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'Political Progress: An Essential Platform for Economic Success', Speech by Bertie Ahern to the Northern Ireland Economic Conference 2006, (4 October 2006)

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

'Political Progress: An Essential Platform for Economic Success', Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), to the Northern Ireland Economic Conference 2006, Hilton Hotel, Templepatrick, Co. Antrim (4 October 2006)


"I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak today at this very important annual conference.

As we move towards the completion of the transition to a normal, peaceful society in Northern Ireland, it is clear that the major challenges for the future have a critical economic dimension. Political progress needs to be sustained by a sound economy. And economic success needs political progress as an essential platform.

Earlier today, the British and Irish Governments published the 12th Report of the International Monitoring Commission. Both Governments have welcomed its conclusion that there is convincing evidence of the IRAís continuing commitment to the political path. The Report outlines the profound transformation that has taken place in that organisation.

I urge you to read this Report and to reflect on the change which the IMC has documented since it began its work in January 2004. Even the most sceptical will recognise that we have come a very long way in a relatively short time.

Any reasonable observer will agree that what we have seen - particularly over the past year - has transformed the political situation. The context for political engagement has never been better. I believe passionately in the peace process and I am proud of what has already been achieved.

But the status quo is not an option. It is an unsatisfactory place for Northern Ireland to be. No going back. But no going forward either. We need therefore to keep building - to maintain the momentum.

I am ambitious for this island and all its people. I can see real opportunity ahead if we can reach agreement in the coming weeks. Northern Ireland really does have a chance to succeed like never before. Nobody is asking anybody to forget the past. The pain and hurt is too great for that. It will take more time to bind up the wounds of a generation of conflict. But we have reached a pivotal stage in the process.

A moment that demands fresh politics and a new outlook. I want Northern Ireland politicians to be ambitious about the future and to take ownership of their affairs.

Politics can never be risk free. But I believe that, one after another, we have dealt with the key issues standing in the way of agreement and shared government. I believe that we are at a point when elected representatives here can move forward with confidence that the past has been left behind. It is time for Northern Irelandís politicians to deploy their undoubted talents in new and more imaginative ways. It is time to exploit the opportunities that peace has brought.

The politics of the past must now give way to politics for the future. There is a duty and a responsibility to look at what will best serve the next generation. I am convinced that with stable and agreed politics, Northern Ireland can be among the most successful economic areas in Europe.

In the South, we have demonstrated what can be done. There is absolutely no reason in a stable political environment why the economy here should not be growing step by step with us in the South. And there no is reason why this island, working in harmony and with the right policies, cannot be a world-beater. We can see nothing but gain from a successful Northern Ireland alongside us. We would applaud any success that you can achieve. We are not afraid of competition.

And we can be partners together in the global market place. However, Northern Ireland simply cannot reach its full potential in the absence of political agreement. This may not be seen by some as an immediate problem. But it is, and will become increasingly so down the line.

Next week in Scotland, I hope that all the parties will come ready to address the final obstacles, and open to agreement. It would be unconscionable if this opportunity were to be missed.

The Irish Government is a committed partner and friend in this process. We are eager to work in a positive and open way in the interests of everyone on this island. We have no hidden agenda. The Good Friday Agreement has already brought peace. I believe that it also offers Northern Ireland the prospects of permanent stability and real prosperity. That is our agenda. That is the only agenda that makes sense.

In April, Tony Blair and I met jointly with business leaders from Northern Ireland. We did so because we believe that economic progress is a central issue for the future of Northern Ireland. One of the key messages from business was that they wanted to see Northern Ireland mirror the economic success story that we have experienced in the South. It was clear to us that business leaders in the North have the ideas, the energy and the ambition to do just that. That drive and determination can also be seen in the trade unions, farmers, the public and voluntary sectors.

The task now faced by the political parties is to give the leadership which society needs. In the South, forging economic success required pro-active focused government. Over the years, Governments set out a clear vision for our economic future. And then we were able to take the necessary decisions to enable economic growth. We developed a range of very successful policies designed to encourage foreign investment into Ireland.

Social partnership agreements brought together business, unions and other interest groups to develop a strategic framework for meeting the economic and social challenges ahead. As a result of this, since 1997 the number of people at work has risen by 40% to 2.1 million. In the same period, Gross Domestic Product has risen by 136% to Euros161 billion. But we know we cannot stand still.

Last year, we announced Transport 21 with a 10-year investment programme of Euros34.4 billion to build a world-class transport infrastructure. Many of these projects will benefit people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We have plans for investment and reform in health and education.

Earlier this year, we announced a major new Science and Technology Strategy that will ensure that Ireland, by 2013, will be internationally renowned for the excellence of its research and be at the forefront of generating and using new knowledge for economic and social progress.

We have also concluded a new social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, that will keep social partnership at the heart of our policies and our prosperity. And later this year, we will be announcing a new National Development Plan setting out our investment strategy for our economic and social infrastructure for the next seven years.

For its part, the British Government recognises the same challenges and has many similar long-term policies and investment priorities. This is the business of Government. It should be the business of democratic, devolved government in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs an economic policy tailored to its needs and a locally accountable government to deliver it. I have watched the vigorous and well-informed debate on the economic future that would face an incoming Executive. There is clearly a consensus on the challenges. And there is a large degree of consensus on the solutions. That has to bode well for the future.

But the task that faces the Executive will not be easy. It will face key issues such as public service reform, managing the public finances, deciding on investment priorities and building up the private sector. It will also need to invest in the future - in education, skills, enterprise, Research & Development and infrastructure.

In the coming weeks, the political parties and the two Governments need to look hard at how we can ensure that an incoming Executive gets off to the best possible start.

Our American friends constantly tell us 'capital is a coward - it flees from conflict and unpredictability'.

Peace is crucial. But a stable political and economic environment is also critical. That stability will only truly come with a restored Executive and with a shared understanding of what is necessary to drive economic and social progress.

That shared understanding should include a willingness to build on all relationships within these islands - both East/West and North/South. In todayís global economy, every opportunity must be seized and developed to the full.

But the economic relationship on this island requires special attention. For too long we have operated back to back, virtually ignoring one another economically. This was short sighted and wrong.

I firmly believe that by working together, North and South, we have the opportunity to maximise the development of the whole island. We face the same challenges. Many of you here today know what they are:

Greater competition from low cost locations;

Developing the knowledge and skills of our workforce to match the demands of the 21st century;

Promoting investment in research and development;

Building a world class infrastructure; and

Delivering quality health and education services for our people

By co-operating North and South - by joint planning, pooling resources and co-ordinated action - we can better meet these challenges. Working together, we can deliver better outcomes for everyone, North and South, and get better value for money.

We are working more closely than ever with Peter Hain and his colleagues on the island economy, on spatial planning and infrastructure, on energy, on trade promotion, on the development of the North West, on combating social exclusion and on better co-ordinating public services.

I want to see an island where our infrastructure goes where it is needed and will deliver most benefit. I want to see balanced regional development in both parts of the island, with strong urban centres and prosperous rural communities. I want to see an island where people can access the best and most appropriate health and education services. I want to see an island with a highly skilled and educated workforce attractive to inward investment. I am in no doubt that this is a win-win situation for everybody, North and South.

Of course, an all-island approach involves new thinking and new ways of doing things. This can prove challenging for the South as well as for the North. It may need some radical thinking in terms of investment priorities and service delivery. The Irish Government has done this before. We have, for example, committed to joint funding of City of Derry airport because of the airportís role in the broader North West region.

In the context of a shared approach, there are clearly opportunities where the two Governments could come together to make investments for the benefit of all. The Irish Government will not be found wanting in meeting these challenges and in taking these opportunities.

These are the challenges that face us all after November 24th. They will not change in the coming weeks. Nor will the solutions. Nor will the determination of the two Governments to tackle those challenges in the context of the implementation of the Agreement.

The question is: will the parties take on those challenges and work together for the people they represent? I hope they will.

Frankly, and in all honesty, I cannot see any good reason for them not to do so. A restored Executive, elected by the people of Northern Ireland, making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland, is needed to meet todayís challenges and those of the future. That is why Tony Blair and I are sparing no effort in this last push towards restoration. Achieving devolution by 24 November is a challenge. But agreement offers real opportunity. I urge the parties to engage positively over the coming period. They should not be tempted to play for time.

We are serious about the deadline. It is fixed. The time has come to establish whether people want to govern together, or not. I will be working for agreement in the time available. I believe that this is what the people want, and need. And they deserve no less.

Thank You."


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