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Speech by Bertie Ahern, "Economic Challenges of a Changing Ireland", Belfast, (3 Novemebr 2005)

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), "Economic Challenges of a Changing Ireland", at the Institute of Directors Lunch, Culloden Hotel, Belfast, (3 November 2005)


"I am delighted to be with you today and I want to thank your Chairman, Dr Michael Maguire, for the invitation to address the Institute of Directors.

Forty years ago, Seán Lemass and Terence O’Neill, held a historic meeting in Belfast. Speaking on the evening of that landmark visit, Terence O’Neill commented that North and South 'share the same rivers, the same mountains, and some of the same problems'.

We still share many problems, though for the most part they are very different to those of 1965.

Indeed, many of the problems that we face today on this island are ones that we increasingly need to face together.

There are real threats to the welfare and well-being of the people of this island. They come not from within our borders or from within the borders of Europe.

They are from further afield. But they are immediate and very real.We must wake up to the challenges and opportunities of globalisation. We must be increasingly imaginative and forward-thinking if we are to get ahead and stay ahead. Future generations will not look kindly on us if we fail to be strategic.

We can best face this new environment by working together and in partnership.

More than ever, we must operate in a global context.

The discussion at last week’s meeting of EU Heads of State or Government in London focused on the competitive challenges we all face from the rise of China, India and other emerging economies.

We want to make sure that the EU is equipped to face up to globalisation while maintaining its strong commitment to social solidarity.

I have for some time been calling on the Union to raise its eyes from our internal debates and to take the bigger picture into account. We have to realise that the real challenges that Europe faces are not from within the Union but from the competition we face from China, India, Brazil and others.

In January, I will lead a substantial delegation of business people on an official visit to India. I would encourage and welcome the participation of any interested business people from Northern Ireland on this visit. This is but one example of how we can begin to work more closely together in the global market place in the interests of all the people on this island.

On both sides of the border, we are grappling with the need to keep ahead of change in a global economy that places a higher premium on knowledge, innovation, research and development.

We both need to develop our skills, so that our people and our enterprises can succeed in the knowledge economy of the future. We need to build our R&D capability. Our companies need to boost their innovation capability and increase their R&D investment. That is why we introduced an R&D tax credit in the South last year.

Our universities need to be world-class to attract students and researchers in what is an increasingly global market for education. We want to encourage more of our third level graduates to pursue advanced post-graduate study and research at fourth level - a vibrant fourth level sector that will produce our future knowledge leaders and underpin a climate of innovation. This can only be achieved by drawing on the collective strengths of all our higher education institutions, North and South.

Why not work together for a Fourth Level Island - to build a global reputation for world-class education and research that keeps our young people here and attracts others to return?

Why not work together to ensure that people on this island have the skills and opportunities to take up high-paid employment and to build new enterprises?

It is in everyone’s interest to create the conditions necessary for an all-island economy to grow and flourish. A climate that values enterprise.

There are, of course, problems that are unique to each jurisdiction.

My Government has been grappling with the problems that have come with the Celtic Tiger. We have problems of congestion, of inadequate infrastructure, of pressure on public services. We are investing hugely in health, in education and in transport. We are also pressing ahead with reforms to ensure that these services are delivered efficiently and effectively.

Earlier this week, the Government announced the biggest transport investment programme in the history of this island. We will spend 34.4 billion euros, or nearly 24 billion pounds, on this 10-year investment programme. It will see new motorways, new rail links across the country, an extension to the Luas system in Dublin and a new Metro for Dublin. It will transform our transport infrastructure.

This investment will complement the extensive infrastructure investment programme in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland will particularly benefit from our investments in the inter-urban routes between Dublin and Belfast and Dublin and Derry. Derry and the North-West will also benefit from the substantial investment along the Atlantic corridor.

These investments will mean that businesses throughout the island will begin to enjoy improved journey times and enhanced access to key transport hubs such as ports and airports.

This investment is one of the most significant components of the 100 billion euros, or 68 billion pounds, that will be spent on infrastructure on this island over the next ten years. Apart from transport, there are huge challenges and opportunities to boost the island economy and quality of life through infrastructure improvements in areas such as energy, telecommunications, waste management and spatial planning.

Both the British and Irish Governments are committed to working together on this. We have a duty to do so to the taxpayers on both sides of the border. This means planning together. This means sharing information. And, of course, joining up that which needs to be joined up.

If I may, I would also like to say a few additional words about the North-West.

It seems to me that this is an area where co-operation between the two jurisdictions has enormous potential. Both Derry and Donegal have suffered over the years for various reasons. There is huge untapped opportunity. We need to give special attention to their problems and the issues faced by the broader North-West region. Active partnership between North and South is clearly called for if we are to address the issues involved in a comprehensive and sustained way. I would like to see this happening and given the priority it deserves.

The Northern Ireland economy faces unique challenges. The issues are well known.

This audience understands them far better than I do.

The Northern Ireland economy has performed very well in recent years. I believe that much of this success is due to the peace and stability brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.

The economy has great strengths - a young workforce, a strong education system, good infrastructure. There are, of course, challenges to be tackled, including the relatively large role of the public sector versus the private sector, low participation rates and the need to up-skill and re-skill the labour force.

There is no reason why these challenges cannot be met.

There are people in this room who know what is required. We have already heard some ideas from Michael Maguire. I know that the Institute, and others such as the Economic Development Forum and the Northern Ireland Business Alliance, have identified the challenges and put forward solutions.

These are to improve productivity, to grow R&D and innovation, to increase exports, to encourage business start-ups, to cut red tape and reduce business costs. The aim must be to grow the economy to generate the resources to tackle poverty and deprivation - to help marginalised communities and to invest in better public services.

In my view, it is important that there is a peace dividend.

Equally importantly, it must be spent wisely. Certainly, a peace dividend is about investment in the future. But it must also be about creating a policy and planning framework that enables sustained prosperity. It must be about a positive climate for enterprise and a commitment to tacking disadvantage across the community.

Already, of course, we have seen the benefits that flow from an island at peace.

One of the great, quiet successes of the last seven years has been the North/South bodies. I would like to pay particular tribute to those who have worked in those bodies and who have served on their Boards. I know some of them are here today.

They have done invaluable work in developing trade, in growing our tourism industry, and in ensuring we have safe food to eat.

They are developing our Waterways - including now some encouraging progress on the Ulster Canal, a project that in years to come can link the Shannon and Erne systems with the Bann with enormous potential benefits for all of Ulster.

They are working to nurture our cultural heritage - both Irish and Ulster Scots, working together. They are managing key parts of our shared maritime resources.

So, there is no shortage of good ideas and good people.

The opportunities are boundless.

Belfast once led the world in major global industries. It can do so again, in the new globalised economy.

In my opinion, to address the long-term needs of the economy, Northern Ireland needs a genuine partnership between a private sector committed to research and innovation and a public sector committed to better regulation and delivering services as effectively and efficiently as possible.

How can this partnership reach its full potential? In my view, the pivotal element is a devolved government in tune with the needs of business and the citizens.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by modern, democratic Governments is that of successful delivery.

We have a range of expert analysis at our disposal. We have detailed statistics and projections for future trends that were unheard of even a few years ago. We have hard-working, experienced public servants and agencies available to implement policy.

More than ever, the challenge is to get that implementation right.

That requires careful planning and project selection. It requires excellent project management skills. It means that the public sector must have the skills and training needed to deliver. It means public and private sector working together.

It requires good resource allocation processes and efficient delivery mechanisms. It sometimes requires legislative reform.

But above all, it requires strong leadership and full accountability.

That leadership is best provided by democratically elected local representatives working in government for the betterment of everyone in society.

That accountability can only be provided by democratic oversight of executive actions and by placing your record before the people in democratic elections so that they can pass judgment.

There is no better way to make progress here than through democratic, accountable devolved government.

To succeed in our efforts, we must, of course, have assured peace and stability.

The confirmation by General de Chastelain last September that IRA arms had been fully decommissioned was a momentous development. The recent report by the IMC noted that the initial signs since the IRA statement of 28 July were encouraging. This is welcome.

The report only covers a four-week period since the IRA statement. An end to paramilitary activities and to criminality must be demonstrated over a longer period. That is why the Governments have asked the IMC to report again in January.

If indeed it is the case that all IRA paramilitary and criminal activities have been brought to an end, then I believe that re-establishment of devolved government is achievable.

I hope also that full support for policing will be achieved as soon as possible. We know that for some the issues involved are difficult and deep-seated. But logic dictates and I believe that the time has now come for this issue to be addressed and resolved in a positive way.

For many - perhaps even for many in the business community - the status quo offers more comfort and less risk. After all, the economy is doing well. Most people who want to work have work. The streets are peaceful - at least most are, most of the time.

I know that British Ministers are working with commendable energy and commitment across the range of their functions. But we know that there is a better way. No one will convince me that local politicians could not do a better job. They know their communities. They have the political talents.

It will be a good day for Northern Ireland when there is once again a fully functioning Assembly and inclusive Executive. Despite all the difficulties, Northern Ireland has been at its best when the institutions have been working. And I believe that once re-established, and with the confidence that everyone has genuinely moved on, Northern Ireland will enjoy sustained stability and progress.

I genuinely believe that there is enormous untapped potential to be developed. There is a real success story waiting to happen.

As Taoiseach, I wish for nothing less for the people of Northern Ireland. And a politically stable and prospering Northern Ireland is also good for everyone on this island.

I recently said that the process must leave nobody behind.

The International Monitoring Commission has set out clearly the plight facing some loyalist communities.

I believe in transformation. At its best, it comes from within communities, not from above. But politics should create the circumstances to allow communities transform themselves.

There are leaders in unionism and in loyalism who are acutely aware of the need for transformation in their communities. They are determined not to see their communities left behind. They are prepared to take risks for progress.

They are entitled to encouragement and practical support. For our part, we will do whatever we can to assist.

I welcome the recent positive announcement by the LVF. As with other paramilitary groups, the IMC will play an important role in monitoring delivery of their announced intentions. But we hope that this timely development will also lead to other loyalist paramilitaries taking real steps to leave their past behind, ending all their activities and decommissioning their weapons.

There is always talk of winners and losers in Northern Ireland. There is an assumption underlying this that one community can win while the other loses.

Sadly, there is no monopoly on suffering. Nor is there a monopoly on deprivation.

In the long term, one community cannot win at the expense of the other. In the long term, there is only one viable future: a shared future.

The Shared Future document sets out an admirable and challenging vision of a society where there is "equity, respect for diversity and a recognition of our interdependence".

That is the vision we should work to achieve.

I know of the importance of this time of the year for so many people. I had a particular interest, therefore, in visiting the Somme Centre in Newtownards this morning. Next year marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Earlier this year, I visited the Irish Peace Park at Messines, another site so resonant of the enormous tragedy of the Great War.

As far back as 1966, Sean Lemass spoke of the contribution and highly motivated purpose of so many heroic young Irish people who gave their lives at that time. We cannot ignore our history. We are deeply conscious of the trauma throughout the length and breadth of this island of the Great War. I hope that, North and South, we can work much more closely together over the coming years to remember this time of pain and loss in the history of Ireland.

In conclusion, let me again make my ambitions for this island and for our relations clear.

The agenda of my Government is the agenda of the Good Friday Agreement. That agenda is an agenda of peace, consent, equality and cooperation.

There is no other agenda.

Relations between Ireland and Britain are better now than at any time in our history. Our close working relationship has been indispensable in managing and advancing the peace process.

The constitutional question is now settled. The use of violence to achieve a united Ireland is a thing of the past.

Many people, including myself, aspire to a united Ireland. But it will not happen without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Agreement is a unique and enabling instrument. Despite all the ups and downs it has brought us a long way. There is nothing better out there. And nothing less will work.

I want an inclusive devolved Executive to address the interests of all the people of the North.

And in partnership through the instruments of the Agreement, we can together serve the common interests of everyone on this island.

It is self-evident that this is how it should be.

It has taken a long time to get to this point. But space for genuine progress is opening before us. We must fill that space with positive politics.

I applaud the "can do" attitude of business people. We need to import some of that positive attitude into the political thinking on this island.

I want to see the politics of this island lifted, once and for all, from the narrow ground.

It is time for everyone to begin to face forward and try and move on. I hope that we are approaching the point when real and lasting progress can be made. There should be no undue delay. I have made no secret of my wish to see the devolved institutions restored as soon as practicable in 2006.

Political paralysis is not an option in a fast-moving world.

The rest of the world will not wait for us.

The rest of the world will not do it for us.

It is in our own hands to make a better, shared future.

For my part, I am 100 per cent committed to achieving this.

Thank you for your time."


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