Opening Remarks by Minister Coveney at Shared Island Dialogue
Statement25 March 2021
Check Against Delievery
I am delighted to welcome everyone to the third Shared Island dialogue, where we will consider together the role that civil society can play in advancing connections and mutual understanding on a Shared Island.
While I know we will have a substantive discussion this morning, it is on occasions like this that we really miss being unable to gather together in person. After all, civil society at its best is about human connection and relationships, and the momentum behind positive ideas that come from that.
As we have grappled with the pandemic over the last twelve months we have experienced forced separation: from loved ones; from colleagues; and from the wider communities we belong to.
Right here at the start of this meeting, I want to pay tribute to the determination and imagination demonstrated by civil society groups right across the island of Ireland, and in Britain too, over the last year, to meet the needs of members of their community, particularly the most vulnerable.
I know that all of you have had to respond to huge challenges, and I know that you have all risen to them in ways you could hardly have imagined a very short time ago.
This morning however, I’d like to look ahead and share with you the relationship that I see between the Government’s Shared Island initiative, and the work of civil society.
The Shared Island initiative is rooted in the Good Friday Agreement, and is about being more ambitious for what we can achieve through the Agreement to deliver progress and foster reconciliation on this island. That means delivering more for people through North/South partnership, and working for more vibrant East/West relationships in the post-Brexit era.
Reflecting the level of our ambition, the Government is making €500m in capital funding available over the next five years, to invest for a more connected, more sustainable and more prosperous island. We will do this working in partnership with the Executive in Northern Ireland and with the British Government.
We also want to ensure that civil society can make its full contribution. Civil society is so often a voice for those that feel marginalised, drawing attention to injustice, and building momentum for social change.
Civil society has also provided a unique dynamic for building consensus in areas where politics alone could not. We have witnessed this in relation to key social questions – including on marriage equality and access to abortion in this jurisdiction – and on contested issues like parading in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, and since then, civil society has been to the fore in consolidating peace and nurturing the space for reconciliation in communities.
And critically, civil society reflects the full diversity of this island, North and South. It is essential that all communities, traditions and identities are engaged in discussions on our shared future. That is why our Shared Island initiative is working to involve the full breadth of views on the island – including the underrepresented perspectives and experiences of women, young people and ethnic minority communities – and bring together all communities and traditions.
For this reason, I am delighted that so many different perspectives are represented today. I am also encouraged by the positive response that there has been so far to the Shared Island initiative. We have an agenda that all communities and traditions can engage in with confidence. No one’s identity is diminished or compromised by cooperating and connecting in pursuit of our common interests and shared concerns on the island.
I want to acknowledge as well, that participation here today is, for so many of you, just a continuation of the longstanding openness to cooperation and engagement you have demonstrated over many years. There is deep and constructive cooperation within civil society in so many areas: from churches across all denominations, to women’s representatives and groups, to students and professional bodies. This engagement extends both North-South and East-West. In so many respects through civil society, we already share this island and these islands effectively – we need to harness that experience more.
I also want to acknowledge that, for civil society to fully play its part, it requires support. Governments must be willing to listen and engage with it. The Good Friday Agreement, and subsequent agreements, recognise the vital contribution of civil society within the Peace Process. Unfortunately, many of those provisions, for instance for a North/South Consultative Forum, have not yet been fully implemented.
For our part, the Irish Government remains committed to the better realisation of the civic provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in the years ahead. In the New Decade, New Approach agreement, there are commitments to the reform and renewal of the Civic Advisory Panel and the commissioning of civic engagement on policy issues, including through Citizen’s Assemblies. It is important that these commitments are followed through on, alongside all the other commitments in that agreement by the Executive and both Governments.
One commitment we made was to maintain the enhanced level of funding that my Department provides to civil society through its Reconciliation Fund. In fact, we are not just maintaining it, we will be expanding further the funding available this year. The vision of the Fund is to support an inclusive and reconciled Northern Ireland, and for mature, constructive relationships, between both parts of the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. This of course aligns closely with the goals of the Shared Island initiative.
I look forward to speaking in more detail very soon about our plans for the Reconciliation Fund, when we formally launch our new Strategy. As many of you know, this was developed based on extensive consultations with our partners and reflects your feedback and your vision for the future.
The EU PEACE PLUS programme – funded by the EU, UK and Irish Governments and the Executive – is another important support for civil society engagement on the island. I know that Gina McIntyre, will speak more about that later.
I also look forward to hearing directly from all of you on how you believe we can work together to advance our goal of building consensus around a shared future.
We all know that there are different and often competing views - on social, economic, cultural, political and constitutional issues on the island of Ireland. Yet it is possible to accept and respect that range of opinion, and still work together towards a better future, through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement.
We have seen it done through civil society and political leadership on so many difficult issues in our peace process through the years.
Through the Shared Island initiative, we want to ensure that we take up the enormous possibility the Good Friday Agreement offers, so that we build a peaceful, prosperous, reconciled future for all on this island.
I look forward to your questions, and to the discussion this morning.