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“Civil Society can create the momentum for positive change in Northern Ireland”
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan T.D., today (Tuesday) addressed the 200 delegates representing over 130 civil society organisations dedicated to furthering peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland at the annual Reconciliation Networking Forum in Dublin Castle.
He addressed the current political situation in Northern Ireland, stating:
“We are at a critical moment for politics in Northern Ireland. Just over a week ago, the two Governments announced a fresh round of intensive talks with a view to finding a way through the issues of trust and confidence arising from the legacy of paramilitarism, as well as the ongoing political impasse in regard to the implementation of the wide-ranging Stormont House Agreement. The issues are complex and affect all communities. I am determined to find resolutions.”
Minister Flanagan has consistently emphasised the importance of civil society groups that promote reconciliation having a strong voice in Northern Ireland. He told delegates:
“Individuals and groups across the community working on reconciliation must do everything possible to make their voices heard and help create the momentum for positive change. This will be critical to the success of the political process.
“Today is about recognising that while achieving complete and genuine reconciliation may be the work of generations, there is so much more that we can do together to bring this about.”
Speaking after the Forum, Minister Flanagan stated:
“The theme of this year’s Forum, which asks delegates to consider their vision for Northern Ireland in 25 years time throws into stark relief both the huge progress made since the Good Friday Agreement and the possibilities open to us where parties work together in an atmosphere of trust.
“The community must always be at the core of politics and this Forum provides the Irish Government with a valuable opportunity to meet grassroots activists promoting reconciliation on the ground.”
“This year, my Department’s Reconciliation Fund will provide €2.7 million in grants to organisations working to eliminate sectarianism and to further peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, on a cross-border basis, and between Ireland and Britain
“Furthering reconciliation is often a slow and challenging process but listening to those present today gives hope that through patience and dialogue, setbacks can be overcome.”
15 September 2015
Note for Editors:
****Check Against Delivery****
Speech by Minister Flanagan
at the Reconciliation Forum
Dublin Castle, 15 September 2015
It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon in Dublin Castle for my second Reconciliation Networking Forum as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to listen to the end of what I know has been a day of serious and informed debate.
These discussions matter. Events over the past year, and indeed over the past few days, have reinforced just how vitally important it is that civil society has a strong vibrant voice, and that this voice is listened to.
I want to assure you that this Government is listening.
There are many messages that I and my officials will take away from today. These perspectives are invaluable to me in my ongoing work in seeking to ensure that what we are doing at political level takes account of the views of civil society.
You have articulated a clear view of the complex and interlinking challenges facing Northern Ireland. But you have also demonstrated that a vital energy exists within civil society to rise to meet these challenges. Some of these issues are deeply rooted, a legacy of decades of conflict, while others are of more recent provenance. All must and shall be addressed. The Irish Government is proud to work with you and to support you as together we strive towards a better, brighter future for Northern Ireland.
We are at a critical moment for politics in Northern Ireland. Just over a week ago, the two Governments announced a fresh round of intensive talks with a view to finding a way through the issues of trust and confidence arising from the legacy of paramilitarism, as well as the ongoing political impasse in regard to the implementation of the wide-ranging Stormont House Agreement. The issues are complex and affect all communities. I am determined to find resolutions.
The Stormont House Agreement is the latest milestone in our collective effort over decades. This journey is rooted in the transformative vision for Northern Ireland, and indeed these islands, which is outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish Government as a co-guarantor of that Agreement – endorsed by the people of this island - is fully committed to that vision, which is based on democracy, partnership government, non-violence and political engagement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith. That vision continues to be the core of Government policy and will, of course, also inform our approach to the current round of talks. I know that there is some cynicism around politics in Northern Ireland, but I take heart from the fact that the parties are, in the face of the most recent challenges, still working; still talking; still striving to find a way forward and make Northern Ireland a better place to live.
For me, today is a valuable and timely opportunity to take a step back and remember that the peace process of the last thirty years is not really defined by high politics and hot-house talks. Our triumphs and our failures are seen most clearly and felt most acutely in the community.
It is worth recalling that the Good Friday Agreement makes particular and explicit reference to the crucial role of civil society. It recognises ...the work being done by many organisations to develop reconciliation and mutual understanding and respect between and within communities and traditions and acknowledges that this has ...a vital role in consolidating peace and political agreement.
Those words are as true today as they were in April 1998.
I and my Department want to continue to work with you to find innovative ways to overcome the remaining obstacles to reconciliation; all the more so because of the challenges currently facing politics in Northern Ireland. When politics is not delivering, the efforts and leadership of civil society become an ever more essential part of any solution.
Individuals and groups across the community working on reconciliation must do everything possible to make their voices heard and help create the momentum for positive change. This will be critical to the success of the political process.
Today is about recognising that while achieving complete and genuine reconciliation may be the work of generations, there is so much more that we can do together to bring this about.
I am aware of the challenging funding situation in which many of you are operating. Over the past several years all of us, in the public service and civil society, have had to learn how to do more with less. Despite this, I was very proud that in the Stormont House Agreement the Irish Government was able to commit to continued annual provision of €2.7m in the Reconciliation Fund, as well as provide €5M to support the reconciliation work of the International Fund for Ireland. We know how vital this support is for our partners and, more importantly, we know how vital the work you do is to ensuring that the benefits of the peace process are actually seen and felt on the ground in communities.
The challenge before us is how to deliver the changes needed in the next five or indeed twenty-five years in ever more innovative ways. We want tomorrow to be brighter than today. This means questioning the status quo – asking what about today’s reality must change to make tomorrow’s reality better. Frank and honest conversations are needed, which ask the hard questions.
Does our work strike the right balance between addressing the immediate needs of current challenges, while addressing the long-term perspectives that shape the future?
Can we find more opportunities to collaborate with one another, in order to share burdens and expertise?
How do we make sure that we are bringing a truly rounded approach to our work – including perspectives from not only across the community, but from those in different sectors?
How can civil society take on a more proactive leadership role? How can it better engage with the North’s political parties?
How do the invisible structures of our communities help or hinder the work of reconciliation?
How can funders best support your vision for change over the next five years?
What all of these questions boil down to is the fact that the challenging moment of today – while immeasurably better than the situation of twenty or thirty years ago – is not an end point. Nearly 18 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we have come a long way, but we are far from reaching our final destination.
To continue in the right direction we need, more than anything, to keep talking – about what works and what doesn’t in our collective efforts to achieve genuine reconciliation and to keep on going with the good work that I know is happening in communities across this island.
Before concluding I would like to touch on the Decade of Centenaries.
I know that John Concannon gave a presentation earlier on the Government’s plans for commemorations in the year 2016. We will mark both the centenary of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme next year, two of the events which most profoundly affected people on the island of Ireland during that decade.
I want to highlight that the Government is committed to a respectful and inclusive approach to these commemorations. This means an acknowledgment of the complexity of historical events and their legacy and of the multiple identities and traditions that are part of that experience. I have quoted before the words of the Irish Expert Advisory Group on commemorations who wisely said that “The aim should be to broaden sympathies, without having to abandon loyalties”.
This Decade of Centenaries is already opening us up to aspects of our history that we didn’t fully recognize before. It is showing us the possibilities that exist for contact and exchanges between people who might not otherwise have engaged with each other. This is at the heart of reconciliation – people reaching a greater understanding of themselves, their neighbours and society as a whole. It is about getting to a point where we can acknowledge the weight and complexity of the past, without being immobilized by it and where we can see how others perspectives, loyalties and values are as sincerely held as our own. Where we can learn to better accept and perhaps even value our differences and to celebrate our similarities.
There are going to be moments in the years to come as we commemorate some very challenging events such as the civil war, partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland, when we are going to find ourselves tested. In those moments, the strong foundations of respectful, inclusive, generous commemorations that are being laid by so many in this room, will stand to us and see us through.
Finally, I want to thank you all for participating in this year’s Forum. Let me say once again that the conversations that have been had here today, and the conversations that I hope will be carried forward from today’s discussions, matter. Let’s keep on talking together, keep on working together, and together we can give Northern Ireland the future it deserves.
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