Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me this morning and also for kindly inviting me to join you last night for the pre-plenary dinner. This has been a homecoming for me in many ways as I have spent several very enjoyable years as a member of this body and have personally experienced the massive contribution this body makes to the understanding of these islands.
It is not just the Anglo-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. This assembly includes all the elected assemblies of these islands, our counterparts in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.
In the years since your inception in 1990, you have done an incredible job of bringing people together, facilitating a forum for discussion and understanding. A forum where, both privately and formally, differences can be addressed and ideas can be floated. We have differences on these islands and in recent years these differences have come to the fore at least as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. But organizations like BIPA, I think, are underpinned in a way by the guiding philosophy that Lord Denning, the late Master of the Rolls described when he said that two reasonable people can perfectly reasonably come to opposite conclusions based on the same set of facts without each waiving their right to be considered a reasonable person.
These are words that often come to mind when I visit people of different traditions from the divided communities of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach speak regularly on a range of issues and despite what you might read and hear, I would say the relationship echoes those between Thatcher and Fitzgerald, Major and Reynolds, Blair and Ahern and Cameron and Kenny.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have a close relationship with our Irish counterparts and Michael Gove, the UK Government’s Minister responsible for Devolved Administration, who has regular weekly calls with our counterparts in these areas . But my friends, the work of BIPA is at the heart of this work of understanding through your biennial plenary meetings, your committee work, your events and debates. You help build the bonds of trust and understanding that lay the foundation for the strong working relationship with the UK and Ireland that we enjoy. For that, my friends, thank you.
I returned to my home town of Belfast in September last year and visited my old primary school, Park Lodge on Antrim Road in North Belfast. One of the young people asked me what was different in Belfast today and different from when I was there in the 1970s and very early 1980s.
I replied that obviously a major difference was that half of the school’s audience was female. There were only boys in my time, because it was a school of Brothers. I said the substantial difference I would make when I walked to school along Antrim Road, the police would be in armored Land Rovers, there would be a British Army presence in the street. Bombs were commonplace, there was a door to Royal Avenue in central Belfast. A man boarded a bus to check people’s bags as they went to shops in Belfast city center during the day. This is not the case now.
Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement
Northern Ireland lives in a completely different environment which has been made possible by the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, the 25th anniversary of which we will celebrate next year. The agreement was a great milestone in the history not only of Northern Ireland, but of these islands as a whole. It enshrined the principle of consent, securing Northern Ireland’s place in the UK for as long as its people wished to be part of the Union.
He established political institutions to give voice to all communities in Northern Ireland. It created new bodies to foster greater North-South and East-West cooperation.
He reaffirmed the birthright of the people of Northern Ireland to their identity and citizenship and ensured that their rights are protected by law. And in doing so, the Belfast Agreement has created a more peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland.
But my friends, we must not live under the illusion that the job is done. When you visit parts of Northern Ireland today, communities still live in the shadow of walls of peace. In a very real sense, Northern Ireland lives in an absence of text-based violence and so much remains to be done to build genuine, cross-community understanding and respect. When you visit communities in Derry, Strabane, Castlederg and on both sides of the divide in Belfast, you see the urgency of this work that has yet to take place.
Earlier this year I was in Belfast for the Four Corners festival, a cross community coming together, led by two clergymen, Fr Martin Magill of St John’s on the Falls Road and Reverend Tracey McRoberts, a clergyman Protestant on the Shankill. An innovative event, opened by a message from the Holy Father Pope Francis and closed by a speech in person by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This would have been unprecedented and inconceivable 25 years ago.
Need for decentralized government
My friends, behind the agreement that makes all of this possible is the fundamental principle of decentralized power-sharing, shared government. The past two years have given us a very clear sign that when the parties in Northern Ireland work together much can be achieved. We must not allow ourselves, by accident or design, to return to a state of political deadlock in which the only people to suffer will be the people of Northern Ireland themselves.
This is why the Government is firmly committed to a return to power sharing and urges all parties to commit to power sharing in the run-up to the May 5 elections. This will be an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to elect a new assembly. We believe passionately that decisions made in Northern Ireland should be made by people elected in Northern Ireland and accountable to the people of Northern Ireland at the ballot box. A restored executive will be fundamental to spur economic recovery.
Last year, the whole of the British economy returned to growth. It increased by 4.6% in Northern Ireland in the third quarter of 2021. Leveling up, the mission of the government I serve, is vital for all parts of this country that I serve, but especially for Ireland North.
Northern Ireland has many of the ingredients needed for economic success, exceptional talent, creativity and innovation. This, combined with the landscape, tourism and rich cultural and artistic heritage, makes NI an ideal place to live, work and do business and my friends to invest. We are expanding into sectors with huge potential for future growth, such as cybersecurity, where there are now 2,300 cyber professionals working in over 100 businesses in Northern Ireland.
Belfast is ranked among the top 25 tech cities in the UK, just behind London. We have a vibrant fintech, health and life sciences, and advanced engineering sector at NI. It is our job as a government to show that.
In September, the Secretary of State led the Northern Ireland Business and Innovation Showcase in London as part of our centenary programme. In November, the Secretary of State and Secretary for Trade hosted the Board of Trade in Derry, highlighting the fantastic ecosystem of Northern Irish businesses involved in digital trade.
Just a few weeks ago I visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where I supported the first ever Northern Ireland Day at the Dubai World Expo, supporting Northern Irish businesses such as White’s Oats, Kiverco and Greenfields, and by promoting the fantastic opportunities available in Northern Ireland. to major investors. I have also met with major sovereign wealth funds who have accepted my invitation to come and explore investment opportunities in Northern Ireland.
But the fact remains that Northern Ireland continues to weigh under its economic weight. Despite its strength, many communities still live in severe deprivation. We have the highest proportion of unskilled adults in the UK, the highest proportion of economically inactive adults and too high a proportion of Northern Ireland’s brightest and best leaving Ireland and never returning not.
This is why the program to upgrade and implement the policies and investments that will grow Northern Ireland’s economy is absolutely vital. Let me state the magnitude of the task and the opportunity. Northern Ireland’s economic output is around £42 billion. If we could close its productivity gap with the UK in a decade, Northern Ireland could generate £16 billion more, every year, at current prices. This would work out to around £8,500 per person.
That’s why we invest money in the Community Renewal Fund, the Leveling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund, which have real impacts in real communities on the ground in Northern Ireland.
For example, the £300,000 to develop a brand new digital hub on the site of the former Cushendall Police Station in County Antrim which I visited just a few weeks ago. A £2 billion financial package for the New Decade and New Approach, over £600 million for the City and Growth Deal program and £400 million for the New Deal for Northern Ireland, in over £355 million to help businesses in Northern Ireland adapt to the post-EU Brexit business environment.
My friends, these are numbers but they represent opportunities for real people in Northern Ireland. They represent the possibility for people to have the dignity of earning a living through work and to see people come off welfare and regain dignity.
I want to end by telling you this. The relationship between the UK and Ireland is unique and special.
We can debate who the closest friends and allies in the world are, but the reality is that our economies, our cultures, our histories and our futures are inextricably linked and always will be for geographic reality. BIPA has helped build this understanding and respect over the years and this work continues today.
Last night at dinner I was delighted to meet and chat with Minister Byrne and accept his invitation to visit Dublin and indeed his own constituency. I accept this invitation warmly and wholeheartedly because it is through building relationships and understanding that we advance the interests of all of our people on these islands. Thank you earlier for all you do to support this program. I always remember one of my favorite lines from Yes Minister, when Sir Humphrey explained to Bernard that in politics gratitude is only a keen expectation of favors to come.
May I end by thanking you for all you have done and thank you for all you will do in the decades to come. Thanks very much.