As delivered by Fine Gael Minister Joe McHugh TD in Glenties tonight at the MacGill Summer School. Edwin Poots was in the audience (see Gerry Moriarty’s report tonight), with Mary Lou McDonald (abreviated), Katy Hayward, David Gavaghan and moderated by Denis Bradley:
A few years ago I travelled to Stormont with around a dozen Fine Gael TDs for a meeting with the First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
Peter Robinson stood up to speak. He began by saying ‘we need to work on the relationship we have north and south’. Then he stopped.
Then he began again. He said that we actually already have a relationship. It was just we hadn’t quite figured out what to do with it.
And that is where we are at – a need to develop a coherent, clear and warm relationship between people in the two jurisdictions. In order to progress that we also need to work, and work harder, to bring the communities in Northern Ireland together.
As we continued to work on developing and deepening these relationships the Brexit result landed on our desk; a decision taken by the UK – not us – for the UK to leave the European Union. It was also a decision rejected by most people in Northern Ireland.
The implications are still being felt.
Separately from this, the Government had already been working on the possible Leave result. It might even be true to say that in advance of the referendum the Irish Government had made more preparations for a Leave result than the Government in London.
Locally here in Donegal, the County Council and Derry & Strabane Council had already been working on cementing links across that invisible Border.
Since the Brexit vote, there have been 20 All-Ireland Dialogue Events with 1,400 delegates representing all strands of life. Separate to that we have held 300 other meetings to prepare for the UK leaving the EU.
The largest Dialogue event was hosted by me here in this county, in Letterkenny. More than half of the delegates came from Northern Ireland, many seeking leadership and direction they weren’t getting elsewhere.
As I said there has been very significant progress in building a new partnership relationship here in the North West.
The North West Strategic Growth Partnership Board recently held its second Plenary meeting. This new Partnership between Donegal, Derry City and Strabane District Councils and our Government and the Northern Ireland Executive offers a new way of maximising the potential of this region, of building on the cross border ties that have always been so strong in this region to ensure that the North West region can thrive.
The new cross-border arrangements, supported by the Fresh Start Agreement and commitments by our Government including a financial commitment made to the North West Development Fund, are milestones for the future development of this region.
As I said, these new arrangements were conceived well before June 2016 UK referendum. While Brexit was not the reason for the establishment of this new Partnership, it offers an invaluable regional-focussed forum through which the very significant issues arising from Brexit may be addressed.
Here in the North West, we face an EU border bisecting the Derry-Letterkenny gateway, cutting through the social and economic hinterland of this critical urban driver.
There are in excess of 320,000 cross-border movements a week here in the North West alone, almost two million a month across the entire border. A hard border and the impact it would have on people’s lives and livelihoods simply cannot be countenanced. Avoiding a hard border is, therefore, a headline priority for this Government.
Following our intensive political and diplomatic engagement over the last year and even before that, the EU Heads of State and Government in the European Council also agreed on the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and this is an EU objective for the negotiations with the UK on their departure from the Union.
The need to ensure full respect for the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, and to protect our Common Travel Area are likewise accepted and adopted by the European Union.
The island of Ireland issues will be dealt with as a priority in Phase One of the EU-UK negotiations in the months ahead. There has been very positive engagement by EU officials in understanding the unique set of challenges which Brexit poses for this island.
It is clear that, while Brexit has the potential to fundamentally alter the relationship between the UK and Ireland, it is in the border regions that its impact is felt most acutely. I am delighted that our Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and UK Brexit Minister David Davis have agreed to visit the Border in the coming weeks to see the potential impacts of Brexit.
We have enjoyed the absence of a border, we have learned and gained each other’s trust as those borders came down. We have intertwined our lives across that border as they have ever been going back through the centuries.
The people in Border Regions, on both sides of the Border, have rediscovered what has always been true that we have far more in common with each other than divide us. Church communities – from all the main Christian religions – can now access parishes and dioceses once divided by a physical border.
Sometimes it is no surprise that the people in Border Counties are united in their belief that those in Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels really are a long way away.
However I’ve come today from a meeting with my Cabinet colleagues and it is always a pleasure to talk with them about all the good work already happening in the North West and the high level of cooperation across all sectors society be that through third level education, transportation or radiotherapy.
And I really look forward to July next year to the Irish Open. While it will be in Inishowen this will be a collective cross-Border effort delivering a major international event for the entire North West.
As a Government, we have managed to persuade our European partners of the unique circumstances of this island in the Brexit process.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the priority for me as a TD for Donegal and as someone who sits at the Cabinet table as Government Chief Whip that we must protect the peace process. I am very very conscious that it remains a peace process and that we have to continue to nurture it and ensure we never go back.
I want the invisible border to remain. Furthermore, I do not want an economic or physical border, and with my colleagues, we are working for the retention of the Common Travel Area and the closest possible trading relationship to continue between north and south and between east and west across the Irish Sea.
While there will be a political border, as An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a speech in Gaoth Dobhair a few weeks ago, we are working for an all-island economic strategy with no trade barriers between Derry and Donegal or between Armagh and Monaghan.
That message is being repeated over and over again in 450 meetings with the remaining EU Member States and EU institutions.
Infrastructural links between north and south must be progressed regardless of Brexit. A new A5 road from Derry to Aughnacloy with new roads from Lifford to Letterkenny must form part of enhancing our physical connections so that our people move even closer wherever they live.
Finally, I want to turn back to the internal relationships in the North. The sooner the institutions in Northern Ireland are re-instated, the better for everyone on this island. Relationship-building continues across a wide variety of areas but we need to continue it on the political front too.
I know our Government position is that an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland should be introduced. It was agreed at the St Andrew’s talks a decade ago.
So I want to say to Edwin here this evening. The Irish language does not belong to any political party, north or south. It belongs to all those who wish to engage with it. The Presbyterian community, in particular, helped to save the language over many years.
The language is not a threat. It is not a political weapon and it should not be used as one. It is the same for Ulster-Scots. The Ulster-Scots Agency has an office in this constituency in Raphoe to further promote that part of our shared heritage particularly here in Ulster.
I’d be happy as Minister for the Irish language in this jurisdiction to meet and talk with any unionists who have any concerns about the Irish language and reassure them that people like me who have learned to love the language have no intention of doing anything other than speak it and share it with those who want to share in it.