Speech by Mr Brian Cowen TD., Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Institute for British-Irish Studies (Part 1)
President Cosgrove, Members of the Institute, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying what a great pleasure it is to be here this evening. Politics can sometimes be a very day-to-day pursuit. Opportunities to stand back and take a broader perspective are rare enough to make them particularly welcome when they come along. So, thank you very much for the invitation to speak with you tonight.
The Institute has, of course, been carrying out excellent work in furthering study of the Good Friday Agreement and its implications for the network of relations on these islands, all associated with it are richly deserving of our thanks. May I also say that I greatly look forward to listening to Professor Paul Arthur's reflections once I have resumed the comfort of my seat. I know that the Institute has already enjoyed much lively discussion, and I hope that we can add to that this evening.
Libraries have been written, and many reels of tape filled about the Irish Peace Process. So, I won't presume to enunciate some new philosophy here. Let me instead share my personal perspectives with you, what it has meant to me to be part of the process, and how I see things for the future.
To begin with some general observations. You won't be surprised to hear that implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has provided some of the most challenging and frustrating, but also some of the most fulfilling, moments, of my political career. It has been an enormously rewarding experience.
No-one could take part in the process without giving a lot of thought, not just to the surface waves, but to the deeper currents we are navigating. It is one part of the Government's agenda where you cannot fail to be conscious of the shadow of history.
Throughout his period in office, the peace process has been a matter of the highest priority for the Taoiseach and those of us fortunate to have worked with him in this vital task have benefited enormously from his leadership, guidance and advice.
For me personally, the process has meant coming to terms in my own mind, and sometimes across the negotiating table, with issues that touch sensitive nerves in our collective make-up. There were times when my personal background gave me a spontaneous insight into people's concerns - and not just those of the nationalist community. There is actually a lot of read-across between nationalist and unionist reflexes on issues like pride in heritage, concern for dignity and hunger for respect.
Of course, there have been other times when my background required an extra effort of imagination to understand perceptions and priorities different from my own. By temperament and conviction I have always tried to set out my position as directly and plainly as I could. I have greatly appreciated when others have been able to do likewise.
Also, at a time when people can be dismissive or cynical about the political process, it gives me considerable pride, as a practising politician, that the sometimes-maligned art of politics now looks set to prevail over one of the darkest aspects of our history. Irish people of both traditions would pride themselves on the political skills shown by leaders of Irish background in many different countries and over many different periods. It was a bitter irony that in our own island, rather than seeing those skills prevail, we experienced a bitter conflict which was enormously costly in terms of lives and well-being, and which diverted so many of our energies into sterile, and sometimes murderous, confrontations.
That we are now throwing off the burden of that failure is due to the efforts of many dedicated politicians in both islands over the last decade, and indeed before. Those politicians were no doubt very different in their philosophies, traditions and political records. They were at one, though, in their conviction that conflict in Ireland was now a scandalous anomaly from every point of view, and in their determination to deploy their political skills, and the resources of democracy, to free us collectively from the shackles of the past. Success in the peace process is a gratifying vindication of the profession of politics.
The peace process is an ambitious project, and, as with all ambitious projects, the risk of failure was never far away. Yet, at each critical juncture, the better angels eventually prevailed. The process not only survived the risks, but advanced the goal of putting democratic agreement in place of violent conflict. Agreement on basic principles with the British Government was reached. Cease-fires by the paramilitaries were achieved. Representative and broadly inclusive negotiations were launched.
In the Good Friday Agreement we decided collectively, for the first time, agreed ground rules on how to manage our differences and live together on this island, and between the two islands. These ground rules were endorsed in referendums and so were confirmed as the binding democratic mandate for the future. The institutions of the Agreement are now in place and at last operating broadly in accordance with the agreed blue-print. We have reached a moment of transformation in our history.
When representing Ireland abroad, I am often asked to define the underlying patterns of the Irish peace process, and its lessons for other conflicts. I usually answer very cautiously, since each conflict contains unique features, often the very features which contain the key to a solution. Nevertheless, many conflict resolutions involve in essence a journey from denial, through acceptance to affirmation. There is often a pivotal moment when the protagonists, having learned from bitter experience the scope of their capacity to degrade the quality of life for each other, come to see that conflict is not in fact preordained and that there is a better way. That is often a fraught moment, requiring visionary political leadership. The traditional patterns of confrontation are usually deeply ingrained. Treating the other side on a worst-case hypothesis means you are politically protected even if the other side literally does its worst. Of course, that approach creates the dynamic of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the zero sum game mentality. The worst case approach is reciprocated. The score-card becomes obsessively and exclusively defined by the comfort or discomfort of the other side. The wider perspective is lost and the agenda on each side, ironically, is predominantly defined by the attitudes of the other. We are extremely fortunate that we are now breaking free of that vicious circle.
When I look back on the interplay of our relationships, on an evening which happens to be the eightieth anniversary of the Anglo-Irish treaty, I find it depressing to note how much they were dominated by patterns of mutual denial.
There was denial in our jurisdiction, a pretence that Northern Ireland did not exist except as a product of a false consciousness on the part of the unionists.
There was denial in British thinking that Northern Ireland was no particular concern of Dublin, in spite of the obvious capacity of events in Northern Ireland to affect massively, for better or worse, the welfare of the rest of the island, including at the deepest level of political stability.
There was denial in the tendency of many to view the communities in Northern Ireland as hopeless architects of their own misfortunes.
There was denial in the refusal of both communities in Northern Ireland to accept each other's identity and aspirations as legitimate.
If history looks kindly on the bridge-building work of recent generations of politicians - as I think it will do - it will be because of our collective success in dismantling these cocoons of denial. They may have given us individual comfort, but at great collective cost.
The gaps that existed between Irish and British perspectives on the constitutional aspects of the Northern Ireland issue have now been bridged. We have a set of institutions that fully reflects relationships on these islands. A North/South Ministerial Council is taking forward work on areas of mutual concern and benefit on the island. In the British-Irish Council, the administrations on these islands come together as equals to promote the harmonious development of relationships between us. In the North, an Executive, including representatives of all sectors of the political spectrum, is demonstrating a collective capacity for good government. Can we now, as it were, say our work is done?
In some respects, yes. A collective and consensual judgment by their political leaders as to what is best for the people living in Northern Ireland, will have great political and persuasive value for all of us. Our goal will be to accommodate it rather than to try to second guess it. In that sense, the capacity of the new institutions in Northern Ireland to shape and lead their society will be deep and real, and will ultimately I believe produce a correspondingly serious new political response, by leadership and electorate alike.
At the same time, for all our welcome success, there is still much work to be done. Acceptable institutions are a hugely important and necessary condition, but not always a sufficient condition, to develop a new mind-set to match. In dealing with conflict resolution, it is realistic to expect some time-lag between the emergence of new institutions and the emergence of new attitudes, but to foster those new attitudes is now our most challenging agenda. Many events, not least those at Holy Cross school and throughout North Belfast, remind us of the need for urgency.
The essential role of the Governments in that task is to assert the distinction between, on the one hand, what is non-negotiable because of conditions of principle and justice, and what, on the other, falls to the natural play of local politics. Confusion between these two things in the past has been the seed-bed for many of our difficulties, but I believe we have learned from our mistakes.
Political leaders in Northern Ireland face the double challenge of educating their own constituencies from within, and of leaving their traditional place of safety to reach out to the other side. I believe history will acknowledge the vision and courage of the political leaders who laid the ground-work for the Good Friday Agreement, and who implemented and sustained it. They all know only too well the depth of the individual challenges that they have faced.