Ministers Remarks about the Good Friday Agreement to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Constituency
Good Friday Agreement
Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr David Andrews, TD
at a meeting in the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Constituency, 18 May 1998
It is my deepest hope that the turnout in Friday's referendums, North and South, will break all records. What we are about is literally the stuff of history. After decades of conflict, a comprehensive Agreement has been brokered between the two Governments and the parties, which will now be judged by the people. I greatly welcome the enormous intensity of the public debate that has been taking place, which is unprecedented in my lifetime. This is a healthy and good thing.
It is the task of every generation to try to learn from the past. One of the clear lessons of the last thirty years of conflict, and indeed of Irish history generally, is that domination and coercion do not work. At the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is the belief that the future must be based on a fair and balanced accommodation between unionism and nationalism, both within Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole, and pursued by exclusively peaceful means.
Above all else, the Good Friday Agreement is a balanced document. There is something in it for all sides. There is pain and there is gain for all sides. No other approach could have worked. It is interesting that very few commentators have sought to characterise the Agreement in terms of winners and losers.
That is because, in a very real sense, both nationalists and unionists stand to win from this Agreement.
I fully recognise that it is for people themselves to make up their own minds about the terms of the Agreement and about whether it does get the balance right. I have been following with particular interest the intense debate on the Agreement within unionism. In that regard, I would like to offer a number of observations from my perspective and that of my party.
Firstly, could I say to unionists that I and my colleagues in Government have sought to listen to what you have been saying to us. And we have sought to reflect what we heard in the Agreement.
You have long told us that the territorial claim in the Irish Constitution was a root cause of political instability, and that changes in Articles 2 and 3 would transform unionist attitudes to both Northern nationalists and the people of the South. In that context, you further told us that acceptance of the principle of consent was essential to a new relationship of trust between unionists and nationalists and between North and South.
The Agreement incorporates the appropriate changes to Articles 2 and 3, and it is proposed that the principle of consent be now enshrined in the Irish Constitution. Let me be clear about this. These are uncomfortable changes for my party, Fianna Fáil, and indeed for nationalists generally. But we are prepared to embrace them willingly because we recognise that, in the Ireland of 1998, this is what is required of us as part of a process of accommodation.
By the same token, we appreciate and recognise that the Agreement incorporates changes which are difficult for you. I accept that the sharing of power within institutions in Northern Ireland and the setting up of new structures for co-operation on the island are not easy steps for unionists in the historical context. But we greatly welcome the fact that these steps will be taken in the interests of a better future, based on partnership, mutual respect and a shared commitment to exclusively peaceful means.
There is a terrible amount of hurt on this small island. We saw in the South ourselves the depth, duration and extent of the legacy of the Civil War. In Northern Ireland, three and half thousand dead is a shocking statistic in terms of the size of the population. While the families of the victims carry the greatest hurt, literally every household in Northern Ireland has been affected. For many, the pain and the suffering remain a living, daily reality. And that pain and suffering are the exclusive preserve of no one side.
There has been much debate about the scenes last week involving republican and loyalists prisoners appearing on platforms in triumphalist poses. But one could also argue that the real story behind those pictures is the commitment of the prisoners in question, and their paramilitary organisations, to the Agreement and to a future based on exclusively peaceful means. Moreover, it is also a reality that very many prisoners are due for release in any case under the schemes and regimes currently in operation. Far better that they should be released as part of a binding peace agreement. Our real goal must be to ensure that we create the circumstances whereby there are no more deaths by violence, and that the gun is truly taken out of Irish politics for good.
The great strength of the Good Friday Agreement is that it allows us the chance to begin again. As somebody involved in politics for a very long time, I appreciate how rare an opportunity that is. If the Agreement is passed, we will have the basis for a new partnership within Northern Ireland, and between North and South, in which nationalism and unionism can begin to work together on the day-to-day issues for our common good. All this, without any sacrifice of principle on the larger constitutional questions, on which a balanced and comprehensive consensus will have been secured, based on the principle of consent.
Having said that, I appreciate fully that building trust will be a painfully slow process. When I said that the Agreement was a beginning I meant that. There are many difficult hurdles ahead. Moving away from the old, comfortable certainties of apartness towards the untried ground of accommodation will not be easy. That is why David Trimble is right in asking that we keep the focus on heads rather than on hearts.
But the prize, if we succeed, is a tremendous one. There is enormous potential on this island. Let us grasp this chance to realise it. Let us confound the sceptics and the pessimists who would consign us to a further cycle of paralysis, division and hopelessness. As David Trimble suggests, let us have confidence in our own convictions and abilities to take that step towards partnership, co-operation and hope.
As we face into a new millennium, would it not be a magnificent gift to ourselves and to our children if we could commence it at peace, and well on our way to building new arrangements on this island, North and South, based on harmony, partnership and mutual respect?
We can begin to fulfill that dream by voting Yes on Friday.