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A Shared Agenda: Sustaining the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit
Sophiahof, the Hague
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney TD
11 April 2018
Thank you Ambassador Kelly for those kind words of introduction and thank you to (UK) Ambassador Wilson also for your remarks. It is very important both our Governments are represented here, to celebrate probably the crowning achievement in our history of cooperation, the Good Friday Agreement, and to re-commit to its implementation in full. And, of course, it’s always easier to celebrate our deep and enduring friendship once the Rugby Six Nations is over!
For Ireland and the Netherlands, our rivalry has been more on the soccer pitch than the rugby field. It has included big victories for you in 1988 and 1994, among other years, and a memorable one for us in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. As it proved, we haven’t been back to a World Cup since – and I think you are also sitting this next one out in solidarity. I hope we are both back on that stage in Qatar in 2022.
I am delighted to be here today in the International City of Peace and Justice, The Hague, to speak to you about the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Later this afternoon I will be meeting with my counterpart, Minister for Foreign Affairs Stef Blok, and before joining you here I had the pleasure of meeting with members the Committee on European Affairs of the Tweede Kamer. This allowed me to set out Ireland’s views on the progress of Brexit negotiations and to express our deep appreciation for the strong support that the Netherlands has shown on the issues which are of critical importance to Ireland in these negotiations.
Ireland and The Netherlands share a similar outlook and we regularly work together within the EU to achieve outcomes that benefit both our peoples. It is important that like-minded countries collaborate so that our voices are heard on the big issues that are impacting Europe and the world today. For Ireland this is one of the reasons why we continue to be passionate about our EU membership – polls show support for EU membership in Ireland at 88%, one of the highest levels across out Union. Among students, happily, support is near universal at 99%.
This is recognition of all Europe has helped Ireland achieve, from the foundations it laid for our economic growth, through to the more tolerant and inclusive public attitudes it has helped foster across a range of social issues. And, of course, it also encompasses steadfast support for the peace agreement we are here to celebrate today.
Yesterday I was in Belfast, marking exactly 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed there on April 10th, 1998. It was a great day, with opportunities to meet with people whose lives have been made immeasurably better by peace.
People for whom opportunities have opened up. Not just by the absence of violence but by a growing confidence in Northern Ireland as a place of prosperity as well as peace.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement was both an end and a beginning. It was an end to long years of hard work and difficult compromises on all sides. And it was a beginning of a new process of building peace, reconciliation and a different – far better - future.
Both before and since the signing of the Agreement the external supporting framework has been provided not only by the Irish and British governments but by our international partners, very visibly the US, and also – crucially - the European Union.
Shared membership of our Union and strong EU financial support, particularly through the PEACE and INTERREG programmes, has played a vital role in bedding in the Agreement. Making it a part of life, not just an optional extra.
Looking back to 1998, the first three months of that year were not hopeful for the Peace Process.
My team and I often refer to the book Lost Lives, which gives an account of the lives lost to the decades of conflict. It is a sobering reminder of life and death through those years. Its opening summary for 1998 reads:
“The year began with a series of revenge killings, a string of random assassinations... In spite of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, mindsets seemed as far apart as ever both inside and outside talks. When the parties in Stormont emerged with a Good Friday Agreement which included Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, many were surprised.”
Let’s remember that - many were surprised. I think it’s important that we recall that for two reasons. First, the Northern Ireland peace process required a huge, sustained effort and a keeping of the faith for weeks, for months, for years.
And secondly, and crucially, a new truth was established on the 10th of April 1998. It was proved that agreement - unlikely, improbable agreement - was possible. That should always be a source of hope and comfort.
We are far from the revenge killings and assassinations of early 1998. Young people going to university in Northern Ireland today have no personal memories of the news of violence and division that featured all too frequently in newspapers and on radio and TV for the best part of 30 years. We must keep it that way and ensure we never go back to those dark days of generations past.
The people of the island of Ireland – particularly people in Northern Ireland - were the ones who were most profoundly affected by the Troubles. They validated the 1998 Agreement and it belongs to them.
The Irish Government, together with the UK Government, guarantees that Agreement in all its parts and in all circumstances. Its protection and implementation is a solemn duty which is not distracted or diverted by short term political challenges or political expediency.
As a co-guarantor of the Agreement, we are determined to protect all it has helped achieve. And we will not allow complacency or despondency to undermine our work here - it is our shared responsibility, and we must strive every day to implement the Agreement, its provisions and its spirit, to the fullest extent possible.
Shared EU Membership
The island of Ireland has been particularly in the headlines across Europe over the past year in the context of the UK’s impending exit from the EU.
We wish this wasn’t happening – we have no desire to see our closest partner depart the Union we joined together. However, we accept the result of the UK referendum, however narrowly it was reached, and we know now we must make the best of bad circumstances. And foremost in our concerns here is ensuring that the peace in Northern Ireland of the last 20 years and more is protected.
The great politician and peace-builder John Hume - both an MP and an MEP in his time - was perhaps the single most important figure in charting Northern Ireland’s journey towards a new beginning. In his lecture accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, with David Trimble, in December 1998, John spoke of the context of the European peace project:
“All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace - respect for diversity.”
I arrived in the European Parliament in 2004, just as John was leaving that stage. And this quotation speaks to me still as both an Irish politician and as a European. Principles of European tolerance, understanding and outreach – as well as Dutch experiences of power-sharing, among other lessons - guided us in 1998 and continue to guide us now.
On a practical level, the European Union provided a backdrop to facilitate cooperation and understanding between Irish and British officials and Ministers working together on common EU projects. This helped to develop rapport, trust and in many cases friendships, facilitating and supporting the two Governments in working together on the Peace Process. As I am sure Ambassador Wilson will agree, we will need to find new ways to nurture, protect and deepen those relationships when British Ministers, diplomats and officials stop travelling to Brussels.
Integral to establishing peace was removing any semblance of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. And it was here that the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, as much as the Good Friday Agreement, had a critical role to play. The confluence of these seismic developments – the removal of customs posts followed in turn by the removal of hard security installations and checkpoints - led to a situation where the border could quite simply disappear from view.
Since then, businesses and communities, lives and livelihoods have developed and prospered. People cross the border unimpeded every day to work, to study, to visit family or to access healthcare and education.
North-South cooperation – supported by a shared EU regulatory framework - has flourished in these circumstances, both in areas covered by the Good Friday Agreement, such as agriculture and the environment, and in other areas like energy, telecommunications and broadcasting. And our all-island economy has also prospered. Today, cross-border trade represents the first export market for some 73% of Northern Ireland’s small and medium-sized companies, more than 5,000 businesses altogether.
And so, for peace, for prosperity and for partnership, it is vital that today’s invisible border remains just that – open and free of any physical infrastructure or associated checks and controls. We were pleased that the EU-UK agreement in December provided a “guarantee” in this respect and noted that the avoidance of a hard border was an overarching requirement.
We were then able to build on this progress last month, with the EU and UK negotiating teams agreeing that the Withdrawal Agreement will need a legally operative backstop and that this backstop will apply unless and until any other solution is agreed. It was also agreed by the two negotiating teams that this backstop will be based on paragraph 49 of the December agreement – which outlines the fallback mechanism of maintaining full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement. Theresa May confirmed these assurances in her letter to Donald Tusk.
So we are on the road now to developing the necessary backstop which will allow all those who have benefited from the peace in Northern Ireland to sleep easier at night. And, as we have said consistently, this is only a backstop. Our first preference remains for the UK to seek and agree a future relationship with the EU which is so close and comprehensive that no other solution to maintain an invisible border is needed. We have long advocated for this. And if it means the UK re-examining some of its red lines – in the interests of peace and prosperity – our hope is that it is not too late still for that re-examination to take place.
For Ireland’s part, our commitment to the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, which have been at the heart of our EU membership and our economic prosperity, is absolute. It is of vital importance to ourselves and to all other Member States that the integrity of both is fully maintained.
I want to reiterate too that the steadfast support of the Netherlands, along with our other Member State partners, has been crucial in getting to this point. We do not take your support for granted. Michel Barnier has also shown outstanding leadership of the EU Task Force, as has Donald Tusk in guiding the EU 27, while we are fortunate to have a European Parliament today which understands Northern Ireland and the ingredients of peace which are so vital to protect.
And as we look to a future without the UK as part of the EU, we know we have valuable allies in the governments of the Netherlands, our Nordic partners and many Baltic Member States, who share our outlook of a Europe committed to free trade, to completing our banking union and to reforming economic and monetary union. And I feel I can say with some confidence that the views of our Dutch, Irish and Nordic/Baltic cluster will be heard with increased frequency and effect in our European Union of the future, including on foreign policy issues such as the Middle East Peace Process and the EU’s relations with Africa.
There will be time to delve deeper into those foreign policy challenges on another occasion. For now, this 20th anniversary year provides us with the opportunity to engage in thoughtful and constructive dialogue regarding the Good Friday Agreement. And re-committing to the principles within the Agreement is more vital than ever today. This is because Northern Ireland, despite our best efforts, has now been without its own Executive and Assembly for more than a year.
There is no substitute for these devolved institutions, both for dealing with the challenges of Brexit, and for addressing the vast range of other issues that require political representation and decision-making in Northern Ireland, within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are the institutional heart of the Agreement.
Unfortunately, to date, it has not been possible to reach an agreement on the re-formation of an Executive, despite intensive engagement. We are however, considering all possible options regarding how we can support the political process in accordance with the Agreement in the period ahead.
The Good Friday Agreement fundamentally altered the basis of relationships between Ireland and the United Kingdom, within Northern Ireland, and on the island of Ireland, and transformed life on the island from one marred by violence, to one of peace.
In any post-conflict region, the emotional, cultural, economic, social and physical scars run deep. It is our obligation and duty to those that lost their lives or who were injured or bereaved during the Troubles to ensure that the fundamental framework for peace on the island of Ireland is protected in the face of all challenges that arise. The Good Friday Agreement is, and must continue to be, the bedrock upon which future peace and prosperity is built.
We continue with that endeavour with greater confidence because of the unwavering solidarity we have been shown by our friends in the Netherlands and across Europe. It is matched by the warmth of the welcome you have given me here today. Thank you for hosting me and I’d be pleased to take any questions.
11 April 2018