Harris says people of his generation more familiar with Berlin and Paris than Derry and Belfast

Taoiseach tells British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly Ireland is facing period of ‘extraordinary geopolitical uncertainty’

Taoiseach Simon Harris has said people of his generation are more familiar with European capitals like Berlin and Paris than they are with Derry and Belfast.

Speaking at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in his home constituency of Wicklow on Monday, he said “we really have to challenge ourselves” to build interpersonal relationships on the island.

“Probably people of my generation are familiar now with London, and Berlin, and Paris than they might be with Belfast or Derry,” Mr Harris said.

He pointed out that he was too young to vote in the referendum on the Belfast Agreement and that younger voters would not have been born when it was signed.


The Taoiseach said that Britain and Ireland face a period of “extraordinary geopolitical uncertainty”. Speaking at the plenary session of the British Irish parliamentary association in Wicklow on Monday, Mr Harris referenced meetings he had held with European leaders last week following his election as Taoiseach.

He said that paradoxically, it was “certain that in the coming years, we’re going to have to navigate the same geopolitical uncertainty whichever part of this island or these islands we live on”.

Speaking against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israeli onslaught in Gaza and heightened tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran, Mr Harris said: “The global context is more relevant to our relations than it has been in generations.”

He said previous political generations had gifted the peace process to current leaders.

“If we are to be self critical, we are yet to see the full benefits of it – we’ve seen the peace element, we are yet to see the prosperity element,” he told the meeting.

The peace, he said, had been described to him as a “frosty” one which he said there was some truth to. “The challenge for all of us now is to warm things up,” he said, adding that he felt more hopeful and optimistic about relations on and between the islands since the restoration of the executive.

Minister for Sport Thomas Byrne told the conference that tourism – the focus of the plenary session – is “deeply rooted in the fabric of Irish society” and one of the country’s most important indigenous sectors. However, he admitted there were concerns about a British plan to introduce a requirement for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) for tourists visiting Northern Ireland from Ireland, which was raised by multiple speakers at the conference.

The requirement is due to come in later this year, the conference was told, with those who transgress facing the possibility of fines and criminal sanctions. Responding to a question from the floor, he said: “This is a concern for the Irish Government” and that the Coalition and officials are continuing on the issue.

Martin Fraser, the Irish ambassador in London, told the meeting that in a rapidly changing world, there was a risk that relationships could become “diluted” between the UK and Ireland as the forums they partake in as part of their international engagements were different. Offering the example of Ireland being in the EU and the UK being in Nato, he said that “some of our principle fora for international engagement are different”.

Mr Fraser, who was formerly the secretary general to the Government before taking up his current role, remarked that generational change brought different perspectives and were sometimes “less worried” about historical issues in the relationship between Britain and Ireland and that it was incumbent on older generations to bring their experience to bear while also listening to younger voices.

He said within British politics and public life, the group of people with direct experience of Northern Ireland was diminishing.

He said migration was going to be a “massive challenge” that would only grow, later saying that the migration challenges of tomorrow would be totally different in scale. He argued that multiplying challenges also represented a “shared agenda”, saying he would struggle to think of any significant issue where Britain and Ireland would want different things.

UK Ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston said that the relationship between the governments had come “a long way” in the last couple of years with the agreement of the Windsor Framework and the resumption of the Northern Irish assembly.

He said a call between the Taoiseach Simon Harris and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last Wednesday was “positive and substantial”. The UK ambassador drew attention to European security challenges in relation to Ukraine and the challenge of combating illegal immigration at source as areas for co-operation between Ireland, Britain and Europe.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times