Speech by the Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform at the Neil T. Blaney Winter School, Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here today to deliver the keynote address at the second Neil T. Blaney Winter School. 

I think Neil Blaney would agree with me if I suggest that an important purpose of this winter school is to remain in touch with our traditions. A dialogue with the past, the ability to keep on thinking about the people and the ideas that make us what we are, is a valuable form of social capital. In that regard, Professor John McGurk’s lecture yesterday on the Flight of the Earls is a very good starting point for my talk today about our future in Europe.

In about 1600, the Great O’Neill and his allies commissioned Peter Lombard, the future Archbishop of Armagh, to prepare a commentary on Irish history. Their goal was to explain and justify the rebellion in Ireland in the light of contemporary European political debates. After Kinsale, O’Donnell and O’Neill continued to nurture the European dimension of their policy. O’Donnell’s lost grave in Simancas and those burial monuments of O’Neill and his entourage on the Janiculum in Rome are sufficient proof of what they had in mind.

By the standard of short-term politics, the Flight of the Earls was more an ending than a beginning. But in a longer perspective, the European option pursued by far-sighted Irish leaders after Kinsale kept open the path towards today’s favourable landscape: the equitable settlement represented by the Good Friday Agreement, our taking our place as equals within the European Union, the success of modern Ireland. The European option was cultural as well as political. Irish identity today owes much to the scholarly work undertaken by exiles in Rome and Louvain, many of them Franciscans who in other circumstances would have lived out their lives here in Donegal.

Louvain also provided an opportunity for the Irish to influence the leading intellectual and theological debates of the time. It is a nice irony that, four hundred years later, in very nearby Brussels, Ireland, as a European Union member of long standing, advances the cause of our own national development as well as making our own not-insubstantial contribution to the development of Europe.  And Neil Blaney was an important actor in that project. A giant of Irish politics, he helped to build modern Ireland and when his role on the national stage was curtailed somewhat after the events of 1970, he went on to help win a high place for his country in the councils of Europe. In his role as a member of the European Parliament, he wielded significant influence behind the scenes: not just for his beloved Donegal but for the whole Connaught-Ulster Region.  Thanks to Neil Blaney and his generation of Irish statesmen and women, the circumstances are more favourable for us now and surely beyond the wildest expectations of those who lived through the tumultuous events of 1607 and the repeated struggle for self-determination of each successive generation.

However, the centrality of the European dimension for Ireland’s future remains as crucial today as it was when the Flight of the Earls took place four hundred years ago.

Neil Blaney recognised both the benefits for Ireland in being an active partner in Europe and the contribution Ireland could make to the creation of a better Europe.  He also recognised that the northwest region of the most westerly country in Europe stood to gain from Ireland’s engagement in the Union.  The strong European commitment to regional development was an aspect that he saw as of particular relevance to this part of Ireland and to this part of Europe.

It is worth noting, too, that John Hume and Ian Paisley were also elected to the European Parliament on the same day as Neil in 1979.  The European Parliament and the Council of Ministers have over the years provided a vitally important context for politicians from North and South, and from Britain and Ireland, to improve relations and foster progress at home. 

Our gathering here today gives us a timely opportunity to reflect on Ireland’s future in Europe at an important time for Ireland and for the Union.  It allows us to assess the transformation of Ireland in Europe and also to look ahead to future challenges.

Europe has reached an important juncture.  In two weeks, the Taoiseach will travel to Portugal to sign the Reform Treaty.  I strongly believe that Ireland’s future belongs in Europe - in a Europe which is cohesive and in a position to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.  The Reform Treaty will allow the Union and Ireland to continue with the immense progress already achieved.

Looking back, European integration has brought the gift of peace in a manner unprecedented in our continent’s history.  The last fifty years of stability and prosperity are a direct result of successful European integration.

During thirty-five years of membership, Ireland has grown and changed. Membership has been the key catalyst in the successful modernisation of our country and the changes which have taken place in Irish society since accession have been quite remarkable.  In 1973, our wealth was barely 60% of the EU average.  Now we are above the EU average.  Our advancement is seen as a benchmark for success within the Union and the twelve countries that have joined since 2004 have a particular interest in our achievements.  They want to follow the path that we have pioneered, the path that leads to the fulfilment of cherished national ambitions.

It is a fact worth recalling that the Union has played its full part in where Ireland is today.  We must never forget that the Union provided the indispensable framework for our national progress gave us the incentive to pursue appropriate policies and furnished us with significant resources through the Structural Funds and the CAP.   

Regional policy has been one of the defining features of European integration.  I am glad to acknowledge that Ireland is a country whose success is a testimony to the effectiveness of EU regional policies.  Alongside a range of Irish Government policies designed to enhance our economic competitiveness, EU funding has been vital to us.   

A key to success has been the ability to align domestic national and regional policy with an EU strategic dimension.

It is now the case that the level of EU funding allocated to Ireland is decreasing.  But this is not something to be regretted.  Indeed, we should celebrate it as a measure of the progress we have made as a country.  We should note however, that even though, we  no longer qualify for Objective One status, Ireland remains  a net beneficiary of the EU budget. 

In the current Structural Funds period (2007-2013), Ireland will receive €901 million in Structural funding.  €750 million is earmarked for the two Regional programmes and the national Social Fund programme.  The regional breakdown is €458 million for the BMW region and €292 million for the South & East region.  50% of this funding is to be allocated to labour market programmes under the European Social Fund (ESF) and 50% to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). 

The balance of €151 million is for smaller Territorial Cooperation programmes.  These programmes are the successor to the INTERREG programme and will support initiatives ranging from enterprise development to the protection of the natural environment.

There is also of course the PEACE programme.  This is a distinctive EU Structural Funds programme for Northern Ireland and the Border Counties.  It has made a real contribution in reinforcing progress towards a peaceful and stable society and in promoting reconciliation.  The European Union will provide €225 million towards the PEACE III programme between 2007 and 2013.  €65.7 million of this is earmarked for the Border region. 

The task of advancing economic and social cohesion in Ireland is far from complete, and for those here today from the Border Region there are particular requirements arising out of the ending of the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The EU’s generous investment in the peace process to date has made a genuine and lasting difference.  The challenge that faces us now is to consolidate the political progress and to make sure that this will lead to lasting and economic advancement that can be felt throughout the island. 

The EU has a long history of providing financial, political and practical support to Northern Ireland.  The Government greatly appreciates the substantial commitment shown by our European partners in supporting the peace process. The Union has provided a new and constructive context for developments in Northern Ireland and, in addition to the goodwill and support of the Member States; we acknowledge the tremendous personal interest of successive Presidents of the European Commission. 

The current President of the Commission, Mr. Barroso, visited Belfast earlier this year to meet with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to welcome the new era of power sharing in Northern Ireland and to indicate that the Commission will continue to provide support for the peace process.  Developments in Northern Ireland have been among the most momentous in Europe in recent times.   There is genuine happiness about this among political leaders right across the continent, and they are pleased that the European Union has been able to play a part in supporting the two Governments and the people of Northern Ireland in making the breakthrough to peace.

The Government is also working in close cooperation with the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver practical projects that will benefit regional development in both parts of the island.  Earlier this summer, in an historic meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, major new cross-border investment projects were agreed.  Perhaps the most important of these is the new roads programme for the North West of the island – the upgrading of the A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny - to which the Irish Government is contributing €580 million.

Projects such as these will help drive economic growth and prosperity both North and South, and will particularly benefit our border areas. 

Of course, our membership of the EU and our perception of Ireland’s role in the future should not focus solely on direct financial gain.  The key benefit for Ireland in our EU membership has been the hugely positive economic environment provided by the Union.  The best example of this is the single market.  It is no coincidence that Ireland’s economic boom has coincided with the existence of the single market.  This has given us open access to a huge market for goods and services.  It has helped to make us an attractive location for foreign direct investment.  We have taken advantage of this opportunity, but it would not have been available to us without the European Union. 
As we look back over 50 years of EU integration, it is important to acknowledge what has been achieved collectively by the Union.   Europe is at peace.  It plays a constructive role in world affairs. It enables Ireland to pursue our values in an effective manner.  We can make more of an impact by working through the Union than we could ever do as a single nation in a complex and crowded international environment where the voices of small countries cannot always make themselves heard. 
However, one thing I do regret is that after close to 40 years of membership, we, as a nation have not gained a more general proficiency across the population in European languages. Our enthusiasm for Europe has not materialised into multi-lingualism and that I think is a pity because it necessarily limits our relationship with our European neighbours.  We holiday in Europe, we like to eat European food and drink European wine but the language remains a barrier to total immersion in European culture. This may be an issue to reflect upon in planning educational provision in the years ahead.

The EU suits countries like Ireland.  It enables us to deal with some of the disadvantages of being a small State.  By bonding with others who broadly share our outlook, we can make ourselves heard and make a real difference.    By pooling sovereignty in areas defined by the Treaties, we have the facility to influence events in ways we simply could not otherwise do.

The people of Europe enjoy just about the best standard of living in the world and the Union had acknowledged this progress and responsibility by becoming the world’s largest provider of overseas development aid, giving over €50 billion to more than 150 countries and territories every year.

Article 29.1 of our Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, states that Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.  Participating in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is an excellent way in which we can meet these objectives.  The CFSP is flexible enough to allow individual Member States to maintain their individual traditions. 

The Reform Treaty recognises that countries like Ireland have their own special approach in areas of security and defence.  It remains the case that any deployment of Irish troops overseas is subject to the requirements of the ‘triple lock’ of Government decision, Dáil approval and UN authorisation. 

The Dáil’s approval on Wednesday of the upcoming EU military mission to Chad is a very good example of the EU’s developing role in international peacekeeping.  Ireland will play a central role with a contribution of some four hundred Irish troops.  Significantly, operational control of the mission will be led by Lt. General Pat Nash of the Irish Defence Forces. 

The purpose of the mission is to provide security and assistance to the estimated 400,000 refugees and displaced persons living in Eastern Chad, many as a direct result of the crisis in Darfur.   The Government believes this mission is an excellent practical demonstration of how Ireland can pursue its foreign policy objectives through membership of the Union.  This mission in Chad is entirely in line with Ireland’s traditional commitment to peacekeeping.  It enables us to reflect the wishes of the Irish people for our Defence Forces to continue their great work in bringing stability and humanitarian assistance to some of the most blighted places in the world.

Looking to the future, it is clear that a peaceful and prosperous Europe continues to be essential for Ireland’s continued national progress.   As an advanced country, we have a vital interest in a Europe of interlocking economic interests, a Europe which ensures that there is a level playing field for all Member States, and a Europe that can play a positive role in world affairs.  

The Union clearly remains a work in progress.  There are new tasks that must be attended to.  Other European nations aspire to joining the Union and it is important that we have a welcome for those who meet the conditions of membership.    

In terms of our immediate priorities within the EU, the prime task at hand is the Reform Treaty.  This Treaty will undoubtedly improve the way the Union works and it should represent the last major treaty change for some considerable time.

In supporting the Reform Treaty, Ireland is looking for a Union that can continue to deliver in the future as it has done so successfully in past decades.  50 years after the Treaty of Rome, the Union’s arrangements are in need of reform and readjustment.  The Reform Treaty provides those necessary ingredients for a strong and effective Union that can serve Europe’s changing interests.  The best response we have to current and future developments in the world economy and politics is a strong and vibrant Europe.   This Treaty provides for that. 
It gives the Union the capacity to function more effectively.  A well-functioning Union is essential for providing us with a stable economic and political framework in which Ireland can prosper as we have done to such good effect in recent decades.  In the future, as much as in the past, we will have a vested interest in a Europe in which goods and services flow freely within a well-functioning single market.

The Reform Treaty contains a number of institutional provisions designed to bolster the efficiency of the Union.  A key priority for us during these negotiations was to secure the interests of small and medium-sized Member States.  Working in tandem with others, Ireland succeeded in ensuring that all Member States, regardless of size or population, will have equal access to membership of the EU Commission.    This was an important achievement. 

A new voting system, known as double majority voting, will give proportionate weight to population while protecting the interests of small and medium sized Member States.  The current voting system is complex and difficult to understand.  The new system will mean that only measures that genuinely command majority support can be adopted at EU level.

The Reform Treaty also provides enhanced roles for the European Parliament and gives national Parliaments a say for the first time in the creation of European laws. 

I am happy to say that, in areas of special sensitivity for Ireland, such as defence and taxation, decisions will continue to be taken unanimously.  This is an important reason why the Reform Treaty deserves our fullest support.  It contains valuable provisions that will benefit Ireland and Europe and it does not in anyway undermine any vital Irish interest. 

Another sensitive area concerns the Justice and Home Affairs area in which decisions under the new Reform Treaty would be made under the qualified majority voting system. When it comes to criminal law and procedure, many important aspects of this State’s legal system are quite different to those of the majority of our EU partners. It was also a concern that the UK had secured new opt-in arrangements for all justice and home affairs matters.  This meant we faced a significantly different landscape when compared with the situation which would have applied under the European Constitution proposal.

The Government decided to avail of the new arrangements in regard to judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police cooperation. This will enable Ireland to make decisions on justice issues on a case-by-case basis. The Government took this decision after much deliberation and following a thorough examination of all the issues involved.

As I have previously stated, Ireland is, and will continue to be, fully committed to European co-operation in justice matters. The Government decided to make a strong declaration, which is being published with the Reform Treaty, underlining Ireland’s firm intention to participate, to the maximum extent possible, in justice proposals, and in particular, in those relating to police cooperation. It was also decided that the arrangements agreed will be reviewed three years after the Reform Treaty comes into effect.

I am satisfied that this decision was the best one for Ireland to ensure that our legal system is protected and, at the same, to ensure we continue our strong co-operation with EU partners in tackling serious cross-border crime.

 

Conclusion

I strongly believe that Ireland should ratify the Reform Treaty.  Europe needs this Treaty.  For our part, Ireland needs a Europe that functions efficiently and can promote and protect our interests in the decades ahead.  Therefore, this Treaty is of genuine interest to Ireland.  Its ratification by 2009 will be an important priority.

I can see no reason why anyone who has analysed the Treaty would want to oppose it.  There is no significant transfer of sovereignty involved.  The changes being made are practical and sensible.  

Next year, we will have an opportunity to offer a lead to the rest of Europe by giving careful consideration to this Treaty and passing democratic judgement on it.  I am confident that the Irish people will want to preserve Ireland’s proud place at the centre of the Union.  This can be done by showing Europe the way, by demonstrating that it is possible to have a real national debate on a complex European treaty and to come to   a prudent decision, having weighed up all of the arguments.  

Looking back over the 50 years since the Treaty of Rome, even the most begrudging observer would have to accept that the European Union has made a very positive impact on Ireland and on Europe. Nobody is arguing that it is perfect, but it has succeeded beyond the dreams of its founders. The Reform Treaty will, I am confident, produce an even better Europe, a Europe that can continue doing what it has done so well since 1957.  

We live in interesting times. Uncertainty and turbulence are a continuing reality in the political and economic environment world-wide. New international issues are emerging – climate change, energy security, volatility in immigration flows, to name but a few.  The balance of economic power in the world is clearly shifting.  Global politics are in something of a state of flux.  Destabilising regional conflicts are all too prevalent in various part of the world. No one can guarantee that Europe will always be the fortunate place it is today.  One thing that I am convinced of is that working together as Europeans remains the best recipe we have for coping with whatever the future may bring. 

Ireland’s future is at the heart of Europe.  Europe’s future is as a continuing force for peace, prosperity in Europe and beyond.  Europe must continue to be a global beacon for tolerance, democracy and respect for human rights across the globe.  It must be willing to give a lead in dealing with climate change and in combating international poverty and underdevelopment.  This is a challenging, but essential agenda for the future.      

Finally, as we look to our future destiny within Europe, a poem by Liam Mac Uistin comes to mind. It’s often read out for our State guests at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The words of the poem are addressed to us today by our forebears – by those who in the face of discouragement of all kinds preserved a vision or dream or hope for the future. The poem ends like this:

 A ghlúnta na saoirse, cuimhnigí orainne glúnta na haislinge

So I leave you with this thought of the "dreaming generations", glúnta na haislinge.

If we play our part well, our honoured place in today’s European Union will fulfil the best hopes of that sad flock of exiles as they boarded ship in Rathmullan four hundred years ago this autumn.

1 December 2007