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Speech by Dermot Ahern at the 'North/South Makes Sense' Conference, Derry, (7 October 2005)

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

Speech by Dermot Ahern, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the 'North/South Makes Sense' Conference, Derry, (7 October 2005)


"I warmly congratulate the SDLP on organising this Conference on North/South Cooperation and am honoured to have been asked to address you here to-day. The SDLP have long been supporters of and advocates for North/South cooperation. John Hume, Seamus Mallon and now Mark Durkan have all worked hard to promote the value and benefits of such co-operation. Many thanks to Sean Farren and his team for putting together such a comprehensive and interesting conference. I cannot think of a better title for a conference on North/South cooperation than North/South makes sense - because plainly it does make sense.

I believe that North/South co-operation is a vital, dynamic, dimension of the Good Friday Agreement and essential to the goal of building a new, agreed future for everybody on this island, both North and South.

I am convinced that increasing North/South co-operation is the key to a competitive all-island economy.,

A competitive all-island economy which will help generate the economic growth to deliver better services, new jobs and lasting prosperity to people on this island.

We recognise that prosperity and stability are two sides of the same coin. Without political progress, the task of building a successful economy is made considerably more difficult. The Irish and British Governments are firmly committed to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We want to see the Institutions working again. We are determined to do everything possible to bring that about.

The announcement by the IICD on 26 September that the IRA had put the totality of its arsenal beyond use was a momentous development, as significant as it was long-awaited. Now that it has finally occurred, and being verified by witnesses of the highest integrity, it is a development which can unlock the way forward to full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

We also recognise that it will take time to rebuild trust and confidence. The reports of the IMC in October and particularly in January of next year will be critical in this regard. In the meantime the Government is determined to maintain the political momentum, and to do everything possible to secure the early return of the agreed institutions.

Now that IRA decommissioning has taken place we will also be pressing strongly for decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries. The IICD made clear that its work remains incomplete pending the decommissioning of loyalist weapons.

The SDLP took brave steps to support policing in Northern Ireland. We recognise that this has been difficult for the party politically and at an individual level. I have met with many of those involved, including DPP members here in Derry and I applaud their contribution in opening up a new era for policing in Northern Ireland. I am very aware of the threats and intimidation they have suffered and personal risks they have taken.

Later to-day I will be meeting with Denis Bradley. I have forcefully condemned the attack last week on Denis. His story is one of courage and heroism. He has paid a high price for his commitment to a fresh start in policing. The right thing now is for all sections of the community to follow Denis' example and participate in the task of forging a new policing service. This is no time for any party to shirk its responsibility.

I have forcefully condemned all those involved in sectarian attacks and riots all summer. I have made it my business to visit a number of affected areas in Belfast and North Antrim and to speak to community leaders. I will continue to do so to demonstrate my Government's solidarity with the victims of such attacks. Sectarianism cannot be tolerated in the Ireland of the 21st century. It is vital that all those in positions of influence, particularly in political parties, show leadership on this key issue.

In the Good Friday Agreement we have created a blue print for an equal society which addresses the complexities of the relationships within Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and between these islands.

North/South co-operation and the North South Ministerial Council are integral elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Prior to suspension the North South Ministerial Council met 65 times. That means that 65 times Ministers from the Irish Government and the NI Executive sat down together to do business together across a range of sectors from education to agriculture to trade.

It was not always easy. But then new and innovative institutions often have rocky starts. What is clear is that a new dynamic of co-operation did develop. Ministers, North and South, met on a sustained and regular basis to address the common challenges and opportunities on this island, for the people of this island.

We want to see the North South Ministerial Council up and running again. We want to see local Ministers from Northern Ireland, locally accountable, meeting their Irish counterparts to do business together, in the common interest.

Since suspension the NSMC has not been able to meet. However, innovative interim arrangements were agreed by the Irish and British governments, to provide for the North/South Bodies to continue to operate on a limited basis. We have to acknowledge that in the absence of the North South Ministerial Council, in the absence of the necessary political direction, it has not always been possible for the Bodies to achieve their full potential. This is regrettable.

We must also acknowledge the remarkable achievements of the Bodies. Any fair minded consideration of the Bodies would have to conclude that they have proved that North/South co-operation works and that it makes sense.

It is all too easy now to take for granted the success of Tourism Ireland; to say that it obviously makes sense to have an all-island tourism promotion body. And it does make sense - but not everyone was convinced of it at the Body's inception.

Against that background, I believe that the continued successful operation of the North/South Bodies and Tourism Ireland is a great credit to the staff of the Bodies, to the key government departments North and South and to the hard work of the Joint Secretariat of the Council in Armagh.

Tourism Ireland shows us what we can achieve when we market the island of Ireland globally. Between 2001 and 2004, despite a very adverse global environment, visitor numbers increased by 7.2% and revenue by 7.6% on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland's potential as a tourism destination is being realised. The past 3 years have seen an increase in the North of 29% in visitor numbers and 12% in revenue. Tourism Ireland has developed new products focusing on the North West. The Atlantic Drift promotion for example, highlights the great variety of tourism from the Donegal Gaeltacht to Glenveagh National Park.

InterTrade Ireland, has pioneered a range of innovative programmes in creating trade and business development networks across the island. Its programmes focus on the areas where businesses North and South face common challenges.

The Special EU Programmes Body has built up an impressive record of managing the PEACE and INTERREG programmes for the island. The EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation is a unique programme which aims to promote reconciliation, cross border cooperation, economic renewal and social integration in Northern Ireland and the six border counties.

We have always believed that the PEACE programme plays a vital role in fostering reconciliation and building peace. This is why we have been working hard in Brussels to secure funding for a further Peace programme in the new EU Budget. We were particularly encouraged that the package put on the table at the June European Council did provide for funding beyond 2006. Final decisions on the budget have yet to be made and we will make every effort to secure such a commitment as part of the final agreement.

To meet with you here to-day I flew into City of Derry Airport. The Irish Government has long recognised that Derry Airport is an important component of the transport infrastructure for the whole North West. This is why we, together with the British Government, have jointly committed up to 15 million Euros for the further development of the airport.

When we look at development in the North West we must look at what makes sense for the region as a whole. Promoting balanced regional development is a significant challenge. We must pro-actively explore ways of working together to meet that challenge.

For example we need to develop better transport links and we are working on that. In addition to funding the airport the Irish Government also provides support for the Derry - Dublin air link. We are working on upgrading the N2 to deliver 70km of high quality improvements on the Dublin-Derry road.

In June of this year my colleague Noel Dempsey, together with Northern Ireland Minister Angela Smith, opened the new Coolkeeragh ESB power station - the most efficient power station on the island of Ireland. This involved a 200million investment in the electrical infrastructure of Northern Ireland and was a joint venture between ESB International and Coolkeeragh Power Limited. In addition to providing cleaner and lower cost energy, the Coolkeeragh plant is creating local business and employment opportunities.

IDA Ireland and Invest NI are developing a virtual cross border technology park between Letterkenny and Derry which they will jointly promote for inward investment.

These are just some examples of the range of innovative and very positive initiatives underway to address the challenges of the North West region in a cohesive way. I know also there is considerable co-operation between local authorities on both sides of the border.

Together Letterkenny and Derry form an important axis for the development of the North West. But we must build on that. We must work more closely together and be more strategic in our approach to the North West region.

North/South is not just about co-operation in the border areas. It is about cooperating across the island for the benefit of all the people of the island.

In our approach to North/South cooperation the principles of mutual interest and benefit are unambiguous.

We operate in an increasingly competitive global environment. The world has not stood still since 1998 or October 2002 and a tough economic future faces us all.

In a global economy and an interconnected world, it is not independence or protectionism, which brings success. On the contrary it is policies which promote interdependence, knowledge and flexibility, and networking which ensure economic success.

We know that we are a small country with limited resources - financial and otherwise - and a key challenge we face now is to use what we have to gain maximum advantage. In this context, North/South co-operation makes sense and has a real potential to increase the efficiencies of the island economy and improve the value we get for public spending.

The future of North/South co-operation increasingly will be shaped by competitiveness and economic considerations as the awareness grows of how all-island co-operation has a real contribution to make to the bottom line.

When I met with members of IBEC/CBI just a few weeks ago I was struck yet again by the extent to which business leaders recognise the potential gains for the economy through taking an all-island approach. Indeed, they have been to the fore in this debate, promoting co-operation and identifying areas where it makes sound economic sense to work together.

Spatial planning, energy and infrastructure are all elements of competitiveness and it makes sense for us to co-operate in these areas.

This means planning and working together on a transport infrastructure that serves the whole of the island. Just last week I was at the opening of the Dundalk bypass, one of the remaining key stages in the M1/A1 link from Dublin to Newry, delivering a high quality motorway with much improved driving times.

It means developing an all-island electricity market by July 2007 because it makes no sense to have two transmission systems on an island the size of Ireland. It is widely recognised that an all-island market will be more efficient and effective.

It means looking at our infrastructure needs on an all-island basis and planning to deliver solutions to our infrastructure deficits in a joined up way. We are at a critical juncture in terms of infrastructure development. North and South, we are scheduled to deliver massive investment in infrastructure in the coming years. We expect the combined spend on infrastructure on the island over the next ten years to be in the region of 100 billion Euros.

The major programme of infrastructural investment in the South over the period 2000-2006 was set out in the National Development Plan launched in 1999. We are now preparing a new National Development Plan for the period 2007-2013. The Plan will focus on the priorities for investment in public, economic and social infrastructure. It will encompass transport, environmental services, housing, education, health, childcare and R&D and investment in human resources in the education and training fields. We are committed to ensuring that the development and roll out of the Plan will take full account of the all-island dimension.

At their meeting in July the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair recognised the potential for mutual benefit in tackling strategic issues such as infrastructure development and spatial planning. We must build on this because North/South makes sense.

If we plan together we can avoid waste and duplication.

If we work together we can bring added value.

If we co-operate on developing an all-island economy we will bring real prosperity for all the people of this island. We have no greater task than to bring peace and prosperity to the island of Ireland.

We have now, I believe, a real opportunity to tackle our major economic challenges and opportunities on an all-island basis.

I believe we should grasp this opportunity not because of politics or ideology but because it makes sense to do so."


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