Speech by Tánaiste Simon Coveney T.D.
20 Years of Peace – The Agreement Anniversary Celebration
The Metropolitan Club, New York – 22 February 2018
A Chairde, a Dhaoine Uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be back in the city of New York. The capital of Irish America and many would say the unofficial capital of the world.
Although I’d make a very strong case for Cork myself.
I am deeply heartened see so many good friends of Ireland here today to reflect on the upcoming anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Thank you to Co-operation Ireland and Irish Central for this invitation, and for organising this hugely important gathering.
I want to say thank you to the members of the previous panel for sharing their insights and for their involvement in the peace process, over decades. Senator Mitchell, Nancy Soderberg, Bruce Morrison, and so many of you here today gave so much of your talent, energy, and time into securing the Agreement - and then safeguarding it through difficult moments thereafter.
All of us on the island of Ireland owe you a debt of gratitude for that shared, extraordinary endeavour.
It is hard to believe and yet, it seems to have gone by in no time at all. I was elected as a member of the Irish parliament, a Teachta Dála, that year, 1998. And I’ve a few lines on my forehead now that illustrate what 20 years can do to you.
I want to take a moment, as I know you have all been doing this morning, to step back those twenty years. January, February, March 1998 were not hopeful months in Northern Ireland despite the ongoing talks process. Levels of scepticism and cynicism were high - inside and outside the Stormont gates.
My team and I often refer to the book Lost Lives, which gives an account of the lives lost to the decades of conflict. It is a sobering reminder of life and death through those years. Its opening summary for 1998 reads:
“The year began with a series of revenge killings, a string of random assassinations in the wake of Billy Wright’s killing inside the Maze. In spite of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, mindsets seemed as far apart as ever both inside and outside talks. When the parties in Stormont emerged with a Good Friday Agreement which included Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, many were surprised.”
Many were surprised. Let’s remember that - many were surprised.
I think it’s important that we recall that for two reasons. First, the Northern Ireland peace process required a huge, sustained effort and a keeping of the faith for weeks, and months, and years.
And secondly, and crucially, we established a new truth on the 10th of April 1998. Together, we proved that agreement - unlikely, improbable agreement - was possible. That should always be a source of hope and comfort whenever and wherever days may look dark again.
There have been many moments over recent weeks and months of discussions in Belfast when it has sometimes felt as if minds and mindsets are as far apart as ever. But they are not. Even if they are not as close as we would like them to be either.
It is moments like today, a necessary pause to gather and reflect, that gives us the opportunity to see how far we have actually travelled on this sometimes fraught and fragile path of peace and reconciliation.
We are far from the revenge killings and assassinations of early 1998. We are far from the 21 deaths in 1997 or the 106 deaths in 1987, or the 113 deaths in 1977.
Northern Ireland is a place with peace. It is not yet though, a place reconciled. That is a longer, more difficult task than we ever imagined in the optimistic dawn of April and May 1998.
I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves for that though. Of course reconciliation is the hardest, slowest part of this huge endeavour. Lives were lost, the bitterest of words spoken, communities segregated and deep hurts perpetuated for generations - before, during and since the Troubles.
The toll of the conflict was emotional and psychological, cultural, economic and social.
Generations of people were born and grew up in the shadow of division and conflict, surrounded by tension and fear. And it is beholden on all of us as custodians of the Agreement and our shared peace, to make sure this is never the case again.
And we are doing that work and reaping the rewards, however slow and tedious that reaping may sometimes seem. Our everyday now is talk of politics and process instead of violence and ceasefires. Relationships, between Ireland and the United Kingdom, within Northern Ireland, and on the island of Ireland have transformed in the last twenty years.
Like all relationships, there are disagreements and tensions. If you only read the headlines or tweets some days, you would be forgiven for thinking that the British and Irish Governments were barely on speaking terms. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let me give you an illustration: in the last 4 weeks alone, I have had two separate meetings with the new British Deputy Prime Minister, David Lidington; additional meetings with the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and his Minister of State, Alan Duncan; and countless meetings with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley. The Taoiseach and I also met with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, last week in Belfast.
We are working together, day in and day out – on Brexit, on Northern Ireland, and on a range of other issues that rarely make the television headlines or the front pages of our newspapers.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU was – of course - one that we would have preferred not to see, and one we very much regret. Not least because joint membership of the European Union by Ireland and the UK has been one of the great scaffolds of the Peace Process. Working together, co-operating across a range of issues in Brussels for the mutual benefit of all our people, helped transform the British-Irish relationship in a profound way. It fostered trust, rapport, and, in many cases, enduring friendships. We saw the fruits of that in the Good Friday Agreement. And we don’t want to lose that greater understanding now.
And so we will find new ways to work together and work all the harder to make sure that those strong, dynamic working relationships and practical modes of cooperation continue to thrive. We have mechanisms such as the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference which can allow that to happen. And we need to think new thoughts too – like the possibility of full teams of senior UK and Irish Ministers coming together at regular intervals, in Dublin or London, to discuss issues of shared interest or concern. We should be bold and ambitious for Ireland-UK relations in the future, in the interests of all the people we represent.
Through all of this, however, our guiding star remains the Good Friday Agreement.
As a co-guarantor of the Agreement, we are determined to protect all it has helped achieve. The Agreement, which in its three Strands captures the set of interlocking relationships so fundamental to Ireland and the UK, continues to provide a robust and lasting framework for our politics and our people.
And for that we are deeply grateful to all who contributed so much to bring us so far on the long and hard road to peace and reconciliation - and towards a better future for all on the island of Ireland.
And we should start right here. Here in New York, connections between Ireland and America are all around us, in the buildings that Irish-Americans built and designed, in the names of businesses and even some familiar looking faces; indeed in the overarching presence of St Patrick’s Cathedral not far from here. Surrounded by the visible influence of the Irish in America, it is fitting that we also acknowledge the impact which Irish-America has had on the path to peace in Ireland.
In every chapter of modern Irish history, but most especially through the sad chapters of the Troubles and the dawning hope of the peace process, the influence of Irish America has been profound.
No history of Ireland, no history of America, would be complete without a recognition of the entwining of the two.
From Ted Kennedy and President Carter, from Tip O’Neill and President Reagan, to George Mitchell and President Clinton, the story of progress in relationships north and south, east and west, has been a story of US engagement and influence. Support has been forthcoming from successive White House Administrations, from generations of Congressmen and Senators from across the aisle, from special envoys such as Richard Haass, Mitchel Reiss, Paula Dobriansky and Gary Hart - steadfast U.S. support which has spanned decades and administrations, and too many individuals to name here.
At critical moments – when Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher were working slowly towards the Anglo-Irish Agreement; when John Hume’s vision for peace and reconciliation was not yet widely embraced - America’s engagement helped lay foundations for profound change in Northern Ireland.
Successive political generations here in the U.S. made it their mission to understand and to positively influence the political situation in Northern Ireland. They were joined by, and often influenced in turn by, community leaders, business people, U.S. Government officials, diplomats and many more.
The Good Friday Agreement is a child with many parents and godparents.
Much of this support was carried out behind the scenes, and it came in many forms. In the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, financial support from the U.S. through the International Fund for Ireland went to communities across Northern Ireland and our southern Border Counties, and initiated long-awaited social and economic change. This US contribution continues to this day, and it continues to assist the process of reconciliation in some of the most economically-deprived and divided communities in Northern Ireland.
That initial US support, later built on to great effect by crucial funding from the European Union, kick-started the process of economic and social transformation.
Vital too was the support and hospitality given to many hundreds of people, particularly young people, from Northern Ireland who were brought on visits to the United States. For generations of Northern Ireland leaders, their first encounter with someone from the other community took place here in America. The influence these engagements had on the peace process and on individual lives and horizons should not be underestimated.
Throughout the difficult years, successive U.S. administrations listened, engaged and took some brave risks in pursuit of peace on a small island half-way across the world.
There are so many people who deserve our thanks, including many gathered here. I hope though that you will all forgive me if I single out for a moment one particular person. Someone who is emblematic of the friendship, influence and engagement shown by the United States of America towards the island of Ireland, the welfare of our people, and the peace process.
Senator Mitchell, words of thanks do not seem adequate to the scale of what is due. And, yet, words are precious too. Thank you – for everything.
There are two key dates to this 20th anniversary and sometimes we focus on one to the neglect of the other.
The 10th of April 1998 was the culmination of a decades-long process of both political and civic change, leading to an inclusive political talks process and an overarching Agreement. It could not have happened without political and civic leadership on all sides, political support from the United States, and a backdrop of EU membership and support.
It was an extraordinary achievement - and a new beginning for Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland.
That sense of a new beginning was firmly endorsed on the other important date – the 22nd of May 1998. That, the date of the two referendums on the island, is the moment that a political agreement became the People’s Agreement.
In recent weeks, we have moved again through a cycle of talks and dialogue in an effort to achieve a political agreement that we are, unfortunately, still striving for. Despite this, indeed because of it, I firmly believe that now is the moment to broaden the debate once again and to make sure that a political process moves in tandem with a people’s process, a community-driven process. This is the moment for a renewal of the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to reconciliation - deep and lasting reconciliation.
Politics in Northern Ireland has not yet sufficiently delivered the transformation that needs to happen for communities to live together, engage with each other and move away from division, mistrust and words of strife.
The deficit in reconciliation has in turn repeatedly frustrated a more positive politics. Fear of an electorate which seems to reward a zero sum approach is not a recipe for successful outreach or a cohesive society.
Changing this cycle will be an essential next step and I believe that together the people of Northern Ireland, of the island of Ireland, of Britain and our friends beyond, can and will make this happen.
We will need to re-commit to the principles at the core of the Agreement – equality, mutual respect, partnership, reconciliation, tolerance, and trust. All very nice-sounding words, but hard words to put into real, lasting effect in a post-conflict and still-divided society.
And we will need to recapture some of the energy, hope and optimism that has unfortunately ebbed away in the intervening years.
It is easy to feel negative, easy to be cynical or despondent, easy to cast about for someone to blame. We will not go down that path.
Nor will we give credence to those who – even in recent days - glibly claim that the Good Friday Agreement has failed or outlived its utility. That is simply not true. And that kind of reckless talk, ignorant of the history and evolution of peace in Northern Ireland, cannot go unchallenged.
It is in these times of challenge and turmoil that the genius and the ambition of the Agreement are most needed. That is not simply idealism – although we can always do with more of that – it is democratic politics.
We hear a lot these days about respect for the will of the people. It is worth highlighting then, the results of that referendum in 1998, which were 71.1% in favour of the Agreement in the North and 94.4% endorsing it in the South. The people had before them the full detail of the Agreement with all of its complexity and compromise and they gave their verdict. The people didn’t just speak, they shouted and they said yes.
Yes …..to rebuilding relationships on and between our islands, knowing that it would be hard, given all that has happened in the past.
Yes ……to power-sharing, knowing that this would mean old enemies having to work together, despite their profound differences.
And yes … most importantly of all …yes …to that new beginning, not because we have forgotten the past but because we remember it all too well.
The people of the island of Ireland – particularly those in Northern Ireland - were the ones who were most profoundly affected by the Troubles. They validated the 1998 Agreement and it belongs to them.
The Irish Government, together with the UK Government, guarantees that Agreement in all its parts and in all circumstances. Its protection and implementation is a solemn duty which is not distracted of diverted by short term political challenges or political expediency.
It can be no other way because at the heart of all of this, is a set of relationships between islands and peoples, none of whom are going anywhere. Unionist or nationalist, British or Irish, northerner or southerner, we are going to have to find enduring and sustainable ways to live together in peace and harmony.
John Hume, in his lecture accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1998, spoke about this in the context of the European peace project:
“All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace - respect for diversity.”
We have seen what it is like when we live in conflict. That must never happen again. We must never allow it to happen again. It is simply not an option.
And it is this Agreement, which encompasses the relationships, the principles, the structures and the vision which will guide us through this present impasse. It will guide us too through the future difficulties which will inevitably occur.
And so we are all going to have to forego the harsh word and the bitter retort in favour of something much more difficult and challenging, and far braver.
We are going to have to trust in the Agreement, trust in peace, trust in each other, continue talking, continue building relationships, continue repairing relationships and not let the voices of cynicism and defeat win this round.
The voices of grace and generosity, the voices of civil society, need to shine through again. My pledge today is that my Government will continue to support the vital work that the people on the ground in communities across Northern Ireland are doing in progressing reconciliation – true, lasting, sustained reconciliation.
These are obviously challenging times but I suspect every generation has thought that.
We will not lose sight of why we keep working to deepen peace and reconciliation. We will never forget the lives lost during the Troubles, the injured, the bereaved, nor will we ever forget the long hard road to forging the peace.
Twenty years ago, the Irish Government became the proud co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We stand steadfastly behind it, and the implementation agreements which followed, and the principles embodied in those texts.
They were all written and agreed in a spirit of concord and hope.
Let us continue together in that spirit, building a future that is peaceful, reconciled and alive with potential.