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Keynote Address by the Tánaiste at the Reconciliation Networking Forum - Dublin Castle

Northern Ireland Peace Process, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Northern Ireland, 2011

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my privilege to welcome you here today to the sixth annual Reconciliation Networking Forum, an important gathering of beneficiaries and other stakeholders connected with the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds operated by my Department. I am aware that some of you have travelled considerable distances and I am grateful that you have taken the time to do so.

Since taking office three months ago, I have been hugely impressed by the range and depth of activities in the area of peace-building and reconciliation in which many of you here today have been directly involved.

Earlier this month, following the recent elections and establishment of the Executive, I discussed this work and the challenges of reconciliation with the First and Deputy First Ministers and with Minister for Justice David Ford. I also took the opportunity while I was in Belfast to find out more about some of these activities at first hand. 

I am conscious that over the years, much of this work was carried out at grass roots community level and has taken place in a behind the scenes manner and in often less than glamorous conditions.

Your ongoing readiness to commit yourselves in this way reflects a strong underlying desire to promote peace and to secure all the progress that has been achieved at political level over the last thirteen years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Paradoxically, that commitment and level of effort in support of peace is perhaps needed now more than ever.

Last month’s historic and highly successful State Visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth II illustrated to all of us on this island, as well as in Britain and throughout the world just how far we have travelled together.

The Visit included several standout moments involving both Heads of State.  Solemn attendance at the Garden of Remembrance and at Islandbridge, significant speeches and the cúpla focail from the Queen at the formal dinner held here in Dublin Castle and the rousing reception for Her Majesty during the concert held at the Dublin Convention Centre, were but a few that can be recalled.

While they all made for superb television, these moments were not only valuable for their immediate visual impact.

As the visit unfolded, they were deeply symbolic expressions of the path that Ireland and Britain have chosen together. As President McAleese noted in her remarks at the State Dinner, the entire visit was “an acknowledgment that while we cannot change the past, we have chosen to change the future”.

And last year’s successful devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the recent Assembly elections, last week’s plenary meeting in Dublin of the North-South Ministerial Council and the meeting earlier this week in Cork of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly together underline that the institutions and architecture of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent key Agreements are all continuing to operate.

However, none of us involved in the quest for lasting peace and improved relations between our people, whether through government or as elected representatives, through statutory agencies or through the community and voluntary sector, can afford to become complacent about anything that has been achieved to date.

We are facing some very big challenges. Not least of these are the severe economic circumstances being faced by many throughout Ireland, both North and South, and the consequent pressures upon Government budgets in each jurisdiction.

Difficult and at times painful measures are being taken to address these economic circumstances on both sides and progress is already being made, but unemployment and other consequences of these difficult times are impacting hard on communities.

The implications of this dynamic also extend to the reconciliation sector.

While the case for continuing to support peace, reconciliation and anti-sectarianism work remains strong, the resources will simply not exist to permit all such work to be pursued in exactly the same way as previously.

A challenge arises for all of us who are involved in the work of reconciliation, including my own Department, to consider our roles from more imaginative and strategic perspectives.  

In the context of projects seeking financial support, there will have to be a premium upon excellence and value for money, not just in the classic auditing sense, but in terms of the reconciliation and peace-building impact which projects achieve.  

A further challenge which is arising is in the shape of those who persist with violence as a means to advance their objectives.

Strong and ever deepening cooperation between the Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing much to counter such individuals and groups, who are flying in the face of the clearly and democratically-expressed will of all the people who share the island of Ireland.  

As we seek to move out of the current economic difficulties towards a brighter future for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, towards an improved jobs climate, an end to involuntary outward migration and a return to greater hope and optimism, we utterly reject any notion of a drift back into violence of any sort.

Violence will not solve any of our problems. It will not promote inward foreign investment, it will not encourage the domestic consumer demand which is needed to reboot our economies and, for those who claim it as their cause, it cannot and will not ever deliver a united Ireland.

The path towards that goal has already been set out and it holds equal status with the ambition of those who would prefer that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.  

To those who claim that the recession means we are sunk, finished and doomed, I say that you underestimate the determination and resilience of the people of Ireland.  

And to those who say that full and lasting peace will never be achieved, that we should be resigned to putting up with a certain amount of violence, random senseless killings and insidious sectarianism, I say that we are resigned to no such thing.  

Yes, the challenges to peace are there. Yes, the budgets are under pressure. Yes, there is a small minority who continue to stoke the flames of hatred and division. But the flame of peace has been lit and grows stronger by the day.  

Conversations and exchanges are now taking place every day that would have been unthinkable not only at the outset of the peace process, but even a few short years ago.

I take particular heart from young people, most of whom have grown up knowing nothing other than the peace process. ‘They can’t remember what it was like back in the bad old days’, some commentators say, ‘they might be vulnerable to those who want to glamorise violence’.

I am only too delighted that young people have no direct memories of those dark times and I fervently hope that this always remains the case.

Equally, I think we should allow for the fact that the vast majority of young people are far too bright and discerning to allow themselves to be persuaded that there is glamour to be gained from inflicting violence on their own communities and on others.

Put simply, they have far more important things to be concerned with, like pursuing educational opportunities and building their futures.

That said, I am conscious that along with other sectors of society, our young people and their families deserve support and help towards making these positive decisions.

That idea remains at the heart of the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds operated by my Department.

Building A New Society

In many respects we have now entered a different phase of the peace process. Many hurdles have been overcome, political building blocks have been put in place, an overwhelming majority have made clear they want nothing further to do with violence and paths have opened up towards new relationships between all the various traditions, at economic, social and cultural levels.

The further specific challenge which we now face is that of building a ‘Version 2.0’ peace process, in which the key focus is on the kind of society we want to build on this island and on the way we relate to our neighbours.  

As we seek to rebuild our nations from the economic wreckage of recent years, now is the time to ask ourselves: what kind of society are we working towards here? What needs to happen in terms of further developing relations between us and in order to ‘seal the deal’?

I am aware that debate on this subject has commenced in Northern Ireland over the past year through such initiatives as the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy consultation exercise and that it has also been highlighted by the good work of contributors such as Dr. Duncan Morrow of the Community Relations Council.

Along with others, Duncan has been particularly prominent in highlighting the changing financial landscape as Government budgets tighten and as IFI and PEACE programmes reach their scheduled conclusions.  

Peace process Version 2.0 must grapple with these very questions.

It must explore and address issues such as ongoing segregation in housing and education.

And it must offer a sense of continuing progress towards stability and space in which expressions of identity and aspiration no longer provokes fear or other negative responses amongst others.

In my view, some of the best answers to these questions are to be found here today, among the groups we work with through the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds, and in your local communities.

Commemorations

Another vehicle for considering these issues is to be found in the theme for this year’s Networking Forum, that is, in the way we commemorate our past, not least over the forthcoming decade of significant historical anniversaries which will occur in the period 2012-22.

The centenaries of the Ulster Covenant, the outbreak of the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the Battle of the Somme and the events leading to the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State, as well as those of key moments in the development of the labour movement such as the 1913 lock-out and moves towards universal suffrage, will all be prominent over the years ahead.

Anniversaries of other significant from earlier different eras, such as the building of Derry’s Walls, will also feature.

In May 2010, the then Taoiseach delivered a considered and balanced speech on the subject of these anniversaries in which he identified a useful framework for how they might be considered.

Certain important principles were also set out - those of tolerance, mutual respect and inclusivity - and the need for comprehensive approach towards this island’s shared historical experience – all of that was highlighted.

May I say in relation to that, that as we consider the commemoration of the events over the next decade that we need to put those in the context of the times in which people lived and I think to recognise also that not everybody on the island in those times were actors in those great momentous historical events.

I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of people on the island throughout that great stretch of history which changed so much on this island, which certainly influenced and impacted on the lives of people throughout the island. The great majority of people were not directly involved at all. They were influenced by it, they were impacted by it but most were going about living their day to day lives.

And as we consider, I think, the celebration of these events and our memory of them and the place that they have in our history, I think we should reflect on the circumstances in which people lived. The everyday things, the conditions of housing, the conditions at work, the way in which people worked, the materials and the equipment and the machinery that people worked with, how we farmed, the position of women in the society of the time, what happened when a child was born, how a child was nursed and reared, what type of food people ate, what type of recreation we went about, the great cultural and sporting events that were taking place and indeed the technological changes that were taking place at that time.

And I think if we locate the commemorations and the historical experience of that time in the circumstances, in the lives of the time, in the reality of the life for most of the people of the time. I think we will all find that we all have a lot more in common, notwithstanding the historical experiences, than divide us.

I can assure you that for our part, as a Government recognises our roles and responsibilities in this area. We are committed to playing our part towards ensuring that, to the greatest extent possible, peace should strengthened rather diminished by the advent of these significant anniversaries over the coming decade.

We have to be realistic.  Historical events do not have to be commemorated by everyone in exactly the same way and no single analysis is likely to explain every episode or the motivations of every individual who was involved at the time.

We seek rather to ensure that commemoration of these events helps to build on the progress that has been achieved over the past thirteen years and not damage it.

Explorations of historical events should help unite rather than divide people. And we should emerge on the far side of the coming decade with a deeper understanding and appreciation of both ourselves and our neighbours.

This is undoubtedly a challenging agenda, but it is also a huge opportunity.

This sets the context for the panel-led discussion which will follow later this morning. I am grateful to the eminent and distinguished representatives from academia and the world of media - Diarmaid Ferriter, Jane Ohlmeyer, Olivia O’Leary and Pete Shirlow - who have agreed to participate in today’s Forum as panellists, and to RTE’s Tommie Gorman for acting as moderator of these exchanges.

I look forward to hearing about the deliberations and exchanges to come from the panel, but also about the contributions from the floor. I hope that much insight will emerge on the specific issue of how the anniversaries and their commemoration can help reinforce the peace and relations between the peoples of these islands.

The role of many groups and individuals represented in this room and who are involved in the work of peace-building and reconciliation on a daily basis will be crucial in this regard.

While we cannot change the past, we can choose how we remember it and do so with an eye to the future.

I am fully aware that work has already begun in this connection and is being taken forward by the CRC and by others such as Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster and Maureen Hetherington. I am pleased that both Johnston and Maureen are scheduled to join us later today as workshop facilitators on the respective roles that might be played in this area by education and by the community and voluntary sector.

Further workshops on the role of the trade union and labour movement and on that of culture will be led by Peter Bunting of ICTU’s Northern Ireland committee and by the distinguished actor, author and playwright Dan Gordon. I likewise thank them both in advance for their contributions. 

Dan and his fellow actor Michael Condron and the Happenstance Theatre Company will also present excerpts from their latest touring production, ‘The Boat Factory’, a personal, social and hugely entertaining account by Dan of life inside and around the Harland and Wolff shipyard.  

Such personalising of history and of our individual links to the momentous episodes and the forces that shaped them may prove a powerful means by which to approach them.  

We may not immediately identify with or relate to every single centenary event but in their own way, each has impacted upon us. How we expressed our views about such events at the time they occurred or when evaluating them 50 or 75 or 95 years later is not necessarily how we need to do so now or in the future.

And doing so differently, to borrow Johnston and Maureen’s phrase, by ‘Remembering the Future’, poses no threat to anyone’s identity, principles or most cherished aspirations.

My hope from today’s event and from your exchanges is that further public debate will be prompted on our shared responsibilities around shared history.

Also for our part, and as the Taoiseach has recently indicated, details will shortly be announced of a Government-led framework programme for commemorations involving the Oireachtas and in close consultation with elected and other representatives from Northern Ireland and wider expert and community opinions.

My expectation is that this will not be merely a top-down or, with due respect to our distinguished historians present here today, a solely historical exercise.

It will rather be informed by the knowledge that these anniversaries and our collective approach towards them need to reinforce, renew and reinvigorate our peace process - that is, the peace process which is owned by all of us throughout Ireland and Britain.

As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and having regard to my Northern Ireland-related responsibilities, I and my officials look forward to continuing to work with all of you through the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds.

We are examining the Funds closely with a view to ensuring that, as will be necessary to an even greater degree over the decade ahead, we and you should perform together to the very best of our abilities and to the greatest extent that available resources can permit.

This process may be challenging and give rise to difficult moments, but what matters now and into the future will be ensuring that the foundations of peace remain stable and strong and that peace delivers for the people of this generation and for those generations yet to come.

Such work will be almost as important as that of securing all our economic futures and even, at times, may be even more so.

There is no time to lose and there are many benefits to be gained.

Thank you for your attention.