Not the end of one chapter but the start of another

Wed, May 18, 2011, 01:00

OPINION:While the relationship between our countries is already strong, I want it to become stronger, writes DAVID CAMERON

QUEEN ELIZABETH’S visit to Ireland this week is a hugely significant moment for both our countries. Just a few years ago such an event would have been improbable or even impossible.

That Her Majesty can come here, see the beauty of this country and receive a great Irish welcome is testament not just to the generosity and goodwill of the Irish people, but the strengthening of our bilateral relationship, the continuing success of the peace process and the patient work of many people over a number of years.

The sites being visited this week, including the Garden of Remembrance, Croke Park and the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, show that part of the intention of this trip is to pay respect to those who suffered through the course of our shared history. As the first reigning British monarch to visit these shores for almost a century, it is right and appropriate that the Queen sees those places that still resonate with a difficult past.

But this visit is not so much about the closing of an old chapter, but the opening of a new one.

Our countries already have a tight-knit relationship, with about six million people living in the UK having an Irish parent or grandparent, and more than 100,000 UK-born people living in Ireland.

So yes, the relationship between our countries is already strong. But over the coming years, I want it to become stronger. Not for sentiment but because, as the Taoiseach and I discussed during his visit to London last month, our countries need each other. And there are two particular challenges that call for close UK-Irish co-operation.

First, supporting peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. The tragic murder of Constable Ronan Kerr demonstrated the seriousness of the terrorist threat. The people that carried out that despicable attack come from a very small and unrepresentative minority. Nevertheless, they are highly motivated and dangerous – and that’s why our countries must continue to work closely together with the Northern Ireland Executive to defeat them.

We must send this clear and unequivocal message: we stand united against those who would drag Ireland back to the darkest days of conflict. And we stand together with the Executive as it works to build a brighter, shared future for the people of Northern Ireland.

The second challenge we face is economic. When the Irish economy hit major problems late last year, the UK came forward to offer bilateral loan arrangements. This loan was made not just because our countries are friends and neighbours, but because our economies are deeply interlinked.

The UK needs a strong, prosperous Ireland – just like Ireland needs a strong, prosperous UK.

We have interconnected banking systems, with two out of the four largest high street banks operating in Northern Ireland being Irish-owned. We have interpersonal links in business, with 42,000 Irish people currently working as directors in UK companies. And most importantly, we have a strong and important trade relationship.

The UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner, while we export more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

It’s heartening to see that despite the downturn, trade between our countries has actually grown – with bilateral trade in goods between the UK and Ireland reaching nearly £30 billion in 2010.

But there is no room for complacency or inaction. With both our countries depending on strong, export-led recoveries, it’s essential we keep building on these links, doing everything possible to tear down the barriers to trade.

To that end, from July of this year to October 2012 there will be an Irish visa waiver programme – enabling those with UK-issued visas to gain entry to Ireland. This should not only encourage tourists coming over for the Olympics to include Ireland on their trip, but boost trade between our countries too.

As well as increasing trade between our countries, we can work more closely together on increasing UK and Irish trade with the rest of the world.

Key to that is arguing for the completion of the single market in Europe – and for more pro-enterprise policies coming out of the European Union too. We’ve already agreed to work together to cut the burden of regulation in Europe, and this summer ministers from both the UK and Irish governments will be meeting in London to work out the best way to make that happen. On top of that, the UK and Irish trade and investment bodies have agreed to support each other in making inroads in critical markets such as China.

It’s clear that on securing new trade links – as with so much else – we can achieve more by working together than by working alone.

So when the Queen’s visit is over, when the ceremonies are done and the celebrations have died down, I hope that this will remain – a sense of warm friendship, and a shared determination to work together in the years ahead.

David Cameron is the British prime minister