Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brian Cowen TD, at the Belfast Aisling Awards, 7 November 2002
Tá an-áthas orm bheith in bhúr láthair anseo in Óstán an Europa ar an ócáid speisíalta seo, Gradaim na hAislinge. Is onóir mhór é bheith i measc an oiread seo daoine a oibríonn ar mhaithe na cathrach seo, le haitheantas a thabhairt daoibh. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil, ach go h-áirithe, le heagarthóir an Andersonstown News, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, as ucht an cuireadh chun teacht cois Cuain anocht.
Driving through Belfast on my way to these awards tonight, I was once again struck by the enormous transformation that has taken place here over the last ten years. Belfast is a vibrant, lively city with much to offer to those who live here and visitors alike.
Judging by outward appearances alone, we can see that Belfast has undergone huge levels of development. Investment in infrastructure has seen the city blossom into a modern European centre of trade and commerce.
Examples of development abound - one only needs to look at the state of the art Odyssey Arena, Belfast's landmark millennium project.
The business community has built on past achievements to develop the indigenous small business sector, as well as securing inward investment and strengthening external trading relations. Education, training and industry links are continually being fostered, and a huge amount of urban regeneration has taken place.
An impressive testament to the resurgent Belfast is the Andersonstown News Group. Since its establishment in 1972, the Group has expanded to become one of the fastest growing news group in Ireland. I congratulate the Group on its success and on its sponsorship of these awards which celebrate the new vibrancy and optimism of this city.
Artistic development and excellence has also been a feature of life in Belfast over the past number of years.
But the positive changes that Belfast has been experiencing have of course not taken place in a vacuum. Political developments have helped to bring about an enormous transformation in Northern society, and Belfast has been no exception.
The Good Friday Agreement signalled a fresh start for divided communities. In the years since the signing of the Agreement, we have witnessed its enormous transforming potential. The people of Belfast have had the opportunity to see true partnership politics at first hand, politics based on mutual respect and equality.
The City Council has also played its part. The decision of the Mayor, Alex Maskey, to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in commemoration of the Battle of the Somme and to invite representatives of the British Legion to City Hall earlier this week were important steps of reconciliation and outreach.
In affirming all the positive developments that have impacted on the city, we must also acknowledge that certain communities continue to be blighted by the scourges of paramilitarism and sectarianism. The violence in North and East Belfast over the last year reminds us all of how much needs to be done rid society of sectarian hatred.
I had the honour earlier to meet the families of the late Ciaran Cummings, Gavin Brett, Danny McColgan and Gerard Lawlor. While no words of mine can compensate for their tragic loss, the dignity of these families is a very poignant and powerful contrast to be the base motives of the murderers of these young men. That contrast renews our devotion to the cause of peace and justice.
Tonight's awards honour those who have pride in this city and are building a better Belfast. We pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of the citizens of Belfast who are working for a better future for their communities. We celebrate the foresight, imagination and hard work that have been, and continue to be, invested in this city.
The name of tonight's awards, the ‘Aisling' Awards, is indeed a fitting one. Reflecting on the concept of the aisling and witnessing the talent and commitment that are so amply demonstrated here this evening, I have been thinking of what my personal vision for Belfast and Northern Ireland might be.
It is that within the next five years, Northern Ireland will be transformed for the better.
That the operation of its government and policing structures will be based on the full and inclusive participation of all parties that have an electoral mandate to be represented there. That, to paraphrase Mark Durkan, partnership government transcends slogans on the gable by putting bread on the table.
That the North/South and the British/Irish structures become dynamic reflections of the harmonious totality of relationships on these islands.
That the culture of paramilitarism has been replaced by a system of law and order based on equality and parity of esteem between the two traditions.
That the policing service commands the respect, support and participation of all spectrums of political opinion in Northern Ireland, ranging from republican to loyalist.
That the PSNI observes the best practices of human rights and equality imperatives and that its partnership with the Garda Síochána is a world class model of policing co-operation.
That the streets and community interfaces of this city are no longer regarded as places of fear or danger. That the frustrations and tensions that do arise are resolved through dialogue in community fora and not used for partisan advantage or excuses for sectarian aggression.
That Belfast City Council is regarded as a model of municipal government based on partnership and that the city's formerly disadvantaged communities - nationalist and loyalist - are regenerated communities of hope and opportunity.
That formerly contentious parades become harmonious celebrations of a marching tradition that fully respects the communities through which they traverse and, in turn, are welcomed by those communities.
That events profiling the Ulster-Scots heritage are regular features in Feile an Pobal and other community fleadhanna across Belfast.
That in the councils of the EU and the UN, I can proudly point to Northern Ireland as an outstanding case study in conflict resolution that inspires troubled areas of the globe who are seeking to match its success.
While I fully appreciate all the progress that has been made in recent years, I also feel a certain amount of frustration that we have not advanced further towards stability and reconciliation.
And yet huge gains have been made. Core issues that a few years ago would have been hugely contentious are now regarded as matters of broad agreement - the constitutional primacy of consent, the requirement of partnership government, the need for an accountable and representative police service, the objective of putting paramilitary arms beyond use and the need for structures of North/South co-operation that are mutually beneficial for both parts of the island.
The principles of all these issues are now largely settled and accepted by all, even if we disagree about the terms on which some of them are achieved.
If the fundamentals of the process are sound, why then do we find ourselves in this current predicament, with the devolved institutions suspended?
The fact of the matter is that while the fundamentals of the Agreement are indeed sound, the overall dispensation will only work if the underlying trust and confidence is there to drive the process forward.
For reasons that you are all familiar with, that required trust and confidence has gradually been eroded. We need to urgently refurbish that trust and confidence and the mechanism to do so is already at hand. It exists in the Agreement itself - in particular, by fast-forwarding its complete implementation.
If we are not to squander the great gains already made under the Agreement - and its even greater unfulfilled promise - we all need to move beyond short-term incrementalism; beyond tactical maneouverings; and beyond partisan posturing.
The quantum leap that is now required calls for leadership from all sides.
From the republican movement to recognise that the people of Ireland - Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter - demand that it now lives up to the best and unifying ideals of Wolfe Tone. Continued paramilitarism retards - rather than advances - those ideals.
From the unionist community to unequivocally embrace the inclusive ethos of the Agreement. There must be a clear recognition that the full and equal participation of any democratic party in the institutions of the Agreement is solely based on its electoral mandate - not on the will or political comfort of any other party.
To ensure that vulnerable communities are no longer the victims of sectarian attack and that they receive the protection of effective, consistent and impartial policing. Equally, the young men and women who put their careers on the line to provide that policing must receive the full support of the communities they serve.
The last year has seen substantial progress in the realisation of the Patten vision for a new beginning to policing. I warmly commend all those who have made a positive contribution to the achievements of the last year - including the representatives of the three political parties who serve on the Policing Board.
However, that vision of a new beginning will not be fully consolidated until young men and women from nationalist, republican and loyalist communities join the PSNI.
I take Sinn Féin at its word when it says that it wishes to see such an outcome. I sincerely hope that the forthcoming legislation and the longer-term debate about the devolution of policing and justice powers may provide a context in which that will quickly happen.
There must also be rapid and demonstrable progress on the normalisation of security arrangements.
And the war must be over for all sides, not just republicans. The security services must also decommission their mind-sets from the culture of war.
We need real leadership to urgently and substantially advance all these issues. We need the political parties to provide that leadership and we need their constituencies to demand it.
Recently, our Ambassador in Washington was briefing a Congressman on Capitol Hill on the current impasse. The perplexed Congressman asked the question as to what the business community was doing about the political crisis. He added that, if the Congress was pulling down the shutters on itself, it would be rapidly told by the US business community that this was bad for business and should be sorted out.
The current impasse is, indeed, bad for business - not just for commercial business but for all the good work, across many sectors, that the people in this room have been doing and that you are rightly celebrating tonight.
The peace process has provided a more ample space in which you could help to build and develop this city. As this event demonstrates, there has been an undeniable peace dividend, even if it has not reached every community in Northern Ireland.
You all have a stake in the maintenance and consolidation of the current process. We will all be the poorer if the current problem leads into a stall. The politicians, including the two Governments, carry the primary responsibility to sort out the current log-jam. However, the active support of - and indeed the pressure from - civic society represented here tonight would be a valuable resource as we set about that task.
A final thought on the aisling theme. W.B Yeats wrote “In dreams begins responsibilities”. I have shared my dream with you. I believe it is shared by many on all sides of the political divide. However, it will only be fulfilled if we all live up to our responsibilities.
The weeks and months ahead will be testing. All of the political leaders involved will have to confront the core challenges represented by the Agreement; to show courage and make their own rendezvous with the requirements of leadership. The stakes are high and the responsibilities of those entrusted with the political future of Northern Ireland are even higher.
I am, nevertheless, confident that we will succeed. Because - as this room here tonight demonstrates - there are now too many stake-holders in the new beginning that the Agreement represents. Nobody wishes to regress to the sterile and wasteful years of the past.
While the devolved institutions operated, we had a taste of partnership politics delivering for all of the people. We saw the future and we know it works. We urgently need to see it restored and fully consolidated. Now is the time to finish the job that Good Friday, 1998 began.
Thank you very much and enjoy your evening.Top