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Address by the Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny, TD, to the British-Irish Association, Cambridge, 4 September 2015

 

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Chairman Hugo MacNeill, members of the Committee, Members of the Association, Ladies and Gentlemen.
 
This is my first time to address the British Irish Association as Taoiseach and I’m delighted to do so. 

Your work is vital.
 
Your role in bringing our countries together continues to be critical.
 
We share a happiness that relations between Ireland and Britain have never been stronger.
 
Politically, Prime Minister Cameron and I issued our first a Joint Statement on British-Irish relations at our first summit meeting in 2012.
 
It was a statement of intent, a roadmap to closer co-operation.
 
On the plane here from Lyon, I thought about how our work and relationship have gone from strength to strength, in what has been by any measure, years that have been both transforming and transformative. 
 
From the time of the Queen’s visit in 2011, you might say the geochemistry has changed.
 
At Dublin Castle Banrion Eilis a Do brought healing across the centuries when she spoke to us in our own language.
 
At Windsor Castle Uachtaran na hEireann, Michael D Higgins was honoured as a friend and neighbour.
 
Recently, I was delighted to greet Prince Charles in my home province of Connacht.
 
 ‘Mullaghmore’ being not alone a signifier of personal loss, but in these changed times, a prospect of political and human connection.    
All of this has occurred because of, and in the name of, peace.
 
All of this has occurred because of, and in the name of all who work for peace, and believe in it.
 
That work goes on.

That peace is not only about the past or the present.
 
It is about the future of our islands.
 
 
A Time of Change
 
This is a time of rapid change not just for us but across the globe.
 
In Ireland we have begun to recover from an economic crisis that wreaked havoc on our country.
 
Internationally, old certainties have melted away. Unforeseen challenges have emerged.
 
We have also seen a changing political situation in this country.
 
There’s been the recent referendum in Scotland.
 
The recent result of the general election.
 
And now you’re preparing to hold a referendum on EU membership.
 
Yesterday, in Paris, I met with President Hollande.
 
Obviously, the humanitarian crisis topped the agenda.
 
A shocking humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding on Europe’s shores.  That was also top of the Government agenda in Dublin, and it will remain at the top of Europe’s agenda in the coming weeks and months.
 
The talks in Paris included other issues. We discussed the prospects for Britain’s relationship with the European Union, including the acute implications for Northern Ireland.
 
I made the point that with economic and political turmoil inside the EU and on its borders – whether in Greece, in the Ukraine, in the Middle East or around the Mediterranean - the European Union needs to build its strength and cohesion, not to lose one of its foremost Members.
 
Ireland wants the UK to remain in the European Union, and we are working actively to help achieve that.
 
Of course democratically and respectfully, fully recognising that it is up to the people of Britain to decide, and we do so while fully protecting our own national interests in all the areas for negotiation.

 
On these islands, we have much to thank the EU for.
 
Our economies are closely-aligned because of our common membership of the single market.
 
So we can’t afford – as Irish businesses have made clear – the commercial uncertainty of a British withdrawal from the EU.
 
Our peace too has a strong European dimension.
 
Over our 42 years of joint Irish and British membership, Europe has provided a vital framework for co-operation, including between North and South, and between unionists and nationalists. And the EU has quietly but effectively reinforced the peace process. This includes valuable EU funding, all the more important during this time of financial challenges.
 
The prospect of Northern Ireland being outside the EU is therefore one we very much wish to avoid.
 
A British departure from the EU would risk setting back so much of our collective good work on the British-Irish relationship.
 
None of us should underestimate just how profound the implications would be, and for Northern Ireland in particular.
 
The work of peace-building in Ireland has been all about removing barriers, be they physical, cultural or psychological.
 
We do not wish to see new barriers, on the island of Ireland, between Britain and Ireland, or between Britain and continental Europe.
 
That is why we are taking an active, if respectful, approach to the debate here.
 
And it’s why I will work to help Prime Minister Cameron – where I can – in his negotiations with our colleagues on the European Council, for the betterment of all the citizens of these islands and of Europe.
 
Northern Ireland
 
In Northern Ireland people are going to work trying to get on with their lives, rear their families and build a future.
 
But they are doing so with institutions mired by political deadlock and the spectre of murder returning to the streets of Belfast.
 
The ‘threat to the continuity of the institutions’ has a familiar unwelcome ring.
 
But for those who live with that threat, it is so much more.
 
Because it smuggles into their children’s futures, the danger and potential for destruction, they were so desperate and determined to leave in the past.
 
And because it does, neither they, nor we, will be or can be complacent.
 
At this point, apathy would be an act of destruction.
 
Which is why the governments in Dublin and London are as determined and united as we ever have been to make sure the centre can and will hold.
 
We are acutely aware that difficulties related to the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement have been compounded by the murder of Kevin McGuigan, and the attendant implications for trust and confidence among the parties participating in the Northern Ireland Executive.
 
21 years after the IRA ceasefire and 10 years after the decommissioning and the IRA announcement of cessation of paramilitary activity, it is past time that it should carry any capacity for threat.
 
As Minister Flanagan has said, statements to the effect that the IRA have gone away or have left stage are simply not credible.
 
Let me be clear.
 
It is the responsibility of Sinn Fein, and in particular its leadership, to address these issues and to help restore the trust that has been lost.
 
We have become used to incredible statements be they be about past activity, current activity, murder, robbery and child abuse.
 
There may have been a time when living with constructive ambiguity helped the peace process.
 
But that time is now past.  
 
It is not for Sinn Fein alone to help make progress.
 
All of the parties, and both Governments, have responsibilities to shoulder.
 
Indeed, the ‘shadow of the gunman’, the poison of paramilitarism is not just confined to so-called republicans.
 
It is still deeply embedded in loyalist communities, often with nakedly criminal agendas. 
 
Paramilitarism, and all its vestiges, must be removed.
 
They are incompatible with democracy and the hopes and demands of democrats.
 
Therefore, democratic politicians of whatever persuasion, must dissociate themselves, and fully, from paramilitary organisations, regardless of their influence in local communities.
 
Those same democratic politicians, of whatever persuasion, must commit themselves, and fully, to the democratic institutions, and to the law, whether expressed through the Executive, the Assembly, the Courts, the Police Service or, indeed, the Parades Commission.
 
What steps are needed must be taken now.
 
We need clear lines, not blurred lines, between constitutional politics and criminality.
 
No shared platforms or strategies.
 
No shady grey areas between right and wrong.
 
The peace we have now was built by the people of these islands, through their commitment to non-violence and reconciliation.
 
The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were created by those same people,  through their democratic vote.
 
Political representatives are elected, and in my view are thereby duty-bound, to protect the peace and the democratic institutions that the people have created.
 
As you know, Prime Minister Cameron and I have recently agreed that the seriousness of the current situation warrants the urgent convening of talks in Belfast involving the two Governments and the parties who subscribed to the Stormont House Agreement.
 
These talks will be critical for the sustainability of devolution in Northern Ireland. It will again fall to Secretary of State Villiers, working in close partnership with my colleague Minister Charlie Flanagan, to steer these vital talks to a successful outcome.
 
Walking away from the devolved institutions is not the solution to its current challenges.
 
These can only be successfully addressed by the Executive parties and the two Governments working together to resolve the issues of trust and confidence, and of political and financial stability, that threaten the continuation of devolution, and of course, by implementing the Stormont House Agreement in its totality.
 
The full implementation of that agreement will strengthen the devolved institutions.
 
 It will give them the capacity to deal with the challenges of financial sustainability and the corrosive legacy of the past.
 
The British and Irish Governments will, as they have done over the last three decades, work in partnership to encourage and support the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement on these critical issues.
 
Looking Back
 
I would like to conclude by reflecting on what has become known as the Decade of Centenaries, and to look forward to the legacy that this generation might leave.
 
We have already seen respectful and sensitive commemorations of the centenaries of the Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the start of the Great War.
 
We now look forward to 2016, and the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.
 
Our history repeatedly shows us how commemorations have the capacity to divide, to exclude, even to inflame and to incite.
 
But we have also shown the best of ourselves.
 
I think in particular of the great strides that have been made in recognising the shared history of those who fought in the Great War. 
 
It has been one of my great honours as Taoiseach to visit Flanders Fields with the Prime Minister and to see the historic gestures by Her Majesty the Queen at the Garden of Remembrance and the Islandbridge War Memorial.
 
As we now move closer to 2016, the Irish Government has put in place an appropriately respectful and inclusive programme of commemorative events. 
 
It has a number of interlocking strands, including arts, culture, language, the role of women, historical discourse, engagement with young  and State ceremonial occasions.
 
This programme is designed to be inclusive, respectful and insightful.   But, of course, it will not shy away from the facts of our shared history.
 
Looking ahead
 
I believe also that this period of commemoration can and must inspire us into the future. 
 
Some may fear that the process will become more difficult, more divisive and bitter in the later years of the decade – as we reflect on the War of Independence, Partition, and Civil War.
 
I see this period as a moment of hope, if we choose to take it.
 
The year 2018 will mark a more recent anniversary – 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement.
 
The principles and the institutions of that Agreement will endure – of that I have no doubt.
 
It is possible that some of the politicians who made that agreement – and its successors in St Andrews and in Stormont – will still be in positions of leadership 20 years later.
 
So, let us ask ourselves – as the first generation to have had all the opportunities that the Agreement gave us :
 
What will we have achieved in 20 years of peace ?
 
Deadlock, or a new openness ?
 
Financial stability and prosperity, or poverty and economic uncertainty ?
 
Bitterness or reconciliation ?
 
A warm peace, or a cold war ?
 
Peace walls, or peace bridges ?
 
Sectarian hatred, or a celebration of our differences ?
 
Integration, or division ?
 
Hope, or despair ?
 
The choice is ours.
 
Both paths are open.
 
In 100 years time, let us ask, what will we be remembered for ?
 
I have a vision of an Ireland where we work together, with respect for each other.
 
This island will be defined by optimism, hope and opportunity:
 
-         With efficient, effective and representative devolved institutions that are working for the common good, and that are politically and financially sustainable
-         A positive and influential part of the great democratic force for good that is the European Union
-         co-operating to build the island economy through overseas investment and joint efforts in trade and in tourism, and utilising a competitive, common corporation tax rate
-         building a world-class infrastructure with world-class road and rail links, especially from Dublin to the North West, and thriving ports and airports
-         delivering high quality public services that are designed around the needs of citizens and not ancient quarrels
-         a place where the spectre of paramilitarism, of organised crime and of community control and intimidation has been removed from the backs of local communities
-         an island with education systems that equip our young  for a bright future and promote reconciliation and integration, not separation and difference
-         a Northern Ireland that has seen a sea change in the fortunes of inner city areas that have been left behind in the progress of the last 20 years, bolstered by a clear plan for investment, regeneration, education, the elimination of hatred and the creation of a true shared society
-         a place where we respect each other’s differences while working for a higher common destiny
 
Above all, 20 years on from Good Friday 1998, we should live in a place that can truthfully say to the world that we seized our historic moment of hope and opportunity – not just to stop war, but to build a real and lasting peace and will be the best we can be for all of our people.
 
These are the benchmarks that the Irish Government will set for measuring success.
 
The absence of violence is no longer enough for the people of Northern Ireland.
 
So much more is possible - with imagination, with determination, with leadership and with ambition.
 
Ireland’s emergence from our unprecedented economic crisis has shown that all things are possible when political leadership is allied to the efforts of the people.
 
So too, in 1998 and since then, political leadership in the peace process made the impossible possible, the unthinkable normal.
 
All of us here this evening have a major role to play in the time ahead.
 
It is our chance to take, and our choice to make.
 
We must not falter now.
 
Thank you.