Minister Cowen delivers Annual John Hume lecture, pt. 1
Ladies and Gentlemen
In the daily rush of politics, the issues of the day seem incredibly important – but even a few days later it can be hard to remember what all the fuss was about. It is chastening for us practitioners of the art to admit to ourselves that, in an entire career, to be able to claim even one truly lasting achievement is no mean feat.
How, then, can one begin to calculate John Hume's legacy? Forty years ago the historian Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe how great scientists can utterly transform how we look at the world. Without question, John Hume has been wholly or largely responsible for some of the most significant shifts in the politics of our island.
He worked to create over many years an approach to politics which was modern and forward-looking. Through the worst of years, he was resolutely opposed both to sectarianism and to violence. He focussed on the need to overcome the lines of division in the hearts of our people, and not those drawn on a map.
He helped articulate and reformulate the principle of democratic self-determination, the belief common to all great Irish national leaders that those most qualified to determine the life and politics of Ireland are those who live in and share it. He was a foremost advocate of the idea of the New Ireland Forum which propelled nationalist thinking towards accommodating modern realities.
He pioneered, at personal and political risk to himself, the widening of political dialogue to include those whose connections with violence had previously placed them outside the pale.
And he led the way in understanding how Ireland's involvement in European integration could help to transform our national political landscape.
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to deliver this lecture named for him.
Ireland is changing, not least as we move ever closer towards a just and lasting accommodation. Europe is changing, it is undergoing a process of constitutional reform, it is expanding to the east and, critically, it is being challenged to define what role it wants to play on the international stage. The world is changing, since the events of September 11 nothing has been the same.
It is a good time to stand back and assess where we are in our own peace process, and to remind ourselves how we got this far and how Britain and Ireland's common membership of the European Union has impacted positively on our efforts to promote peace in Ireland. In this context, the ambition of the agreement reached at the Convention of the draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe is instructive. It reiterates that “the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These values are common to the Member States in a society of pluralism, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination”. As a matter of course these values are accepted and characterise the relationships between the Union's Member States and between Britain and Ireland. Just as respect for these values offers the citizens of Europe an area of freedom, security and justice, lasting peace and reconciliation on this island must also be achieved through adherence to these common values.
For all of us in Ireland, a fundamental political challenge has been how to balance the deeply-rooted psychological and historical realities of identity and political tradition against the need for diversity and pluralism in our institutions.
For too long, many nationalists were inclined to see unionists either as irredeemable outsiders, or as the victims of false consciousness, waiting to be rescued from British brainwashing. Unionists sought to construct a state which ignored – and on occasion purposely denied - the enduring attachment of northern nationalists to their own legitimate aspirations and identity.
One of greatest achievements of recent years has been that this mutual blindness has now been largely replaced by a keen awareness of the need to ensure that both identities are fully respected and reflected in all constitutional and institutional arrangements.
This shift was absolutely fundamental in allowing for the balanced constitutional settlement which underpins the Good Friday agreement. It was fundamental to the institutional architecture of the agreement – to the composition of the Executive, to the procedures of the Assembly, to the creation of North/South and East-West institutions. It was fundamental to the basic principles prescribed in the Agreement in relation to policing, justice, and human rights.
Nor is the need to recognise the duality of identity and tradition in practice seriously contested anymore. Even some of the most severe unionist critics of the Agreement now express their discontent in terms of the need to respect the concerns of their community, rather than in the old language of majority and the greater number.
It can be difficult at times of frustration and stalemate to appreciate just how complete and important the intellectual triumph of those fundamental principles has been.
It is now unthinkable that any institutions within Northern Ireland could function other than with the full involvement of both communities. Structured partnership between North and South is now broadly accepted.
However, it is not enough simply to acknowledge the duality of identity which is central to the character of Northern Ireland and to the nature of the political problem. Those who say that the Agreement institutionalises sectarianism are misguided. Its foundations are stronger for honestly confronting, and building upon, the inescapable reality that Northern Ireland is and has always been a society marked by the existence of two competing traditions.
But difference is not the whole story. We must be alive to the need to ensure that in recognising division we do not ultimately deepen it. The politics of identity has been a constant in Northern Ireland: but exactly what defines a given identity inevitably changes over time. The days of the Empire, or of the Church Triumphant, are long gone.
There are those who genuinely cannot be categorised, or who do not wish to be. And there are many more, who, while proud of their own communal identity and attached to their own political aspirations, do not see this as the beginning and the end of their world. It is a part of their make up, but so, too, are other experiences.
As parents, or as consumers, or as workers – in short, as human beings – they see how much they have in common with others, and how much they can benefit from common action. Above all, I am convinced that the great mass of the people of Northern Ireland, and of the island as a whole, genuinely want a future in which difference is respected but sectarianism is rejected. In which our common pursuit of a better life for all transcends our differences.
Those are the ideals against which our current situation here must be measured. The fact that we haven't yet lived up to those ideals in every respect does not mean that we have failed or that we should abandon the task. We must retain a sense of perspective and recognise the improvements and progress which must drive us to work harder at it.
Of course, one profoundly important fact must never be ignored. Despite disturbing levels of sectarian conflict and paramilitary-related violence, including murder, many people are alive today because of the peace process who would otherwise be dead. There are women who have not been widowed, children who have not been orphaned, families and communities which have not been shattered. To say this is not to forget the deep and endless hurt of those who were injured or bereaved earlier in the Troubles. Nor is it to neglect those who have suffered loss despite the proclamation of peace. But it must be acknowledged. Peace of a kind is bedding down. And paying off.
The first six months of this year have been markedly more peaceful than the same period last year. At that time, a pipe-bomb campaign was underway, sectarian murder was afoot and tensions were boiling in East Belfast. When the elections to the Assembly were postponed, public reaction was one of frustration and resignation but not panic or antagonism. When Drumcree approached this year, both sides sought to lower not raise temperatures. Throughout the North, parades have been marked by attempts to create space for peace rather than contention. We have witnessed the most peaceful Twelfth in living memory.
Relations within the island of Ireland have been transformed by the Good Friday Agreement. The days of unionist suspicion that North/South institutions were a way of bypassing the principle of consent are gone. The institutions are a tangible demonstration of John Hume's belief that working together on practical bread and butter issues of common concern brings with it healing and reconciliation. And the benefits are tangible. North/South trade is now worth almost double what it was in 1993. Multiple relationships and synergies have been forged across the border on a range of activities from business to tourism.
Northern Ireland is a better place than it was a decade ago. Despite continuing areas of enduring deprivation, in both communities, it has enjoyed substantial and sustained economic growth. It has built on its competitive advantages - an excellent workforce, a strong industrial tradition, and rich tourism potential. It has begun to lessen its excessive dependence on the public sector. Its infrastructure is being modernised. Progress towards equality in employment has progressively continued, aided by general economic development, though the work is not yet complete. More generally, it is becoming a more equal society – one in which people feel they can realise their fullest potential. One in which it should be progressively easier to identify with public institutions and services.
Progress on police reform is an excellent example of this. Being one of the most fraught issues in Northern Ireland, it was decided that efforts to rectify the problems be in two phases.
The first was framing the terms of reference for new policing in the Agreement. These were tightly drawn to ensure that the fundamental problem was addressed, and that the final product would be new policing capable of winning the confidence of the whole community.
And secondly, there was the Patten Commission, which did an exemplary job and stands as a model of its kind. In its scope, ambition and detail, I don't think anyone could have asked for a better job of work. Patten and his fellow commissioners wisely opted to ask the public what it wanted from policing. While these public encounters were often difficult, they not only informed the Commission but they added an authority to its conclusions and recommendations.
Having a plan is one thing and implementing it another. The creation of the Policing Board was in reality an act of devolution. There were genuine concerns that a Policing Board representative of the community would implode at the first serious challenge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Board has moved forward steadily, tackling a wide range of challenges with ingenuity and determination. Whether it was the question of flags and emblems, the implementation of recommendations arising from the Omagh Bomb report, the appointment of new senior officers or the implementation of a major new manpower strategy, the Board has gone from strength to strength. I commend the work of all its members, they have made its work one of the real success stories of the Agreement thus far.
The launch of the new Policing Partnership Boards is also a major step along the road to realising the vision of new community policing. Brave and committed people have stepped forward from all sections of the community to join these Boards. They are the enablers of the new policing, bridging the gap between local communities and the police whose duty it is to serve them. They want to help deliver effective and fair policing to their people. We owe them a heavy debt of gratitude for their courage and vision.
All this is not to say that major challenges do not lie ahead. I strongly believe, for example, that as soon as possible, and certainly in the working out of acts of completion, republicans too should take the steps needed to support the PSNI and to encourage members of their community to work in it.
In policing, as in a great many areas, there has been enormous progress since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. But in other areas we have fallen short. Peace must mean more than the absence of war. We cannot yet claim that Northern Ireland is a society at ease with itself.
Difficulties remain, not least in the persistence of the virus of sectarianism. Stalemate in the operation of the institutions of the Agreement is also deeply frustrating. This is all the more so given that the framers of the Agreement saw the institutions as being at its core. They were and are expected to bring tangible benefits in terms of better governance and of economic and social development. But they were also conceived of as of huge symbolic importance - as both signifying and promoting reconciliation, tolerance and working together.
The failure of the institutions to work consistently – their stop/go operation and the constant round of discussions and initiatives - has not helped to foster the development of sufficient mutual trust and confidence. Difficulties in the institutions have both stemmed from and further fuelled the absence of those two qualities. An absence of sufficient unionist trust in the good faith of nationalism, and specifically in republicanism, has been a significant cause of these difficulties. This in turn has left nationalists and republicans questioning unionist commitment to working the Agreement in full.
And so it is that we have reached an important juncture in the process. We have all got here by different journeys.
For our part, as constitutional Nationalists, we finessed our thinking into a modern context as far back as the New Ireland Forum of 1983-84. In the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, the two Governments stated that the “ending of divisions can come about only through the agreement and cooperation of the people, North and South, representing both traditions in Ireland”. We made a solemn commitment “to promote cooperation at all levels” and made clear that our goal was “to foster agreement and reconciliation, leading to a new political framework founded on consent and encompassing arrangements within Northern Ireland, for the whole island, and between these islands”. Importantly, both Governments also recognised in that Declaration that “the development of Europe will, of itself, require new approaches to serve interests common to both parts of the island of Ireland, and to Ireland and the United Kingdom as partners in the European Union”.