2016 gave us a compass for the future

President meets with Irish Community Groups at Govanhill

THE turn of the year is naturally a time to take stock and to look back over the highs and lows of the past 12 months. There are few years in recent history that have given us as many significant events and developments to look back on as 2016 has, whether viewed through a global lens or from the specific perspectives of Ireland and Scotland.

I took up duty as Ireland’s Consul General here in Scotland in the middle of a momentous year for Irish-Scottish relations. I have to admit that when I arrived here in May, I did not foresee quite how the remainder of 2016 was likely to play out, or how the context for the British-Irish relationship would change so dramatically in the subsequent eight months.

Without a doubt, the single most significant development for Irish-Scottish relations during the last year was the referendum on June 23 in which the British electorate decided that the UK should leave the European Union. This was not the decision that the Irish Government wanted the British people to make, and in the run-up to the referendum we had made very clear our view that Ireland’s interests would be best served by Britain remaining a strong, committed and active EU member state.

In the six months since the referendum, the Irish Government has been working hard to prepare for the negotiating process, which will begin when the UK Government formally notifies the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU. This work, in fact, builds on preparations for this scenario that have been ongoing in Ireland for well over a year and a half. The negotiations are going to be complex, and we want to ensure that Ireland’s interests—and the interests of Irish citizens both at home in Ireland and here in Britain—are protected. We have set out clearly our key priorities: our citizens, our economy, Northern Ireland, our Common Travel Area and the future of the EU itself. The Irish Government continues to outline these priority issues at all meetings with EU counterparts. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for European Affairs are actively engaged with their European colleagues, as are other ministers and senior officials.

We know that we are also going to have to work hard to ensure that the good relationships we have built with Britain and with Northern Ireland, and the achievements of the peace process, are preserved following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Irish Government will continue to work closely with political leaders in Northern Ireland to address the challenges that Brexit creates for the island as a whole, and a set of common principles to guide further work on the implications of Brexit throughout the island of Ireland has been agreed.

We are very conscious, too, of the specific interests of Scotland in the negotiation process ahead. We have a strong relationship with the Scottish Government and engage in regular dialogue both bilaterally and in the framework of the British-Irish Council, the body which brings together the British and Irish Governments with representatives of the devolved administrations on these islands.

It is important to note, of course, that regardless of the decision taken by the UK, Ireland remains a strong and committed member of the European Union. Public support for EU membership remains very high—86 per cent, according to a recent poll. Irish people appreciate the many positives and benefits that our place in the EU brings. We remain fully committed to our membership of the EU and the Eurozone, and we will be very much a part of the EU team in the period ahead.

With all that said, it’s important that we do not allow the EU referendum, however significant an event it was, to overshadow the rest of what happened in 2016. Because, in other ways, the year was a really historic and positive one for the relationship between Ireland and Scotland.

High level visits

The clear highlight of the year for us was the visit to Scotland by President Michael D Higgins at the end of June. It was the President’s second visit to Scotland—he had visited the island of Iona in 2013—but his first to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The warmth of the welcome the President received was truly remarkable, and events such as his visit to the Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre to meet members of the Irish community in Glasgow, and the great ‘Ceangal’ concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall celebrating Scottish-Irish cultural ties, will live long in the memory.

The groups that organised the President’s visit to Govanhill—the Irish Heritage Foundation (above), Conradh na Gaeilge and Comahltas Ceoltóirí Éireann—did an immense amount of work to bring such a successful event together. The extremely positive response to the President’s two major speeches during his visit—an address to graduating students at the University of Edinburgh, and an address to the Scottish Parliament—were testament to the high esteem in which President Higgins is held here, and the visit made a huge contribution to the further strengthening of the warm and close relationship between Scotland and Ireland. For me, having arrived in Scotland just a few weeks before the visit, it was a real privilege to have played a part in it.

The visit by President Higgins was the most significant of a number of high-level visits from Ireland to Scotland during 2016. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, made a short visit to Glasgow in June, and we also welcomed Ministers Paschal Donohoe, Heather Humphreys, Joe McHugh, Helen McEntee and Seán Sherlock in the course of the year. The large number of ministerial visits demonstrates the importance the Irish Government attaches to contacts with Scottish Government counterparts and with the Irish community here in Scotland.

The priority the Irish Government attaches to its relationship with Scotland is very much reciprocated. We were pleased to welcome First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to Dublin at the end of November, for a very successful visit which included engagements with President Higgins and with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, as well as an address to Seanad Éireann, a speech to students at Trinity College, and a number of business events.

Business ties

In addition, we very much welcomed the opening in January of 2016 of the Scottish Government’s new Innovation and Investment Hub based at the British Embassy in Dublin. The Hub is working to promote the development of Scottish-Irish links of all kinds, in particular strengthened business and economic ties, and its establishment is a real sign of the Scottish Government’s willingness to invest in the Irish-Scottish relationship.

Here in Scotland, we have seen the revival and development of the Irish Business Network Scotland, with high-profile launch events at Edinburgh Castle in June and at Glasgow City Chambers in September. The IBNS is already making a tangible difference for the business community here—making introductions, generating ideas and creating new business relationships—and has huge potential to help both Irish companies looking to develop their presence in the Scottish market and Scottish companies seeking to do business in Ireland. Driven too by the very valuable work of Enterprise Ireland—which organised a successful trade mission to Scotland led by Minister Joe McHugh in November—Irish enterprises have a new appreciation of the scale of the business opportunities that exist in Scotland and their work here is creating new jobs and new investment both here in Scotland and back home.

Easter Rising centenary

For Ireland, of course, some of the most memorable aspects of 2016 were the commemorations of the Easter Rising of 100 years ago. The commemorations programme was a huge success, reflecting on and celebrating the legacy of 1916 in a respectful, open and inclusive way. As President Higgins said in his Christmas and New Year message, in marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising we celebrated elements of our past that can provide us with a lasting source of pride and confidence, as well as a compass for the future.

Here in Scotland, the 1916 Rising Centenary Committee did extraordinary work in putting together a diverse and broadly-based programme of commemorative events, examining the Rising itself, the strong links with Scotland through figures like James Connolly and Margaret Skinnider, and the broader social and political context for the events of 1916. I was glad to have the opportunity to participate in a number of the events organised by the Committee, and I know that its members can take great pride in the contribution they have made to strengthening understanding in Scotland of the key themes of Irish history and the strength of the historic ties between us.

So looking back on 2016 and the events which have shaped the relationship between Ireland and Scotland, it’s the many positive developments that should be firmly in the foreground. There will undoubtedly be challenges ahead, but our task at the Consulate for 2017 will be to help build on that positive progress to expand and deepen our engagement and our partnership. And we are confident that we can do that in a way which brings real benefits and opportunities for our societies and our economies in both Ireland and Scotland. A very happy new year to all.

Mark Hanniffy is the Consul General of Ireland in Scotland