Ladies and gentlemen.
Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here at the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the European Union, both to welcome the latest group of stagiaires, and to mark two important anniversaries.
I want to thank Europe Movement Ireland for organising this event and inviting me to speak.
First, my congratulations to all the young professionals who are starting internships in the European Institutions. The months ahead will be hard work, but hopefully also enriching and rewarding.
For many of you, this will be the start of a longer career in the Institutions. You will be following in the footsteps of generations of dedicated Irish service in Brussels:
From Members of Parliament, including leading figures like the former President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, and outstanding members like John Hume.
To former Commission Secretaries-General, Catherine Day and David O’Sullivan, and the many excellent Permanent Representatives.
And to countless other dedicated EU civil servants with Irish citizenship.
I encourage you to use your time as an intern to fully submerge yourselves in working to further European interests and learn from those around you.
You should also make use of all the opportunities on offer – for example, the Junior Professionals Programme, offering a longer stint in the Commission, is open to trainees.
After that, I hope you can help reverse the current trend which sees Irish people under-represented in the Institutions – and add to the extraordinary contribution they have made to the European Union over the past five decades.
And that, of course, brings us to our first anniversary – 50 years since Ireland became a member of the European Communities.
To put it simply, and to echo President von der Leyen, Ireland has made Europe a better place.
You have helped drive the development of the European Union into what it is today.
Through seven successful Presidencies of the Council, Ireland has shown itself to be an effective broker, helping to progress important files.
You were at the helm at pivotal moments in the EU’s history, such as the largest-ever enlargement in May 2004, when ten new Member States joined – among them, to use the Commission parlance, the one I know best, Slovakia.
The role of the Irish Presidency was instrumental in bringing the negotiations of the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2014-2020 across the finish line.
Irish is now on an equal footing with the other 23 official languages of the EU, with full status as an official language.
And overall, Ireland itself has changed greatly in the last 50 years, as it became the thriving, prosperous country it is today – one driven by hi-tech industry and global exports, making full use of the opportunities EU membership offers.
EU regional, structural and agricultural funding has contributed to that.
More than 50,000 Irish students have benefitted from the Erasmus programme, which was created in 1987 with Ireland’s Commissioner at the time, Peter Sutherland, playing a key role.
Being part of the EU also gives Ireland a powerful global voice. Irish views and interests are reflected in the policies of the EU towards the rest of the world.
Ireland and the EU are family. We have enjoyed the good times, while facing the more difficult moments, together.
We have worked jointly to overcome all the challenges that have been thrown at us.
From the Irish Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty to the financial crisis of almost 15 years ago.
From the COVID-19 pandemic, to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Or, of course, practical challenges around Brexit.
The UK’s decision to leave affected the entire Union, but nowhere more so than Ireland.
In response, we have worked in close cooperation, hand in hand to achieve the best possible outcome for all concerned.
We have said repeatedly that: Ireland’s interests are the EU’s interests. And indeed, we have stayed united in our support for Ireland, the integrity of the Single Market, and Ireland’s place within it.
This was foremost in our minds as we negotiated what would eventually become the Windsor Framework.
Our agreement with the UK provides practical solutions to the everyday problems being encountered by people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
This would not have been possible without the support and close cooperation of all EU Member States, and in particular Ireland.
We are now working together with the UK to ensure the Framework is fully implemented.
During all of our discussions with the UK, one of our underlying priorities was protecting the benefits of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions.
And so it is fitting that this year we are also marking the 25th anniversary of this historic agreement, that has helped bring peace to a region where for so long there had been violence and discord.
I was honoured to be in Dublin and Belfast for events held to celebrate this occasion. It was a moment to both reflect on the past and look to the future. The EU itself is a peace project, born out of the ashes of conflict, promoting dialogue and cooperation to resolve disagreements.
The establishment of the Single Market in 1993 certainly helped bring about a softening of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
And, following the ceasefires of paramilitary groups in 1994, the Commission invested in a series of cross border cooperation programmes supporting actions to bring communities in Northern Ireland and in the border regions of Ireland closer together.
Since 1995, successive PEACE programmes have benefitted communities in Northern Ireland and the border counties, helping to deliver economic and social stability.
And we will continue with this effort: Together with the UK and Ireland, the European Commission has agreed to co-fund the new €1.15 billion PEACE PLUS programme, expected to start shortly.
Looking ahead, we will maintain our commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.
And the joint solutions contained in the Windsor Framework, that we found together with the UK, will help us solve challenges being experienced by people and businesses on the ground.
These solutions help preserve the Single Market and Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom’s internal market but, crucially, also maintain the foundations of peace, by avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
As I have often said: If the last 25 years have been about peace in Northern Ireland, the next 25 years should be about both peace and prosperity.
For my part, I believe the future is very bright for Ireland and its role within the EU. That’s a belief shared by many Irish people – 84% of those polled are optimistic about the future of the EU, the highest result in any Member State.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given the fact that a whopping 83% of voters backed joining Europe in 1972.
So it is with a sense of optimism that we can look forward to the next 50 years of Irish membership of the EU.
And it is with a sense of pride and gratitude that I can say: Ní neart go cur le chéile.