Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Tip O'Neill Chair Lecture Series, University of Ulster, Magee, Derry, Tuesday 4 April 2007
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From Peace to Reconciliation
“The next move is always the test”
Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Tip O'Neill Chair Lecture Series, University of Ulster, Magee, Derry,
Tuesday 4 April 2007
I am honoured to be here tonight at the invitation of John Hume, a man to whom Ireland owes a great debt.
This is a time full of hope and expectation for Northern Ireland. It is therefore a great privilege for me to share some personal reflections on the political process with you tonight and to cast an eye forward to the collective challenges ahead.
Long before we had a political agreement, we had a political process. It is difficult but vitally important to recall the realities of Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. For twenty years violence was met by retaliation, each successive mindless act entrenching individuals, polarising communities and choking hope.
Derry saw the worst of the troubles. But it was also here that the first important steps were taken towards imagining a better way. Few had the courage and the bold imagination to set about patiently giving shape and reality to that better way. John Hume is one of those few. John Hume had an instinctive grasp of what was required. He knew that the way ahead would be difficult and lonely. Yet, to quote another Derryman, you “walked on the air against your better judgement”. For that, we will always be in John’s debt.
Though the SDLP will nominate just one Minister to the incoming Executive, it has been central to making this Government happen. Not alone because of John Hume. We should be thankful that those who accompanied him and who followed John, in particular Mark Durkan, were equally ready to take difficult but absolutely necessary steps knowing full well that those very steps exposed them to political criticism from both flanks. The party’s decision to join the Policing Board in 2001 is a case in point. That decision was vital to embedding and accelerating the implementation of the Patten reforms.
It has often been said that in recent years support has shifted decisively away from the middle ground. Subsequent events have show that this was too simple a reading. In reality, Sinn Fein and the DUP were each embarked on a process that has brought them far from their previously entrenched positions. Today the middle ground has become, thankfully, the only viable political space in Northern Ireland. That in very significant part is John Hume’s legacy.
It is also Tip O’Neill’s legacy, and that of many friends of Ireland who followed him. The roll is too long to call in full but the contributions of Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Ted Kennedy and his fellow horsemen, George Bush, Hilary Clinton, successive US diplomats and special envoys, will always be honourably linked to this process. Its success will be their success too.
The Tip O’ Neill Chair here at Magee is funded by the American-Ireland Fund which has contributed enormously to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. It is right that we express our appreciation for their magnificent work and our confidence in their future strategy. I was pleased, therefore, that the Government was recently able to announce an endowment to the Ireland Funds of €10 million (£7 million approx) over the next five years which I hope can be matched by private sector support.
America’s genius for optimism helped keep this process alive through its darkest days. And America brought two great insights that helped make the process work.
The first insight was Washington DC itself: the role that political acknowledgement by the Administration and by Congress could itself play in sustaining the process. Year after year, doors have opened in Congress and the White House, sometimes to encourage, sometimes to cajole, but always with an open-handed generosity. Without that diplomatic track, I do not believe we would be where we are today.
The second insight was the economy: the role that economic growth and job creation could play in tackling the economic roots of extremist politics. Tip O’Neill saw that immediately. So too did Congress, which began voting significant funding as early as 1986 - when unemployment was 16.8% - in support of job creation. These efforts were marked not only by generosity but also by imagination. Through US intervention, for example, venture capital was deployed for the first time ever in Northern Ireland and the border counties to help small companies to grow and to build lasting jobs.
John Hume too was one of the first to recognise the particular importance of the social economy – an insight that was directly responsible for the growth and consolidation of the credit union movement in Northern Ireland.
These initiatives dovetailed with the potential for future economic growth and development unlocked by the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
In the years since then, Northern Ireland has seen unprecedented prosperity. Unemployment is at historically low levels. Investment from abroad is steadily increasing. The property market is rising. Long-awaited urban regeneration is taking place. The landmark Harland and Wolff crane now has many companions on the Belfast skyline.
The prosperity is now underpinning the peace.
Many of those who drove progress at community level will gather at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham in two weeks time to share experiences and look ahead to some of the challenges facing them.
Many are from Derry – indeed many of the most inspiring stories of quiet heroism within divided communities are Derry stories. Uniquely, Derry brokered the first and arguably the most imaginative agreement on parading – the Derry Initiative.
At last year’s conference, I had an opportunity to meet with Alistair Simpson, former Governor of the Apprentice Boys, and to discuss this with him. Not surprisingly, he made clear that this local success could not have been brokered without John Hume.
Monday 26 March
It is a great honour to follow President Mary McAleese in this lecture series at John’s invitation.
I was struck by a comment she made in her remarks here last December. She recalled the words of a wise man who said: if you are given the opportunity of a lifetime, make sure you take it in the lifetime of the opportunity.
If ever the lifetime of an opportunity was nearing its end, it was on Monday 26 March.
The meeting between the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont on that day achieved what few believed possible a few short months ago – a solid basis for genuine, sustainable power sharing Government in Northern Ireland.
No one could see the pictures we saw that morning and hear the words that were spoken without feeling real hope for the future.
It was a moment which left many commentators surprised. In that moment, we saw the habits of recent history overturned.
In 1985, faced with the reality that politics in Northern Ireland appeared to have entered a cul de sac, the British and Irish Governments took shared political responsibility for the process through the Anglo Irish Agreement. There were short interludes: bad ones where politics seemed driven by events; good ones where the parties assumed responsibility in the Executive following the Good Friday Agreement. For over 20 years, however, responsibility has more or less remained with the two Governments.
That responsibility gave rise to a political partnership which I believe has been unparalleled anywhere else in Europe during these years. It assumed its strongest form in the political relationship forged over 10 years by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.
Had our current efforts to secure devolution been unsuccessful, the Governments had long resolved to strengthen their partnership even further. That was never a threat. It was born of the simple recognition that, throughout this process, when hopes were dashed and things got tough, that relationship grew only stronger.
The political parties were responding, not leading. When in 2003 the Governments set out the requirements for peace and stability in the Joint Declaration, we were told that we had set the bar too high. But the parties had no option ultimately but to follow where the Governments led.
The only way that could ever change was if the parties collectively took responsibility themselves. That is what happened on Monday 26 March when the parties agreed a revised date for devolution and Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat down together to agree a way to share power.
On that day we saw a shift in the political paradigm of Northern Ireland, when the parties grasped the opportunity of a lifetime and committed themselves to support and participate fully in a partnership government and in all of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Challenges ahead; a programme for partnership
As I said at the outset, this is a time full of hope and expectation for Northern Ireland. It is a time to ponder the challenges ahead.
For our work is not yet done.
Restoration of the power-sharing institutions on 8 May, as now agreed by the parties, will mark major progress, but it will not be the end of the road.
It will be a critical stepping stone to the creation of a society in Northern Ireland where questions of identity, culture and tradition are no longer identified with discord and division, but are seen through a prism of tolerance, generosity and mutual respect.
Derry’s own Séamus Heaney made a very profound observation on such moments some years ago when he addressed graduates at the University of North Carolina.
He told them that graduation was a stepping stone, a place where you can pause for a moment and enjoy the luxury of looking back on the distance covered.
Then he said:
“the thing about stepping stones is that you always need to find another one up there ahead of you. Even if it is panicky in midstream, there is no going back. The next move is always the test. Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again. Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained”.
For us too, the next move is always the test.
There will be challenges in the period ahead as we seek to ensure that restoration of the institutions in May can pave the way for true reconciliation, so that the vision of a new beginning for Northern Ireland articulated in the Good Friday Agreement is realised.
Tackling those challenges will require a new partnership between the new Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government.
I want to reflect tonight on three important issues for that collective agenda.
The first is building prosperity.
North/South cooperation has already delivered tangible benefits to all parts of this island. It has enabled creative and innovative all-island thinking in many diverse policy areas. Revitalising border communities and harnessing synergies in energy and transport are just some examples.
We are working within the framework of the North West Gateway Initiative to enhance the development of this part of the country, for the benefit of communities on both sides of the border.
Only yesterday, the new all-island free travel scheme was introduced. An all-island electricity market will soon be a reality.
I used the facilities at the City of Derry airport earlier this evening - the Irish Government’s contribution to its development was an investment which clearly made sense.
At this critical moment in the peace process, we must acknowledge that we will never reach our full economic potential on this island without much closer North/South cooperation.
This year, for the first time, our National Development Plan proposed significant Irish Government investment in projects and initiatives of mutual benefit North and South.
We want to take that Plan forward now in partnership and in agreement with the new Northern Ireland Executive and with the British Government.
We will make available €580 million (£400 million) to fund an unprecedented package of infrastructure investment. One of the key elements in the package will be the development of a dual carriageway standard road to Derry and Donegal. That will remove the single greatest impediment to the development of this region. It will be the biggest and most important cross-border project ever on this island.
That is just one element of the package. We look forward to working with the new Ministers in the Executive, including through the framework of the restored North-South Ministerial Council, to implement the imaginative and ambitious policies that we need to rise to the challenge of building future prosperity on the island.
The second issue I wish to focus on is tackling sectarianism, one of the toughest and most urgent challenges for both Governments.
Sectarianism is arguably one of the gravest and most pernicious threats to society on this island. Yet it is an unacknowledged crisis, making headlines only when it kills.
This year, my Department set aside a specific budget within the Reconciliation Fund to support good projects in communities seeking new and more effective ways of addressing sectarianism. If necessary it will be increased. No good project should be turned away for lack of practical support.
Notwithstanding the progress made on the political front, dealing with the legacy of division remains one of our greatest challenges. Often we see this played out around contentious parades - an issue that has the potential to raise tensions that have wider implications for stability well beyond the area involved.
There is now a renewed obligation on everyone involved in parading on both sides not to allow contentious situations to escalate, but to encourage discussion, practical engagement and cooperation.
The third focus of our efforts should be ensuring that the peace process must leave no-one behind.
We need to give serious consideration to our approach in dealing with the challenge of building lasting reconciliation on the ground in local communities.
Throughout the peace process, this important work has been sustained by generous international assistance, particularly from the US and the EU but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others.
Current levels of such assistance will not always be available. This is understandable as the gains of the peace process are increasingly consolidated and as our economy on this island continues to prosper.
It is clear to me, however, that the work of reconciliation and of rebuilding communities will take not years but decades.
What are the toughest challenges ahead? How do we address them ? How do we resource them? How do we ensure those resources are well spent?
There are many questions we need to reflect on carefully, if we are to pursue the goal of reconciliation without bias or discrimination and for the benefit of all.
Some time ago, the Taoiseach explicitly invoked the sentiment of a tide of opportunity rising all boats in connection with loyalist transformation. I cannot let tonight go without reiterating his message.
Just as the Provisional IRA have yielded to the will of the Irish people and brought their war to an end, so too must we see an end to loyalist aggression and violence. I know that many within Loyalism wish to play a constructive part in the new landscape of relationships emerging. We recognise they need space, encouragement and support to move beyond their recent past. As we have said before, those seeking genuine efforts at transformation will see a positive and open response from this Government.
The time is right for finally grasping such opportunities.
Closing Remarks: A shared future
In short, the programme for partnership must build a shared future, not only for the community in Northern Ireland, but more broadly on this island.
This can only be founded on acknowledgement of our shared past.
Through decades of conflict, that past has sometimes been reduced and simplified to a parody of its complex self. Yet the past can bring us together just as surely as it has previously divided us.
The commemoration last year of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme are a powerful reminder of what can be achieved.
For long, the Boyne has divided us into two traditions. It can equally unite us in a shared history. So too should the events whose anniversaries we will mark in coming months and years: the battle of Messines, the Flight of the Earls and the Plantation of Ulster.
As we ponder our next steps, it is vital that we remain deeply mindful of the terrible suffering of the more recent past.
A peaceful future can be the only fitting testimony to all those who suffered tragically, as was acknowledged by Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams on Monday 26 March, and as Mark Durkan has consistently expressed.
In the words of Ian Paisley: We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children……….With hard work and commitment to succeed … we can lay the foundation for a better, peaceful and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
John Hume’s approach to shaping a new future on this island was driven by a love of this country, a deep abhorrence of sectarianism and of violence, and a fundamental belief that the viable solution to the political problem should have at its core common values of democracy, equality and the rule of law.
These common values are at the heart of the peace process. They have been central to our efforts to date to achieve the full potential of the Good Friday agreement and the consolidation of a peaceful society.
They will be no less important now as we move on: the next move will be the test.