Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern TD, St Brigid’s Lecture Belfast, 27 February 2008. New hope, new growth, new beginnings
Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern TD.
St Brigid’s Lecture
Belfast, 27 February 2008
New hope, new growth, new beginnings
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Friends of St. Brigid’s Parish:
It is both a privilege and a pleasure for me to address you this evening in this thriving parish - in this thriving city - to give the second annual St Brigid’s Lecture.
St Brigid’s Day - Lá Fhéile Bríde – and its pagan pre-cursor traditionally marked the beginning of Spring-time. Whether pagan or Christian, ancient or modern, this time of year in Ireland has always been a time of new hope, a time of new growth, a time of new beginnings.
How apt then is the symbolism of this festival for this moment in the story of Belfast, of Northern Ireland and of our island as a whole.
And yet, it is not as simple or straightforward as that. Today, we stand on the cusp between past and future - while we move forward with hope and optimism, the past retains its demanding presence.
And it is from this perspective that I wish to speak this evening – looking at where we have been and what we have been through, what we together have achieved and what is yet to be done.
And having just returned from Timor Leste, I am mindful that our responsibility to those seeking to come out of conflict does not stop at our shores. We really do inhabit the global village. If we can help other people move towards new hope and new beginnings, as we were helped, then I believe it is our duty to do so.
There is little need to revisit for this audience the turbulence of the conflict over the past 40 or so years. The dark period of the troubles, from which we have only relatively recently emerged, has left scars of pain and loss which are carried by too many people.
As the Taoiseach said at Westminster last May - “in these days of hope and promise, we know the deep hurt and pain that linger in the hearts of so many”.
I believe that the real impact and legacy of conflict can only be truly understood by those who have experienced it, primarily here in almost every parish and townland across the North, but also of course by people in Dublin and Monaghan and my own home-town of Dundalk, and by people in London and Warrington and elsewhere in Britain.
Equally, the value of peace - won by hard work and risk-taking and difficult compromises - is best appreciated by those who lived through that conflict and through those slow and tortuous and seemingly interminable peace negotiations.
We cannot undo what has been done over the past 40 years, nor can we erase the mistakes that catapulted this society towards conflict.
However, all of us - each in our own spheres and lives - can and must do everything in our power to ensure that the absolute horror of violent conflict never again stalks our land.
That must be our collective promise to the young people of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole -
To the young students now studying in Queens University just up the road, celebrating its centenary this year, and in Coleraine and Magee and Jordanstown too;
To the young people doing apprenticeships, acquiring the skills so necessary for Northern Ireland’s economy in the future;
To the young people now enjoying the jobs and opportunities which peace and prosperity have made possible.
For its part, the Irish Government is pledged to work to sustain and consolidate this hard-won prize with no less determination than was required to tend and nurture the once-fragile buds of peace.
We are fully committed to promoting stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland and between North and South, for the mutual benefit of all, in friendship and in partnership.
That is our promise to all of you gathered here today, and to all the people of this island.
As we move from the futility and the sadness of the past to the challenges and potential of the present and future, it is fitting here to quote the words of First Minister Dr Paisley, as spoken in Stormont on 8th May last:
“I believe that Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in our province. Today we have begun to plant and we await the harvest”.
Current challenges – Combating Sectarianism
Without doubt, the restoration of the power-sharing Institutions on that occasion marked a major advance towards a society based on common purpose. As the Taoiseach has said – “Tuesday 8th May in Belfast was a day when we witnessed events that will truly define our time and the next”.
Obviously, 9 months on, there are many challenges facing the Executive, the Assembly, and society in general – policy issues such as education and reform of public administration, cultural matters such as the Irish language, and key strategic issues concerning devolution of policing, contentious parades and, as I mentioned earlier, dealing with the legacy of the past.
But at last the means and mechanisms are now available to tackle these issues, and to resolve differences and disagreements where they exist.
However, it is essential that the overall progress on the political front is consolidated by addressing the barriers which continue to divide communities here, both physically - as at the interfaces that criss-cross parts of this city - and emotionally, with separated communities leading separate existences.
Of all the challenges facing us, the battle against sectarianism is among the most pressing. It is a serious threat to society, one that all too frequently has fatal results.
We have seen too often the horrific consequences of sectarian animosities, and we all have an obligation to break down these barriers.
It is vital that we not only eliminate sectarianism but also that we begin to confront the ways of thinking that allow sectarianism to flourish.
If the benefits of the improved political climate are to be enjoyed by all, we have to ensure that people in Northern Ireland and throughout the island - irrespective of the tradition to which they belong - are encouraged to choose the path of tolerance and respect over discord and division.
The Irish Government is especially conscious of the important role that community-based organisations can and do play in combating sectarianism.
For that reason, our current Programme for Government contains a commitment to the establishment of an Anti-Sectarianism Fund, specifically to support projects in interface areas that have been designed to address the root causes of sectarianism.
I am pleased to announce the launch of this fund here this evening.
The Anti-Sectarianism Fund will serve as a dedicated resource to support new, innovative and more effective ways of addressing sectarianism and division in society.
I would encourage groups and individuals with proposals in this area to apply to my Department for funding under this scheme. Together we can hasten an end to sectarianism in our society.
Current opportunities – Reconnecting with the world
Ladies and gentleman,
While there is still vital work to be done in addressing the legacies of the troubles, including most importantly, the battle against sectarianism, this is also the moment to highlight the possibilities and potential of the future.
With stable, devolved government and a lasting peace there is an unparalleled opportunity for Northern Ireland to engage in a new way with the wider world, to reach out and to re-connect with old friends and new.
A major step, looking beyond these islands, must be a greater connection with Europe.
The European Union has long been a key partner for Northern Ireland, and has been an invaluable support at every stage of the process. With the advent of new challenges, now is the time to broaden out that relationship to the benefit of all on this island, and of Europe.
The visit of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to Brussels last year is, I hope, just the beginning of a new and broad based engagement between Belfast and Brussels. European programmes – financial, cultural and educational - can play a significant role in helping Northern Ireland to build upon the peace in order to secure its prosperity. The Irish Government is happy to facilitate this relationship in any way it can, and to put its considerable experience of dealing with Europe at the disposal of the Executive.
Throughout the process we have also benefited enormously from the support and assistance received from the United States.
With political progress there are new opportunities to deepen that relationship and to ensure that the positive changes in Northern Ireland are reflected in how developments here are seen and viewed by our American friends. Indeed the relationship between a changed Ireland and the United States is increasingly one of mutual support, as we each recognise that we have much to share with, and to learn from, the other.
We are of course proud of what emigrants from all parts of this island, and of both main traditions, have contributed to the US – they have enriched and enlivened its cultural and political climate, formed new communities and forged new lives for themselves and their families.
Perhaps, because it is sometimes overlooked, I am thinking in particular of the proud heritage of the many Ulster-Scots who left these shores to settle in the U.S. and whose history has not perhaps had a central role to date in ‘our’ story of Irish America. I believe that too is changing, another benefit of a more inclusive politics.
Of course, many in the US have viewed Northern Ireland solely through the prism of the conflict and it is vital that more positive associations be built.
The visit of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in December was an excellent first step in this direction. Further contacts and visits from the Executive can only improve understanding and appreciation in the US for the tremendous progress which Northern Ireland has made.
In terms of re-connecting with the wider world, the Investment Conference, to be held in Belfast in May, provides a particularly significant opportunity.
This genuinely has the potential to be a watershed moment for Northern Ireland’s economy. Once the economic and industrial powerhouse of this island, Northern Ireland has been held back by conflict and division. Now, in a climate of peace and political stability, the time has come to re-build the foundations of a strong and sustainable economy.
Foreign Direct Investment makes a crucial difference to small developed economies – as we know so well in Dublin and Dundalk and elsewhere in the South.
For this reason, the forthcoming Investment Conference must showcase Northern Ireland as ripe for such investment in economic terms but also in political terms – as a normal, peaceful and stable society.
I am confident the work of the Executive and Assembly will allow that vision to be presented.
The Irish Government, for our part, stands ready to assist this Conference – and indeed the long-term health of the Northern economy - in every way we can.
Truly, the prosperity of one is linked to the prosperity of all.
Sharing the lessons learned – Conflict Resolution
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The formation last year of a stable, inclusive government here and the inauguration of a new era of cooperation in Ireland - North and South - offers the prospect of a lasting peace on our island based on mutual respect and reconciliation.
The positive situation of today required sustained hard work over a long period before it resulted in, what I hope and believe, will be lasting success.
In the course of those efforts, by many people over many years, there were setbacks and disappointments, and, now and again, the occasional success, which encouraged all concerned to persevere.
We collectively learned from both the positive and negative moments. Reflecting on these experiences, I came to the belief that the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process ought to be captured, analysed and shared.
It was with this aim of lesson-sharing that I established a Conflict Resolution Unit in my Department.
This is not to say that the Irish Government, or any other participant in the process, has all the answers. It is, however, an honest attempt to gather together some of the collective wisdom gleaned, by so many people, in the Northern process and to offer to share that with others, who are also involved in the difficult task of peace building.
I am pleased to say that the Government of Timor Leste has indicated its interest in cooperating with us and we are working to enhance our relationship by sharing the experiences and lessons learned.
I have just returned this week from a visit to Dili where I met leaders of Government and civil society and listened to their accounts of the challenges which face this young and currently troubled nation.
While each conflict situation has its own unique features, the situation in Timor Leste has themes which will be familiar to you – a painful history and legacy of violence and conflict, a divided society, social disadvantage, the need for policing and justice reform, and a search for inclusive governance mechanisms which give everyone a share and stake in their fledgling society.
Since its independence referendum in 1999, Ireland has been working closely with the government and people of Timor Leste through our bilateral aid programme. My recent visit – with its focus on resolving conflict and peace-building – will hopefully deepen even further our close relationship with the Timorese.
We sought to assess where and how we might be in a position to assist in their peace-building efforts. This will be followed up with expert engagement in specific areas where we have lessons to share that are of relevance to Timor Leste and its people.
On the occasion of my visit, I announced the appointment of Nuala O’Loan as a roving Ambassador who will take a leading role in our efforts to assist the Timorese.
Nuala needs no introduction here. Indeed, I understand I am literally following in her footsteps as she addressed a similar meeting here in this hall just a few weeks ago.
Brave, hard-working, fearless, Nuala played a pivotal role in building confidence in the new Police Service here and I’m delighted that she has agreed to be part of our conflict resolution team.
The appointment of Nuala demonstrates that a central element of our lesson sharing will be drawing on the expertise which exists in Northern Ireland. The role of civil society– both individuals and groups - was a key ingredient in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Through the work of the Conflict Resolution Unit, we will seek ways through which our collective experience can be shared, so that we might together assist other regions and countries struggling to emerge from the scourge of conflict.
I am well aware that there is no perfect solution; but one key lesson from Northern Ireland is that where ordinary people in a society desire a peaceful and secure future, they will eventually succeed – despite all the odds against success.
Only solutions grounded in the people and their chosen leaderships can truly endure and thrive and this, above all, is the story from Northern Ireland which we wish to share.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the outset, I spoke of this time being one of new hope, new growth, new beginnings.
We are not complacent.
We are conscious that, while the progress made is significant, we all still have much to do to consolidate the peace and build a better and shared future for the people of Northern Ireland.
And yet - as we drive through the border areas and note the absence of military watch-towers, as we walk around Derry or Belfast and see relaxed shoppers and sightseers – it is clear that hope and normality are not merely seeping back. They are coming in a wonderful rush, embraced by people everywhere.
As we see political representatives and community leaders working together on projects great and small for the benefit of their communities, it is clear – in the words of another great Ulsterman, Van Morrison - that “the healing has begun”.
Few generations – certainly on this island – have been gifted with the opportunities presented to us.
Few generations have been offered the gifts of new hope, new growth, and new beginnings.
For our sake, and for that of our children and grand-children, let us not squander this moment but rather work might and mane to sustain and consolidate these blessings.
For this generation, for our generation, that work is both our sacred duty and our privilege.