Thursday 19 September 2019

Heather Humphreys: 'Our Unionist neighbours can rest assured Republic has no hidden agenda around Brexit'

Shared history: DUP leader Arlene Foster (left) and Heather Humphreys at the Enniskillen Cenotaph. Picture: PA
Shared history: DUP leader Arlene Foster (left) and Heather Humphreys at the Enniskillen Cenotaph. Picture: PA

Heather Humphreys

Last week as I stood in Enniskillen on a bright November morning at the Armistice Day Centenary events, as I watched the young army cadets, I was reminded of the young men from every county in Ireland who made the ultimate sacrifice 100 years ago. This was a period of enormous suffering and tragic loss of life when Unionists and Nationalists set aside their differences to share a common endeavour, bravery and sacrifice.

Inspired by different motivations, they shared the harsh uncertainties of war and the enduring hope of safe return. They may have come from differing political backgrounds and viewpoints but they served and died together and deserve to be remembered together. It was lovely to meet neighbours and friends coming together to commemorate our shared history.

Enniskillen will always be a very poignant ceremony for those of us who live in the Border region. The memories and images of the horrific Enniskillen bombing are never far from our minds and, as I stood in front of the War Memorial, the images of murder and mayhem flashed into my head. Thankfully, we have travelled a long journey from those dark days.

It is very clear through commemorations there is more to unite us than divide us and we must continue to acknowledge and celebrate the unique relationship between the people of this island.

I grew up in an Ireland where Protestants lived alongside their Catholic neighbours in relative harmony, but we were always mindful that we were part of a minority tradition who in difficult times kept our heads down for fear of bringing trouble or unwanted attention to our community.

Ireland is now a very changed country to the Ireland I grew up in. This is due in no small part to our entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. Membership of the EU has brought huge benefits to Ireland. We moved from being an insular and inward-looking country on the periphery of Europe to become an open and outward-looking country at the heart of Europe that respects and values diversity.

Deeply rooted in a southern Border county, I am very happy and proud to live in a country that respects my heritage and values the contribution of the Protestant community. Our community has grown in confidence and is proud of the role it plays in a modern Ireland where I can truthfully say that Protestants are treated with dignity and respect.

The benefits of an invisible Border with Northern Ireland allow us to traverse North and south freely and without hindrance. Brexit presents us with many challenges and we are now heading into a new situation where the mutually beneficial arrangement we have is thrown into question. Whatever the final outcome, one thing is certain: we are facing a prolonged period of transformation and leaders from all communities and political persuasions will need to work together to protect and build peace.

I understand why members of the Unionist community in the North might be feeling vulnerable and isolated at this crucial stage in the Brexit negotiations. I also understand why they want to ensure that whatever is done to avoid a hard Border will not affect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK.

As a member of the Irish Government, I can honestly say that Unionists should not feel threatened or fear a hidden agenda. We have the utmost respect for the cultural identity of each and every citizen on our islands and the constitutional status of that citizenship.

I can categorically state that we respect the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland and we respect the integrity of Unionists as UK citizens.

I want to reassure Unionists that our only ambition in the negotiations, through the EU Taskforce, has been to ensure that we can continue to live in harmony and that people can go about their normal lives and business as before.

Furthermore, Unionists have the assurance of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority so wish.

There is a unique and deep-rooted relationship between the people of our two islands. We are inescapably interdependent when it comes to trade, not to mention history, geography and heritage; and on the island of Ireland, we have a shared Border region, albeit across two separate jurisdictions.

I genuinely believe that the agreement reached by UK and EU negotiators in recent days represents the best of both worlds for Northern Ireland.

Peace in Northern Ireland is a unique example of the power that comes from trust, co-operation, and friendship across national borders.

Our shared region has made progress that we never imagined possible in the past 20 years and, as we enter this new period of uncertainty, we must do everything in our ability to protect our hard-won peace.

Never has that trust, co-operation and friendship been more important and I look forward to developing stronger links and working even closer with my neighbours and friends across the Border so that together we can ensure economic prosperity for our shared region and island.

Heather Humphreys is Enterprise Minister

Irish Independent

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