Whatever way you look at relations within these islands the simple fact is that we either radically alter the current path of behaviour or deep and lasting damage will be done. There are specific crises in hand which have to be urgently addressed – but they are part of a wider pattern which will keep going unless we act.
We spend so much time on the crisis at hand that no attention is being paid to fundamental long-term problems.
While the Northern institutions remain deadlocked, this is just one element of a wider crisis of legitimacy rooted in the failure to focus on delivering for people on the twin challenges of development and reconciliation.
Over a year after the Brexit vote the genuinely historic damage it threatens has been met by a limited, unimaginative and complacent response – something which has developed through half a decade of the two governments filing away North/South and East/West relations as “sorted”. It has often appeared that, for them, progress is defined by the number of meetings you hold rather than the actions you take.
After a sustained period of dramatic progress the approach became one of complacency and drift. The cost of this has been seen in far more than just the dysfunction of the agree institutions of the 1998 peace settlement – it has been seen in the failure to use the new opportunity to overcome historic problems.
The agenda today is how do we get the basic functioning of institutions in place and limit the damage of Brexit. The agenda should be how do we address endemic poverty in Northern Ireland? How do we create a credible long-term development agenda for Northern Ireland and support Border communities? How do we reverse the entrenchment of sectarianism? How do respect political diversity and challenge a destructive and tightening duopoly? How do we return to a spirit of innovation in North/South and East/West relations? How do we address the clear failings of current structures? How do we protect and rebuild connections within this island as the UK heads off in a more unilateralist direction?
I believe we may be facing our last chance to save the opportunities for reconciliation and development created by the peace settlement. Unless we realise this we run the very real risk of almost zombie-like institutions incapable of taking decisive action to tackle the scale of entrenched issues they face.
If we want to break the cycle of political crises and policy failures then we need recognise the fundamental problems and take a series of four urgent steps.
First, we need the British and Irish governments to return to approach of ongoing close cooperation and engagement.
Second, we need a new economic model to challenge poverty in Northern Ireland and limit the damage of Brexit.
Third we need to restart the process of North/South cooperation, particularly on infrastructure and services.
Finally we need to revisit the structure and approach of British-Irish relations through a new bilateral treaty to not just get over the next few years but to ensure that we avoid obvious problems in the future.
Let me explain each in turn.
The biggest reason that we achieved a peace settlement was the determined work of democratic politicians to find a way of getting the extremes to abandon their illegitimate campaigns. Let’s never forget that the real heroes of peace are those who, often in the face of appalling provocation, never made war.
However nothing could have been achieved without the decision at the very top of the Irish and British governments to form a profoundly close and active relationship. For various Taoisigh and Prime Ministers, as well as their senior ministers, this relationship was the one they gave most attention to and was defined by a basic trust.
They never got involved in broadcasting proposals and rejections at each other through media headlines.
Albert Reynolds and John Major were very different men, but the breakthrough of the Downing Street Declaration was impossible without their personal commitment and relationship.
It is almost impossible to see how the Good Friday Agreement could have been achieved without the relationship between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. It is still striking that at the time when his international standing was at its highest and when he was dealing with many big issues, Tony Blair regularly stated that his relationship with the leader of our government was his closest and most important. I remember well how the level of their personal contact was nearly constant and always positive.
This constructive dynamic was also seen with Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown. In the midst of both countries’ economic crises they still found time to show commitment to relations on these islands – including providing priority funding at a time of otherwise universal cuts.
And, as I’ve said, at ministerial level connections were often equally close. In different departments I always had a good working relationship with my UK counterparts – and as Minister for Foreign Affairs I valued the close connection with Shaun Woodward, David Milliband, Owen Patterson and William Hague.
If you look at how progress was achieved you find a core reason being the real priority given to the relationship between Dublin and London.
Unfortunately in 2011 a decision was taken that time had come for the parties to be let get on with things and for the focus to be placed on the working of the different institutions of the different strands. Both the Taoiseach and Prime Minister expressed impatience at the idea that they should be active in pushing the agenda forward. In Dublin there was an explicit stepping back from the idea that we had an ongoing role in ensuring the effective working of Northern institutions.
An exception to this was during Charlie Flanagan’s period in Iveagh House – and his removal from that post after such a brief and positive period remains unexplained and unjustified.
If we want to tackle the crises at hand and ensure a close and constructive cooperation on these islands the first step is a return to meaningful, close and permanent contact and cooperation between the leaders of government in Dublin and London.
The second step is to recognise that Northern Ireland will not break out of a cycle of low incomes and poverty – in fact things will get worse – unless there is a move to address its structural problems. It needs a new economic model to both develop and to limit the damage of Brexit.
And to be clear – a fiscally zero-sum tinkering with Corporation Tax while investment and services decline will do nothing to build an economy which provides for all Northern communities.
I believe the answer is the creation of a Special Economic Zone in Northern Ireland and at least the border counties in the South. This can be done while fully respecting the constitutional rights protected in the Good Friday Agreement and incorporated into both UK and Irish law.
There are nearly 4,500 special economic zones in the world – some involving populations much bigger than Northern Ireland. And this is not some obscure idea – in fact Ireland invented the concept with the Shannon Free Zone.
They are a mechanism for allowing variations to national policies apply in a discreet area. Many involve allowing different trading relations in domestic and international markets.
A special economic zone in Northern Ireland could be recognised by the EU as being distinct from the rest of the UK in terms of Single Market and Customs Union access.
I remind everyone that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which the UK government has recently confirmed it is committed to implementing in full, set Northern Ireland in an EU context. In fact, London has gone as far as to acknowledge that the legal basis for the Northern Institutions, and North/South institutions “assumes” EU membership.
It should not be hard to design a mechanism for certifying that Northern Ireland businesses conform with EU standards relevant to market access.
UK sovereignty would remain intact – in fact it is the UK government’s official policy to support such zones in countries with structural development issues in defined regions.
Unfortunately there has been no movement in this area so far because of two damaging developments.
First of all is the cynical strategy of our most anti-EU party to define the question of special status in purely constitutional terms.
Second has been a ridiculous game of bluff in the negotiations which has degenerated into our government refusing to make any proposals and the UK insisting nothing can be done until full EU/UK relations are agreed.
There is a solution available to the economic threat to Northern Ireland from a Brexit vote passed solely on an English majority. It is a solution which has the potential to prioritise and kick-start long-delayed and urgently-needed development in the most disadvantaged region of these islands.
The third step for reinvigorating the process of cooperation is to restart the process of North-South cooperation.
We have not even scratched the surface of how we can help communities on both sides of the Border through a shared approach to policy development and service delivery.
It is now nearly six years since a joint paper on North South institutions was promised, but nothing has happened.
It threatens no ones constitutional rights or cultural identity to find ways of serving communities through pooling resources and looking for opportunities to increase the quality of services and investment.
And yet we have been going in the opposite direction.
The current economic plan for Northern Ireland was published without even mentioning to Dublin that it was on the way. In fact the only reference to all-island opportunities is the idea of trying to persuade more tourists in the South to go North.
There is surely something wrong when we haven’t even developed a joint commitment to basic infrastructure?
In the case of the Narrow Water project, communities on both sides of the Border have literally been begging for years for a bridge which will enable their joint development – yet nothing has been done.
I think we need a joint infrastructure and services plan and a commitment to using North/South cooperation in a meaningful way to address core economic and social problems.
Finally we need to address the increasingly urgent problem of the formal British-Irish relationship. We need a renewed commitment to personal relationships, but we also need a reformed approach to more structured and permanent cooperation.
As I have detailed in a number of speeches on the specific issue on East/West relations, Brexit will immediately remove the basis on which we have worked together to ensure joint policies in most areas for the last 45 years.
I have no doubt that we will reach a deal to protect the Common Travel Area as it is – but how do we ensure that there is not a long, slow divergence and how do we deal with inevitable problems between states whose ability to coordinate labour market, education, research and many other policies has been removed overnight?
The current arrangements simply aren’t good enough. The British Irish Council is too broad and too infrequent.
I believe we need to move to something similar to the Nordic Council of Ministers – where there is structured and permanent discussion between EU and non-EU countries on a range of policy areas. They do not legislate but they do ensure information sharing and they strive for convergence.
The Common Travel Area is too important to be left to events. We should aim to incorporate it in a new bilateral British-Irish Agreement and to create a new formal cooperation mechanism, with a permanent secretariat focused on the East-West relationship and involving non-EU related measures.
The ongoing failure to get the Northern institutions running is rightly causing enormous concern. It is deepening political disengagement and leaving Northern Ireland voiceless during Brexit negotiations. This so even though there is a clear anti-Brexit majority in the Assembly.
However my basic point is that we have to understand that we have to do things differently if we are to break out of the ongoing cycle of crises which we have been caught in. We have to do things differently if we are to prevent Brexit causing deep destruction to relations and progress in these islands.
We can’t just keep going and hope that one more push will see us through.
We do not have a sustainable approach to tackling entrenched problems or overcoming obvious threats.
We have forgotten the most important lessons from the great achievements of the past and must now act to protect the still sound logic of the peace settlement.