A unbeatable chance to work together for a better future - by Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews.
Article for News of the World, 26 April 1998
A unbeatable chance to work together for a better future
- by Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews.
In less that four weeks from now, people from North and South in Ireland will, for the first time in eighty years, have a chance to vote on the same day to decide an issue of fundamental importance for all of us. We will be asked to say whether the agreement reached on 10 April contains a fair and honourable basis for settling the differences that have plagued this island for so long. It is my considered view that the Good Friday Agreement represents an unbeatable chance for all of us to work together for a better future.
If the people's answer is "Yes", a new era in our history will begin. With the coming into effect of the Good Friday Agreement, the focus of political attention will shift from the resolution of conflict to the building of partnership, trust and reconciliation. These are ambitious goals, but a positive outcome on 22 May will set us on the high road to their achievement.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had the pleasure and privilege of being involved in the Northern Talks during their last seven months. For three days each week in Belfast, representatives of nationalism and unionism debated the future of the people they represent. Strong positions were taken up and no one backed down or was defeated. The negotiators deserve great praise for the effort they put in and for the courage they displayed in the face of criticism from those did not want the Talks to succeed. The Agreement reached will give political leaders a mandate to work together on a number of fronts for the betterment of all.
In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement gives nationalists and unionists an opportunity to shelve past divisions and create a more agreeable society. It will put political power back into the hands of Northern Ireland's politicians so that they can build a partnership between the communities who elect them. Political differences have until now prevented such a partnership from developing, and everyone lost out as a consequence. The Good Friday Agreement changes all that. This new partnership is to be founded on mutual respect and equal treatment for all. Think of what a difference such an outcome can make to the wellbeing of those who have endured a generation of tragic, futile conflict?
The proposed North-South Ministerial Council will allow Dublin and Belfast to work together as never before in pursuit of the many valid interests they share. Moving forward by agreement, there is much that can be done to create the kind of partnership our history has so far prevented us from developing. On a relatively small island within the European Union, this kind of partnership makes perfect practical sense.
Over time, I am convinced that the logic of geography and economic interest will act to increase and deepen co-operation between the two parts of the island. The new North-South relationship will provide Northern nationalists with a meaningful institutional expression of their Irishness. This is something they legitimately require, but that has not been available to them until now.
The third leg of the Agreement, the British-Irish Council and new cooperative arrangements between the two Governments, will allow our two neighbouring islands to work together in ways that the legacy of the past has previously hindered.
In addition to the arrangements for working together within the three strands, the Agreement contains a very wide range of significant commitments in the areas of human rights, economic, social and cultural issues, decommissioning, security, policing and justice, and prisoners. Taken together, these measures have the potential to lead to a transformation of society in Northern Ireland, and to end inequality, discrimination, injustice and violence.
The hope and joy expressed about the Good Friday Agreement by people right across the country speaks volumes about just how important it is that peaceful politics should triumph. Most people, I believe, want change. They sense that the benefits of a settlement are great and that we could not go on the way we were.
The success of the negotiations has brought us to the beginning of a new process. It is a good beginning. The task in the coming months is to make the agreed arrangements deliver on their potential. It is essential that all involved should now continue to work closely together to ensure that this ground-breaking agreement actually works. I believe that ordinary people, North and South, want this agreement to deliver a peaceful future and will insist that their political leaders make it happen.
Voters will want to contrast the positive prospects offered by the Good Friday Agreement with the nightmare of despair and hopelessness that has been endured for much of the last thirty years. The Agreement tells us that the future can be different from the past. It says that change is possible and that agreement is the only way forward. As negotiators, we were driven on by a strong sense that the status quo was not an option. These are important truths which ought to guide us through whatever difficulties the coming weeks and months may throw across our path.
There are no winners and losers in the Good Friday Agreement. Any fair reading of the document will show that it contains what I have often called "parity of pain and gain" for all sides. Every party, and indeed every individual, may find elements they like in the Agreement and points they find difficult. My own family and political background allows me to understand the hesitations many people have about changing Articles Two and Three of our Constitution. Having participated in these historic negotiations and listened to all the arguments put forward, I am satisfied that the proposed amendments amount to a bringing up to date of our basic values.
In Article 2, we are proposing to replace a description of the national territory with a generous and inclusive definition of the Irish nation. The rights of Northern nationalists are being copper-fastened, not diluted. In the proposed new Article 3, the aspiration to Irish unity remains undimmed. It is also recognised that a united Ireland is to be brought about only by peaceful means and with the consent of the people.
As the history of the past twenty-nine years makes all too clear, just to wish for, or even to demand, peace does not make it a reality. Ultimately no words on a page will lead to real change. The test of these arrangements will be whether they lead to a new era of tolerance and reconciliation, of genuine partnership and trust, and of equality and mutual respect. Political leaders can point the way: but in the end it is up to the people to decide.
The people of Ireland will have, on 22 May, their collective future in their own hands. Understandable though some of the fears expressed may be, the opponents of this Agreement have nothing constructive to offer in its place. Those extremists who continue to commit violent deeds have nothing to offer. The people, North and South, will, I hope and believe, say a resounding "yes" to this, the only credible option we have. That is to work together, through the structures proposed in the Good Friday Agreement, for beneficial change, for reconciliation and for peace.