Co-Operation Ireland Dinner London 2012
Two events in the past year have served to underline the closeness of the relationship that now exists between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
First, of course, was the historic visit of Her Majesty the Queen last May.
It was a huge triumph and I know that Her Majesty was deeply touched by the warmth of the reception she received from the Irish people.
And the way in which Her Majesty and the President handled sensitive issues set the tone for the decade of centenaries before us.
Today we opened an exhibition in Westminster Hall on the Third Home Rule Bill which was introduced one hundred years ago next month.
The emphasis for all these events has to be on historical accuracy but also respect, education and on fostering greater understanding.
And that’s what we hope the exhibition achieves.
The second event highlighting the strength of the UK-Irish relationship did of course take place today with the issuing of the Joint Statement between the Prime Minister and the Taioseach.
It sets out the framework for how our two countries can work together in a range of areas over the next decade.
Of overriding importance is of course economic growth and job creation.
Our two economies are hugely interdependent; the prosperity of one contributes greatly to the prosperity of the other.
As the Taoiseach reminded us today there’s £1 billion of trade each way between us every week.
And there will be issues on which we can make common cause in Europe, not least as strong supporters of the Single Market.
The Declaration also refers to continuing with the closest co-operation on Northern Ireland.
Let me briefly say a few words about that.
I firmly believe that the partnership between successive British and Irish
Governments, supported by Washington, has been absolutely crucial to the progress that’s been made over the past two decades…
…kick started with another Joint Declaration in 1993 by John Major and Albert Reynolds and through all the subsequent Agreements that have led us to where we are today.
As a result of all those years of effort, the political situation in Northern Ireland is now more stable than for over a generation.
We have an inclusive, functioning devolved government with all the key public services in local hands.
And there’s a broad determination across the community to make the settlement work.
The key priority now is delivery.
As the Prime Minister said in the Assembly last year, it’s time to move beyond the politics of the peace process.
For me, there are two great challenges both of which are hugely relevant to the work of co-operation Ireland.
First, the economy.
For reasons we all understand, Northern Ireland’s economy is too dependent on public spending.
According to some surveys it accounts for the equivalent of around three quarters of GDP.
That is unsustainable.
So along with the Northern Ireland Executive we are looking at ways of rebalancing the economy.
Not, I should add, by simply taking an axe to the public sector…
…but by creating the conditions in which the private sector can grow and by attracting foreign direct investment.
And let’s not forget what Northern Ireland has going for it…
…a highly educated workforce, two great universities, state of the art broadband, excellent transport connections to Great Britain and Europe, the English language, an extremely competitive cost base, strongly pro-business governments in London and Belfast.
Plus there’s a quality of life with Northern Ireland now officially recognised as the happiest place in the UK to live and work.
Of course every business in Northern Ireland benefits economic stability and low interest rates as a result of the tough decisions the Government has taken to reduce the deficit.
And they will benefit from the policies to help boost growth that we are implementing across the UK.
But given the scale of Northern Ireland’s dependence on public spending we need to do more.
That’s why we are seriously examining the possibility of giving the Northern Ireland Executive the power to set its own rate of corporation tax.
Last year we set up a ministerial working group from the Treasury, Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive.
It is examining the potential costs to the Northern Ireland block grant; the administrative changes that would be required; and the potential legislative vehicle for doing it.
These are all questions that require satisfactory answers before any decision is taken whether or not to proceed.
We hope to conclude our work by the summer.
Building a modern, private sector led economy is vital to Northern Ireland’s long term prosperity.
And it will help to deal with many of the deep seated social problems we face.
It will also play a key role in diminishing the pool of disaffected, very often young, people on whom paramilitaries continue to prey and from where they recruit.
Companies take decisions over expansion or where to invest for a number of different reasons, not just Corporation Tax.
But as the Chief Executive of Almac, who employs 2,000 people, is on record as saying he could double the size of his business in ten years if Northern Ireland had the same Corporation Tax rate as the Republic.
Think of the impact that could have in those hard to reach areas where Co-Operation Ireland already does such invaluable work.
The second key challenge we face is building what I call a genuinely shared future.
The Joint Statement by the Prime Minister and the Taioseach today makes specific reference to it.
For all the progress that’s been made in recent years, society in Northern Ireland is still too blighted by sectarianism and division.
The number of so-called peace walls has gone up.
Over 90 per cent of public sector housing is still segregated…
And more than 90 per cent of children are still taught separately.
Meanwhile there are 85,000 empty school places.
All of this comes at a huge social and economic cost.
According to a report by Deloitte the costs of division are a massive £1.5 billion.
So this has to be a priority.
I know that the Executive has made a start on this.
Most of the policy areas that deal with this issue rest with them.
We will support them when they have to take difficult decisions.
We recently had an extremely constructive meeting involving NIO ministers, the First and deputy First Ministers and the Tanaiste to see how we could all work more closely together on these matters.
There is much we can do together on this.
The Government realises that this is not an easy subject and given the history of division in Northern Ireland it will take time.
But as the Prime Minister has made clear…
…we cannot have a situation in which everything is carved up on sectarian grounds.
Northern Ireland needs a shared future, not a shared out future.
Today’s Joint Statement also sets out a vision of a shared future for the UK and Ireland over the next decade.
It’s a decade that will see the centenaries of key events in the history of these islands…
…events that forced Britain and Ireland apart.
Yet today we have never been closer and the relationship has never been stronger.
I warmly welcome that.
And on behalf of the UK Government look forward to playing our part in making a reality of the Joint Statement issued today…
…for the benefit of everyone in these islands