A DUP member has spoken at the Fine Gael conference for the first time – and on the subject of closer working relationships between the UK and Ireland.
Jonathan Bell, Junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, was the guest speaker at the party’s conference session on ‘The United Kingdom and Ireland working together to create jobs’.
The MLA used the invitation to argue that instead of the Republic competing with Northern Ireland for foreign direct investment, the British Isles should work together to exploit emerging opportunities with billions of new consumers in the Far East.
“I am delighted to be the first DUP representative to attend a Fine Gael conference,” Mr Bell said on Saturday evening. “This demonstrates the changed times in which we live and also the confidence there is within unionism. No longer under threat, we are confident in our position.
“The fact that Fine Gael is hosting this discussion on closer cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland demonstrates how the relationship within the British Isles is developing and normalising.”
The MLA said that Ireland accounts for five per cent of United Kingdom’s total exports – more than the UK exports to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) combined. Plus, two-fifths of Northern Ireland exports go to the Republic, he added.
“These few facts demonstrate that it is not in the interests of the United Kingdom for the RoI economy to collapse,” he said. “It would be devastating for British business.”
Whilst relations between the Republic and the United Kingdom have been strained in the past because of PIRA terrorism, he said, in recent years there has been a “healing”.
“The removal of the Republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland has been integral to the changed relationship,” he added.
Although the two parties will not always agree on issues, he said, they do agree that it is of mutual interest for the two countries to work together.
“At a time when jobs are premium, our focus must be on forging relationships, which can help our economy.”
For example, all the salmon caught in the British Isles could never satisfy the demand of the Chinese market – “there is room for cooperation,” said Mr Bell.
The new and emerging markets, especially in the Far East, have literally billions of new consumers, he said. “There is plenty of opportunity for all.”
Mr Bell cited the recent words of the Queen on her visit to Ireland, as an inspiration for future cooperation.
“Together we have much to celebrate: the ties between our people, the shared values, and the economic, business and cultural links that make us so much more than neighbours, that make us firm friends and equal partners,” said the Queen.
Mr Bell concluded his speech to Fine Gael, adding: “Let us demonstrate what partnership can deliver.”