Speech by Mr Brian Cowen TD., Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Institute for British-Irish Studies
If I single out David Trimble for mention this evening, it is not to diminish the enormous efforts of others, but because it is right to acknowledge the difficulties his community has faced.
For understandable reasons, the unionist community has often felt itself to be literally and metaphorically under siege - it is only right to acknowledge that the experience of violence has had a profoundly distorting effect on relations between the communities.
At a time in which a much wider debate on what it means to be British in the modern world is also underway, unionists have seen many of the unquestioned truths with which they grew up challenged.
Against that background of perceived loss, escapist politics can be very seductive, even addictive, and we do not lack those who seek to feed the habit. If you persuade people that the pressure for change comes only from the contrivance of enemies, then denouncing these enemies can seem a perfectly satisfying remedy. The untidy compromises of the peace process are measured not against the equally untidy realities, but by reference to some magically ideal starting point which has nothing to do with Irish history or geography.
It took more courage than perhaps people recognise for David Trimble to refer in his Nobel speech to Northern Ireland having been a cold house for Catholics.
Our collective task must now be to ensure that the temperature of the house should be the same for all, and that all the rooms will be equally open and equally comfortable, for all who live there.
In doing so, we must examine what truthful reassurance can be given to those within the unionist community who feel genuine uncertainty and fears about the future.
My answer would be that the Good Friday Agreement is not a matter of just channelling the currents of expediency. It has an organising principle, which is ultimately subject to objective test, and that is the principle of equality.
The Good Friday Agreement, at its core, rests on one simple insight: if orange domination of green was wrong and unworkable, green domination of orange would be equally wrong and unworkable. It follows that if you want to create a stable and constructive relationship between the two communities, it is pointless to try to do so except on the basis of equality.
There are some within the unionist community who, wrongly in my view, see equality simply as a concession to nationalists. But the principle of equality throughout the Agreement as a whole provides the same fundamental protections to both communities.
My own view is that unionist concerns about equality do not spring from opposition to the concept in itself. After all, it was their forbears who refined the notion, and through their influence on America, helped make it a defining criterion of modern democratic society. I think their concern comes from a suspicion that the equality enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement is ultimately a ploy to enable one domination to be replaced by another. In that pessimistic view, Northern Ireland is implacably destined to be a chilly abode for one side or another, and it follows logically, exactly as in the past, that the only issue is to decide for whom.
The Good Friday Agreement has the capacity to transcend that ‘either/or' mind set and to avoid the pernicious trap of the zero-sum outlook.
It is based on the firm view that equality is not inherently a nationalist gain, or a unionist loss, or vice versa. It is the indispensable condition for stability and a democratic society. That is true of the political order, and those who truly want a stable and normal society will ignore it at their peril.
Equality is also, ultimately, a condition for prosperity. Investors are sensitive now as never before to the political and social context of their operations. They are wary as never before of locations where they feel uncomfortable, not only about the safety of their operations, but also about the quality of life the society has to offer. In a world where ethical and legal issues can make or break even the most powerful corporations, they do not want to be exposed to practices or structures they cannot defend. Northern Ireland's Fair Employment Legislation was introduced, in part, in recognition of that fact. Initially regarded by some as a concession to nationalists, the legislation is now better understood across the board as offering a protection open neutrally to all. That is I believe what will happen to the equality agenda as a whole, once initial fears are allayed.
We in the Irish Government will do all we can to allay these fears. We will seek to make clear that the provisions of the Agreement mean what they say - and what the Agreement says on this point is very clear. We are pledged to a rigorous equality of treatment and respect as the governing principles for society in Northern Ireland, not just for now, or for when it might be expedient for nationalists, but permanently and irrespective of who the beneficiary might be.
I do not believe that anyone hankers after the mere reversal, rather than a genuine transformation, of the old relationship between orange and green.
I hope that all sides can see and believe that the equality agenda offers a basis for a genuine and lasting meeting of minds, as well as a legal protection against both the old patterns of discriminations and, of course, any new ones that might be attempted. If I am ever proved wrong on this, the evidence will be manifest. In such circumstances, unionists will be entitled to invoke the letter of the Agreement, and the spirit of fairness of the world at large. In those circumstances also they would not lack for allies in the nationalist community, and I and my colleagues in Government would be strongly among their number.
That is why I believe our common goal now must be to implement the Agreement fully, indeed, if possible to ‘fast forward' that implementation. It is in our shared interests to make the maximum progress on all aspects of the Agreement, whether that be in relation to the equality agenda, policing, legal reform, decommissioning or on any other issue where progress remains to be made.
History, so often cruel to us, has been kinder in recent times.
Our peace process is still making progress, at a time when others around the world show the depths to which things can fall.
The terrible events of 11th September found us far enough out of the cul de sac of violence that we could advance our journey rather than become bogged down.
Our economic context, North and South, in spite of possible temporary downturns, holds out the hope of prosperity, as never before.
On every point of our agenda we have now made that good beginning which the Irish proverb rightly says is half the work. There is no cause here that I can see for either despondency or faint heart.
The role of the Governments is to set out and where necessary defend the context for the new political dispensation that has been defined in the Agreement. But, once that is done, there are aspects of the Agreement which can be implemented only by the people on the ground in Northern Ireland and by their leaders. Equality is the key to their new relationship, and persuasion rather than dictation is the hallmark of a dialogue between equals.
Here, again, I am cautiously optimistic. In the past, the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland saw themselves as beleaguered outposts of their wider allegiances. For too long the wider British or Irish systems endorsed, or at least acquiesced in that vision. That has changed. Now I sense that the more far-sighted unionist and nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland are coming to understand that they can draw on the best of both British and Irish traditions, and use these respective and often complementary strengths for the benefit of their society as a whole.
Eighty years on from the signature of the Treaty, the world has changed in ways that would truly have baffled the signatories. The motives for the bloody civil war that haunted them - and us - can now be precisely defined only by professional historians. I hope and expect the same will one day be true also of our recent troubles. The issues of sovereignty and allegiance which loomed so large around the Treaty table are now transformed on one level by the European Union, and on another by the information revolution. The pace of change is accelerating to the point where the only thing predictable about the future is that it will be unpredictable, indeed probably unrecognisable, from where we now stand.
In those circumstances there is a historical wisdom in concentrating, as the Agreement does, on the rules for the road ahead, rather than trying to define final destination at this time.
What is certain is that the rules of equality, solidarity and mutual respect that we have enshrined in the Agreement will serve all the people of this island in all circumstances, just as the opposite qualities never will and never have. The future will belong to those who encourage and empower these values, in other words those who advocate the fullest and earliest implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, both in letter and spirit.
If the energies we all used in the past to defend against our fears, can be redirected instead towards the service of our hopes, we can truly look to an island transformed for the better.
All of us, not just the Governments and political leaders, but individuals and civil society as a whole, have an important role in persuading the doubters among us of the value of that goal, a transformed and new society.