Last Monday the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Taioseach, Enda Kenny, stood shoulder to shoulder in Downing Street to issue a new Joint Statement on UK-Irish relations.
It sets out how our two countries intend to intensify co-operation over the next decade.
There was a time when the statement would have focused heavily, if not exclusively, on Northern Ireland.
Yet last week, Northern Ireland was just one, albeit important, part of a statement covering our economies, trade, jobs, the European Union and how we can address other global problems.
To me, that’s a sign of great progress. It was in many respects the first post-peace process statement.
In the words of the Joint Statement, “The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today”.
That was brought home to us last May with the hugely successful visit to Ireland of Her Majesty The Queen.
And in this, Her Diamond Jubilee year, our wonderful Queen will be in Northern Ireland as she tours the length and breadth of her Kingdom.
The UK and Ireland are uniquely linked by history, geography, business, culture, sport, travel and family.
As many as six million people in Britain can claim an Irish grandparent, while over 100,000 people living in Ireland were born in Britain.
The UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner, while we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.
So the prosperity of one is vital to the prosperity of the other. And the prosperity of both is crucial to the success of Northern Ireland.
That’s why we had no hesitation in offering substantial bilateral assistance to Ireland during its banking crisis in late 2010…
…and at the same time staunchly defended the Republic’s right to set its own rate of corporate taxes which were coming under aggressive pressure from elements within the EU.
We did so as a friend and a partner.
Of course our partnership has been at its most obvious in recent years on Northern Ireland.
I can safely say that without that co-operation, supported by successive US administrations, we would not have made the progress we have seen over the past two decades.
And can I also pay tribute to senior members of the main political parties in Westminster who maintained a bi-partisan approach to Northern Ireland over many difficult decades.
I’m pleased to see the shadow Secretary of State, Vernon Coaker, here today who is maintaining that tradition.Security
And today, without the security co-operation between our two countries more lives would have been lost at the hands of those small and unrepresentative terrorist groups who continue to reject the democratic will of the people of Ireland, North and South.
Here, let us remember for a moment PC Ronan Kerr, murdered by dissident republicans last April.
Those who carried out that vile and cowardly act will never succeed in undermining the hard won stability that Northern Ireland now enjoys…
…as the united response of the whole community in Northern Ireland, and across the island of Ireland, so clearly demonstrated.
Nobody should be in any doubt that politically Northern Ireland is now more stable than it has been for over a generation.
We have an inclusive, functioning devolved administration at Stormont.
All the key public services are now run by locally accountable politicians.
We stand by the agreements and the consent principle at their heart.
This gives us the opportunity to move beyond the politics of the peace process…
…and deliver on the mainstream issues that concern people in their daily lives, like jobs, schools and hospitals.
The overwhelming majority of people want this settlement, backed by 71 per cent in the North and 94 per cent in the South, to succeed…
Frankly, to concentrate on anything else at the moment is simply a distraction from that task.
There are some things that the Executive is responsible for.
There are some things that Westminster is responsible for.
And there are things that we must do together working with colleagues throughout the UK and Ireland.
Rebalancing the economy
For all of us here, the biggest challenge is the economy.
The Coalition Government in London inherited the largest deficit in the UK’s peacetime history.
We are borrowing £232,000 a minute and spending over £120 million a day in debt interest.
As a result of the difficult measures we’ve taken we have gained the confidence of the international markets.
The United Kingdom is seen as a financial safe haven in a global debt storm.
And we have been able to borrow at record low interest rates…
…which helps everyone who has a mortgage or runs a business.
So we’ll continue with our credible plan to reduce the deficit and live within our means.
At the same time we’ll continue to pursue an unashamedly pro-business agenda and pro-enterprise agenda…
…as I know will the Northern Ireland Executive.
Their recently finalised Programme for Government puts the economy right at the top.
In Northern Ireland, for all the reasons we understand, our economy is just too dependent on public spending.
According to some reports it accounts for over 75 per cent of GDP.
We all know that’s unsustainable.
So, as we move beyond the politics of the peace process, we have to rebalance the economy by helping the private sector expand.
That will come about by radical measures that create the conditions for local businesses to grow and by attracting even more overseas investment.
And we are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve that.
The Executive has had some notable successes in attracting foreign companies into Northern Ireland, such as Citi Group, Caterpillar, and the New York Stock Exchange.
And once there, they like what they see.
We’ve a huge amount going for us…
…great education, two brilliant universities, the English language, a highly competitive cost base, state of the art broadband connections between the US and Europe, excellent transport links, a strongly pro-business Executive.
And the benefits that come from being an integral part of the world’s 7th largest economy.
Plus it’s a great place to live, work and to visit.
Only a couple of weeks ago Northern Ireland was officially recognised as the happiest place in the UK.
We’ve some world class companies, like Wrightbus, Randox, Norbrook and Almac.
We’ve got global brands, like Bushmills whiskey.
We’ve two of the top ten golf courses in the world and our golfers, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke have made Northern Ireland the golfing capital of the world.
And we’re storming ahead in the creative industries…
…Game of Thrones, filmed in Belfast.
…Northern Ireland’s latest Oscar winner, Terry George, for his short film ‘The Shore’.
…And bands like Snow Patrol.
We just need more of the above.
So to give a further boost to the economy the Coalition Government is examining the possibility of transferring the power to set Corporation Tax to the Northern Ireland Executive.
Last year we had a Treasury-led consultation on this which produced an overwhelmingly positive response.
A working group, comprising the UK and Northern Ireland Executive ministers, is currently looking in detail at the cost, the mechanisms and how we might legislate.
And we hope to be in a position to complete this work in the summer.
Building a modern, private sector-led economy is vital to Northern Ireland’s long term prosperity.
Both the UK Government and the Executive are at one in their determination to achieve it.
It will help to deal with many of the deep seated social problems we face.
Just think of the impact that it could have in areas where there is generational worklessness and where paramilitaries, on both sides, continue to prey and recruit.
The other great challenge as we move beyond the politics of the peace process is in building a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Last week’s Joint Statement also acknowledges this.
Given the history of Northern Ireland I don’t underestimate the difficulty of this. It will take time.
But it has to be a priority, as the First and deputy First Ministers reiterated last week.
According to a report by Deloitte the costs of division are a massive £1.5 billion.
There’s a large social cost too.
It’s these divisions that help to sustain terrorism and other criminal activities particularly within deprived communities.
So we’ll support the Executive where we can, when they have to take difficult decisions.
In the memorable words of the Prime Minister to the Assembly last year:
“Northern Ireland needs a genuinely shared future, not a shared out future.”
This is especially important as we enter a decade of centenaries, marking often controversial and divisive events in our shared history.
We are working closely with the Executive and the Irish Government on these.
As the British-Irish Joint Statement makes clear, we are approaching them “in a spirit of historical accuracy, mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation”.
So last week, the Taioseach attended the opening of an exhibition in Parliament marking the Third Home Rule Bill, introduced a hundred years ago next month, which we hope will also travel to Dublin and Belfast.
The emphasis is on promoting education and understanding.
When recognising a historically significant centenary one can be generous and respectful towards other traditions without in any way undermining one’s own beliefs.
Northern Ireland is a place of outstanding beauty.
We have some world-class attractions and on top of that in the next couple of years a series genuinely international historical and cultural events.
This year we have the Irish Open this year at Portrush.
The Jubilee celebrations…
The Olympic and Paralympic torch relay which will visit North and South…
The new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre…
The Clipper round the world yacht race…
And the Titanic Belfast project to mark the centenary of the tragic sinking of that great ship.
Next year we have the world fire and police games…
While Londonderry takes its place as UK city of culture.
So these are exciting times for Northern Ireland…
…all of which are encapsulated in the 2012 Tourism Ireland campaign “Our Time Our Place”.
In the words of my ministerial colleague, Hugo Swire, “if you’re not in Northern Ireland this year, frankly you’re no-one”.
We’ve come a long way.
We still have a long way to go.
But working together I believe it is within our grasp to move beyond the politics of the peace process and build…
… a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland
…based on a genuinely shared future for all.