Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, to the Plenary Meeting of the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body, Dublin, (5 March 2007)
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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), to the Plenary Meeting of the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body, Castleknock Hotel and Country Club, Dublin, (5 March 2007)
"It is a great pleasure to welcome you all to Dublin for your 34th plenary session. I know that it has been some time since you last met in the capital. I would like to thank your Co-Chair, Mr Pat Carey, TD, for the invitation to address you this afternoon.
This Body continues to play a critical role in the development of mutual understanding and partnership between our parliaments and our peoples. We have, I believe, a greater appreciation today of each other’s point of view than at any other time in our history.
By providing parliamentary colleagues on these islands with the opportunity for contacts, both formal and informal, the BIIPB has over the past 17 years contributed in no small way to the close working relationship that now exists, and the transformation that has taken place, between our two countries.
I am pleased to say that relations between Ireland and Britain are better now than they have ever been. Today, our two countries work together as partners in so many different areas: at European level where we share many common interests; in the international arena in organisations such as the UN and the WTO; and, of course, in the economic sphere with such significant levels of bilateral trade and investment, and more potential to be tapped in the future.
Last Saturday week’s game in Croke Park gave clear witness to this transformation. So, too, did last year’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising and of the Battle of the Somme. We must continue to work together in every way that we can to preserve and build on this extraordinary progress.
We live with the legacy of our complex and interwoven history. But while mindful of the history that has affected and shaped us in so many different ways, we must also work for a future anchored in understanding and mutual respect.
We should take nothing about our relationship for granted. Given all that has gone before, and all the progress that has since been made, it demands priority treatment and our closest attention. I am proud of the contribution that I have been able to make over the last ten years. Working with Prime Minister Blair, cooperation and partnership between our governments has been brought to a new level. This also has to be the way of the future.
This fine body is a key example of our two countries and their representatives working to a common purpose and working to make a real difference.
The St Andrew’s Agreement, as you know, envisages an East-West parliamentary framework that represents all the parliaments and assemblies from the island of Ireland and Britain.
I welcome this and encourage you in your efforts. The Irish Government is very supportive of this proposal, as it is of a North/South Parliamentary Forum. I know that you have already begun work and discussion on this issue.
The Body has long sought a dialogue with the unionist parties in the North. It was significant and welcome that the DUP joined you last year at your session in Killarney. Dialogue is a vital part of developing trust and understanding. I hope that you will be able to have fruitful discussions with all the parties to the newly elected Assembly before too long, so that a strong East-West parliamentary forum can be established.
We are now at a point of reckoning in the political process.
Our intensive work in the last year or so has delivered real results and immediate opportunity. Last October, after talks with the parties, the two Governments published the St. Andrews Agreement. That agreement focused on support for policing and support for power-sharing as the two sides of the one road we need to travel to get the institutions up and running again.
Since St. Andrews, we have seen welcome progress on policing. The landmark decision by Sinn Fein opens up the prospect for the first time of inclusive policing across the entire community in Northern Ireland. No one should underestimate the significance of this historic step, a step which the SDLP, with vision and courage, had already taken in 2001.
With all-party support for inclusive policing, we also need all-party support for the structures of an inclusive power-sharing government.
Wednesday’s election is being held for the explicit purpose of endorsing the St. Andrews Agreement and of electing an Assembly that will form a power-sharing Executive on 26 March in accordance with that Agreement and timeframe.
The Governments are proceeding on the basis that all parties understand and accept this position.
We hear encouraging news from the campaign-trail that people on the doorsteps are focussing on "bread and butter" issues.
Issues like water rates, like education, like health.
What is clearer now than it has ever been at any point is that the people want their locally elected politicians to sit together in government and take decisions on these issues. Direct rule is not what the people of Ireland, North and South, endorsed in the 1998 referendums.
An Executive must be formed on 26 March. This is the end of the line. The two Governments have made this abundantly clear. We have painstakingly, patiently and honourably followed and delivered, step by step, on the St Andrews Agreement. It would be unconscionable and deeply regrettable if this agreed deadline was missed and if the opportunity to govern was not taken. Patience has already been stretched and I do not believe that the people would take kindly to further delay. The war is over. The key issues are sorted. All must take responsibility in government for building and consolidating the peace.
The time for taking that responsibility is now.
We stand ready and committed to work with the new Northern Ireland Executive in a partnership which I know can benefit every individual on this island. We offer that partnership without a hidden agenda and in a spirit of deep and genuine friendship and support. We need to make up for time lost. And we need to ensure that all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including the crucial North/South structures, are fully honoured and implemented.
Failure to form an Executive as envisaged in the St Andrews Agreement would be a missed opportunity of historic proportions. Such a failure would see the newly-elected Assembly dissolved indefinitely. This would be a loss for the people of Northern Ireland. But they, as much as the two governments, know that there would be no alternative. In these circumstances we have said that the two governments will implement the Good Friday Agreement through new partnership arrangements.
However, our focus is on success. There is no good reason why we should not be able to complete this historic process.
Once the people have spoken on Wednesday, newly elected MLAs and prospective government Ministers will need to sit together and use their considerable talents to hammer out a credible, viable programme for government.
And in the months thereafter as they move to implement agreed policies, they will face, as all governments do, challenges and obstacles along the way.
Many of the party manifestos have focussed on the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland.
At St. Andrews, the two Governments committed to working with the parties to establish the most favourable possible financial climate for a newly restored Executive.
We are preparing the ground to honour that commitment.
This year, for the first time, the new National Development Plan proposes significant Irish Government investment in projects and initiatives of mutual benefit North and South.
We want to implement this Plan in partnership and in agreement with the British Government and a restored Northern Ireland Executive.
We want to see road links to Derry and Letterkenny that are second to none on the island. We want to build up the capacity of higher education institutions, through strategic alliances. The northwest is a key example of where this is crucial to prosperity. In the northeast, we want to see better links between counties Louth and Down to maximise the enormous tourist potential of the region.
We want to see funding available on an all-island basis to the best projects in areas such as science, tourism, regional development and social inclusion.
We want to work with the Ministers in the new Executive to ensure the children of this country grow up in peace and prosperity with equal opportunity for all.
It is in our mutual interest to do so.
On restoration, we want to unlock the serious potential of the National Development Plan in a three-way partnership with the British Government and with the new Northern Ireland Executive.
For our part, the Irish Government will spare no effort to bring the St. Andrews Agreement to fruition.
I will meet Prime Minister Blair later in the week to review the outcome of the election. Together, we will work closely with the parties in the next few weeks to deal with any remaining issues of concern and to steer a steady course towards restoration on 26 March.
I know you will be discussing these issues during the remainder of your plenary session.
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