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Address by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, to 42nd plenary of British Irish Parliamentary Assembly

Added 13-Jun-2011

Good morning co-chairs, fellow parliamentarians, ladies and gentlemen. I'm delighted to be here with you today for the 42nd Plenary Conference of the BIPA. I particularly want to thank your co-chairs - Lord Cope and Joe McHugh TD - for the invitation to speak to you today. I also want to welcome the many new members who have been appointed to this body in recent months and to welcome back other long serving members who I am delighted to see here today.

We are meeting today in the aftermath of several historic elections in these islands. The results of those elections were each historic in their own way, and in their own context. But they had this in common. They proved once more that the will of the people is supreme and that all of our democratic institutions have the strength and the support to reflect that popular will, even in these extremely difficult and fast-changing times. That is why I am honoured and very happy to be with you here today.

My Government is firmly committed to continuing to build on the democratic achievements on this island in recent years and on the very positive relationships that exist throughout these islands. The British Irish Parliamentary Assembly is an essential part of our new democratic architecture, and an essential expression of the value we place on our new relationships.

This body has an honourable and established history - one that dates back to 1990. The British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, as it was then, was established to encourage greater understanding between the people and parliamentarians of these islands. Over twenty years later, it has clearly succeeded in this objective.

In 2001, it was enlarged to include representatives of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Isle of Man and the States of Guernsey and Jersey. It is true to say that the strength of friendship and cooperation on matters of mutual interest that has grown between us in that time is truly historic.

Over the past two decades, this Assembly has played a crucial role in the improvement of the British - Irish bilateral relationship in particular. Its importance in fostering dialogue and important bonds between our democratic institutions should never be under-estimated. It has acted as a link, firstly, between the Oireachtas and Westminster but more recently, it has opened up new and valuable channels of communication between all of the Administrations in these islands.

I know that many of you will personally benefit from the strong interpersonal relationships which you will make as Members of this Assembly, as I did myself during my association with this organisation. Indeed, as we meet here today, I am sure we are all conscious that we stand of the shoulders of many major political figures, including past Members, who have helped bring us to the peace and friendship we now enjoy. I would like to join with you today in especially honouring the memory of former Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald. He served this country so well, and he dedicated his life to public service for the betterment of all of the people of Ireland, from all traditions, North and South. He passed away during the historic week of the Queen's visit, secure in the knowledge that all his work towards bringing peace to Northern Ireland and to transforming relations between Ireland and Britain had come to fruition. Garret was truly a remarkable parliamentarian, and a remarkable Irishman.

I would also like to pay tribute to another great Irishman, Declan Costello, who sadly passed away last week. In his career he also did this State much service. As with Dr FitzGerald, he played an essential role in the transformation of society in this State that was a key enabler in building the rapprochement with those from the other tradition on this island. Their life's work was rewarded in so many ways in recent weeks.

The month of May 2011 was an extraordinary one in the history of Ireland's bilateral relationship with Britain. The state visit of Queen Elizabeth II marked a new chapter in what is now clearly a strong, positive and forward looking relationship. The visit spoke so very eloquently of the new reality that relations between our own two countries have been transformed and strengthened in recent decades. Reconciliation between Ireland and Britain has been hugely advanced, through the working together of successive Irish and British governments - with the Northern Ireland parties - on the peace process.

The closing of old wounds has given new life to the oldest of relationships. That relationship retains its historic resonance, but it also has a fresh and contemporary dimension. The question of identity has been central. Coming to terms with the issue of identity has played a large part of the progress that has been made between our two countries. Equal respect for Irish and British identity also lies at the very heart of the Good Friday Agreement - the bedrock of our new relationship. It has underpinned all of the significant progress that has been made in Northern Ireland since 1998.

That respect was captured perfectly by the presence, the words and the gestures of President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth - at Dublin Castle, at the Garden of Remembrance and at the National War Memorial. And it was embodied by the warm welcome from the people of this city when the Queen visited Cork.

The Queen's visit also highlighted the importance of British-Irish relations in all their dimensions, in trade, in business, culturally and politically. The extent of our business and trade relationship is clearly illustrated by the fact that every week €1 billion of goods and services and up to 100,000 peoplecross the Irish Sea; that more than 40,000 Irish people are on the boards of British companies, well over double the figure for any other country; and that Britain exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India, Russia and Brazil combined.

So, we have bonds of history and politics, of economics and trade, and of culture and kinship. As in all close relationships, there will, of course, be challenges to be faced. We can not and do not expect to always agree with each other. However, the context in which our disagreements are discussed and resolved is now firmly one of friendship, of respect, of trust and of co-operation.

We have learned that continual engagement with each other on matters of mutual concern is absolutely vital if real understanding is to be achieved. The work of the BIPA exemplifies this. Looking ahead, we are now in the fortunate position to be able to work at building on the peace and progress of the last decade and focussing on the wider partnership of common interests between our two islands.

It is clear, for example, that we have much to learn from each other as we meet the challenges posed by the ongoing global financial crisis. Recent developments in the Irish economy and banking sector have impacted terribly on our people at home and on our reputation abroad. The supportive and timely response of the British government was very notable and much appreciated. This gesture, I think, illustrates how positive Britain's attitude is towards Ireland and was a clear acknowledgement of the close interconnection between our economies and our mutual interdependent interests.

My Government is committed to meeting the major economic challenges that Ireland faces. While we still have a long way to go, we are meeting our targets under the IMF\EU Programme of Support and we are getting on top of our banking crisis.We have taken decisive action to restructure and recapitalise our banking system, at costs that are within the envelope provided for in the IMF\EU Programme. The costs will also be offset by measures involving subordinated bondholders, asset sales and private finance. We are getting our public finances in order. We are working with our EU partners to make sure the Programme operates in a way which facilitates early return to the markets, including the level of interest rate charged. We have taken dramatic action to reduce our fiscal deficit, and will continue on this path to make the target of a 3% deficit by 2015.

Clearly, economic growth is the key factor in debt sustainability and we have taken early policy decisions to promote growth and assist job creation. We have made very significant improvements in competitiveness already, and we will take necessary action to maintain that positive trajectory. Our balance of payments current account is due to go positive this year, an important indicator of sustainability. We continue to attract significant levels of foreign investment by providing a competitive, business-friendly environment and a skilled, creative workforce. And we will retain our rate of corporation tax, a long-standing part of our enterprise policy.

We are also working hard to re-build Ireland's reputation, inside the EUand beyond, by ensuring the progress we are making is communicated effectively, and by assuring other governments of our seriousness of intent in this matter.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am a realist, but I am also an optimist. I believe in positive thinking and positive action. Peace on this island was achieved by the hard work of many, many people. They were people - like John Hume and Garret Fitzgerald and others - who refused to believe that even the most difficult of problems could not be solved. The successful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement have proved the optimists right. It has transformed the life of everyone on the island of Ireland. The inclusive, power-sharing Institutions in the North continue to consolidate and evolve.

At the ballot box on May 5th, the people of Northern Ireland gave their overwhelming endorsement to the parties committed to making the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement work. I join with First Minister Peter Robinson in his pledge, after that election, to work to build a shared future of peace for all the people on this island in honour of the memory of Constable Ronan Kerr - a young man callously murdered simply because he chose to pursue a career in the service of the people of Ireland.

I want to assure you today that the Government that I lead is committed to protecting all of the gains that have flowed from the Good Friday Agreement, and to bringing the relationship between the traditions on this island to a new and higher level. I have a deep personal commitment to this process. I believe there is now no obstacle to the implementation of the remaining outstanding commitments from the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements.

I welcome in particular the progress that has been made towards the establishment of the North South Parliamentary Forum, which will complement the work of this body and the other institutions. I had the honour of chairing my first Plenary Meeting of the North South Ministerial Council last Friday. This was the first meeting between my government and the new Executive in Northern Ireland. Our key priorities are to strengthen the island economy, as an essential component of economic recovery, to help create jobs for our people and to improve cross border public services such as health and education.

Through the work of the British Irish Council, which is also rooted in the peace process, we will also work energetically together with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands to promote positive and practical improvements in the lives of all of the people who elected us to represent them. I look forward to attending my first Summit of the British Irish Council as Taoiseach next week in London.

As I said at the outset, we are now in a new era. We should take time to reflect on the possibilities that new era offers. As we should reflect on the huge achievements of the peace process and the transformation in relationships that we have all helped to bring about. When I met President Barack Obama recently, I was greatly struck in our discussion by just how important a model Ireland is for him and for those who work for peace in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East.

It is an achievement we must treasure and protect. It is an experience we can and will share with the world. Most importantly, it is an unprecedented and wonderful opportunity for our future on these islands. With your help, Working together, as friends, We will not let that opportunity pass. Go raibh maith agat.


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