Presentation of Ewart-Biggs Award, and Remarks by Dick Spring, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs
Presentation of Ewart-Biggs Award, Dublin, 6 March 1997
Remarks by Dick Spring, T.D., Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs
After Professor Foster's eloquent remarks, I am left feeling "what can I but enumerate old themes."
I am delighted to be here this evening in so distinguished and talented a company and honoured by the invitation to present the fourteenth Christopher Ewart-Biggs Award.
The murder in 1976 of Christopher Ewart-Biggs - and, let us not forget, of a young civil servant, Judith Cook - was one of the blackest episodes in the recent history of the British-Irish relationship. Its violation of the basic tenets of civilised hospitality, and the repudiation of dialogue it symbolised, were both shocking. Ambassador Ewart-Biggs's widow, Jane, responded to the tragedy with extraordinary courage and magnanimity. She went on to win an honoured place in the annals of the Troubles as one of those remarkable victims of violence whose capacity to transcend their own grief succeeded in transforming evil into good.
The objectives of the prize are to promote and encourage peace and reconciliation in Ireland, greater understanding between the peoples of Ireland and Britain, and closer co-operation between the partners of the European Union. These purposes are central to the task of the Government in which I serve, and indeed of democratic politicians in both islands (though there may be a few question-marks over the EU aspect on the British side of the water).
The wider British-Irish relationship has, clearly, been evolving towards an enhanced degree of understanding, and a greater recognition of shared interest, at almost every level. Central to this has been the partnership between the two Governments in relation to the situation in Northern Ireland: a partnership secure enough to withstand the occasional tensions which inevitably arise, and capable of offering joint leadership in the search for a comprehensive accommodation of our diverse traditions and interests. We are united on the fundamental principles which must underlie that search, and on the broad shape we envisage a settlement will take.
Yesterday at Stormont it was agreed that the multi-party talks should pause until June, mainly to allow space for the demands of electoral politics. Both Governments are determined, however, that they will resume on schedule, and we will be seeking to ensure that a revitalised negotiating process proves capable of confronting fundamental political questions. Failure in that endeavour would not be merely neutral in its consequences, but would add to a wider sense of public despair at the limits of dialogue and democratic politics. I am convinced, however, that the talks continue to offer a vehicle for progress, if only we can demonstrate the will to use them for that purpose.
It has been said that all political failures are ultimately failures of imagination. It can be easier to reiterate slogans and to take refuge in tribal certainties than to confront the reality of others - and of ourselves. Our identities, our histories, our dreams and our fears are often more complex and surprising than we believe. We depend on writers and artists to interpret them, and to make them tangible to us. I know that writers are rightly reluctant to be dragooned into political argument, and that literary and historical insights are not easily transformed into practical programmes. Nevertheless, both winners of the Award, in their very different ways, remind us that the demarcation lines in our past, and in our present, were not and cannot be sharp and rigid. Rather they are fluid and subtle. Both Sebastian Barry and Norman Porter call, in one way or another, for the sympathetic understanding of difference which must be the basis of reconciliation.
In The Steward of Christendom, Sebastian Barry has brought to us a magnificent creation, which has won such well-deserved praise here in Dublin, in London and most recently in New York. His work to date has been grounded in a sustained empathy with the experiences of an extraordinary range of Irish people, and this play is a crowning achievement, which will enter the canon of great contemporary Irish drama.
In recent years we have been better able to commemorate the tragic sacrifices made by Irish soldiers, from both North and South, in all past wars. Now, through the character of the aged Thomas Dunne, before independence the most senior Catholic in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, we can better understand the pain and confusion which political transition in Ireland itself brought to many ordinary people who found themselves caught between rival allegiances and cultures. However, one of the play's strengths is that it resists the temptation to make obvious political points. It interweaves the private and the political in a way which allows large issues to emerge with exceptional authenticity, mixed up as they always are with the concerns of personal and family life.
Perhaps the last thing the other prize-winner, Norman Porter, needs is an endorsement from me. We already share the distinction of being singled out for mention in speeches to the Ulster Unionist Party Conference. We are both the sons of politicians, albeit of rather differing opinions. It may be a measure of progress that the sons are probably closer to agreement than the fathers would have been.
However, I must say that Rethinking Unionism is an extremely valuable and -to my mind - persuasive book. Norman Porter, drawing both on his academic training and his personal experiences, describes the various strands which make up unionism with great sensitivity and understanding. He subjects them to very close and critical scrutiny, before advancing a programme he describes as civic unionism. It would be impertinent of me to advocate that unionists should adopt such a platform. But I have to say that its recognition of the contours of communal difference in Northern Ireland, and its emphasis on what the two communities can do in practical partnership without abandoning their own identities, seems to me both realistic and encouraging. I recognise that it also challenges nationalists on some key issues, such as the limits of the concept of parity of esteem. Norman Porter emphasises both the diversity and the legitimacy of unionism as a political philosophy. It is up to nationalists to find ways of persuading unionists that they understand, and can deal with, those truths - just as unionists have equivalent and reciprocal obligations towards nationalists.
It took great determination and conviction for Norman Porter to return with his family to Belfast from Australia, to enter into political life, to appear before the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, and to write this book. He and I both know that, in Northern Ireland, changes in political attitudes come about very slowly. But I urge him to continue to make what is a potentially most important contribution to public debate..
It therefore gives me the greatest of pleasure to present their awards to Sebastian Barry and to Norman Porter.Top