Remarks by Ambassador Dan Mulhall at a GFA20 event at Quinnipiac University
03 April 2018
I want to thank Senator Chris Murphy for organising this evening’s event. It is an honour to be here with Senator George Mitchell, who played such a central role 20 years ago. May I thank all of you for the interest you have shown in Ireland and the Northern Ireland peace process.
I was just 14 years old when the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ began and can remember their sombre continuation through my school and university years as a clash of political identities fuelled a violent conflict and stymied successive efforts - the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement - at forging a compromise solution and bringing the conflict to an end.
The spiral of violence continued during the first fifteen years of my professional career, although I was not at that time directly involved in Northern Ireland affairs or in Anglo Irish issues.
By the early 1990s, it was possible to believe that the conflict might continue endlessly, an ineradicable stain on Ireland's reputation and international standing.
Then in 1994, a seismic change came with the declaration of paramilitary ceasefires which opened the road towards a renewed political push for a negotiated settlement. I was asked to serve on the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation which was set up following the ceasefires with a view to promoting political dialogue between the different political traditions in Ireland.
There was, of course, no guarantee that that particular ray of hope would be any more productive than previous ones. That is where Senator George Mitchell came in.
He displayed the requisite patience and determination to keep a sometimes rocky talks process on the rails until agreement could be reached.
At that time, I was the head of the press section at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and, in that capacity, I was present for all of the major moments in the talks’ process. I can distinctly recall attending press briefings by Senator Mitchell when the whole arrangement looked like it was headed for the rocks.
It was Senator Mitchell's calm resolve and his standing with the parties that helped bring them back to the table until that fateful day twenty years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
It was a complex structure with three strands, and constitutional and equality elements designed to assuage the conflicting concerns of the two communities. But it worked and it secured resounding approval from the public in referendums held in both parts of Ireland on the same day in 1998.
The Agreement turned out to be a major milestone rather than an end point. Many significant issues needed to be dealt with, such as on weapons decommissioning and policing, in order to secure consensus on the implementation of the agreement.
Looking back from the vantage point of the twentieth anniversary of the Agreement, the balance sheet is definitely a very positive one.
First, Northern Ireland has been free of major incidents of violence for almost two decades.
Second, with the removal of the major security apparatus that accompanied the violence, Northern Ireland now has an air of normality about it. Belfast looks and feels very like any other city in Western Europe.
Third, the border in Ireland has become an invisible one to the great benefit of Irish people, north and south, and especially those who live in border areas.
Fourth, Ireland's relations with our nearest neighbours have undergone a positive transformation, albeit that the advent of Brexit is now a complicating factor for the future.
Sadly, as we look back over the achievements of the past two decades, the situation is not as positive as it ought to be.
Since January of last year, the power-sharing executive that stands at the heart of the Agreement has been suspended and several efforts aimed at its restoration have failed to resolve the impasse, in spite of often torturous negotiations supported by the Irish and British Governments.
The issue that divides the DUP and Sinn Fein at present revolves around the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. This is seen by Northern nationalists as an essential expression of their Irish identity which enjoys parity of esteem under the Good Friday Agreement. In the eyes of some unionists, the Irish language is viewed as a threat to the Britishness of Northern Ireland.
It is particularly unfortunate that this deadlock should persist so long at a time when the Brexit negotiations are entering a crucial phase and where the political voice of Northern Ireland's specific interests ought to be heard.
The twentieth anniversary of the Agreement is an opportunity to reflect on the big picture, on how far we have travelled and how much better things are today than they were two decades ago. We need to remind ourselves of the risks entailed in any turning back of the clock to less happy times.
I want to pay tribute to Senator Murphy and the Quinnipiac University for organising this evening's event. It is important for people in Ireland, north and south, to know that we have friends around the world who care about our affairs and wish us well.
The US influence has been significant throughout the past few decades, going back to the time of Presidents Carter and Reagan. I have already referred to the central role played by Senator Mitchell, but I recall during the latter stages of the talks in Belfast, late night calls coming in from President Clinton urging the parties to seize the opportunity and push on towards agreement.
Successive US Special Envoys have sought to support the political process and US investment in Northern Ireland is helping to provide an economic dividend to the peace process.
We are fortunate to have so many prominent members of Congress who take an interest in Ireland. The Congressional Friends of Ireland, ably co-chaired by Congressmen Richie Neal of Massachusetts and Peter King of New York, are a major asset.
Late last year for example at a key juncture in the first phase of the EU-UK negotiations on Brexit, Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick co-wrote an Op-Ed expressing their support for the continuation of the open border in Ireland. Such a bipartisan expression of US support for the status quo on the border was important.
Just as 20 years ago Senator Mitchell and those who wanted to end Northern Ireland's 30 year nightmare of violent division refused to be deflected from their resolve to find an agreed solution. So too in our time, there is no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement, which remains an indispensable framework for the future. It is therefore incumbent on all those involved to find a way to renew the power-sharing Executive and to get back to work on implementing the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
I hope that this 20th anniversary will remind everyone of the long and positive road we have travelled and of the need to ensure that there is no turning back of the clock in Northern Ireland. We have come too far and there is too much at stake for any slippage to be risked.
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