“Delivering on an all-island economy – the role for the North South Institutions and greater cross-border cooperation”
Keynote Address for Minister Ahern, March 6th 2008 “Delivering on an all-island economy – the role for the North South Institutions and greater cross-border cooperation”
I’d like to thank Don (Bergin) and Cormac (McCarthy) for their warm words of welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here with Conor (Murphy) and all of you this morning.
I’m looking forward to discussing the challenges faced by our all-island economy with so many of you who are helping, every day, to make it a reality.
Firstly though, this is an opportune time to reflect. A year ago
today, we were on the eve of elections to the Northern Ireland
Assembly. The hard work and careful judgement of the Good Friday
and St. Andrews Agreements lay in the balance.
There was no certainty about the road ahead. Many hoped for political stability, but few were assured of the outcome.
And then the public, the parties and the two Governments played their part. And now, a year later, here we are, looking at a landscape few would have thought possible.
It is a remarkable story, and we should not forget how far we’ve come. A year ago, who would have thought that we would have a power sharing Executive and fully operating North/South and East/West institutions. And that the Executive would have agreed and won support for a Programme for Government, an Investment Strategy, and its first budget.
I want to pay tribute to First Minister Paisley who just this week
announced his intention to retire in May.
Dr. Paisley has long been a giant in the politics of Northern Ireland and these islands. In recent years he has shown extraordinary leadership and courage in bringing his party into a power sharing Executive and leading that Executive together with deputy First Minister McGuinness.
The Taoiseach and I have valued our close working relationship with First Minister Paisley and look forward to working with his successor in the same spirit of partnership and co-operation.
For our part, the Government is determined to play as positive and constructive a role as possible. The agenda is straightforward: sensible and practical cooperation to improve shared social and economic conditions, and to create an innovative and prosperous Ireland.
While economic development North and South has followed different paths at times, we now face similar challenges to respond to the increasing pace and intensity of global competition. By working together we can build our strengths in areas such as infrastructure, innovation and skills, trade, tourism and investment promotion.
By creating this all-island economy
• we can strengthen our competitive advantage globally
• address the economic problems that persist as a result of the border,
• deliver better services for all our citizens.
We are working to achieve this through the North-South Ministerial
Council, and through a wide range of other contacts between key
decision-makers North and South.
North South Ministerial Council and North/South Bodies
The North South Ministerial Council, established under the Good Friday Agreement, provides a valuable architecture for much of the practical cooperation we believe can improve people’s lives on this island. Now that the Executive is back up and running, Ministers North and South are meeting once again.
And work is well underway. We have had fourteen North/South Ministerial Council meetings in different policy sectors since September last year. We are pushing ahead with an ambitious agenda. And making sure that where it is sensible and practical to cooperate, we are not letting down the people we represent.
Last month, the Taoiseach led our full Ministerial team into the
second Plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in my
home town of Dundalk.
We had excellent discussions that day with the Northern Ireland team led by First Minister Paisley and deputy First Minister McGuinness. There is now a genuine, open and frank engagement between Ministers North and South.
Where once we knew each other only as negotiators, today we meet as partners, working together to jointly forge a bright future for all communities on our island.
In Dundalk, we focused on our priorities for strategic investment over the period ahead, shared policies to enhance and invigorate our all-island economy, and common approaches to mutual challenges such as the protection of children in society today.
The Good Friday Agreement also provided for the establishment of a
number of North/South Bodies to implement on an all-island and
cross-border basis policies agreed in the Council.
We now have seven such North/South bodies, engaged in the important work of boosting our tourism, managing our loughs and waterways, promoting our languages and food safety, directing our EU programmes, and promoting trade and business on the island.
I know that Liam Nellis, CEO of Inter Trade Ireland, one of the most highly respected of these Bodies, will be addressing you later today.
These are unique Agencies, operating in both jurisdictions and on a cross jurisdictional basis.
They have had a difficult first few years – born out of political compromise and constrained in their operations during suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive.
That is why I was particularly pleased to represent the Government at the NSMC meeting in December when we jointly appointed new members to the Boards of the North/South Bodies. The nominees North and South were of very high calibre. With the NSMC fully functioning, there is a real opportunity for the new Boards to provide active and strategic leadership for the Bodies so that they can play their full role in support of North/South co-operation.
Today I want to take the opportunity to express the appreciation of the Government for the dedication and commitment of all the staff of the Bodies and the members of the Boards – current and past.
In addition to the formal NSMC meetings and the work of the North/South Bodies there is, of course, a broad ranging engagement North and South across the public sector – between Ministers, public servants, and agencies.
Nor is North/South co-operation a matter only for the Governments and the public sector.
Throughout, business has been to the fore in highlighting the advantages and benefits of North/South co-operation and simply getting on and doing it.
The social partners also have a valuable role to play. ICTU operates on an all-island basis, as do many in the community and voluntary sector.
Local Government, especially in the border region, is playing an important role – recognising their shared issues and problems and working together in regional groupings.
One of the challenges for the public sector is how best to harness this work and respond in policy terms to this multi-layered North/South engagement.
National Development Plan
In the National Development Plan for 2007-2013, the Government set out a broad and ambitious agenda for North/South co-operation. For the first time it proposed significant Government investment in North/South projects and initiatives for mutual benefit.
Equally important, all-island co-operation is one of the key
horizontal themes and is fully integrated into the NDP.
As a result, implementation and delivery of the NDP will mean implementation and delivery of that programme of all-island co-operation.
Mainstreaming North/South co-operation in this way means that it is a central part of policy development and delivery in every Government Department.
My approach - the approach of this Government - has been to ground North/South co-operation in sound economic and social policy to be undertaken on the basis of mutual benefit and by mutual agreement.
Let us look then at what we have achieved and what lessons we can learn.
At the first NSMC Plenary meeting in July last year the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a major roads investment package for Northern Ireland.
This included an investment of €580m from the Irish Government to upgrade to dual carriageway standard the road to the North West Gateway of Derry/Letterkenny.
Why did the Irish Government do this? We were able to take that decision because we are looking at infrastructure from an all-island perspective. Our goal is an integrated and regionally balanced road network between the major urban centres on the island. In this way we are able to address the infrastructure deficit in the North West which is affecting the economic development of the entire region. Everybody benefits. We are all winners.
Too often, I have heard people say that a North/South project ‘couldn’t be done’. That the task was too complex, our regulatory frameworks too different, our bureaucratic structures too distinct.
These were the kinds of arguments I heard when I sat in meetings as Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, discussing the then vague possibility of a Single Electricity Market for the island. We decided to go for it anyway. And, in November last year, I was delighted to see Eamon Ryan and Nigel Dodds bring it to fruition. There can hardly be a better symbol for this new era of cooperation than our coming together to jointly provide the power and energy necessary for people, from all backgrounds, to live their daily lives. And to do so on a more efficient basis than we could each have managed in isolation.
These two examples illustrate what we can achieve with
• a strategic all-island policy perspective
• clear political direction
• a dedicated and committed public service to deliver on the initiatives.
Building the all-island economy
So what are our next steps to build the all-island economy?
Infrastructure will continue to be a major focus. In addition to the roads investment programme Conor (Murphy) and Noel Dempsey are also seeking to increase the frequency and speed of our Dublin to Belfast Enterprise Train Service.
And we are committed in our Programme for Government to support the building of a bridge at Narrow Water over Carlingford Lough to boost tourist links between Co. Louth and Co. Down.
We will work with the Northern Executive to ensure that throughout
the island there is access to the high-quality telecommunications
infrastructure needed to be competitive on the global stage.
And we will push on with increased cooperation in the field of energy to provide reliable, sustainable and competitively priced services for businesses and for households.
Coupled with the Government’s historic all-island infrastructure investment, we are now laying the architecture for a truly world-class knowledge economy over the decades to come.
Stimulating innovation will be at the core of everything we do. We were delighted to contribute €60 million to the cross-border Innovation Fund announced by Peter Robinson in his budget in January. This focus on collaborative research and development will build on the programmes of Science Foundation Ireland – and our joint endeavours to maximise funding through the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme – to lay the foundations for a competitive, dynamic and ‘value added’ economy.
This is the kind of climate that I believe will prove hugely attractive to the CEO’s of leading American corporations who are shrewd and astute enough to pay a visit to Northern Ireland for the Investment Conference in May this year.
We are giving the Executive all the support we can to make sure that event is a success, and that, in particular, US business sees the huge potential gains to be made by investing in our increasingly all-island economy. I have asked our Ministers travelling to the United States for St. Patrick’s Day to make investing in Northern Ireland and our all-island economy a key part of their message to the business community.
Addressing the economic development needs of the border communities
is a key concern. As a border representative myself, I understand
personally how the conflict and division which mired our recent
past took its toll on our border communities.
And as we continue our transition from peace to prosperity, so too do I understand the importance of investing in infrastructure and services to ensure a prosperous border region.
I have seen at first hand how Dundalk and Newry have been transformed into thriving and vibrant towns at the heart of the Dublin-Belfast corridor. And I am pleased that we have the ambition to strive further still, embracing the concept of the Newry-Dundalk Twin City Strategy, and enhancing cross-border links in areas like sustainable energy and tourism.
In addition, we are looking forward to working with our Executive colleagues to strengthen the North-West Gateway Initiative, designed to promote shared services and improved infrastructure for the people of the North West region.
I know Conor (Murphy) is working closely with my colleague John Gormley on a spatial planning framework for the North-West to better coordinate investment, deliver public services and promote skills and innovation.
We also need to look more closely at areas such as health and education, where the coordinated delivery of services can result in more efficient use of new facilities, better value for money, and improved access for people - North and South.
As politicians and public servants we need to be flexible and imaginative in how we deliver on this broad agenda.
For our part, as Ministers, we will work together to give the
necessary political direction and leadership to take forward this
agenda of all-island co-operation by agreement between the
Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
Of course, in any consideration of the all-island economy and all-island opportunities the continued role of the European Union will be absolutely necessary.
As an all-island economy we face the challenges of globalisation together.
Those challenges facing our workers, our environment and competitiveness today –right across this island - are global.
And against these global issues - climate change, rising energy costs, trans-national crime and global economic downturns - our capacity to defend prosperity is greatly increased in the context of European Union and increased further still with the Reform Treaty in place.
The Union has stood by us here on this island through the darkest times.
European leaders and institutions played a key role – in public and
behind the scenes – in encouraging moves towards peace and a shared
future based on equality and fairness.
The public face of the EU in Northern Ireland and the border counties has been the EU PEACE Programmes. These were designed to bring reconciliation to divided communities and to tackle segregation and division.
Since 1995, the EU has overseen PEACE Programmes with a value of more than €1.65 billion. The latest PEACE III Programme will provide an additional €333 million over the period 2007-2013.
On top of €256 million for territorial cooperation (EU inter-regional programmes embracing Ireland North & South and Scotland) over the same period, this is an enormous contribution to peace and justice on the island of Ireland.
EU funding has helped to alleviate some of the worst social disadvantage in Northern Ireland and the border counties, while at the same time enhancing relations between communities of different backgrounds.
The EU has also been a major contributor to the International Fund
for Ireland since it was set up following the Anglo-Irish Agreement
in the mid-1980’s. Through the International Fund, the EU has
promoted economic growth on the island and encouraged contact,
dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and unionists
This upcoming vote on the Reform Treaty matters. For border Counties like mine. For the all-island economy. To build all-island prosperity.
Challenges for the public sector
For the public sector there are real challenges ahead if we are to successfully build a programme of North/South co-operation for all the island.
First is delivery. At political level we have already agreed a number of major North/South initiatives. A key task now will be to deliver on those initiatives - on time and within budget - so that the people on the ground can begin to see the real benefits for them.
Second is mainstreaming North/South co-operation.
Our task is one of adjusting mindsets, as much as it is one of turning good words into good work. In our own Government structures, we have asked Ministers and officials to now consider the impact of policy proposals for the people of the island as a whole. To adopt a mindset that acknowledges, for example, that there are implications for students from Northern Ireland to the policies we bring forward in the area of higher education south of the border. To reflect the fact that the farmers of Fermanagh will care deeply about changes which affect the working environment of their counterparts in Leitrim or Cavan. And to recognise the truth that if we are to meet ambitious targets in areas like renewable energy, we are stronger if we share and weaker when we work alone.
Third to share our abilities and experiences as we seek to position this island as a global leader and successful knowledge economy.
Just as business men and women from Dundalk share ideas and innovative new strategies with their counterparts in Newry;
just as Ministers North and South agree on programmes of investment through our Ministerial Council –
so too is there tremendous value in public servants North and South sharing the wisdom and expertise that has served our systems so well over the course of your careers.
And I believe there is now strong political support, North and South, for you to do just that.
In areas such as our relations with the European Union, for example, I am sure that there are lessons learned and insights gained by our own officials that might assist colleagues within the Northern system, and help Northern Ireland to best access EU funding and advice.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister have engaged energetically with the European Commission’s Task Force on Northern Ireland, and I know they are anxious now for our officials to also seize the potential of these early days of peace.
Fourth to grasp opportunities. In our National Development Plan, together with the Executive’s new Programme for Government and Investment Strategy, public servants now have a wide-ranging programme of work to take forward on a North/South basis.
We will be relying on your energy and dynamism to transform these ambitions and good intentions into tangible outputs over the period ahead. To deliver a better way of life to those we have been elected or appointed to serve. And to eliminate the inefficiencies that the ‘back to back’ policies of our past helped create.
These are exciting times. In a fractured and insecure world, the emergence of this island from dark days of conflict is an inspirational tale that offers hope to people I’ve visited in everywhere from Kosovo to Timor Leste. In a fast-moving and globalised world, we have an opportunity, as an all-island economy, to move beyond mere peace and develop a prosperity which endures for our grandchildren and those who follow them.
That enduring prosperity will require hard work, fresh expertise, and a depth of collaboration in which we have never previously invested. Now however, we have the personnel, the shared ambition, and the powerful story of peace and stability to build upon. I know this is an opportunity we will not pass up.