Remarks by Minister of State Kitt at the Australian National University (Part I)
It is always a special pleasure for an Irish Government Minister to visit Australia, a country which for over two centuries has been a destination for thousands of Irish emigrants whose contribution to Australia has been recognised and appreciated.
I understand that some 30% to 40% of Australians today are of Irish heritage and the bonds of kinship between us continue to go from strength to strength.
It is no surprise then that our outlook and attitudes are very similar. In our political systems, we both put people, not institutions first. We both take success with a pinch of salt unless it is rugby, of course, where I am glad to inform you - if you have not already heard - that Ireland beat England at Twickenham in recent weeks!
I am very happy to be able to bring you that excellent news, particularly at this time of year when the Irish everywhere traditionally celebrate pride in our nationality and heritage, and to have this opportunity to update you on recent developments at home in the peace process.
The strength of the bonds between Ireland and Australia are especially evident in the support and encouragement Australia has given us for our ongoing work to establish a just and lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I would like, in particular, to mention the support given by Foreign Minister Downer, who met with our Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen on his visit to Ireland last January.
I am also happy to have this opportunity to thank Australia for your contribution to the International Fund for Ireland over many years, and your continuing engagement in the Fund's work through the active participation of Ambassador Herron as your Observer for the Fund. The International Fund for Ireland supports reconciliation and economic regeneration in NI and the border counties, and continues to play a key role in underpinning the peace process by addressing disadvantage and promoting mutual understanding.
A second fund, the Australian Ireland Fund, also plays an important part through supporting projects such as the Northern Ireland Children’s Enterprise, which provides young people on both sides of the community in Belfast a neutral venue called ‘Australia House’ to come together, often for the first time, to form friendships. This Fund has also helped establish the Chair of Modern Irish Studies at the University of South Wales which helps to enrich the understanding of Irish issues in the wider context. This work of reconciliation and mutual understanding is, of course, vital in helping communities to break away from the sterile dissentions of the past, to begin to work together to create a new and better future for all.
As many of you know, the political landscape of the island of Ireland was changed forever, and for the better, by the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Despite the inevitable challenges, we have made much progress in our work of implementing the Agreement since then.
The Agreement represents an accommodation that protects and promotes the identities and rights of all political traditions, groups and individuals. No one is asked to yield their cherished convictions or beliefs. Everyone is asked to respect the views and rights of others equal to their own.
Perhaps the clearest sign of this progress has been the fact that recent years - while far from perfect - have been the most peaceful in most of our memories.
We have also, for example, seen a very encouraging start to a new policing service in Northern Ireland, which has had considerable success in gaining the support of all parts of the community. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has a vital role to play in building trust within and between communities, particularly those emerging from years of conflict. The police service is gradually becoming more representative of all the communities it serves and we continue to urge all parts of the community in Northern Ireland to support the new arrangements.
The Irish and British Governments continue to work closely together and we have also seen many new and positive partnerships develop, within Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland, North and South, and with our neighbours in Britain.
In the last six years we have also seen an unprecedented level of co-operation between both parts of the island of Ireland through the North South Ministerial Council. The Council has been developing new and fresh all-island approaches to a number of practical issues such as infrastructure and telecommunications. These are the types of initiatives which demonstrate more clearly than any words could the tangible and practical benefits to be gained by people, North and South, when differences are put aside and all work together.
The North/South Bodies established under the Agreement are now important providers of public services throughout the island of Ireland, employing some 700 staff.
Just one example of the benefits which these bodies provide is the success of Tourism Ireland, the body which encourages overseas visitors to sample our hospitality throughout the island. Tourism Ireland’s latest estimates suggest that the overall number of tourists visiting the island grew by 4.5% last year, with visitors to Northern Ireland up 11%. Here in Australia, I am glad to say that Tourism Ireland has recently launched an Australia website to enable you to stay up to date on special packages and festivals in Ireland, and hopefully interest those who have not already visited to do so.
Through our work in the British-Irish Council, we have also seen excellent co-operation continue to develop with near neighbours, including with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. Through the British-Irish Council, we have agreed a number of areas of practical co-operation on issues of mutual concern which can make a real difference to everyday life, including the environment and matters relating to social inclusion.
The success of these areas gives us a glimpse of the many opportunities ahead when we work together as partners.
It is partnership, of course, which is at the core of the Agreement and issues about the principle and practice of partnership are at the heart of the discussions currently taking place. Top