Opening address to the annual Reconciliation Networking Forum
Skainos Centre, Belfast, 14 December 2016
It gives me great pleasure to be here with you this morning to open this year’s Reconciliation Networking Forum. I am very pleased that this year I have the opportunity to do so in Belfast. It is vital that the key role civil society plays in furthering peace and reconciliation is acknowledged and celebrated and I’m glad that this annual Forum provides us the chance to do this.
Today is also an opportunity to renew friendships and acquaintances, to hear about best practice, to compare notes and to grapple with some of the more challenging issues that continue to be a feature of our work and our lives.
In many ways 2016 has been a challenging year. I recall that at last year’s Forum, in September 2015, there was much talk of “commemorations anxiety”, as people worried about the potential divisiveness of the two major centenaries that occurred in 2016, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.
As it happened, the commemorations of these events have proved more healing than divisive. We saw how communities, civil society and political leaders, across this island, strove to ensure that the complexity of history and identity, were reflected in commemorative events, and that they were presented in a respectful and inclusive way.
As we move through the remaining years of this Decade of Centenaries, I believe that the generous tone and approach that has been so well received this year, will be carried on and that the Decade as a whole will result in a much greater appreciation and understanding of the multi-faceted history and the differing perspectives and narratives that have shaped us.
I am conscious that the centenary of the Battle of Messines will take place next year on the 7th June. This was, of course, the moment when the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division fought side by side. It is very hard today for us to imagine the experiences of those men.
On 7th June 1917, many of them had already survived the Somme, to the relief of their families and friends at home, only to be still fighting a year later, with peace still many months away. We will remember all of them next year, 36th and 16th alike - just as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and former President McAleese remembered these men – nationalist and unionist, Protestant and Catholic - when they opened the Island of Ireland peace park in Messines in 1998.
Given the importance of the centenary of the Battle of Messines and its positive resonance for reconciliation on this island, I have asked my Department to open a special dedicated small grants fund in January in support of community projects that will commemorate this important part of our history. More details on this will be announced in early January and will be available on my Department’s website.
This year the focus of most of your concern is probably the outcome of the UK referendum on Brexit and I would like to share some thoughts with you on that issue.
First, I want to acknowledge that this is a question where people both in this in this room, and outside it hold diverging views. My Government had hoped for a different outcome to the referendum, but we must and do, respect the outcome of the democratic process in the UK as whole. I also want to acknowledge that a majority of voters here in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union.
Like many of those who voted Remain here, the Irish Government has serious concerns about the impact of the UK withdrawal from the European Union and the challenges and risks for Northern Ireland in particular.
I can assure you here today that the Irish Government is committed to protecting the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, to seeking to maintain an invisible border, and to protecting our all-island economy. We are cognisant of the challenges that Brexit presents but are committed to working with the Executive, the UK Government and our EU partners to achieve an outcome that fully protects the gains of peace process including, the step change in both North South and East West relations over the past 20 years.
This process will require constructive solutions and engagement with all stakeholders, which must include listening to the voice of civil society. On 2nd November last, we began an extensive consultation process, when we hosted the first All Island Civic Dialogue in Dublin.
This work will continue in the weeks ahead with sector specific events taking place – beginning this week with events focusing specifically on agriculture and education. The dialogue is just one aspect of the Government’s engagement.
Since the outcome of the referendum on the 23rd of June, I have heard first-hand the views and concerns of business and community leaders from Derry, from Belfast, from Newry, Armagh and all over the island about the impact of Brexit. I am committed to continuing this engagement in the months ahead.
Today’s Forum, while giving us the opportunity to look at the challenges, such as those presented by Brexit, which lie ahead, is also an important chance to reflect on the progress that has been made over the past decades as well as the issues from the past that continue to impact on the lives of so many.
Northern Ireland is a society at peace and on the road to reconciliation, and there is much that all parts of the community can be proud of. The achievements of the past decades have been extraordinary, and they could not have come about without the tireless efforts of the people and communities represented at this Forum. But as everyone here knows, the journey continues. We must work vigorously to protect the peace. We must find the courage to take the next steps in building reconciliation and truly starting to heal society.
It is my strong belief that these next steps must lead us to deal decisively with the difficult legacy of the past. The challenges posed by the past, however complex and sensitive, cannot continue to be left unaddressed. I and my colleagues in Government continue to work to deliver the comprehensive framework for dealing with legacy issues that was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. This framework will never be perfect, but it will give victims and survivors and their families, from all communities, equal access to whatever truth and justice that is available in their case, and provide a platform for furthering reconciliation.
There will be no easy answers and addressing the legacy of the past will not be a cost or hurt free exercise. However, the affected individuals and families have made clear their collective wish for a comprehensive framework that facilitates whatever justice and truth may be available and advances broader societal healing. They and the wider community deserve our unflinching commitment to resolving the very few outstanding issues and delivering the institutions agreed on, almost exactly two years ago at Stormont House.
There will be more debates and discussions about how exactly we move forward. I urge everyone on all sides of the debate, from all backgrounds, to not lose sight of what can be achieved when we stretch ourselves to reach our shared goal. We must work together to fulfil the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, which explicitly acknowledges that addressing the needs of victims and survivors is an important part of building a reconciled society.
I also want also to acknowledge all those here today who are working in communities across Northern Ireland to help move beyond the legacy of paramilitarism, in all of its forms. The discussions on this at the Forum today are an important part of the society-wide dialogue and commitment that is necessary to bring all communities out of the shadow of violence and intimidation, and give Northern Ireland the future its people deserve. The Independent Reporting Commission, being set up jointly by the Irish and British Governments and the Executive, will also contribute in a significant way to this work.
I am hopeful and determined that working together we will find a path to a comprehensive approach on dealing with the past and that Northern Ireland can make a step change and move fully beyond the legacy of paramilitarism. These are some of the main challenges of our peace process today. I look forward to hearing from my officials about the discussions you will have on these topics today.
I know you will also have an opportunity this afternoon to reflect on the powerful role of culture and creativity in deepening understanding.
I experienced this first-hand on 10th April this year, when I stood on the stage next to Senator George Mitchell during ‘Rising to Reconciliation’ in the Abbey Theatre. That event was part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme and took place on the 18th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Through the medium of poetry, drama and song we charted the path from the moment of the Easter Rising right through the complexity and turbulence of the century that followed and celebrated the moment of hope and reconciliation that the Good Friday Agreement represented.
Some of the island’s finest musicians, poets and artists, and the Skainos Centre’s own Linda Ervine, helped tell the story of this complex history, acknowledging the varying moments of loss and tragedy but also those moments of hope and joy.
I was delighted that a Belfast audience also had the opportunity to experience the production, when it became the opening event of the Belfast International Arts Festival in October.
It gave many of us a renewed appreciation for the potential power of culture and creativity in addressing the divides and wounds of the past. It highlighted the key role of the arts in establishing more inclusive and complex representations of identity and identities on the island of Ireland. This is something the Government plans to continue in the years ahead through the Creative Ireland initiative launched last week.
I want to thank you for your participation today and for your dedication to peace and reconciliation, in often difficult circumstances. I want to assure you that the Irish Government remains committed to supporting your work. I am very pleased to officially announce that funding from my Department’s Reconciliation Fund of over €1 million has been awarded in recent days to over 60 organisations who are at the forefront of this peace building work and I know many of you are here today.
In closing, I would invite you to join me for a cup of tea or coffee outside where hopefully I will have the chance to speak to more of you and hear about your work.
Happy Christmas and a happy 2017 to you all.