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Co-operation Ireland is a peace-building charity that promotes interaction, dialogue and practical collaboration within Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
Ambassador, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s a great honour for me to be asked to give this year’s keynote address at the Co-Operation Gala Dinner.
I’d like first to pay tribute to Christopher Moran whose pursuit of peace and reconciliation across these islands is quite literally tireless!
Over two years since I was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I’ve seen at first hand the immense amount of time, energy and passion that he devotes to this.
And there’s even a rumour that in his spare time he manages to run a business too.
Christopher sets a shining example of commitment to public service and we should be very grateful to him for all that he does.
So Christopher, thank you.
And at Co-Operation Ireland, Christopher has a great team including his outstanding Chief Executive, Peter Sheridan.
And once again this has been an excellent year for Co-Operation Ireland, delivering key projects such as their programmes on Youth Leadership, a Fair Chance, Entwined Histories, the Family and Community Engagement Project and of course the National Citizen Service.
All of these are making real differences to people’s lives in some of the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland.
One heart warming example is provided by a young man from Portadown who on completing a Youth Leadership Project said:
I was going to leave school last year before I started this programme and now I want to go to university to be a teacher.
Another success story is the 16 year old who took part in the Fair Chance Programme and said:
The prejudice and discrimination course helped me out a lot because I used to be really bitter and it just helped me to see that everyone’s the same, we’ve just got different views.
So while estates in Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Portadown and elsewhere might seem a world away from this central London venue the backing you give to Co-Operation Ireland this evening really will help turn people’s lives around and give them a chance they otherwise might never have.
Building a stronger society and a genuinely shared future for Northern Ireland is a key objective of the Prime Minister and for me and Co-Operation Ireland plays a very significant role in taking us towards this goal.
So speaking on behalf of the UK Government I’d like once again to express my gratitude for all the great work that you do. Sentiments that Ambassador Mulhall made clear are shared by the Irish Government.
As both the Ambassador and Christopher also reminded us earlier it’s been a great year for UK-Irish relations too.
Of course this was demonstrated most clearly by the first ever state visit of an Irish President to the UK in April this year, following on from the 2011 visit of Her Majesty The Queen to Ireland.
For four days we enjoyed a huge celebration of the economic, social, cultural and family ties that bind the UK and Ireland together.
Let’s never forget that over six million people in Britain can claim an Irish grandparent, some of whom came here in difficult circumstances and faced hardship and discrimination.
And so it was fitting that with such a large and successful Irish community that we were able to use the occasion of the President’s visit to mark the enormous contribution made by the Irish in Britain.
And of course, Co-Operation Ireland was at the very heart of events bringing together political leaders and representatives from right across the community for the Northern Ireland themed reception at Windsor Castle.
Unionists, nationalists and republicans, UK and Irish government ministers all mingling together at an event hosted by Her Majesty The Queen and President Higgins.
Such an occasion would have been unimaginable a generation ago and yet it proved to be another historic occasion in a process that’s seen Northern Ireland move from thirty years of terrorism and the bitterest of divisions to the relative peace and stability that its people enjoy today.
It’s just over sixteen years since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.
And make no mistake that Agreement and its successors have transformed life for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.
The constitutional position has been settled on the basis of democracy and consent.
The rights and identities of both main traditions, British and Irish are fully respected with robust legal protections and an equal place in a power sharing devolved government.
Practical common sense co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on a range of matters, for example healthcare, is working well.
Relations between the UK and Ireland have moved to a new level.
And with the main paramilitary campaigns at an end, the security situation is virtually unrecognisable from what it was twenty years ago.
I’m also pleased to say that alongside the welcome upturns in both the UK and the Irish economies, the Northern Ireland economy is now clearly on the path to sustainable recovery.
Unemployment is down, private sector employment is up, business confidence is growing and Northern Ireland is predicted to grow faster than many major economies.
Of course getting back on the right path has required difficult decisions and times remain very tough.
But the Northern Ireland economy is definitely heading in the right direction and that means more people there with the security that comes with bringing home a pay packet for their families.
But of course economic growth relies on successful businessmen and women.
So we’ll continue to do everything we can to boost enterprise and the private sector in Northern Ireland.
And that’s why we are taking the calls to devolve corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly very seriously and we’ll take a decision in principle on whether or not this can go ahead in the next few weeks.
Yet for all the positives from today’s Northern Ireland it’s clear that we’ve still a distance to travel if we’re to achieve the stable, peaceful and shared society we all want to see.
There can be no doubt that the political institutions at Stormont are not working as well as they could, or should.
We all have a duty to do all we can to ensure that Stormont works and delivers the effective and efficient government that people in Northern Ireland expect and deserve.
So that’s why at the end of September the Government made a realistic assessment that the time had come to convene a new round of cross party talks in a fresh attempt to lift the blockages that are holding Stormont back.
In particular we need to deal with the long term financial position of the Executive including welfare reform and those legacy issues such as flags, parading and the past that can cause such damage to community relations.
Those talks are now in their fourth week and I’m just back from participating in the latest sessions with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland parties.
I can report that while the task is certainly a very difficult one all the participants are engaging seriously and constructively in an effort to make genuine progress.
At our work programme meeting in Stormont yesterday, all participants were present and all acknowledged the crucial importance of reaching an agreement on these divisive issues.
All participants agreed that we needed to intensify the process in the run up to the 28th November when a report will be sent to the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.
And all participants agreed that the sustainability and credibility of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions depends on our making progress on these key issues.
At this stage no one can predict the outcome of this process but I will say this.
While the UK and Irish Governments can facilitate, encourage, and come forward with ideas the ultimate responsibility for bringing things to a successful conclusion has to rest with Northern Ireland’s political leadership.
And make no mistake there will be no lack of effort from us or from our colleagues in Dublin on helping them on that journey.
Over the past two decades Northern Ireland’s political leaders resolved some hugely difficult problems.
In the words used by Her Majesty The Queen in her speech in City Hall in Belfast in the summer, they have “made the impossible possible”.
And I hope they will be able to do that once again.
So in conclusion, we should never underestimate what’s been achieved in Northern Ireland nor must we ever take it for granted.
It’s taken a vast effort from a great many people and organisations to get to where we are today and I can assure you it’s not something that either the UK or Irish Governments will allow to be undermined or blown off course.
And working alongside organisations such as Co-Operation Ireland we are determined to keep moving Northern Ireland forward towards a better, brighter future with a stronger, more prosperous and more united society which has left sectarian division behind forever.