Remarks on the Northern Ireland peace process by Minister Cowen, T.D., Limerick
I want to turn now to the Good Friday Agreement and the critical point we have reached in its implementation. The two Governments and the pro-Agreement parties last week held intensive discussions on the outstanding issues relating to the full implementation of the Agreement. These discussions were very valuable in terms of narrowing down the points of difference, and in enabling all sides to talk through what was needed if the Agreement is to be implemented in full - as is the will of the people, North and South.
In drawing these discussions to a close on Saturday, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made clear that the negotiations were at an end and that it was now time for the Governments to put together a package for presentation to the parties. In the days since then officials, under the political direction of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and myself, have been working intensively on putting the final touches to this package, and we would hope to have it ready for transmission to the parties very shortly. It will be a balanced document, which will seek to deal comprehensively and honourably with the outstanding issues.
There is no mystery about what the elements of the package will be. The focus will be on the four issues which have dominated the discussions with the parties over the past several months - policing, demilitarisation, the putting of arms beyond use, and what we call the stability of the institutions.
I want to emphasise that this is not about pre-conditions or the primacy of one issue over another. All have their own integrity and significance, and all will have to be implemented. That is no more than the Agreement itself demands. Let me recall the words of the Declaration of Support, the very opening section of the Good Friday Agreement. In that Declaration, the participants state:
“We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement.”
Those are strong and unequivocal words and it is in their spirit that all of us, Governments and parties alike, must approach the decisions that have to be taken over the coming period.
I am confident that the parties will approach these decisions in a positive and constructive way, and that agreement will be reached. I have worked closely with all the representatives involved over a considerable period of time and am deeply impressed by the commitment and dedication they have shown. I suppose it is fashionable these days in some quarters to be sceptical about politicians but - and this was a point made frequently by George Mitchell - this particular group of leaders have carried especially heavy burdens and carried them with honour and dignity.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the pro-Agreement party leaders and their colleagues who have carried the torch for a new beginning in Northern Ireland and on this island. After decades of despair and apparent hopelessness, this has been the generation of leaders which, with the two Governments, have pointed the pathway to a different kind of future and a different kind of politics. I salute them for that. It is also why I am confident about the outcome of the process we are engaged in during these days and weeks.
Yes, implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been something of a process of fits and starts. But through it all, we have kept going in one direction - forward. Of course, all our problems have not been resolved. It would be utterly unrealistic to view the Good Friday Agreement as a magic wand, capable of waving away all our problems overnight. The reality is that the legacy of history, whether recent or distant past, will take generations to fully work through. But the critical point now is that in the Agreement we have made a start. The old Chinese saying that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step has much wisdom in it. And in the structure and institutions of the Agreement, we have a framework in which each day we take another step and then another again.
We have begun the journey of healing and now we must continue on it, day after day, with no turning back. Of course, there are those who would wish to turn us back. They must not be allowed to succeed. The events on the streets of Belfast over the last week or so are a wake-up call to us all that the past is not yet a foreign country.
In its essence, the Agreement is about a new alliance in Northern Ireland and on this island between those who favour partnership rather than victory. That is a profound choice, but it is one that the people have endorsed in the referendums, North and South. It means letting go of the old certainties and the old slogans and the comfort that they brought. Comfort maybe, but no progress and no movement. Instead, we have decided now on the less comfortable path of partnership with those whom we previously did not know or understand or trust. But ultimately, it is the only path that will bring us the essentials of a good life - peace, fair play, and a chance to build a decent future for ourselves and our children.
The year and a half since the establishment of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement have demonstrated in the strongest possible way that the path of partnership can work and work well.
The Northern Executive and Assembly have proved the value of having decisions for Northern Ireland made by local politicians.
The North/South Ministerial Council and the North/South Bodies are well on their way to demonstrating that when we do things together on this island we all benefit. One example is the tourism sector. Under the authority of the North/South Ministerial Council, a new North/South Tourism Company has been established, Tourism Ireland Limited, which will have responsibility for the marketing of the entire island overseas as a tourism destination. Such an approach clearly makes profound sense. I have the highest hopes for the success of this exciting venture, and see it as bringing real benefits to both parts of the island.
Could I mention also that the mighty River Shannon, flowing close by, is centrally involved in the North/South process, in that all of island's inland navigable waterways are now under the authority of a new all-island Body, Waterways Ireland. Indeed, in Arthurs Quay today, my colleague Síle de Valera, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, officially opened the Limerick Navigation and Marina, a project in which Waterways Ireland has been centrally involved, in partnership with Limerick Corporation and Shannon Development. Waterways Ireland, which reports in the North/South Ministerial Council to Sile de Valera and Michael McGimpsey, her counterpart in the Northern Executive, is, therefore, closely involved in bringing benefits to this fine city and many other parts of the entire island.
For all these reasons, it is utterly vital that we jump the remaining few fences in the weeks ahead, so that the tremendous potential of the Good Friday Agreement for this island, North, South, East, West and Mid-West, can be unlocked and delivered. I am confident that, with the necessary political will, it can be done. We have overcome bigger hurdles in getting to this point. Now we must finish the job. That is what the overwhelming majority of the people of this island want and that is what we, Governments and parties, must now deliver.