Speech by Minister Dermot Ahern at opening of Peace Village in Messines, Belgium, 7th June 2006
Minister Bourgeois, Minister Hanson, Mr Burgomaster, Aldermen and citizens of Mesen, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am honoured to be here with you today to participate in the official opening of this Peace Village and to remember all the Irish men who fell in the First World War.
This Peace Park was built in memory of the men of those men of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division who fought shoulder to shoulder at Messines. Their story is powerfully relevant for us today.
As we know well, those who came together at Messines came from very different motives and backgrounds.
I stand here as one brought up in and committed to the Republican tradition. Many of those who fought and died here were equally committed to this tradition.
And in the terror of the trenches, differences of political outlook meant less. William Redmond was carried off the field of Messines and tended by men of the Ulster Division before his death. The catholic chaplain of the 49th Brigade reported that “an Englishman attached to the Ulster Division expressed some surprise at the extreme care which was taken of the poor Major, though no Irish soldier expected anything else for, after all, the Ulstermen are Irish too”.
I am here also as a Louth man, representing communities that bore a great share of suffering and human loss in that War. Two and half thousand young men from Louth volunteered – nine hundred from my own town of Dundalk. One in three never returned.
Twenty five young men of the Dundalk post office alone joined up together, and six of them lost their lives.
The experience of the First World War is too important, too relevant to be consigned to history. This year, as we prepare to mark the passage of ninety years since the battle of the Somme, it becomes ever more important to retain the vital human memories of that period.
Sebastian Barry wrote of the individual humanity lost with each death in the First World War:
“those millions of mothers, and their million gallons of mothers' milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death's amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of the coming war”.
It is vital for our own shared future on this island that we commemorate and acknowledge those losses. This year, the Irish Government will mark the sacrifice of Ireland's war dead, North and South, in a commemorative ceremony in the War Memorial at Islandbridge.
It is vital too that we learn from our past. As President McAleese said at the opening of the Peace Park in 1998, “war defines our failure in its ugliness and its wastefulness”. The Peace School and this peace Village embodies our determination not to fail ourselves again. It embodies our determination to acknowledge our common history as we work together for a better, shared future.
It also embodies our determination to make our experience available to those in other regions who are also grappling with the challenges of peace-building and reconciliation.
We in Ireland have a story to tell, and it is a good one. For all the frustrations, setbacks and delays which our peace process has experienced, ours is a success story – arguably one of the most successful experiences in peace-building, bar none.
As one who deals on a daily basis with the challenges of peace building in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, I know that our practical experience of slow patient peace building is a valuable resource for other regions. I commend your plans, therefore, to use these facilities as a resource for other regions.
That is not to understate the work that lies ahead of us, nor the scale of the challenge we face. Foremost among these is the challenge of sectarianism.
One month ago, fifteen year old Michael McIlveen was killed in a sectarian attack in Ballymena. He was catholic but his life was not defined by that fact. He had friends in both communities and, at his funeral, those friends walked shoulder to shoulder wearing Celtic and Rangers football shirts carrying his coffin.
Shoulder to shoulder.
In the wake of Michael's death, a parade by the loyal orders near the scene was voluntarily rerouted. We can celebrate our distinctive traditions, and the events of our history, without endorsing provocation and confrontation. And if that provocation does occur, we can choose not to ignore it, but to condemn it, and use our leadership to pursue a better way. Inclusive local dialogue and the sincere search for common ground can yield real results.
Genuine engagement is the key. And genuine engagement is also what is required in the political process.
We are really coming to a crunch period now. The time ahead will be a test of all parties' willingness to work together to seriously prepare for partnership government.
There is every good reason to do so.
The weeks ahead represent a test but also an opportunity - possibly the last for some time - to secure the long-term stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland.
That is a big prize.
If all sides are truly committed to working together in partnership government, and if the progress we have seen on PIRA criminality and paramilitary activity is sustained, then there is no reason why, by 25th November this year or even before, Northern Ireland should not have a First and Deputy First Minister and a power-sharing administration.
We will spare no effort to secure the vision of the Good Friday Agreement of a new beginning for Northern Ireland. To secure a stable and peaceful society, where people can live in harmony in their neighbours and where the legitimate rights of each individual and each community are respected and cherished.
I look around today and I see many people working in their communities as leaders as I have tried to do myself. As we continue to try and find a political solution to the legitimately different political aspirations of people in Northern Ireland, we will continue to debate, even to argue. That is as it should be.
But we must not tolerate those who support our arguments, with sectarian rhetoric or actions. They are the enemies of us all, regardless of which side of the political debate they are on.
All those untold human stories that we lost in the First World War, and more recently in the conflict in Northern Ireland, must be remembered. And, in remembering, they must not be told for nothing. They must not be told to deepen divisions. They must be told to inspire us to overcome them.
In this spirit, I hope this Peace Village will serve as an inspiration for all those who visit it, to those who come to participate in the International School for Peace Studies and to men and women of all nationalities who seek to promote peace, an end to violence and reconciliation.
In concluding allow me to pay tribute to all those whose cooperation and hard work has gone into this wonderful construction and to offer our heartfelt thanks, through you Minister Bourgeois, to the Flemish regional Government and to Tourism Flanders, through Burgomaster Sandy Evrard to the Town of Messine, and to all whose vision and energy have borne fruit in what we see around us.
7th June 2006Top