I’m delighted to be able to attend this evening’s meeting of the Queen’s University Literific Society.
I’m not planning to dwell on the issues of the moment which are, as we speak, the subject of intense negotiations in the Haass working group.
With the conclusion of that process imminent … I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome.
But I do want to reiterate that this is an important opportunity to make progress on some of the most divisive issues in our society and I hope that opportunity will be grasped.
And I urge all the parties to try to find a way forward and exercise that “give and take” that the Prime Minister called for yesterday.
But important as flags, parades and the past are … this evening I want to say a few words about the some of the other big challenges we need to tackle if we are going to build a better future for Northern Ireland.
… a Northern Ireland which is a place of aspiration and opportunity … underpinned by a stronger society and a more prosperous economy.
And as I look around the room this evening I’m convinced that’s the priority for most people here … as it is the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland.
I’m sure that many of you will be making important career decisions that could determine how you spend the rest of your lives.
For some … that might mean leaving Northern Ireland, possibly forever.
That has been the number one option for many graduates over the years … meaning their skills and talent are exported to Great Britain, Europe, the United States or elsewhere.
In fact in many places around the world you’ll find young people from Northern Ireland making a big impact … as I did only last month when I was in New York.
We need to find ways of ensuring that for the brightest and best in Northern Ireland, making a life here is an option.
That means building an economy based on enterprise and opportunity.
So let me say a few words about that.
It’s no secret that the last few years have been incredibly tough … across these islands and for much of the developed world … as we all felt the aftershocks of the biggest economic crisis in half a century.
In the UK and the Republic of Ireland we’ve had to deal with huge levels of public and private sector debt and unsustainable levels of public spending.
In the UK’s case, we had the largest structural deficit in our peacetime history.
Today, as a result of some very difficult decisions the UK’s deficit is down by a third … and this week the Republic became the first of the Eurozone countries to exit its EU/IMF bailout.
And I think we can at last see clear signs that our two economies are beginning to turn the corner … back on course for sustainable growth and recovery.
Here in Northern Ireland, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen for ten consecutive months.
We’ve also seen some welcome announcements on new jobs at places like Bombardier and Harland and Wolff here in Belfast and Fujitsu in Derry.
But it’s also clear that we still have a long way to go … particularly when it comes to issues like youth unemployment which remains far too high.
That’s why for example in his recent Autumn Statement the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced the abolition of employer National Insurance contributions for almost all under 21 year olds.
We are determined to help businesses to grow and create jobs, and help families with the cost of living.
The hard truth is that the only way to achieve a sustained rise in living standards is by growing the economy.
And it’s by growing the economy that we can continue to fund the public services on which we all depend and pay for a welfare system that protects the vulnerable while being fair to taxpayers.
Here in Northern Ireland the economy is still too dependent on public spending.
It’s clear that more work needs to be done before we succeed in the shared goal of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to rebalance in favour of private enterprise.
So in June the Government and the Executive agreed an economic pact aimed a boosting the private sector and helping businesses here compete in the global race for investment and jobs.
This pact sees the two administrations working more closely together than ever before.
And an important part of that package was the extension of our very successful Start Up Loans scheme to help young entrepreneurs access the finance they need to start their own business.
The reality is that just as labour is more flexible and mobile than at any time in our history … so is business, which these days often has the luxury of choosing wherever in the world it wants to locate.
So we need to highly competitive in the global market place … and demonstrate that we are one of the most attractive places in the world to do business.
That’s why we’re committed to giving the UK the lowest business taxes of any major developed economy … while closing loopholes to make sure all businesses pay their fair share tax.
It’s also the reason for securing special incentives for certain key sectors … such as our tax break for high end TV production which has been crucial in keeping Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland.
And of course our goal of rebalancing the economy is one of main the reasons why David Cameron brought the G8 to Fermanagh in the summer … to showcase the very best of Northern Ireland to the world.
But of course there’s no doubt that things remain difficult for many people … and the jobs market continues to be very competitive.
So the Government is committed to supporting aspiration, hard work, enterprise to give opportunities for everyone who wants to do the right thing for themselves and their families.
And while it’s tough … and there’s a long way to go … our economic reforms are starting to deliver results.
But Northern Ireland is never going to fulfil its potential as a place of opportunity while elements of our society here remain so deeply divided.
Working together, we have to tackle issues like sectarianism and the underlying tensions that lead to division and the kind of violence that can too often disfigure our streets.
So back in May the Executive … which has the lead in this area … published its community relations strategy Together Building a United Community.
The UK Government welcomed that as a promising first step … but the real test is delivery.
I know from my regular dialogue with the First and deputy First Ministers that they are committed to taking this forward … and I would strongly urge them to do so.
As the Prime Minister said at the investment conference in October we want to see a Northern Ireland defined by its shared future and not by its divided past.
Of course I know there are those who say that we can’t build a shared future until we’ve resolved the past.
But nor can we let the past hold us back by acting as a barrier on other initiatives to rebalance the economy and build a more cohesive and shared society.
So irrespective of the outcome of the debate on flags, parading and the past … there is still much pressing work that can and must go ahead.
And this will continue to require real leadership from Northern Ireland’s politicians.
Of course the UK Government can provide support and encouragement in those areas that are devolved … and we will continue to work closely and constructively with the Executive to play our part both in strengthening the economy and healing social division.
But this great task of reconciliation which still faces Northern Ireland also needs the backing of the whole community.
That includes young people who have such an important stake in getting this right.
The young people of Northern Ireland will be an essential component of the change we need.
They must have a real say in moving Northern Ireland forward and that’s why forums like the Literific … the oldest student society here at Queen’s … are so important.
And in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to condemn once again the disgraceful attacks we have seen on Belfast city centre in the run up to Christmas.
These were reckless and callous crimes which could have cost lives as well as damaging the economy just when it needs all the help it can get.
But I know that the PSNI are working incredibly hard to do everything they can to keep people safe.
The terrorists have no support and the condemnation of these recent attacks has been widespread and emphatic.
The people of Belfast will not be scared out of their own city centre by the actions of a violent minority.
So I wish you well with your debate this evening.
I commend the Literific Society on the contribution you make the debating the great issues facing our society today.
And I would like to wish you a very Happy Christmas and a successful and peaceful 2014.