Minister Cowen addresses British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body: Part 2
Over the last few years, the Northern Ireland Executive, under the joint leadership of David Trimble and both Seamus Mallon and, latterly, Mark Durkan, achieved much success in bringing together political representatives of both communities to work in partnership and with common purpose, for the betterment of all of the citizens of Northern Ireland.
The work of the Executive had a substantial impact, with locally accountable Ministers taking decisions of real importance and significance to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland and positively impacting on vital sectors such as Agriculture, Industrial Promotion, Health and Education. The successful workings of the Northern Ireland Executive over recent years have shown beyond question that partnership government works to the benefit of both nationalists and unionists alike.
That partnership was seen at its best in the work undertaken by Mark Durkan and David Trimble in securing the Reform and Reinvestment Initiative, which allows for the transfer of certain vacated military sites for use for economic and community regeneration purposes.
The Assembly had also been operating successfully, proving itself capable of withstanding robust debate on controversial matters, in line with the best traditions of parliamentary democracy. Assembly members from all traditions had taken on their responsibilities with commendable enthusiasm and sincerity, and their contributions had been marked by commitment and diligence.
The North-South interface was also moving from the old zero-sum model of suspicion and isolation to a relationship based on win-win perspectives and the achievement of mutual benefit. Meetings of Ministers from both parts of the island through the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) had become a recognisable feature of Ministerial calendars, North and South.
Ministers from both parts of the island, representative of both traditions, were taking decisions on a regular basis that benefited all of our people in a practical and meaningful way.
Similarly, the all-island Implementation Bodies established under the Agreement have now been in successful operation for over three years. They operate in sectors which range from Trade and Business Development, to the maintenance and development of the island's waterways to Food Safety Promotion, and their functional achievements are many.
The development of rational co-operation in a sector that is economically vital on both sides of the border is perhaps seen most manifestly in the case of the all-island tourism organisation, Tourism Ireland Limited. The promotional campaigns of Tourism Ireland Limited are undoubtedly crucial to the success and development of the industry throughout the island – particularly at this very challenging time in the global tourism market.
I wish to pay tribute to the outstanding effort and commitment which all Ministers, from both parts of the island, displayed in the operation of the North/South structures. While we all came to these meetings from different political cultures and traditions, these were transcended by a common commitment to advance co-operation between both parts of the island to the mutual benefit of our people. The sooner we can renew that partnership, the better for all of the people on this island.
As a result of the work we are currently engaged on, we may soon be able to return to that constructive and developing network of partnership. There is now the real prospect that, when they go the polls on the 29th May, the people of Northern Ireland will be able to give their democratic verdict in the full knowledge that the devolved institutions are secure and that the Agreement, in all of its aspects, is on course to be rapidly and irreversibly implemented.
In short, the achievement of a normalised society in Northern Ireland will no longer be a vision but an attainable reality.
I am very conscious that this survey of our local difficulty is taking place in a context of global anxiety and uncertainty. The path to war in Iraq has caused great debate and sincere differences of view within the international community and within our respective legislatures. While we all fervently hope that the human casualties and physical destruction can be minimised and contained, inevitably there will be losses and tragedies in the days ahead – both for the people of Iraq and for the coalition of US and British troops.
The political and diplomatic fall-out to the crisis will be immense. Only one thing is certain – there will be far-reaching change, both in Iraq and the surrounding region and in the wider international order.
I am reminded that, in the aftermath of the Great War, Winston Churchill ironically commented that, in the cataclysm of change that then swept the world, the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone were one of the few institutions to have maintained the integrity of their quarrel.
All of us who are involved in the current talks process in Northern Ireland should, in the light of the current global crisis, reflect even more deeply on our current responsibilities. Now is not the time to play the process long, to seek to extract one concession too far, to assume that the doors of people who have been endlessly patient and supportive remain as generously open as they have in the past.
As in the affairs of men, there is also a tide of opportunity for conflict resolution that inevitably recedes if not taken on the flood.
It is now 10 years since the beginning of the Oslo peace process created great hopes for peace in the Middle East. We all remember those heady days of historic hand-shakes on the White House lawn. Those hopes have since dimmed. Israel and Palestine have, for some time, been locked in a sterile and violent stand-off, although we all hope that the recently proposed Road Map will regenerate momentum in the search for peace in the Middle East.
Conscious of these global realities, we must not make the mistake of assuming that, regardless of opportunities not taken or declined, our peace process is uniquely irreversible or immune to set-back until the remaining vital strategic decisions are taken to enable the full and faithful implementation of the Agreement.
In the shadow of a global crisis, the next few weeks may paradoxically be a time of great opportunity for the peace process on this island. As one commentator in Northern Ireland said last week, the dread in the wider world may encourage people here “to think outside their boxes”. In the coming period that opportunity must be seized for the benefit of all of the people of Northern Ireland and, also, to extend a light of hope to an international community that yearns for an enduring model of peace amidst the discouragement of war.
As the two Governments and the parties continue in the weeks ahead to bring their collective work to fruition, we will be encouraged by the continuing support and goodwill that exists across these islands for our endeavours - not least within this Body.
The Irish Government continues to attach considerable importance to the development of the nexus of wider relationships across these islands. We were pleased that, despite the regrettable suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, it has been possible to maintain the programme of work and activity within the British-Irish Council that brings tangible benefits to all of our peoples.
When I had the honour of addressing you last year, I spoke of the diversity of partnerships on these islands and said that the circle of partnership within this Body would be complete when representatives of unionism from the Northern Ireland Assembly would take up your invitation to participate. The question of inter-parliamentary links was, of course, addressed in the Agreement – both in regard to the North-South and wider East-West dimensions.
I would hope that, as result of the current talks process, we could achieve some forward momentum in this area that might facilitate the establishment of the North-South Parliamentary Forum and secure the participation of Northern Ireland parties, reflective of both traditions, in the wider British-Irish Inter-parliamentary links envisaged by the Agreement.
In this regard, the Body and its constituent legislatures will clearly have crucial roles to play. I know that you will be constructive and imaginative in responding to any opportunities that may present themselves to achieve another important act of completion in regard to inter-parliamentary links across these islands.
I believe that the next few weeks and months offer a real prospect of breaking free of the old simple alignments that have impoverished the politics of this island for too long.
In 3 weeks time, we will reach the 5th anniversary of the Agreement. There would be no more fitting way of marking this important milestone than by demonstrating to the people, who put their trust in that Agreement, that it is now irrevocably secure; that its consolidation and development is no longer held hostage to violent threat or political resistance; that the political leaders of Northern Ireland are now free to focus their talents and energies on the bread and butter issues of making Northern Ireland a better place for all its citizens; that the governments and administrations of these islands can accelerate our work in ever closer partnership.
In summary, the people of this island deserve to see acts of completion that now advance a peace process to a political settlement and allow us all, paraphrasing Hubert Butler, to make our differences truly fruitful.