, the economy, local government reform, policing and justice.
I believe all parties want to exercise responsibility in Government. I believe all are prepared to take the difficult decisions necessary to get there.
Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams have each spoken in recent days of their personal commitment to making progress in the timescale we set out at St. Andrews. That timescale will see the establishment of an Executive and the devolution of powers next March.
In reality, however, the remaining issues will have to be addressed much sooner. They will have to be addressed before the parties seek a mandate from the electorate for power-sharing. I said in the Dáil last week that there is a greater need than ever for leadership on both sides. I said that leadership is required on the part of the DUP to show that the party is ready to share power with nationalists under the arrangements laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. That means direct engagement with Sinn Féin, as their prospective partners in Government. I said too that movement is required from Sinn Féin on policing and that the sooner Sinn Féin call their Ard-Fheis to deal with this issue, the better. I would like to see this happen quickly, but in any event by January.
So now is the time for prospective Ministers in the Executive to sit together with their future partners in government and use their considerable talents to address all of the outstanding issues and develop a vision for governing Northern Ireland together.
I know that the support and encouragement of our friends in Europe will be a source of strength in the weeks ahead as it has been from the very start of this process. Your presence today is a powerful and timely reminder of that support.
I value this opportunity to thank you publicly and the members of the European Parliament for your consistent support for the Peace Process. Your support has been crucial to achieving what is visible today in Dundalk and its environs. I am confident that the European Union will continue to be a lynchpin of Ireland’s future development.
If there is one key message I have for you today it is this: the EU has made a real difference – at the European level, at national level and to local communities here in Ireland and right across the continent. That is how it should be and, if the Union is to continue to flourish, it must prove its worth not just in Brussels and Strasbourg, but also in your home place in the Pyrenees and in mine here in Dundalk.
The city you are visiting today has a proud history. In the 1960s, it was then a proud, prosperous, commercial hub. It had several industries - including Clark’s shoe factory, the Harp brewery, Carroll’s cigarette factory – and a rich agricultural hinterland. A short hop away, the Cooley Peninsula was a popular destination for holidaymakers from both North and South, as well as from further afield. Dundalk was also an important transport link between the two largest cities on this island.
Within the space of a few years, however, our city was struggling to cope with the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This dark period for Dundalk lasted all through the 1970s and on into the 1980s. Throughout those years, this community experienced all the disadvantages of free trade in the Common Market without any of the advantages. Our accession in 1973 to the EEC saw local traditional industries disappear almost overnight. The Troubles, and the suffering and uncertainty which violence always brings, stifled investment and enterprise opportunities.
The local tourist industry was badly hit. Lower tariffs and cheaper electrical goods and petrol from across the border made many shops and businesses here unviable. Looking back, I can remember walking down Clanbrassil Street, our main street just fifty yards from this restaurant, about this time of the year in the early eighties. Every second shop on the street was for sale. Worst of all, this town was drifting apart from our near neighbours in Newry.
The synergies that would normally exist between adjacent urban areas were stunted as we pursued separate approaches and turned our backs on each other.
At national level, in those years we put in place a new social partnership process, better financial control, a fair tax régime and pro-employment and pro-investment policies which were essential to the reversal of our economic difficulties. But, the role of the European Union was vital too. While our partners and the European institutions could not, and would not, save us from bad national economic management, Europe provided immense opportunities to pursue the correct domestic economic and social policies. When private enterprise could not or would not invest in Dundalk and other affected regions, the EU through the IFI or PEACE stepped in, with the crucial “first money on the table”. In short, European solidarity provided us our opportunity.
Here in Ireland, our economic revival helped create a new sense of optimism, confidence and hope in the future Prosperity has boosted the search for peace. It has gone hand in hand with our drive to achieve a ceasefire and to frame the historical political accommodation represented by the Good Friday Agreement.
Through the work of the International Fund and the Peace programme, the EU has helped restore an innovative, enterprise culture to Dundalk and has contributed to employment growth. Signs of this turnaround are to be seen everywhere. That same street with all the empty shops just 20 years ago is now bustling. According to last year’s external review by Deloitte MCS, the International Fund alone has created the potential for around 55,000 jobs, either directly or indirectly. This renewed prosperity is evident in the strong presence here of high tech companies, be they multinationals such as Rank Xerox or SMEs operating out of the Institute of Technology.
It is also evident in the welcome return of tourists in significant numbers to the Cooley Peninsula and to County Louth as a whole.
One of the things that I am most pleased about, is that Dundalk and Newry now see themselves as partners than as arch competitors. Our two communities now see that, with our proximity and our complementary capacities, as well as our strategic location on the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor, we have the ability to be a key driver for economic prosperity on the island of Ireland as a whole.
At national level, we recognize the need to have a new joint approach to economic development on the island of Ireland and we are working closely with the British Government on this. I believe that the creation of an all-island approach is consistent with the goals of the European Union in striving to create a fully functioning internal market that can serve Europe’s needs in a changing international economic environment.
In preparing a common contribution to the EU’s Lisbon Agenda, the British and Irish Governments recognized the extent to which the economies North and South share the same economic challenges. These include creating a world-class infrastructure, stimulating innovation, and ensuring that our people have the skills to participate fully in the changing economy. We recognize that we have much to gain by working together to meet these challenges.
I recently launched with Secretary of State Hain the Comprehensive Study on the All-Island Economy. This ground-breaking study sets out high-level goals for co-operation. A key goal is maximising access to EU funds and increasing our collaboration on plans for key infrastructure. We here on this island certainly look forward to EU solidarity and understanding for our efforts to promote future economic and social well-being on an all-island basis.
Much has been achieved by the EU’s support for the Peace Process thanks to the outstanding work of the IFI and the Special EU Programmes Body over recent years. That said, that divisions remain within and between our communities. We need to address these if we are to achieve lasting peace. At St. Andrew’s in October, we reached an agreement that clears the way for the restoration of power sharing and the political institutions in Northern Ireland. It will be important that we establish the most favourable possible climate for the newly-restored institutions. In this regard, I know that we can count on the European Parliament’s continued support for the International Fund for Ireland as it enters the crucial final phase of its work to 2010 and for the Peace and Reconciliation Programme over the next six years.
As you know, President Borrell, the European Union is currently undergoing a period of reflection on the future of Europe. There is rightly a sense that the EU needs to focus more on delivering concrete results for its people. ……/
Personally, I feel we must focus on the young and explain to a new generation that the purposes of the Union are relevant to the challenges they face in this century. Here today, you are going to meet with men and women who are reaching across borders in very practical ways in order to build a future for this island firmly at the heart of Europe.
To those who say that the EU is insufficiently engaged with the real life concerns and aspirations of its citizens, I say let them come to Dundalk. Here, they will see for themselves the undeniable evidence of a Union that has helped transform peoples’ lives for the better. President Borrell, through almost twenty years of unwavering support for the peace process, the European Parliament has helped extend the Union’s founding vision of peace and prosperity to Ireland in a very tangible manner. We look forward to the EU’s continued encouragement and support in securing lasting peace, reconciliation and prosperity on this island as part of a successful Europe. -