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"Believe A Further Shore is Reachable from Here": The Good Friday Agreement 20 Years on

"Believe A Further Shore is Reachable from Here": The Good Friday Agreement 20 Years on.


Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

18 April 2018



Professor Shirlow;

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.


Thank you for that very kind introduction and for the invitation from the Institute of Irish Studies to speak to you today on the subject of the Good Friday Agreement 20 years on. It is a great honour for me to speak in a University which has done so much over recent decades to advance Irish Studies in Great Britain and, more generally, to broaden and deepen friendship and understanding between Ireland and the UK.

On behalf of the Irish Government, I wish to commend the Institute's valuable work and to acknowledge the huge contribution of its Director, Peter Shirlow, his distinguished predecessor Marianne Elliott and all of their colleagues who do so much in the shared Irish-British space.

The occasion of the 20th anniversary provides an apt opportunity to look back over the period since the signing and entering into force of the Agreement, to consider what has been achieved and what remains to be done to fully realise the ambitious vision of what was originally envisaged in 1998. It also offers a space to reflect on the current challenges facing Northern Ireland and to look to the future.

20 years ago today, we were reflecting on the signing of this historic agreement 8 days previously, and looking forward to the two referenda due to take place on May 22 in both parts of the island. Those days immediately following the Agreement were an optimistic and hope-filled time – we had proven that agreement, unlikely and improbable though it had seemed, was indeed possible.  

At the time, I was working as the press officer at the Embassy of Ireland in Washington DC. As the Easter week-end approached, I was persistently ringing my colleagues in Castle Buildings in Stormont seeking updates. The news was constantly changing – as encouraging prospects for agreement was quickly followed by fears that one or other party was on the brink of walking out.

The pendulum swung fearfully from optimism to pessimism and back again until, at last, on a cold and snowy Good Friday afternoon, Senator Mitchell declared that agreement had been reached.

Among the participants in Belfast, I suspect the dominant reaction was one of relief and exhaustion. In Washington DC, it was one of elation – among my colleagues in the Embassy, across the Irish community and within the White House itself where President Clinton had been working the phones over the previous few days encouraging the political leaders to stretch themselves and reach agreement.

From this distance, we may sometimes forget that the Good Friday Agreement, when negotiated, came as a surprise to many. The issues were so seemingly intractable, the animosities were so virulent and the hurt endured on all sides was so deep that – by rational calculations – success was far from assured. Indeed, in the five week period prior to the Agreement being reached, four men were murdered by paramilitaries – two by the Loyalist Volunteer Force and two by the INLA. This was the depressing context in which the negotiators had to rise above their partisan perspectives, show courage and generosity and  make an honourable compromise for peace.

The Good Friday Agreement is not just the cornerstone of the peace process and the template for political relationships across these islands, it is also as the distillation of the accumulated experience and learning of its authors.  After all, the Good Friday Agreement did not fall from the heavens; its fundamental elements drew upon the work and wisdom of previous initiatives such as the Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Document. While those who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement deserve enormous credit, we should also acknowledge the enabling contributions of Prime Minister Major, Taoisigh Reynolds and Bruton and, perhaps above all, John Hume whose so called "single transferable speech" about the requirements for peace was gradually accepted as the mainstream analysis.

While therefore it may sometimes seem that progress is out of reach and that we are condemned to endure hopeless failure, we should look to those days of Good Friday 1998 for encouragement and inspiration, and always strive to keep faith with that hope. As Seamus Heaney enjoined us:

"Believe that a further shore can be reached from here.

Believe in Miracles, Cures and Healing Wells."

Before the Good Friday Agreement

In assessing the Good Friday Agreement, the yardstick of success should not be the difference between the 10th April 1998 and now – rather it should be the difference between then and what went before. It would be perverse to assess the Agreement by only seeking to list its political imperfections and not take into account the countless lives that have been saved by its achievement.

The Good Friday Agreement marked the end of 30 years of violence which left its mark on not only Northern Ireland, but also Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and even further afield. The Troubles represented a cycle of violence which affected people from all walks of life and is etched into the memories of all of us who lived on these islands during the conflict, or worse again experienced its tragic consequences, whether directly or indirectly.

Its impact can be felt in poetry written at the time, such as Eavan Boland's 'Child of our Time', written in 1974:

'Child of our time, our times have robbed your cradle. Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken'.

I was 16 when Eavan wrote that poem and did my Leaving Certificate that year – equivalent to the A Levels here. Some of you may recall that the early 1970s were the years of glam rock in these islands. The sound track of my youth was full of British bands and artists like T Rex, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Roxy Music and even Status Quo. However, that sound track was also accompanied by daily news bulletins of appalling atrocities in Northern Ireland – and indeed in Britain.

Living in Dublin 100 miles from Belfast meant I was largely shielded from any direct impact of the violence. Nevertheless, the ceaseless catalogue of bombings, shootings and deaths cast a pall over the island as a whole. And, of course, Dublin was the target of one of the worst days of the troubles when 25 people were killed in a loyalist bomb attack in May 1974. A further eight were killed in County Monaghan on the same day

Altogether, 3,636 people were killed in the troubles between 1966 and 1998. Civilians accounted for 2,064 of those deaths; members of the security forces (including police and army) 1,036; and members of paramilitary organisations 536.

Cities and communities here in Britain also experienced the tragedy of losing loved ones in bomb attacks. A few weeks ago, I had the honour of representing the Irish Government at a very dignified and poignant ceremony in the town centre in nearby Warrington to mark the 25th anniversary of the bombing attack which killed two young boys on the eve of Mother's Day – Jonathan Ball aged 3 and Timothy Parry aged 12.

As a result of these thousands of lives lost, of the hurt that was inflicted and endured, deep divisions existed between the different communities in Northern Ireland. These were understandably reflected in the fault-lines between the political parties and in the harsh nature of the public discourse. It would require an extraordinary endeavour – indeed even the miracle that Seamus Heaney wrote about - to bring peace to Northern Ireland and to begin the long journey towards reconciliation.

The Declaration of Support which prefaces the Good Friday Agreement and was affirmed by the participants in the multi-party negotiations acknowledges this tragic history and its legacy of hurt when it states:

"The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.

These three short sentences, which together continue to move me 20 years later, are then followed by a further sentence which states:

"We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of the relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these Islands"

And so, in two paragraphs of the Declaration of Support, the principles of the Good Friday Agreement – of equality, mutual respect, partnership, reconciliation, tolerance and trust – are outlined in very simple and compelling terms.

Significance of the Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement was transformational and its negotiation was anything but simple. It was the culmination of intensive work by successive generations, individuals who had persevered even when the outlook for a resolution looked bleak – even when, in the words of Yeats, it seemed that the centre could not hold.   

In this regard, I encourage you to visit Raymond Watson's 'Hands of History +20' on display in the Victoria Gallery for just a few more days. It comprises hand casts of the Northern Ireland political leaders involved in negotiating the Agreement 20 years ago; and it has been updated to include new art work and hand casts in honour of the 20th anniversary. The casts of the hands are set in a large piece of Mourne Granite – motivated by the tradition in mythology that people, chieftains or monarchs would touch or sit on a stone to pledge a better future.

And this is what the architects of the Good Friday Agreement sought to do, to create a better future for Northern Ireland. They designed a comprehensive and wide-ranging agreement, which aimed to find solutions to all of the issues facing Northern Ireland. Together, they created an agreement which is notable for its ambitious scope and comprehensiveness – an agreement which, after 20 years, remains our guiding star.

This authority and integrity comes in part from the fact that the agreement was reached in multi-party negotiations open to all parties elected in Northern Ireland and reflecting both the unionist and nationalist communities, and underwritten by both the UK and Irish Governments. Moreover, it was not just a political agreement reached at a particular moment in time, it was also incorporated as an international treaty between Ireland and the UK, which was duly lodged at the United Nations, and it secured – and continues to secure - significant international support, notably from the EU and the United States.

The final sentence of the Declaration of Support that I mentioned earlier stated:

"Accordingly, in a spirit of concord, we strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval."

On 22 May 1998, the people of the island did just that - 71.1% voted in favour of the Agreement in Northern Ireland and 94.4% in favour in the South. The consequence of the referendum in the South was to change our constitution to reflect the agreed position on sovereignty outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. What may have been a political agreement on 10 April had now been converted into a People's Agreement by the solemn endorsement of the two electorates. It was not just a contract that was binding on the political parties that subscribed to it; it became a covenant for all the people of Ireland who – in it - invested their hope for the future.

Achievements of the Good Friday Agreement

20 years on, it is timely to reflect on what has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement was secured.

As mentioned, the scope of ambition of the agreement was breath-taking. The interlocking framework for the operation of political institutions within Northern Ireland, between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and the UK, was also accompanied by provisions to entrench human rights and equality of opportunity; to advance the decommissioning of parliamentary weapons; to normalise the security presence on the ground; to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice arrangements; and to address the issue of paramilitary prisoners.

It is striking to consider the improvements which have been made across so many of these areas over the last 20 years.

First of all, the Agreement provided for a democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, in such a way that elected political parties could and would share power. While the current absence of devolved Government in Northern Ireland is of course of deep concern, we must remember that this current period of impasse was preceded by 10 years of inclusive partnership government. It was by no means perfect during this decade but the thought that Sinn Féin and the DUP would serve together in a power-sharing Executive would have been unthinkable prior to the Good Friday Agreement.

The necessary bodies were also established in both parts of the island to ensure that the commitments relating to human rights and equality were promoted and advanced. In regard to policing, the agreement recognised the need for a new beginning with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole. The Patten Commission – under the leadership of Chris Patten – provided the template for this transformation and for the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001. In 2006, the St Andrew's Agreement set out a path to achieve the full devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in 2010 this was duly achieved.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, all participants reaffirmed their commitment to the total disarmament of paramilitary weapons. In 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed that IRA decommissioning had taken place. This was soon followed by the decommissioning of weapons by the UVF, Red Hand and UDA loyalist paramilitary organisations. This progress was accompanied by the normalisation of the British Army presence in Northern Ireland including their return to barracks and the dismantling of its security infrastructure along the border. 

A key element of the conflict had been the apparent irreconcilable differences between unionists and nationalists on the issues of identity and the sovereign status of Northern Ireland.

In this regard, the Good Friday Agreement represented a balanced accommodation between both sides. It recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both. This has made room for a more expansive sense of Irishness and Britishness, creating a space for people who are citizens of both States and allowing for a more complex set of identities than might have been thought possible previously.

On sovereignty, the Agreement made it clear that the core principle of the consent of a majority would determine the status of Northern Ireland – whether it wished to remain part of the United Kingdom or, at some stage in the future, opt for a united Ireland. 

These various changes and transformations brought about as a direct consequence of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as many others which I have not listed here, have led to a marked improvement in the quality of life for the people of Northern Ireland.

And the positive changes reach further than the impact on Northern Ireland alone. The Good Friday Agreement, in setting up the North South Ministerial Council and the six North/South implementation bodies, has promoted consultation, cooperation and action across the island of Ireland on matters of mutual interest. This nexus of North/South cooperation is providing policy outcomes and public services that provide real benefits to both parts of the island. For instance, Tourism Ireland carries out the international marketing of the entire island of Ireland and does so in a way that is more effective than if we pursued separate marketing campaigns, North and South.  

And the Good Friday Agreement has also led to an improvement in Ireland-UK relations. This improvement is in part a direct consequence of the Agreement, which set up political structures to advance relationships between Ireland and the UK, including the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. And I say relationships – plural – because we are no longer talking about Anglo-Irish relations alone. The continuing crucial channel between Dublin and London is – since 1998 - now complemented by important governmental relationships between Dublin and Edinburgh and Dublin and Cardiff.

This improvement in the overall totality of relationships across these islands is also attributable to the general amelioration of the situation in Northern Ireland. Unencumbered by the threat of violence in Northern Ireland, and by sometimes differing perspectives on how this problem should be politically addressed, Ireland and the UK have in recent years been able to more fully explore the wide spectrum of matters which we have in common and to broaden and deepen a relationship based on increasing friendship and trust.

This improvement in the overall Ireland UK relationship is best highlighted by the two state visits which have occurred this decade. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland in May 2011 was the first visit of a British Head of State to Ireland since independence, and was then followed by the first State visit of an Irish President to the UK when President Higgins travelled to the UK in April 2014. The inspiring words and gestures associated with these highly successful visits reflected the very positive and constructive nature of the Irish-British relationship which we all wish to see.

Indeed, in his speech to the House of Commons, President Higgins acknowledged both this warm relationship, and the enabling contribution of the Good Friday Agreement, when he said

"That achievement was founded on the cornerstones of equality, justice and democratic partnership, and was a key milestone on the road to today's warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship".

Current challenges

Despite all of the achievements which have resulted from the Good Friday Agreement, we must remember that the peace process in Northern Ireland is exactly that, a process which is still ongoing. I would therefore like to say a few words on about the current political challenges facing Northern Ireland.

As I mentioned earlier, there have been no power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland for some 15 months. The absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly has led to a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, which is deeply concerning and needs to be addressed. It undermines the prospects for constructive politics and for positive community relations. It is therefore incumbent on all of the parties in Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish and UK Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to do everything we can to get these institutions back up and running as soon as possible.

We must not be complacent about the current political vacuum in Stormont. Political stasis and a consequent disenchantment with devolution on the ground risks an unhelpful sense of drift which needs to be arrested by the two Governments working closely together.

The absence of these devolved institutions is not only bad for politics, but also for the long-term process of reconciliation. The advancement of reconciliation on the ground in Northern Ireland has proven to be a longer and more difficult task than anyone could have imagined in those optimistic days of April and May 1998.

It is not surprising however that the journey towards reconciliation has proven to be a long one. At that point 20 years ago, when the Good Friday Agreement had been endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland and the elected political parties, the communities were deeply divided by the consequences of the violence of the preceding 30 years. The toll of this conflict was emotional and psychological, cultural, economic and social, and it is natural that it takes time to heal these types of divisions.

Indeed, the traces of this conflict are still visible today. They are evident in segregated schools and communities, in peace walls, in areas of economic deprivation, and along our shared border. And they are evident too in Northern Ireland politics.

All of us who have experience of working on the Northern Ireland peace process recognise that the reconciliation project will take several generations to complete. However, the rate at which it progresses is inextricably linked to the state of politics in Northern Ireland. If the political parties are not able to model the good practices of working with each other in partnership and mutual respect, what are the prospects for advancing reconciliation in communities on the ground?

And then there is the challenge of Brexit. Whether you were in favour of Leave or Remain, the objective reality is that the UK decision to leave the EU disturbs the delicate and complex balance of the Good Friday Agreement. It re-opens issues around identity and causes people in Northern Ireland to question whether they continue to feel as comfortable in a dispensation where Ireland and the UK no longer share the common and wider space of the European Union and where the question of borders is back on the agenda.

In addressing this challenge, the Irish Government's objective has been a conservative one – namely to conserve what we have enjoyed for the last 20 years – an evolving peace process, a Good Friday Agreement that has transformed life for the better and an open and invisible border that is both a cause and manifestation of that transformation.

It has been erroneously suggested that Ireland is prioritising this key issue as part of a hidden agenda – supposedly to thwart Brexit actually happening and/or to advance a united Ireland by stealth.

Both assertions are wrong. The Irish Government fully respects the outcome of the UK referendum and accepts that the British Government is obliged to honour that decision. Our sole objective is to use whatever influence we have – as part of the EU 27 - to ensure an orderly Brexit that does not damage Ireland's fundamental national interests – namely, safeguarding the peace process and ensuring the closest possible future relationship between the UK and the EU. 

In regard to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the question of which government exercises sovereignty there is clearly set out in the Good Friday Agreement and is based on the principle of the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.  The Irish Government fully supports that position – as we do all aspects of the agreement. There can and will be no change in the sovereign status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of its people. Seeking to conflate that long-term issue with the immediate management of Brexit is an unhelpful and potentially destabilising distraction.

Despite the current political challenges in Stormont and the disturbance caused by Brexit, we should still rejoice that Northern Ireland is now a place with peace. Everyday talk now is of political engagement and regulatory alignment - not violence and ceasefires. A huge transformation has been wrought over the last 20 years in relationships in Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and the UK.

And while there is still much to be done to achieve a lasting and complete reconciliation, we must never lose sight of how much has been achieved. How day to day life in Northern Ireland is so much better than it was in 1998. How many lives have been saved as a result of that agreement being reached on Good Friday 1998.

Thinking about this, I was struck by the closing two lines of the poem Deep Ulster by Harry Clifton:

"Nowhere but here, in the high right hand of Ireland, do the weather fronts give way so slowly, to such ambivalent light".

Our peace process may be slow, it may take a frustrating amount of time to progress and it may at present only provide ambivalent light, but – thanks to the Good Friday Agreement - we have thankfully emerged from a tragic darkness.

Remember, Renew, Reconcile

Over the past fortnight, there has been a large number of events, articles and speeches reflecting on the achievement and significance of the Good Friday Agreement. In his contribution to this stock-taking in Belfast last week, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney focused his remarks on three themes: the need to remember, the need for renewal and – above all – the need to reconcile.

We can never forget the horror of what came before the Good Friday Agreement, the lives lost and the pain experienced by those left behind. As the Declaration of Support affirmed, we can best honour these victims and survivors by renewing our collective commitment to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust.

We must also never forget the intense effort put in by all involved to reach the Agreement and the risks they took to bridge the chasms of suspicion and division that existed between parties and communities. In bridging those divides, the compassionate empathy, emotional intelligence and political acumen of a number of women – such as Mo Mowlam, Liz O'Donnell, Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice and Dawn Purvis – made a significant contribution. Those resources of courage, leadership and generosity will need to be deployed again in order to re-establish the power-sharing institutions in Stormont.

I am confident that those power-sharing institutions will be re-established – and hopefully sooner rather than later. My confidence comes from the conviction that there is simply no acceptable alternative to partnership government in Northern Ireland.

No other political construct stands a realistic chance of securing the agreement of both communities in Northern Ireland. No other institutional arrangement provides the best catalyst for advancing reconciliation in Northern Ireland. And no other solution complies with the vision and principles of the Good Friday Agreement which must remain the template for political progress.

20 years on, we remain steadfast in our duty to honour the memory of those who died and suffered by creating a fresh start based on peace, partnership and parity of esteem.

20 years on, our mission is not to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement, but to restate its indispensability.

20 years on, we still believe that a further shore can be reached from here.

Thank you for your attention.


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