BRITISH IRISH PARLIAMENTARY BODY SPECIAL PLENARY SESSION ADDRESS BY
BRITISH IRISH PARLIAMENTARY BODY SPECIAL PLENARY SESSION
15TH MAY, 1998
DAVID ANDREWS, T.D., MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Co-Chairmen and fellow members,
May I congratulate you on your initiative in arranging this special session of the Body at such a crucial time in the history of these islands. It is proper that the Good Friday Agreement be given the widest possible consideration and the collective experience and wisdom of the members of this Body, of which I am proud to be a founding member, will give your deliberations particular authority.
One week from today, the people of Ireland, North and South, will decide their future. Their choice is stark - move forward in peace, partnership and prosperity, or stagnate in continued division, confrontation and negativity.
Next Friday will be the first time since the General Election in 1918 that the people of this Island will have the chance to address together issue of fundamental national importance. This agreement was negotiated by the political representatives of the vast majority of the people of Ireland, North and South and it is now up to those people to decide whether to accept or reject it.
Echoing one of your most distinguished members, Seamus Mallon, it is for us, in our own time, to make our own history, conscious of, but not paralysed by memories of the past or visions of the future. For that reason, it is my hope that the voters will turn out in massive numbers in both parts of the island. The conflict in Northern Ireland has had a substantial social and economic cost for the South and it would be wrong for voters here to feel that there is no reason for them to make a special effort to vote.
Thirty years of violence, of appalling atrocities, of weeping loved ones, of grim scenes and grim faces, are printed indelibly in our memories. We have been moved by quite extraordinary expressions of courage and forgiveness and now we have the chance to speak together in the most powerful way imaginable, through the ballot box. We must grasp this opportunity to ensure, by our votes, that the strife ends now for all time. This will be the chance for the silent majority to make itself heard.
As politicians, our first duty is to the people we serve today. To be effective in this regard, we must adhere to the pledge given in the opening declaration of the Agreement to work to ensure that every provision of the Agreement is fully implemented when - and I say when, not if - it is approved by the people.
It is my belief that the Agreement is a fair balance of the interests of all the people of these islands. All parties to this agreement recognise aspects which have particular appeal for their constituency; likewise all sides can point to aspects of the agreement with which they have difficulty. For many, the early release of prisoners is especially emotive. I understand this. I sympathise with the genuine feelings of hurt and distress experienced by the loved ones of the victims of thirty years of violence.
In this time of hope, when a bright future beckons, it is proper to respect the suffering of these victims, yet, as politicians and leaders, we must look at a broader picture. It is for us to do everything in our power to ensure that violence never again destroys families, friendships and communities.
This is a unique Agreement. It was negotiated as a package and it will stand or fall as a package. Each provision of the Agreement has a particular importance in its own right and as part of a carefully and delicately balanced totality. and no individual or party can choose to support only those aspects of the Agreement which have particular appeal for them. It is not an a la carte menu.
This Agreement has within it the capacity to transform the core relationships in Northern Ireland, within the Island of Ireland and between these islands. It provides both for stability and for change, based on the consent of those governed by it. For many years, Nationalists have, in varying degrees, withheld their active consent and support from the State. They have long sought fundamental change in the structure and ethos of Northern Ireland and the creation of new North-South structures to reflect their broader allegiance. They palpably rejected the status quo, but were effectively powerless to bring about the necessary changes. Now this desire for change is given substance throughout this Agreement.
Yet Unionists ought not look upon change as a threat. There is now, for the first time, the prospect of a Northern Ireland in which both communities have a direct stake, where the failed strategy of dominance is replaced by inclusive partnership for the betterment of all. Change, in this case, must be seen rather as an opportunity and grasped as such.
The new arrangements for the administration of Northern Ireland will enhance the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its people, regardless of political orientation or creed. In the same way, enforcement of the law must be carried out fairly and impartially and be seen to be so done. In this manner, the police service will earn the support and allegiance of the community as a whole, both in the interest of the people they serve and of the members of the police force themselves.
The new North/South Ministerial Council will provide a system for contact and exchange between both administrations over the entire range of issues involved and will seek to promote the practical and mutual advantage of both parts of this island. It will operate by agreement and be strictly accountable for its actions.
The new British/Irish Council will also facilitate the expression of the sense of wider links throughout these islands and the Irish Government sees significant potential in the development of these connections for our shared advantage, particularly in the context of Welsh and Scottish devolution. We also look forward to the further development of inter-parliamentary arrangements, as envisaged by the Agreement.
Underpinning all these arrangements will be a comprehensive consensus on Constitutional change, recognising the legitimacy of the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. By this, both communities can feel secure, knowing that their rights, interests and identities are firmly protected and that new structures can function only by agreement and on the basis of interdependence. The ground rules for a fair and mutually respectful society have been laid down and cannot be overridden.
The old ways have failed and now there is the chance for a fresh start. This new stability, made possible by change and not excluding future agreed change, will create a context in which the people can, not by confrontation by consensus and by working together on practical issues, learn new habits of trust and co-operation. And this, without the fear of the imminent betrayal of some vital political or constitutional principle.
Power shared, in this context is not power lost, but power gained and the willingness to acknowledge that Northern Ireland has a dual identity and to accept diversity, displays not weakness, but strength.
This Agreement would not have been reached without remarkable leadership and political courage, particularly, as Paul Murphy knows, in those last weeks, days and hours. I would wish to extend my warm personal regards to Paul Murphy and to express my appreciation for the long hours of hard work that he and his Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam devoted to securing this historic agreement.
This is a good Agreement, a fact which renders the campaigns of those opposed to it both sterile and negative. They have no plausible alternative to offer and take refuge in fantasies which attempt to disguise the fundamental defeatism of their position and their shameful abdication of political responsibility.
I believe that the people will see through this disguise. The people will have the sense to see that it is only through co-operation and compromise that we can heal our divisions and transcend the bitter legacy of history.