Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen,TD, Seanad Éireann. Part 1
May I begin by thanking you and members of the Seanad for providing me with the opportunity to participate in today's debate. Those of us who are engaged in the long and difficult process of implementing the Good Friday Agreement spend most of our time dealing with the most pressing, most urgent issues. Too seldom are we given the opportunity to look up from this detailed work, to review the broader picture.
When President Clinton addressed the Oireachtas in 1995 he reminded us, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, that “peace is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous”. He was absolutely right. At times it can seem as if implementing the Good Friday Agreement is like climbing a particularly frustrating mountain. Just as you think you're reaching the top a new and steeper slope appears. There have been numerous occasions during the process when it seemed as if the hard work was finally done, only for new issues - or new variants of old issues - to appear. From this I draw two lessons. First, implementing a radical and complex Agreement, and emerging from a history of conflict and division, will always and inevitably pose grave challenges. But secondly, and more importantly, even the most difficult problems can be overcome, with the right mixture of determination, patience and goodwill. And I genuinely believe that if we can surmount the problems we face now, a profoundly important step forward in ensuring the success of the Agreement will have been taken.
Yes, we do have difficult questions confronting us at the moment - the effective operation of the institutions on a fully inclusive basis, policing, the question of arms - questions to which I shall return in detail. Of course we have to focus on finding answers to these questions. But, standing back, what is clear is not just what remains to be done, but how much has already been done.
In less than a single generation, we have completely and irreversibly transformed the political landscape of this island.
It is, after all, a mere twenty years since the hunger strikes brought many who were committed to dialogue and to the peaceful resolution of our problems to the brink of despair. It is only sixteen years since the seminal report of the New Ireland Forum set out nationalist Ireland's vision of an agreed future. Fifteen years ago this month since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, formally recognising the Irish Government's role in relation to Northern Ireland. Ten years ago this month since a British Secretary of State for the first time stated that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Seven years since the two Governments formally set out their joint approach to the principles of self-determination and consent in the Downing Street Declaration, offering a route into Talks to all parties committed to exclusively peaceful means.
In the few years since 1993, we have seen ceasefires established. Talks put in place. Agreement achieved. Comprehensive and inclusive institutions established.
At last weekend's SDLP Conference, John Hume rightly emphasised the role of his party in formulating a searching and comprehensive analysis of the Northern Ireland situation, and in advocating a challenging but realistic way forward. I believe that successive Irish Governments, and all of the democratic parties in this State, can rightly take pride in our own contribution. The principles which underlie the Good Friday Agreement are, in very large measure, the principles which we collectively advanced over many years. The institutions reflect and express the three key relationships which we together identified.
What has been accomplished is nothing less than a revolution: and, what is more, a revolution achieved not through violence but through the ending of violence, not through domination but through partnership.
Let me recall, in simple terms, some of the most remarkable features of that revolution, as embodied in the Good Friday Agreement.
There is a solemn repudiation of the use or threat of force for any political purpose.
There is agreement on how and in what circumstances a united Ireland may be brought about, by the will of the people, North and South.
There is a recognition of the constitutional legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
There is a recognition of the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.
For the first time ever, unionists, nationalists and republicans are working together as equals and as of right to serve all of the people equally.
For the first time ever, unionists have fully recognised the legitimacy of the nationalist aspiration, and the need for that aspiration to be given institutional form.
For the first time ever, Ministers, North and South, are working together in formal structures to achieve mutual social and economic benefit for the people of the island as a whole.
There is a new understanding and a ready acceptance of the unique relationship between the British and Irish peoples.
Equality, mutual respect and the protection of human rights are acknowledged to be the indispensable basis of a fair and decent society.
Not that long ago, it would have been unimaginable that any single one of these fundamental elements of the Agreement could have secured sufficient consensus across the spectrum. Now they all have. Moreover, and it is something we as the servants of the people can never forget, the Agreement, unlike any previous settlement, enjoys a democratic mandate secured in referendums both North and South.
The Agreement is precious and it is irreplaceable. And it is also robust. We have made great progress towards ensuring that it is fully implemented. While difficulties remain, we will overcome them in a manner that is fully consistent with the principles of the Agreement. Healing the divisions which have developed over many decades, and longer, will also take time. And I accept that the institutions will eventually be judged not just by what they achieve in concrete terms but by how far they have advanced true reconciliation and understanding. That aspect of the Agreement is inevitably a long-term project. But the progress which has been made cannot be and must not be rolled back. It must be built upon to achieve full implementation as quickly as possible.
In signing up to the Agreement, all sides made commitments and took steps which they knew would cause them, and the communities they represent, great pain. But they did so at the time with courage and vision and for the greater good. They did so in a holistic and balanced way, not just issue by issue, but in the full context of all that the Agreement promised. That is why it has always been the view of the Government that the Agreement cannot be taken piecemeal or, as some others have said, cherry-picked. It must be implemented in full.
That must remain our guiding principle - it is not only the correct approach, it is, in our view, also the only practicable one. Our current difficulties will, I believe, only be resolved if we continue to focus on the context of the full implementation of the Agreement, in all of its aspects.
At Hillsborough in May, the two Governments set out how they would take forward the areas of the Agreement for which they have responsibility - including human rights, policing and security normalisation. The IRA responded with a positive and significant statement, indicating the context in which they would put their arms beyond use, agreeing to re-engage with the de Chastelain Commission and, as a confidence building measure, opening some of their weapons dumps to independent inspection.
The period since then has been enormously productive, with significant work being carried out in all of the institutions. A Programme for Government and a Budget have been brought forward by the Executive in the North, identifying and targeting its priorities for the period ahead.
On the North/South front, the establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council and the related six Implementation Bodies has transformed the nature of the relationship between both parts of the island. Since the institutions were restored, the intensity of work carried out by the Council has been highly impressive. The second full plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, held in Dublin in September, further advanced the ambitious work programme which has, to date, resulted in 19 sectoral meetings involving the relevant Ministers from both Administrations.
This work agenda would not have been possible without the commitment of all of my Ministerial colleagues, on both sides of the border.
The House will already be aware of the substance of the work in the North-South framework over the last year. However, allow me to briefly refer to a few illustrative examples. In the economic sphere, the Trade and Business Development Body, now called InterTrade Ireland, has made a very impressive debut. It has in recent weeks held a number of very successful and well attended Road Shows, highlighting the huge potential for increased trade and business activity between both parts of the island.
On Tourism, the North-South Ministerial Council recently established a new company - Tourism Ireland - which will be responsible for promoting the entire island as a single tourism destination in overseas markets. This will considerably enhance the cohesion, effectiveness and value for money of the island's collective marketing endeavours bringing immediate benefit to both sides of the border.Top