Speech by Tánaiste Simon Coveney T.D. at Féile an Phobail
St Mary's University College Belfast
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Thank you for inviting me here to West Belfast for this celebration of the Good Friday Agreement as part of Féile an Phobail.
I am honoured to be with you all today as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Agreement. It is natural on such occasions that we look back on what has been; but important too that we reflect on where we are now and, crucially, set out our ambition for what comes next.
I will not attempt – especially in front of several of the key negotiators - to deconstruct the interwoven ideals and institutions so ingeniously brought together in this extraordinary document.
Instead I would like to discuss just 3 words which I keep coming back to when I reflect on the agreement.
Just 3 words:
Crucially these are not just words but actions. Each challenges us as we strive to stay true to the spirit of the Agreement.
Remembering sounds straightforward enough but are each of us inclined to stay in the familiar spaces of our own narratives and ignore those of others?
In articulating our own past including pain suffered and harm endured, do we each close our ears to the stories and experience of our neighbours?
I am not advocating that we ignore or gloss over what has happened or seek to find a neutralised or agreed narrative. And for all those bereaved and injured there should and will be avenues for truth and for justice.
But I am challenging everyone, myself included, to resist the reflex of 'whataboutery' - a word we are all too familiar with. One person's suffering does not diminish or cancel out another's. Two wrongs don't make a right.
Those of us who have the privilege of political leadership must be mindful of that when debating or discussing legacy issues. We must speak and act in a way which demonstrates that the pain and trauma of what has happened here is not owned but shared.
That tragic legacy reminds us too why what was achieved in 1998 was so extraordinary.
We remember too that it did not happen overnight.
The courage of those who trod the lonely path of dialogue and engagement in those darkest of days must never be forgotten. It cannot be forgotten.
We will not forget those people who for decades refused to give up on the belief that things could and would be better. People who saw great moments of hope, such as the Sunningdale Agreement, snatched away - but who nevertheless persevered. People who endured.
From the Anglo-Irish Agreement, through the Hume-Adams talks, the Downing Street Declaration, the ceasefires, and then Good Friday itself – political leaders took risks on and with each other. It was not always perfect – far from it – but they endured.
Away from the headlines and the history books, there are those whose names will never be recorded but whose courage in their communities was the bedrock on which the peace was built….and sustained. They endured too.
But today is not just about remembering what was done and admiring past achievement. It must be a moment of renewed commitment to the spirit, promise and ambition of the Agreement.
We must renew our belief in one another and what we can achieve together. Partnership between the Governments, power sharing between the parties, and parity of esteem between communities are what was designed in 1998 - and what is sorely needed now.
None of these have been or are perfect but renewal does not demand perfection. It demands leadership, courage and hard work. That is something we can and must provide and we must and will do so - together.
We must and will find a way to ensure all the institutions of the Agreement are working effectively. We must and will work together, in the context of Brexit, to protect all of the relationships and cooperation that the Agreement has built – not just within Northern Ireland but between North and South, and between the UK and Ireland.
In 1998, we together made a new beginning.
Twenty years on, what should our focus be as we seek to realise the full promise of that fresh start? Where does the greatest challenge lie? What have we found hardest to achieve?
The answer to all of the above is found in one word: Reconcile
It is understandable that this process has been slow and difficult. In that regard, I want to highlight and commend the many people, organisations, communities and politicians who have made enormous progress in this area.
But we only need to switch on the news, listen to political debates or – if we are very brave – look at Twitter – to see that we are not where we need to be.
The Irish language version of the Agreement translates reconciliation as ‘athmhuintearas’. The word mhuintearas means a few things. It means friendliness. It means neighbourliness. It means connection.
Maybe then we need to stop thinking of reconciliation as a noun and start living it as a verb, requiring action. Try to make a connection – or a reconnection. Try to speak and act as - if not a friend – then at least a neighbour.
And there is a particular onus on those of us who are politicians to stretch ourselves and to make ourselves uncomfortable. That’s not always easy. It does not, should not, mean being something we are not.
Our everyday aim should be to broaden sympathies without abandoning loyalties. Not because it is the right thing to do – which it is.
Not to pester people into agreement with us – which won’t work.
But because we are all in this together. After hundreds of years of strife and decades of recent conflict – here we all still stand. Irish, British, Northern Irish, unionist, nationalist, loyalist, republican – or something else entirely!
20 years ago, we imagined for ourselves new and better possibilities.
Since that time we have realised many of them, however imperfectly.
So let us remember how much we have achieved, let us renew our commitment to that new beginning, let us step into the future together confident and determined to be truly reconciled.
We owe ourselves nothing less.
10 April 2018