Minister Donohoe addresses British Irish Parliamentary Assembly in London
Co-chairs, distinguished members, fellow parliamentarians, ladies and gentlemen.
I am honoured to be here in London for the 47th plenary session of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the co-chairs, Laurence Robertson MP and my good friend, Deputy Joe McHugh, for inviting me.
A former Clerk of the House Commons, Sir Barnett Cocks, once wryly commented that Committees are cul-de-sacs down which ideas are lured and quietly strangled. If Sir Barnett were here today, he would realise that this Assembly and its committees achieves quite the opposite.
In the twenty years since it was established, the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly has played a hugely significant role in building close relationships between parliamentarians across these islands, as well as on the island of Ireland.
I know that it has achieved much in deepening understanding between the representatives of the Irish Houses of the Oireachtas, the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the assemblies of Northern Ireland and of Wales, the High Court of Tynwald of the Isle of Man and the States of Guernsey and Jersey.
Before I continue, I would like to take a moment to extend my thanks to Robert Walter MP, members of Committee B and the two rapporteurs, Jo-Anne Dobson MLA and William Powell AM, for their extensive report on Ireland’s recent EU Presidency.
It is initiatives like this which allow Parliaments and legislatures to increase their ownership of debates on the European Union, create awareness of EU Affairs and bring issues and ideas out into the open. For this I warmly congratulate you.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take the opportunity today to touch on three separate, but intertwined, topics:
First, the nature of the Irish relationship with the European Union.
Second, with this context set - a review of our Presidency of the Council of the Union.
Finally, the importance of the relationship between Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Underpinning these themes is the concept of sharing.
Of how Ireland has voluntarily shared our sovereignty with the European Union to achieve progress for our people that on our own, as an island, would be beyond our reach.
And of a shared history, between our islands and across our borders, which means that we cannot understand our present, let alone our future, without recognition and understanding of our past.
The Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore T.D, summed up both of these dimensions, when he referred to our membership of the European Union as a 'shared asset', because of how our history and geography have forged such a high degree of connection.
The Relationship between Ireland and the European Union
The Dutch philosopher and writer Luuk Van Middelaar recently described politics as an effort that 'creates a connection in the present between an open future and a closed past'. This describes the tension between what has happened in the past and what could happen in the future and the role of politics in exploring possibilities that the horizon of tomorrow always brings while linking them to the reality of today.
This link, this connection is uniquely achieved by politics. By distilling differing views on our history, and by sifting through competing visions of our future, we decide where we want to progress to, and how.
Van Middelaar describes this as the process by which 'the open future is drawn through the needle of the present and woven into the permanent fabric of the past'.
For Ireland, the crucial strand in our past, present and I believe, future, that has allowed this weaving to occur is our membership of the European Union.
Through our membership Ireland has been better able to navigate through the legacies of our history, to a present that shows evidence of progress while looking to a future that can give us hope of progress to come.
Dimensions of Membership
But calibration is vital - particularly as we grapple with the huge difficulties and disappointments that the economic crisis has caused. Our navigation has been very difficult at times.
There are many dimensions of the Union that we wish were otherwise. And many of our citizens are disaffected with the role of Europe in this crisis, seeing it as too much of the problem and too little of the solution.
But while extremely conscious of these doubts I firmly believe the European Union has been a decisive influence that has enabled the modernisation of our society, of our economy and of our politics.
Ireland would not be the society it is today without the support and encouragement of the European Union. Issues like the rights of women, the protection of workers and gay rights were progressed in a European setting.
On our economy, by allowing our incomes and standard of living to massively develop through access to the Common Market and use of a single currency.
We can see this through the development of our indigenous industries in Europe. Through how Europe enabled the development of foreign and domestic investment allowing our country to deliver our best ever export performance last year despite the huge economic difficulties of the crisis.
And, on our politics. By the way the European Union has played a crucial role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. And crucially by how governments of all parties have developed the role of Ireland in Europe, and in the world in a way that inherently respecting our neutral status.
This was well summarised by Brigid Laffan and Jane O'Mahony when they concluded that 'The EU continues to provide the framework for Irish foreign policy, but one that is complimented by projection of a distinctive Irish role based on Ireland's experience of conflict resolution, recent economic prosperity and tradition of peace keeping'.
Principles of Membership
A number of vital beliefs guide our membership.
First, the belief that shared sovereignty is sovereignty that is enhanced and strengthened. We recognise that there are some challenges and opportunities that are beyond the grasp of any state, small or big, to deal with effectively on their own.
National economies are too dependent on each other for any substantial priority or problem to be grasped in isolation. Similarly, our environment recognises no borders. Neither can our plans to protect it.
The most effective response to these shared challenges is a shared response. And that this collective response can be at its most effective when sovereignty is voluntarily shared.
Second, that the institutions of the European Union offer the best, and I believe, only way for this shared response to be developed. This is through the community method.
This method recognises the primary role of the Commission in acting as the guardian of the Treaties, protecting the interests of all Member states, large and small, and in initiating legislation.
This ensures that the vital national interest of each member state is respected, while enabling the institutions to get on with their complex tasks.
Finally, that a European framework offers the best platform for the advancement of the Irish national interest.
I want to emphasise this point. There is and always will be a national interest. It is not lessened by strong membership of the European Union. Instead this offers the best environment within which we can achieve this interest.
In the space between sovereignty in theory and sovereignty in practice lies our membership of the European Union.
And nowhere is this better illustrated than in our seven Presidencies of the Council of the European Union.
Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU
We assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the seventh time, in January of this year. We did so in the midst of responding to our financial crisis and as we entered the final year of our bailout programme.
But the Presidency was not a distraction to our efforts to restore our country. It was absolutely central to these efforts.
This is because the Presidency must be seen in the context of our relationship with the Union which I outlined earlier. Where projecting our national interest through the voluntary sharing of sovereignty would be of benefit to the people we serve.
Over 181 days, 2,477 meetings were chaired by Ireland. This included 374 trialogues, 54 Council meetings chaired by Irish Ministers and 11 informal Council meetings.
We invested heavily in this Presidency – and I do not mean purely financially as this will probably be one of the most frugal Presidencies on record – but with time and effort.
As mawkish as this may sound, this was a ‘People Presidency’ designed to build new, and re-build old, relationships. This enabled us to deliver on a Presidency programme which progressed policies that will improve people’s lives.
We did this by focussing unrelentingly on ‘stability, jobs and growth’. This was the mantra of our Presidency and it infused every aspect of our work in the lead up to and during our term.
This focus on ensuring that every agenda, of every meeting and at every level delivered, in some way, to this objective was a critical factor in the success of the Presidency.
Successes of our Presidency
During the term of our Presidency, achieving agreement on vital elements of a banking union, to break the vicious circle between sovereign and bank debt, is a clear example of this focus.
Ireland has learnt from bitter experience how a poorly regulated banking sector can create consequences capable of overwhelming the sovereign. But that the roots of these consequences stretch across borders, which demands a response greater then the strength of any individual state.
Banking Union will bring stronger regulation and resolution of our banking system than any state can deliver on its own. This will, in turn, allow banks to better support economies and will facilitate sustainable growth and job creation.
Another example of the success of the Community Method was the agreement brokered during our Presidency on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF). This was the first MFF post-implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon so there was an element of the unknown.
Working closely, and successfully, with the European Parliament, we agreed a fund of €960bn to fund the range of the Union’s activities, including the Common Agricultural Policy, transport projects, cross-border trade and funding for socially deprived areas.
I would also like to touch briefly on another success of the Presidency which really captures the essence of the Union.
The Tobacco Products Directive, on which MEPs recently voted overwhelmingly in favour, will see the introduction of regulations designed to improve the health of Union citizens.
In the face of unprecedented lobbying, this was a cause championed by us at the very start of our Presidency and I am confident that it will be recognised as a benchmark for the community method.
All of these successes, and indeed the successes of every Presidency, demonstrate that the EU, working as a community, can take action collectively to drive change.
This ability to act collectively is dependent on the concept of sharing. Sharing views and ideas with neighbour countries and then sharing sovereignty to deliver the best outcome possible for all the people of Europe. Behind all of this is the reality that the greatest challenges that we face are shared.
These relationships, their benefits and challenges are perfectly illustrated by the relationship between Ireland, the United Kingdom and the EU.
Ireland, the UK and the EU
The former Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom Bobby McDonagh recently spoke of how the UK and Ireland have participated in the two greatest peace projects in modern history. The European Union and the Northern Ireland peace process.
Both have their roots in violence. Both now experience a stability and peace that at times in their history would have been unimaginable.
Of course, they were not separate processes. The European Union helped create an environment of ideas and investment that supported the process in Northern Ireland.
On the 29th of April 1998 a few days after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews TD and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam addressed the European Parliament to acknowledge the 'support' and 'inspiration' in the search for peace.
The impact of the EU
Between 1989 and 1993 alone the European Union invested £600 million in structural funds to support economic revitalisation and development. Under the recent Irish Presidency we made the achievement of significant investment in Northern Ireland an important priority. This was achieved by the delivery of £150 million PEACE funding.
The investment was not just financial. The Good Friday 'three strands' model with multilevel political institutions, within the region, within the island and between the UK and Ireland has its intellectual roots within the process of European political integration. The concept of devolution also has a strong European providence.
This of course took place within a historical resetting of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Simply put, within the wider club of the European Union, we became equals. This prospect was heralded by our former Taoiseach Dr Garrett Fitzgerald in May 1971 when speaking at the Commonwealth Studies Institute he argued that 'the size disparity between Ireland and the UK makes it impossible to tackle issues through bilateral negotiations. In the EEC this would give way to a multilateral partnership'.
The irony of course is that due to our joint European membership and the impact of the peace process our bilateral relations have never been stronger or more positive.
The UK and the EU
I am therefore certain that the European Union is stronger with the UK as a full and committed member.
Not just because of the strength of our relationship but because all Britain brings to the EU, its policies and its institutions.
And representing a country which frequently debates its membership and future within the Union we absolutely respect the debate which is underway here.
In fact, we welcome the discussion on the role of member states within the EU.
But I am worried when I consider the implications of a discussion which focuses on the role of the UK outside of the EU.
The Ireland–UK–EU relationship is unique. Because of this, each would be directly affected by any change in the UK’s engagement with the EU.
A constant theme of my contribution is that due to the size, location and history of Ireland we recognise that Ireland can best achieve our interests through working deeply with other states. And we have recognised that the most effective form of cooperation can be delivered through the voluntary sharing of sovereignty within the European Union.
It is because of this that Ireland is an integrated and committed member of the EU community. And will remain so.
We are fully supportive partners. So while we are concerned about the impact of the exercising of Justice and Home Affairs opt in and opt outs under the Lisbon Treaty we want to work closely with the UK and Commission to deal with any consequences and ensure continual and strong cooperation between our police forces to combat crime and terrorism.
However it cannot be denied that the overall terms of our partnership will be fundamentally changed if both of us have to come to the door of the tent to do business.
Shared History, Shared Future
Which leads directly back to where I started. With the focus on sharing. With the strong appreciation that actions that each of us take have shared consequences. All of this is against the backdrop of a shared history.
I begun my contribution noting how politics battles to lead the way to an open future. It will come as no surprise to any of you now to hear me argue that a large part of this future will be shared.
The signs of this are already evident:
In the close cooperation between senior Irish and British civil servants.
In the joint training mission undertaken by the Irish and British armed forces in Mali.
In the extraordinary occasion of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in May 2011.
In the efforts between Dublin and London to work together on energy policy.
In our joint efforts to support the communities of Northern Ireland in their work to maintain peace and build a prosperous and inclusive future for all.
Weaving and Waving the Flag
And Ireland participates in these joint efforts with pride.
As we work with determination to close one phase of our history. To be the first European country to successfully exit a bail out programme. And to close out the years of crisis and develop a level of economic growth that will make an appreciable difference to those we are privileged to serve.
Colm McCann, the Irish writer, called at the recent Irish Economic Global forum, for leaders to 'weave the flag' and not just 'wave the flag'.
Ireland is focused on this hard and difficult work. So are each of you, in your work in your Parliament, Assembly or legislature.
I believe that all of our efforts are strengthened by our membership of the European Union helping us to create societies and economies that can respond and beat the challenges of today and tomorrow.
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