Check Against Delivery
Thank you, Mike.
I am very glad to have the opportunity this afternoon to address the Think Tank for Action on Social Change.
For over twenty years, TASC has provided an important, independent voice in Irish society - analysing and advocating for how we can address inequalities and enhance our democracy.
TASC is active on the full range of social, economic and environmental concerns today - from housing and climate change to migration and pandemic recovery.
Informing and influencing debate and policy - TASC is a champion for equality and positive social change.
So, I warmly welcome that TASC is today launching a new conversation series on a Shared Island - with a focus on building inclusive prosperity based on social and economic equality.
This is a goal that needs to be a more prominent part of our shared work on this island in the time ahead.
Tá sé ríthábhachtach do chuspóir agus do ghealltanas Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.
Tá forálacha i leith comhionannais agus saincheisteanna eacnamaíochta agus sóisialta ina gcuid lárnach den Chomhaontú.
[It is fundamental to the purpose and the promise of the Good Friday Agreement.
Provisions on equality and on economic and social issues form an integral part of the Agreement.]
Importantly, one of the rights expressly affirmed by all parties is that to “equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity”.
There has been significant, necessary progress on equality, North and South, since the Agreement was resoundingly endorsed by the people of this island, twenty-four years ago.
And enduring peace in Northern Ireland has opened up economic and social opportunities for all, that the preceding years of conflict and violence had stifled.
But, unfortunately, concerted action to drive inclusive economic progress has not been a sustained, core political focus in the Peace Process so far.
It has been insufficiently taken forward in the work of the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, and in the North/South and East/West dimensions of the Agreement.
This is a significant gap both in how we support communities and how we work to build mutual trust and reconciliation on this island.
John Hume, one of the leading architects of the Good Friday Agreement, was also a tireless campaigner for social and economic justice.
He was always clear that equality and shared prosperity would underpin peace, cohesion and harmony between the different communities and traditions of this island.
Just before he retired from political life in 2004, in an address to Seanad Éireann, John reminded us that (and I quote):
“through working the Agreement, we can build a society where poverty is eliminated,
where we provide the very best in schools and hospitals…
where we nurture our sense of community, where there is no place for racism or sectarianism,
and, where everyone, young or old can realise their full potential.”
I believe that we need to reaffirm John Hume’s view that a core task of the Peace Process is to deliver tangible improvements in people’s lives, and in the prospects of all communities.
It is by working together, across political traditions and across the border, for a more inclusive, equitable, prosperous society, that we will reach a reconciled future on this island.
Shared Island initiative
That dynamic is at the heart of the Government’s Shared Island initiative, which I launched almost eighteen months ago.
This is a practical, ambitious commitment to work with all communities and traditions to build an inclusive, shared future on this island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
It is backed up by the Government’s Shared Island Fund, through which we are providing at least €1billion for all-island investment out to 2030.
As part of the revised National Development Plan, we have set out new Shared Island investment priorities, across virtually all sectors, for the decade ahead.
Our goal is to work with the Executive, the UK Government, and with Local Authorities and civil society to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island, for all.
We are working now on a whole of Government basis to achieve it.
My Department’s Shared Island unit has a driving and coordinating role, working with all Departments and Agencies.
Last year, the Government allocated €50m from the Shared Island Fund.
To start moving ahead with the cross-border Ulster Canal and Narrow Water Bridge projects, as landmark sustainable tourism and recreation assets.
And, to deliver a major, new €40m North South Research Programme, which is now underway. Bringing together researchers to engage in collaborative work that will strengthen the island’s reputation for innovation and research excellence.
We are working across Government to bring forward other new all-island projects throughout this year, supported through the Shared Island Fund.
- seed capital for new regional investment led by cross-border Local Authority partnerships;
- all-island EV charging infrastructure;
- a cross-border community climate action scheme;
- support for border region enterprise development; and,
- for all-island civil society partnerships.
And, as I will set out, we want to do considerably more with the Executive and UK Government to support educational attainment, skills development and access to good jobs for all communities on this island.
The Shared Island unit in my Department is also commissioning a broad-based research programme, the first tranche of which has now been published.
This is looking - for the first time and in a comprehensive way - at how we share the island today and how we could do so better in the years ahead, for the benefit of all communities.
Last week, I launched a major report to Government by the National Economic and Social Council on Shared Island; Shared Opportunity.
Following broad-based consultation over the last year, NESC has made 25 recommendations on how we can deepen beneficial cooperation across the island, in economic, social and environmental terms.
Many of the Council’s recommendations relate to putting more priority on inclusive economic and social progress. Including:
- Exploring the role of North/South initiatives in tackling concentrations of poverty - particularly in communities still impacted by the legacy of conflict;
- Developing a shared island good jobs agenda;
- Fostering more strategic cooperation between further education and training institutions;
- And, developing the role of social enterprise on an all-island basis.
NESC has identified important opportunities that are before us to build inclusive prosperity, by working through the Good Friday Agreement, both North/South and East/West.
The Government will positively consider NESC’s recommendations and seek to take them forward in consultation with our partners in the Executive and UK Government.
My Department is also working with the Economic and Social Research Institute as part of the research programme.
With ESRI reports published in recent months that analyse the structure, connection and collaborative potential of the services economy; foreign direct investment; and of primary healthcare systems - all on an island-wide basis.
Significant ESRI research to be published next week examines education systems and outcomes, North and South, from primary through to tertiary levels.
And, this year, ESRI work includes mapping of experience and policy on migrant integration on the island, and examining approaches to childcare and early education, North and South.
The shared island research programme is providing an important base of impartial evidence and analysis.
The Government wants to see this inform policy planning, political debate and agreed action for a more inclusive, equitable, prosperous society on this island in the years ahead.
In making this opening contribution to TASC’s Shared Island series, I want to highlight three pivotal factors in reaching that goal:
- Education and skills;
- Civic engagement; and,
- Political leadership.
Education and skills
Education is our bedrock.
Success in consistently raising levels of education attainment has been the most fundamental factor in the economic and social progress we have made in recent decades.
Education has been an enduring passion of mine throughout my career. It is the Great Enabler.
It is why the establishment of a new Department of Further and Higher Education was such an important part of our Programme for Government.
It is why I was pleased to be part of the Government decision in recent weeks to introduce the most radical changes to the Leaving Certificate exam in half a century, and it is why I’m proud of the Government’s efforts to deliver a genuine step change in higher education through the creation of Technological Universities.
The focus of our reforms and our investment is to empower every person to reach their full potential.
Creating more pathways to higher levels of education, and the good jobs that are the dividend.
And, through the DEIS programme and School Completion Programme, successive Governments have put a strong and successful focus on retaining students in education.
Unfortunately - as confirmed in ESRI research being published next week - education completion rates in Northern Ireland lag behind both the rest of the UK and Ireland.
The Executive has rightly put a focus on addressing this - last year endorsing and agreeing to take forward the recommendations in the ‘Fair Start’ report of the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement, commissioned under the New Decade, New Approach Agreement.
I have long made the case for both Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to support the Executive on education reform and investment.
The unique community context and legacy in Northern Ireland, means that education reform is more difficult and complex.
It also makes all the more important the role of education in supporting individual and community progress and well-being.
The Government already cooperates with the Executive on addressing educational under-achievement issues through the North South Ministerial Council.
And, as part of the PEACE PLUS programme - funded by the European Union, UK Government, Irish Government and the Executive - we will deliver a major €35million skills development theme over the next seven years, including to address barriers to participation in further education by disadvantaged groups.
The Government will seek to build on these important dimensions of cooperation, to put a more ambitious, inclusive education and skills agenda at the heart of what we do through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement in the years ahead.
Inclusive civic engagement is a second critical factor; it can inform and help to forge consensus around an agenda for building inclusive prosperity on this island.
This is central to the Government’s Shared Island approach.
In October 2020, I launched a Shared Island Dialogue series to provide a space for civic conversations on how we work for a shared future on this island.
So far, over 1,300 citizens from across the island have participated - from all communities, traditions and regions.
And, we are ensuring the inclusion of voices not sufficiently heard in the Peace Process - in particular those of women, young people and ethnic minorities.
The Dialogues are addressing key common concerns for the future for people, North and South, including on education, healthcare and climate action.
And, engaging with societal questions around identity, culture, equality and inclusion. Issues that we need to acknowledge, discuss and strive to do better on together on this island.
We are hearing from those most directly involved in different sectors how a shared island agenda can be shaped around impactful, beneficial, achievable actions by government and civil society alike.
And these discussions are clearly affirming the goodwill and common ground there is in civil society to cooperate on common challenges for this island.
The Dialogues are directly informing how the Government is working to deepen our North/South and East/West partnerships through the Good Friday Agreement.
We will continue the series through this year - now with events in-person and around the island. Next month with a Dialogue in Monaghan, looking at how we enable rural and community development on a shared island basis.
Importantly, the Dialogues are also a starting point for broader and deeper civic conversations:
- The National Women’s Council has initiated an All-Island Women’s Forum, which has already built a strong profile and will provide a report to the Government and the Executive later this year;
- The Wheel and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action have commenced an iCommunity shared practice hub to bring civil society together across the island to explore common concerns, work together, and showcase what works in their communities;
- And, the Shared Island series being launched by TASC today will generate and inform public debate around diversity, equality and inclusivity as guiding principles for how we shape the future of this island.
These are important, constructive interactions between civil society, government and political representatives.
They help build understanding, confidence and consensus around taking forward a more ambitious shared island agenda for the years ahead, that can benefit all communities.
So, the Government will continue to support and engage with civic initiatives as an integral part of our Shared Island approach.
I want to conclude with a few words on the significance of political leadership, at this consequential moment for the Peace Process.
Issues around Brexit have further strained politics in Northern Ireland, and complicated North/South and East/West relationships in recent years.
There are genuinely-held concerns among some in the unionist community about the operation of the Protocol.
The Government has and will continue to listen to and engage on these with our EU partners, and with the UK Government, to find agreed resolutions.
We are in the midst of the Assembly election campaign right now. But even before that the Executive and the North South Ministerial Council were not fully functioning. This remains a serious concern.
It is vital for the future of Northern Ireland and for relationships on these islands that the political parties take their mandates from the Assembly elections and move quickly to form a new Executive.
That is what the people of Northern Ireland want.
As political leaders, we need to, and can, find resolutions that move beyond the issues around Brexit and the Protocol.
At the same time, we need to mend and tend relationships, across borders, communities and political traditions, through meaningful cooperation and interaction.
The peace and progress achieved through the Good Friday Agreement since 1998 must be sustained.
The way forward is for all political leaders to live up to the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement, which are overwhelmingly supported by people across this island.
To see all of the political institutions of the Agreement working and delivering for people.
To reaffirm partnership, equality and mutual respect as of the basis of our political relationships.
That will remain the guiding focus for the Government as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
I believe that - with the goodwill and impetus there is in communities across this island - political leaders can and will overcome the challenges we see in the Peace Process today and take up the opportunities of the time ahead.
And work for a shared, prosperous and reconciled future for all on this island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.