Tánaiste Martin's Speech at Queen’s University Belfast
Speech18 April 2023
**Check Against Delivery**
Secretary Clinton, Chancellor of the University
Ian Greer, Vice-Chancellor
Thank you for organising this conference, a centre-piece of the events to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
I am delighted to share this stage with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris-Heaton Harris.
During this conference, and in other events over recent weeks, we have had an opportunity to remember not just the remarkable achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, but also the different elements which came together to make it possible.
One of the most important of these was the fact that governments in Dublin and London worked together with trust, co-operation and determination to overcome whatever obstacles emerged.
This is as true today as it has ever been, which is why I value the warm, candid and constructive relationship that I have enjoyed with Chris since we took up our current roles.
This anniversary of the Agreement is a reminder that our shared responsibility, our role as co-guarantors, is not a matter of party, policy or preference.
It is a solemn responsibility on our two governments, a treaty responsibility enshrined in the 1998 British-Irish Agreement.
And it is a responsibility underpinned by the explicit democratic wishes of the people in both parts of this island.
It is no secret that our two governments have not always acted in concert at all times in recent years. Even today, there are areas where we disagree fundamentally, such as on the Legacy Bill.
But I am delighted to say that our partnership is manifestly better now than it has been for quite some time.
Of course, like everything else of value, it needs continued care, commitment and investment.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
If we are to truly remember and honour the achievement of the Agreement, then we must all be honest in assessing the work that is still to be done; and the need for us to renew the spirit of dialogue which has been central to every advance from the earliest meetings thirty years ago up to today.
And we must never lose sight of the fundamental principles of the Agreement, which remain the foundations upon which peace and progress are built.
Together, we agreed that all state action in Northern Ireland must be anchored in human rights, with the European Convention on Human Rights as the threshold.
Together, we agreed on parity of esteem between communities and their aspirations.
And, together, we agreed the principle of consent.
The principle of consent allows everyone in Northern Ireland the right to pursue their own vision for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, providing they can persuade others of their case.
And in doing this it creates the space for us to address other urgent social and economic challenges without every discussion being filtered through this one lens.
The Agreement states that the two governments will recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of people of Northern Ireland whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.
As a constitutional nationalist, I am free to pursue a united Ireland in the future, just as so many in this room, friends of mine among them, are free to make the case for Northern Ireland remaining within the Union.
In the heated debates around Brexit in recent years, some protagonists sought to change, or reframe, the principle of consent. Perhaps the intention in the Agreement got a little lost in those debates.
The principle of consent was not new, even in 1998, having been seen in the Sunningdale Agreement. And it was central to the vital Downing Street Declaration in 1993.
In the Agreement, it was agreed as part of a wider set of balances.
The referendums enshrined consent in the fundamental laws of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
All of that is to say, because it still needs to be said, the principle of consent is both simple and inviolable.
And while it is right that we take time to celebrate what has been achieved, we have much, much work to be finished.
Part of this work relates to key elements of the Agreements that have not been implemented; and part relates to our collective failure to build the reconciliation and prosperity, which is the defining challenge that falls to us.
Seamus Mallon wonderfully summed up the Agreement as not a finish but “a new dispensation” – and many of the opportunities opened have yet to be grasped.
The Bill of Rights and Civic Forums promised as part of giving a voice and security to all remain unfulfilled commitments.
The latter is all the more important when key institutions are so often in abeyance, held hostage to the demands of one side or the other at a given moment – all the while ignoring the demands of the public for better government.
The calls for reform of the Agreement – including the need to break the cycle of instability and suspension – have grown louder.
It is clear that the political community between ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ has grown, and I believe that there should be reform. But that is best achieved from a position of stability.
We must get the Assembly and the Executive working – respecting the mandate of last May’s election. Then see what should, and what can, be changed.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Agreement did not see victory or defeat. Instead it gave a fresh start to a place ravaged by divisions and by violence.
Since then, sadly, we have not gone anywhere near far enough in actively promoting reconciliation between communities.
On 10 April 1998, the words of John Hume and David Trimble on this mirrored each other.
John saying that “we (can) begin to heal the deep divisions between our people”, and David speaking of “a great opportunity there to start a healing process here in Northern Ireland”.
The spirit that informed and enabled the Agreement was a generous one. It was a willingness to step across our ancient boundaries.
It was a willingness to actually engage with the perspective of those from a different background, to see the world and try to understand this place through their eyes.
Yes, the healing has begun, but it remains very much a work in progress.
The best way to honour those whose lives were lost or destroyed by the absence of agreement, is to find once again, collectively, the spirit which made 1998 possible, and apply it to the work of bringing communities together in 2023.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a small island.
Regardless of your constitutional preference, it is a shared space.
The geography won’t change and there are things that it makes sense to do on an all-island basis.
Thanks to the Agreement, we already promote the island, very successfully, as a single tourism destination. We manage our inland waterways together. But there is more we can do.
I launched the Shared Island Initiative, anchored in the Good Friday Agreement, to look at other things we can do together. To create a space for dialogue, for understanding, and for tackling shared social and economic problems.
My Government is putting significant resources into the Shared Island Initiative – one billion euro up to the end of this decade. We are supporting major capital projects focussed on bringing people together.
We are supporting civic society organisations that work on an all-island basis.
We are conducting unprecedented levels of research into the reality of life across our island, to understand what are the similarities and differences, North and South, in terms of education, health services, competitiveness, biodiversity, and a whole range of issues, while also funding new and exciting research collaborations between institutions on a cross border basis.
We are prompting and hosting new conversations, through our Shared Island Dialogue series, about what does it mean to share this island.
More than 2,500 people and organisations have engaged in this process so far, challenging assumptions and already sparking the establishment of a series of spin-off initiatives including a new All Island Women’s Forum, and new fora on climate change and biodiversity loss.
Without prejudicing any constitutional positions, all of this is helping us to know each other better and to find ways that, working together, we can help communities to benefit from sustained economic and social progress.
Education has always been my great passion. It is the great enabler.
The Shared Island research that I’ve mentioned has shown us that Northern Ireland has fallen behind in some areas of education, and perhaps most crucially in the area of school completion.
Surely this is one area where it makes sense for us to do more together?
What can we do to advance the provision of Integrated Education?
What can we in the Republic do, in terms of applying lessons from programmes, which have secured one of Europe’s highest school completion rates? And with targeted investment, along with the UK Government and working with the Northern Ireland Executive, to make sure that more young people complete their education and get to enjoy all the lifetime of benefits that come with that?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On normal days, these university halls are populated by students who have had that chance. Young men and women preparing for their future with confidence and ambition.
For many, twenty-five years is more than a lifetime ago and the Good Friday Agreement is a historical text. It may frame the immediate world around them, but they have current hopes and needs.
We are not here for the past, but for the future, their future.
In the Agreement, the parties “reaffirm (their) total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues”.
Of course, this is taken to mean a commitment to non-violence; taking the gun out of politics.
But there is a further element to it.
Committing to democratic means comes with a basic and inherent responsibility, the responsibility to accept democratic outcomes.
If politicians seek leadership positions through elections, they must honour the trust placed in them by delivering that leadership.
And in Northern Ireland, through the type of interlocking institutions we agreed in 1998 and endorsed in subsequent agreements, including St Andrews, that leadership must be exercised in the best interests of everyone who calls Northern Ireland home.
Whether they are British or Irish or both – or, increasingly, those at the heart of our communities who are neither British nor Irish.
The past few years, with the practicalities of Brexit, have been turbulent for Northern Ireland, and for these islands.
The European Commission and the UK Government stretched themselves in recent months to reach an accommodation that works for Northern Ireland.
I know that turbulence will take some time to settle.
That parties need to pause and reflect internally on next steps.
But I urge all elected officials to take their seats in the Assembly and the Executive and get to work on the questions of everyday life that matter to the people of Northern Ireland, including healthcare, education, policing, regional imbalances and much more.
Northern Ireland is a place transformed since 1998. But there is much work to do.
As an Irish Government we will play our part.
Chris and Prime Minister Sunak have shown that the British Government will play its part.
I know that our international supporters, who contributed so much to making peace possible, will stay the course.
As we heard with such passion last week from President Biden, the United States remains the steadfast ally of all in Northern Ireland who seek to secure peace and prosperity.
But the essential next step is for the politicians of Northern Ireland to assume their responsibilities, fill the roles and institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement – all of them – and get to work to secure the futures of the young people of Northern Ireland, and the generations to follow.
Let us recapture and renew that generous spirit of the Agreement.
Let’s make the effort again to see this place and see what has happened through the eyes of those we don’t agree with.
When we do, I am certain that we will recognise the potential of the opportunity before us; the potential of a decade of investment and renewal; the potential of our young people when they are given an education and the chance to thrive – potential that we dare not squander.
18 April 2023