Address by Mr Michéal Martin, T.D, Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Mitchell Conference, Queen’s University Belfast, 22 May 2008
Senator Mitchell, First Minister, deputy First Minister, Secretary of State, fellow speakers, ladies and gentlemen,
It is both an honour and a pleasure to represent the Irish Government today at the Mitchell Conference in Queen’s University Belfast, during its centenary year.
Indeed, I would like to congratulate the University, and the other organisers, notably Georgetown and Cooperation Ireland, on the excellent programme which they have put together for this event. As it begins its second century, this distinguished University will clearly continue to be at the forefront of academic and social life not only in Belfast, but throughout these islands and beyond.
Today’s gathering acknowledges in a very tangible way the US contribution to the peace process.
It is fitting therefore to open my address with the words of a former US President, William McKinley, who said that humanity should: “ever remember that our interest is in concord, not in conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war”.
We are here today to mark and reflect on that ‘victory of peace’ - achieved against seemingly insurmountable odds - which has forever changed the lives of those living in Northern Ireland and indeed on the island as a whole.
This victory of peace was never a certainty, it did not just happen
by chance, and it was not easily won.
It was in truth brought about by the efforts of many individuals, often taking considerable personal and political risks– at both the community and political levels.
It is important at this juncture that we acknowledge the efforts of so many over such a lengthy period to bring us to this time of great hope and great potential.
The combined efforts of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to secure and sustain the peace have been recognised both far and near, as we mark the anniversaries of the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of power-sharing last May.
And rightly so - for their individual and shared contributions to the process were immense. How appropriate it is that they should be honoured here among us later this morning.
The representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, from right across the political spectrum, demonstrated both vision and no little courage at crucial times during the aptly-named peace process.
Without that vision and courage, all the support and advice and encouragement from Dublin and London, and indeed Washington, would have come to nought.
While some remain active politically, many have moved on from politics, and a number have passed away. But history will acknowledge the efforts of all those who made such efforts - often at considerable cost politically and personally - to strive for a mutually-acceptable and workable peace settlement.
The peace that is now enjoyed by all is the collective legacy of Northern Ireland’s political leadership. It is a proud legacy, and one which the current and future generations of politicians must carefully nurture in the years ahead.
And then of course there is Senator George Mitchell.
The sterling work, the dexterity and the sheer patience of Senator Mitchell during the Multi-Party Talks is both a matter of public record, and part of the lore surrounding the Good Friday Agreement.
Nor should we forget his work both prior to and after the Talks process itself - drawing up the Mitchell Principles, seeking a way forward on the decommissioning issue, and chairing the Review process in Autumn 1999 which broke the impasse and led to the establishment of the Executive in December of that year.
At key moments during the peace process - when seemingly intractable problems threatened to knock us off-course - Senator Mitchell answered the call of the British and Irish Governments, and of the political parties.
At key moments, he answered the call of peace on this island.
Senator Mitchell, we will never forget your contribution.
And the words of the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to the US Congress last month are particularly apt in your case – “When we needed true champions of peace, when we needed true friends, when we needed inspiration, we found them here. We found them among you.”
From conflict to agreement
With the engagement, courage and stamina of political leaders,
community representatives and countless others, we on this
moved first from conflict to dialogue and then from dialogue to agreement.
And in the past year, we have seen that agreement translated into operational reality - with functioning and hopefully robust Institutions, and productive Governmental activity delivering real benefits for the entire community.
The First and deputy First Minister have demonstrated a genuine ability to work the Institutions and to share power for the benefit of all. As First Minister Paisley departs office in a few weeks to take on new challenges, we thank him and wish him well, and we look forward to working together with his successor, Peter Robinson and with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
In the Executive itself, we have seen a working partnership taking on the practical issues and problems of a modern society and economy.
There have been clear successes, such as the agreed Budget and Programme for Government, and the Investment Conference.
And yes, there have been disagreements and there are difficult issues which are still being grappled with by the Executive. But to be honest, there’s nothing unusual or ‘Northern Ireland-specific’ in that.
Rather, this is indeed the normal cut and thrust of politics where differences are worked through and agreed solutions are devised.
And I have no doubt that mutually-agreeable solutions will be crafted for the current policy differences facing the Executive.
As we survey the landscape now, some fourteen years on from the first paramilitary ceasefires and ten years on from the Talks at Castle Buildings, it is clear that the peace process is a success story, and an extraordinary one at that.
One that we all strove hard to achieve and one that we all are determined to consolidate and sustain into the future.
The Contemporary British-Irish Relationship
Looking back, it is clear that good relationships at key levels North, South, East and West built the peace.
It is by maintaining and developing these relationships - albeit in evolving forms - that we will ensure a bright and prosperous future for all who live on these islands.
It has correctly been noted – and the Secretary of State touched on this earlier - that a defining characteristic of this peace process has been the extent to which the two Governments worked in partnership together.
Tirelessly working through problems and striving for agreed positions in the search for peace and reconciliation.
Not always in agreement behind closed doors, and obviously coming to issues from differing perspectives, but always keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
A Northern Ireland at peace with itself and its neighbours.
This search - this long journey which the Governments and peoples of these islands have taken together in recent years - has shaped and developed the contemporary British –Irish relationship in ways undreamt of thirty years ago.
The relationship is one of equals - defined by partnership, cooperation, respect and, yes, friendship. A shared commitment to finding a way to achieve peace in Northern Ireland was certainly a catalyst for this strengthened and dynamic relationship but it has now found expression in many other areas.
Working together as partners in Europe, the United Nations and in many other areas of cooperation, we find synergies and mutual benefit when we cooperate in matters of shared interest.
This broadening and deepening of the bilateral relationship can only benefit all those whom we represent in the years to come, as we face new global challenges and uncertainties.
The North-South Relationship
From our own perspective, it is perhaps no surprise that the key strategic relationship as we move forward is that between North and South, between those who share the island of Ireland itself.
With the restoration of the institutions, we have entered a new era of North/South cooperation. The benefits of working together are obvious – we share a small island in a world which is becoming ever more globalised and competitive.
The North South Ministerial Council facilitates structured cooperation across a range of key areas such as education, health and agriculture. These are important issues which have an impact on the lives of all of the people of this island. As politicians – North and South – our duty is to represent the best interests of those who elected us.
I believe therefore that we have a shared responsibility to work together wherever practicable – be that in stimulating the all-island economy or improving transport links.
I consider this attitude of pragmatism and mutual respect to be at the core of the contemporary North South relationship.
While the changed nature of relationships on this island underscores the progress we have made it is, of course, not the end. Important work remains to be done.
The commitment to completing devolution with the transfer of
policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland was an essential
element of the St Andrews Agreement. The time is now
ripe to forge ahead with this move which makes good sense for all
sections of the community.
I encourage the parties in the Executive to work closely together on this important step toward the full normalisation of society.
There is also a shared duty to ensue that the cooperation we see at the political level is reflected in a new energy of reconciliation within local communities, one aimed at building mutual respect and tolerance and bringing about an end to sectarianism.
Work to promote reconciliation and combat sectarianism is fundamental to securing a truly shared future. While it is no easy task, it is vital to long term stability and lasting peace.
We are also all deeply conscious of the painful legacy that conflict has left. In a small community, far too many were touched by violence and loss.
Thus, we are determined that the peace we are together building in Northern Ireland is as strong and lasting as it needs to be so that no future generation experiences that grief.
Our experience of conflict on the island, we hope, is at an end. But every day, it informs our determination to succeed in peace, to build prosperity and to form new and better relationships on our shared island.
Conflict Resolution – Sharing the lessons of the Peace Process
We are also committed to sharing our experience of the peace process in other situations emerging from conflict where it could be of genuine benefit.
There are no short-cuts from conflict to peaceful, agreed societies. Each situation is different, each hugely complex.
There may be specific aspects of our experience of dialogue, confidence building, intergovernmental partnership, policing reform or cross-border institutions which may be of help to others.
Most of all, the example of Northern Ireland tells us – dialogue can work, confidence can grow, politics can be transformed.
Through compromise and imagination, peace can be found while never sacrificing your own moral judgement and never losing your identity or giving up your most deeply-held political aspirations.
The Irish Government is seeking to play its part in sharing such lessons and experience though our Conflict Resolution Unit. This Unit based in my Department seeks to enhance Irish engagement in conflict resolution which is a central theme in Irish foreign policy.
The conflict resolution initiative will enable us, where possible and appropriate, to facilitate elsewhere the peaceful outcome of conflicts and share the lessons we have learned through the peace process. It will strengthen our partnership with the United Nations and allow us to engage more actively with relevant EU policies and instruments.
The first country-specific engagement for our conflict resolution initiative is Timor Leste, where former Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan is playing a key role as the Government’s Special Envoy.
I am acutely conscious of the expertise which exists amongst the people of Northern Ireland in the area of conflict resolution and one element of our work will certainly be to ensure that that knowledge is captured and where appropriate shared in order to assist others.
Together, the people of these islands have achieved an extraordinary feat in creating the circumstances to achieve and sustain peace. That step is one which eludes many other countries and regions in the world.
It took us all long enough to get here.
It took us all long enough to understand that “our interest lies is in concord, not in conflict”.
We must never forget the wonder of what has been achieved here.
And we must collectively work as hard in the future to sustain “the victory of peace” as we did to achieve it.
As we now look forward together, this is both our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity.
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