The People’s Agreement
The Legacy of 1998 and the Challenge of Reconciliation
Remarks for the Tánaiste
Fáilte romhaibh go léir go dtí Teach Uíbh Eachach.
You are all very welcome to Iveagh House. I want to thank all of our panellists – Mervyn (Gibson), Elaine (Byrne) and Allison (Morris) - and Mary (Minahan), our moderator, for what I can tell was a fascinating discussion. It’s great to have each of you here in the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And we are all the wiser for your recollections and perspectives.
We are here to celebrate and to reflect on a very special day in the history of this island. On the 22nd of May 1998 a political agreement, which had been concluded six weeks earlier, become The People’s Agreement.
The people of Ireland – North and South – voted in separate referendums on the same day and overwhelming endorsed the outcome of the talks’ process.
It was a profound moment for these islands and the relationships on and between them.
It gave the Agreement a status far beyond the political – it made it personal for everyone who lives on this island.
It offered all of us new possibilities and opportunities – not to forget the past – but to learn from it and to build a different kind of future. Today, two decades on, those possibilities and opportunities are still before us.
Those who cast their votes twenty years ago had different hopes and aspirations for what ‘peace’ would mean but one common thread was the wish to ensure a better life for the next generation, especially within Northern Ireland.
We now have a cohort of children, teens and twenty-somethings who, thankfully, grew up without witnessing or experiencing the Troubles. But, as we all know, that is not enough.
We must do better, we must do more. And we can do better, we can do more to achieve the potential of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement. We can make the best possible start – the best possible renewal of this commitment – by restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly as soon as possible.
But even that will not be the end of this story – far from it. President John F Kennedy said that ‘peace does not rest in the charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people’.
When we look to the next 20 years, that is the challenge which lies before us – one of hearts and minds – of relationships and of reconciliation.
The basic aim of the Agreement and its institutions was to repair three sets of broken relationships:
- Those between the two main communities in Northern Ireland;
- Those between North and South;
- Those between the UK and Ireland.
For all the challenges we face today, each of those relationships has changed for the better in the intervening years. Those are the years that gave us Queen Elizabeth’s famous visit to Ireland and President Higgins’ State Visit to the UK. The years that gave us the stunning and powerful symbolism of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness leading a re-formed Northern Ireland Executive – building on the vision of John Hume, David Trimble and so many others. The years that deepened North-South cooperation in everything from cancer care to road-building and from tourism promotion to all-island energy. Work that continues today.
It has not been easy or straightforward, of course, and that is not surprising.
There will always be times – like now - when pressures and challenges cause stresses and strains. What is important is that the foundations we have built through the Agreement mean that while these relationships may bend when rough winds blow, they will not break.
This is not something that any of us can take for granted. It requires work and specifically it requires us to commit ourselves to that central aim of the Agreement – reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a very big concept and it can mean different things to different people.
From my perspective, and that of the Irish Government, reconciliation is about connection, neighbourliness and relationships.
It is not about asking people to forgive or to forget the past but it is about asking people to look to a different and a better future.
It is about taking the next step in our peace process and trying to move from tolerance to understanding; from familiarity to friendship.
To cite a phrase used in another context – it is about broadening sympathies without abandoning loyalties.
And it is difficult and it is slow, sometimes painfully so.
It requires us to challenge the way things have always been.
It requires us to look first at the impact of our own behaviour rather than that of others.
It requires us to listen and to hear as well as to speak.
And it requires action not just words.
My Government has long been committed to supporting work which develops cross-community connections and cross-border links between and across traditions and faiths.
I am very pleased therefore to announce today that from 2019 an additional €1 million (euros), will be made available through my Department’s Reconciliation Fund. This will be a dedicated funding stream for core and capital grants to complement our existing project based funding and our successful Strategic Partners initiative.
My Department will also undertake a study to identify the challenges facing reconciliation in border communities, paying particular attention to the needs of minorities in border counties. And we will explore options, including the establishment of dedicated funding streams, to address any gaps in currently available support.
These commitments, which will be reflected in our forthcoming Reconciliation Strategy, are being made as a practical expression of the Government’s commitment to the letter and the spirit of the Agreement.
Today we celebrate the referendums which transformed a political deal into a People’s Agreement and so it is right that our focus should be on supporting those people and organisations – including many of you - who work every day to see the vision of that agreement realised.
We have a complex history and arguably an even more complex set of identities on and between these islands.
We can acknowledge and accept that while also embracing some simpler truths.
Regardless of constitutional aspiration, national identity, politics or religion – we are all neighbours and we should strive to be friends.
Because when we strip all of those labels away, we are all just people and this island has at least one name that we can all agree on… Home.
Thank you for joining us here today.
22 May 2018