Twenty-five years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the island of Ireland is unrecognisable compared to the dark days of the Troubles. People in Northern Ireland live in a state of peace, younger generations are untainted by violence and with the Windsor Framework, we can begin to move on from the worst of Brexit and focus on repairing our political relationships; both North-South and East-Wet.
There has been a lot of reflection over recent months about what the Good Friday Agreement has done for this island. Has it really delivered? Firstly, let’s cast our minds back. In Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998, 3,720 people were killed, 47,541 were injured, 16,209 bombings and 36,923 shootings took place.
While it would be wrong to say that all violence in Northern Ireland ended in 1998, I think we can all agree that the security situation in Northern Ireland today bears little resemblance to that of 25 years ago. We have new generations of young people who did not live through violence, who know little of bomb scares and security threats.
Has the Good Friday Agreement delivered? I think bringing peace to Northern Ireland is a fairly substantial delivery.
So, we have largely achieved peace in Northern Ireland. But what other benefits does this peace bring – have we seen the ‘peace dividend’?
The economic dividend is spoken about often and as a Minister in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, that is what I would like to focus my remarks on this morning. Northern Ireland’s economy was massively impacted by the Troubles. 46,000 potential jobs did not come to Northern Ireland due to the violence and the GDP was reduced by 10%. However, over the past twenty-five years, we have not seen the economic recovery that many hoped for Northern Ireland. The region continues to have the lowest productivity in the UK, and the GDP gap with the wider UK has not closed although Northern Ireland has seen employment growth over the past twenty or so years.
But based on the notion of an economic divided, to be frank the people of Northern Ireland are long overdue an economic boost and at this stage It is up to political leaders, all political leaders, to deliver it.
We cannot talk about Northern Ireland’s economy without mentioning Brexit and the Windsor Framework. Though it may have taken many years to reach this point, the Windsor Framework can be revolutionary for Northern Irish businesses. Not only do they have certainty, but they have full access to both the EU and UK markets. Of course, we would far prefer that this access would be granted through EU Membership, a wish that is shared with the majority of people in Northern Ireland who did not support
Brexit, but we have to move on with the deal at hand.
The potential for businesses in Northern Ireland with the Framework is huge. Nowhere else in the world has the same access that Northern Ireland does: it should be a magnet for investment when competition for foreign direct investment is stiff; every country wants to be chosen. Offering dual market access, along with the English speaking, highly educated workforce, and top Universities, makes a huge difference for Northern Ireland.
After years of untapped potential, this Framework really has the potential to transform Northern Ireland. Predictions have been made that it could help increase GDP growth by up to 50% over the next decade. It could create up to 33,000 jobs, boost tourism and so much more.
Let us not forget that when Northern Ireland was created, the six Northern counties were the economic driving force of the island, with most of the island’s manufacturing works taking place there, compared to the largely agriculture-driven economy of the South where large-scale emigration was the norm.
In the century since partition the tide has changed dramatically, with EU membership and a new global outlook transforming the Irish economy, while in Northern Ireland the economy has contracted, now reliant on subvention from London. Today, Ireland’s economy is the fastest growing in Europe, with record numbers of people at work and the lowest unemployment levels ever.
There is no reason why Northern Ireland cannot and should not enjoy similar levels of economic performance. The all-island economy is a major selling point in this regard as when businesses look to Northern Ireland as a place to invest, what they have before them is also the entire island. A business in Derry can tap into the services in Donegal, a dairy in Fermanagh can process milk from Cavan, while a factory in Dundalk can utilise skilled workers from Newry. We should not be competing against each other but instead working together. The enormous increase in cross border trading volumes is a testament to where commercial flows can be mutually beneficial.
Cross-border business links are nothing new to those operating on the border, but the disruption over the past seven years has put businesses under serious pressure. Though they have had to adjust, these border businesses stand to benefit the most from the all-island economy, increased trading links and of course EU negotiated trade deals, including CETA.
I want to see all corners of our island thrive. I firmly believe that if we focus on increasing our economic links then this will be a reality. Though, as someone with a deep personal connection to the border region, I am sure that this is a region that stands to benefit greatly from increased economic cooperation and I firmly believe that the border counties, on both sides, deserve an economic boost and I am not just saying that as a son of a proud Cavan woman.
The fact is that a more economically linked island of Ireland benefits absolutely everyone who lives here. I want to see a more economically interconnected island, not only because I aspire to a United Ireland, which I am unashamed of, but because it makes sense for every single person who lives on this island, regardless of what constitutional future they aspire to.
This work is already ongoing, for example we have the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor which uses the Local Authorities to boost development along these crucial cities. I’d love to see a similar project in the North-West, which has so much to offer.
We also have bodies such as InterTradeIreland, born out of the Good Friday Agreement, who do such important work in this area. According to their research, businesses who utilise the all-island economy have higher productivity, higher turnover and employ more people. The facts here speak for themselves. More workers, earning more money, contributing more to our tax intake and contributing to our economies on the island.
This all sounds fantastic, but there is of course something missing. What is missing in this equation, is political leadership.
Northern Ireland can be the most attractive place for investment on the continent, but without its own political leaders singing off the same hymn sheet, it is difficult to sell such an investment. Let’s look at the approach in the South, there is a huge amount of work done by State Agencies such as the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to travel the world and sell Ireland as a place to do business. Ministers, Taoisigh and Tánaistí are intrinsic to this work, this year alone our Department will send Ministers on 18 trade missions; this is before we include the massive economic, political and diplomatic undertaking that occurs every year around St. Patrick’s Day. As a result, we have some of the biggest companies in the world making their European homes in Ireland and buying from Irish companies.
Stormont has not sat now for over 16 months. This is deeply depressing and a huge disappointment for the people of Northern Ireland who deserve so much better. With no Executive, there are no Ministers to make these trips, no representative of the people to sell Northern Ireland directly to businesses across the world.
I would love to have a counterpart in Northern Ireland who I could meet with on a regular basis, sit down and thrash out the issues that impact businesses and retailers in both of our jurisdictions so we can find common solutions. These conversations are the bare minimum level of politics that should be ongoing regularly between members of the Executive and the Irish Government. We need to work together to sell the all-island economy.
I am hopeful that Stormont will return in the autumn. It has been a long 16 months; the cost-of-living crisis has grown, the Windsor Framework has been agreed and frankly, people have moved on from Brexit dramas.
The fact of the matter is that this should not be a political issue. It should not be a political statement to say that we should have more closely aligned economies on this island, that an open dialogue should remain between Northern political leaders and the Irish Government or that we all should work to boost the economy of the entire island.
I truly believe if we have learned anything from the political leaders who brought us the Good Friday Agreement, it is that if we sit down at a table together, we can make real progress.
The Anglo-Irish relationship has improved significantly over the past year, the wounds of Brexit are healing, and people are moving on. I wish the same for Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are proving themselves to be ahead of their politicians. They are ready to move on, to make the best of the situation they have found themselves in.
So, to answer my earlier question, has the economic aspect of the peace dividend come to Northern Ireland? The honest answer may be no, but I think that this can soon change. If the political dividend could move forward alongside the economic, Northern Ireland will be unstoppable.
Sometimes, to move forward we must look back. We should look back twenty-five years and remind ourselves of the work that the political leaders put into the Good Friday Agreement. Their bravery, their willingness to put their differences aside and come together for the common good has led us on this path to today.
The biggest and possibly hardest decisions these leaders made twenty-five years ago, was to sit down together and talk. The same thing goes for today’s political impasse. The best thing that can happen is an open and honest dialogue.
I know that my colleagues in Dublin are ready and willing to play our part at any and every juncture to help along the way.
The past twenty-five years have been transformative for this island. I truly believe that the changes in the next twenty-five will be when we see the economic dividends of peace come to fruition. I can think of no people and no area more deserving of this.