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Tánaiste’s Address to the SDLP Annual Conference

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Northern Ireland Peace Process, Speech, Northern Ireland, 2012

“A decade of reconciliation”


Thank you, Alasdair, for your introduction, and my congratulations to you and to all your party members on a very successful Annual Conference.

Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo le baill agus cairde an SDLP anocht.  Tréaslaím libh as an obair atá ar siúl agaibh ar son pobal na hÉireann le fada, fada an lá. 

This is the first Annual Conference under your leadership, Alasdair, and you have thrown yourself, with characteristic energy, into your role. 

I commend you on your work so far and wish you every success as you and this great party continue the task of building prosperity and true reconciliation on this island.

But it is important that I begin tonight by condemning – in the strongest possible terms – the killing of David Black, who, only days ago, was brutally murdered on his way to work, just a short distance from here.

Our thoughts this evening are with the Black family. We share in their grief as they mourn the tragic loss of their loved one.

Yvonne Black, David’s wife, was robbed of her husband.  Kyra and Kyle, their son and daughter, were left without their father. A close community was deprived of a good neighbour, and members of the prison service lost a valued colleague. 

But nothing else changed – not our determination to root out this criminality from our midst, nor our determination not to allow ourselves be dragged back to the dark days of the past.

This was a pointless killing which has brought ordinary, decent people together afresh against the gun and murder.  Irish nationalism is united in rejecting the notion that murder can be carried out in the name of Ireland and republicanism.

There can be no justification for an act of brutality like this, and the Irish government stands full-square with David Ford in the leadership he is giving to ensure justice for the Black family. As the Taoiseach said here in Armagh ten days ago, the Gardaí and the PSNI will press on harder than ever to root this evil out.

But I’m conscious that I am talking tonight to a party that has played a truly remarkable role in the history of bringing peace and stability to this part of Ireland.

Is cuimhin liom go rí-mhaith gur sheas an SDLP leis an bpobal agus an lucht oibre san tréimhse ba dheacra agus ba chontúirtí i stair Thuaisceart Éireann agus an oileáin. 

Ni raibh aon fhaitíos ar fhir agus mná an phairtí seo seasamh suas i gcoinne leatrom, foréigean agus éagóir.  Thuill baill an SDLP dea-chlú in Éirinn, sna Stáit Aontaithe agus ar fud an domhain as an saothar a dhein sibh ar son na síochána, ar son athmhuintearais agus ar son rath geilleagrach an lucht oibre fud fad Tuaisceart Éireann. 

The SDLP has a long and proud tradition of squaring up to the most important and difficult challenges – challenges that others may see as insurmountable.

You did it in 1970 when John Hume and the other founding members came together to establish a new party dedicated to securing civil rights.

You did it in the darkest days of the Troubles – days that are painfully recalled this week in Enniskillen – when you took the first steps on the long route to the peace process.

In Belfast, Stormont and Hillsborough but also in London, Dublin, Washington, Brussels and Strasbourg, you helped shape the Good Friday Agreement.

And, since then, you have carried the vision of that Agreement into all areas of life. 

You have brought it into policing, for example, where you have helped to bring into being – and sustained – a police force that is effective and reflective of the society that it proudly serves.

Tonight, I also want to pay a special tribute to John and Pat Hume in John’s 75th year.  John’s legacy – and yours – has been to redefine nationalism around people rather than territory… and, in so doing, to help transform the world we live in today.

The Irish Labour Party has worked with you at every step along the way.  Given our shared heritage, it was only natural that we would do so – and that we will continue to do so.

Our party was also born in times of turmoil, against a background of bitter injustice. 

When Larkin, Connolly and O'Brien took the first steps towards a new political force in Irish politics in Clonmel in 1912 (the motion for which, we should remember, came from Belfast) their cause was also one of civil rights… the right to labour and a fair wage, and the right of women to exercise the vote.  

Our parties share a belief in unity, too.  But our vision puts people first, recalling James Connolly’s comment that "Ireland as distinct from her people is nothing to me". 

At a time of national need, the first requirement is unity of purpose.  Irish people have demonstrated that to a rare degree over the past two years as we take the necessary difficult steps to recovery.  

Having shown a lead to others in Europe, they deserve nothing less than unity of purpose from the government they elected, and they will get that over the next three years.  

Their sacrifice is bearing fruit. Recovery is well underway. And as we regain strength, we are emerging fitter, more flexible and more competitive than before.

But these are not the only challenges we face.

There is a view held by some that the work undertaken by the SDLP and others – the work that led to the Good Friday agreement and its progressive implementation – is now largely concluded… that the process is now simply one of continuing security and economic cooperation. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Part of the genius of the SDLP is to have insisted that the Ireland needed a healing process which dealt not only with the symptoms of the legacy of division, political violence and underdevelopment in Ireland but also with its causes. 

Of course, security cooperation matters greatly, as we were so forcefully reminded here last week.

And economic cooperation matters too. 

It matters more than ever at a time of recession and job losses, at a time when small border communities are again being deprived of their young.

I would like to see much deeper cooperation – I know you would too – in providing services such as health care and education, and in areas such as renewable energy, environmental protection and in building our competitiveness in global markets.

And I would like to see the vision of the Good Friday Agreements fully realised… in the area of rights, for example, and the Irish language.

Mar fhocal scoir i dteanga na nGael, níor mhiste liom aitheantas ar leith a thabhairt don tacaíocht a thugann an SDLP do chaomhnú, cothú agus Acht speisialta don teanga.

But the Agreement is not an end in itself.  It is the starting point for addressing a much greater challenge – that of sectarianism and division on this island.

We cannot afford to be complacent in the face of this challenge.  We cannot accept that what we have today is much better than what we had some years ago – and therefore good enough.

It is not good enough.  We remain divided… too divided.

On a recent visit to Belfast, I visited an interface with two adjoining bus stops – one on each side of the interface – but each within yards of the other.

I was reminded of another bus – the one taken by Rosa parks in Montgomery Alabama in 1955 when she became “tired of giving in”, and refused to give up her seat.

Rosa Parks confronted a legally enforced segregation.  We have to confront a subtler form of segregation – a mental segregation – that persists where tolerance is shown to sectarianism.  

That will not change until a clear political lead is shown and whole communities become “tired of giving in”.

That is already happening – in Alexandra Park in Belfast, for example, which I will visit tomorrow.

But we should have no illusions about the challenge. Funding for cross-community activities comes overwhelmingly from the European Union through its Peace Programme, and from the US through the International Fund and from private sources such as Atlantic Philanthropies.  Most of these programmes are drawing to a close. 

The economic challenges that Northern Ireland faces will put more pressure on financial resources, on jobs and on resources for cross community activity.

But – again – the issue is not simply financial. 

We talk of the decade of commemorations.  Reconciliation will not be achieved by a decade of marches.  It will not even be achieved simply by ensuring that our children learn about our history in all of its complexity.

True reconciliation goes deeper. 

Marching plays an important part in our commemoration.  But if it is done without dialogue with residents, and in a way that is calculated to cause hurt, then it only reinforces the sectarianism that plagues our society.

And if we celebrate our republican past in a way that excludes unionists or makes them feel unwelcome, we, too, will only reinforce division.

As we remember our history, I hope we will recall our failures as well as our achievements.  For the decade we are commemorating was also one of missed opportunities to fulfil the promise of the Easter Proclamation for “civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens”, and, indeed, for “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

Reconciliation means showing respect not just for those aspects of our history that resonate with us, but also for what matters to our neighbour. 

It means attempting to understand the narrative of others on this island.  It requires tens of thousands of individual acts of understanding - not just words, but real communication. 

I can think of no more heroic example of this than Senator Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter in Enniskillen 25 years ago but pleaded that there be no revenge, and never ceased his efforts to understand what motivated her murderers.  Gordon Wilson’s experience was exceptional.  But it reminds us that the events of the past 40 years must be acknowledged, the victims and survivors must have a voice.  Their hurt must be recognised.

The challenge to reconcile is one the SDLP has addressed head-on.  You haven’t shirked it, and neither will we.

I believe that we have to address this challenge together and at three levels – political, communal and individual.

Political leaders must lead and they must do so collectively.  I am not laying this out solely as a challenge to the Executive.  It is a challenge also to the British and Irish governments, and one we are keenly aware of. 

Local communities must be supported in their efforts to break down the mental segregation that has beset us for too long.

We know we can no longer rely on the high levels of international funding that have been available.  We will have to work together to retain what we can, but also to ensure that what remains is spent in a way that matches our ambition. 

Third, true reconciliation means nobody gets left behind – no community and no political viewpoint, as long as it is peacefully expressed. 

In particular, we have to guard against new divisions opening up between those who suffered loss and those who did not.  As President Higgins remarked in Belfast last month, no group has done more to bring about the benefits we enjoy today.  No group has been asked to make a more difficult accommodation for peace, and acknowledging their needs is not something that belongs in the past.  On the contrary, it is critical to our future. 

Let me repeat: we are utterly committed to working with you and with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Over the past year alone, the Taoiseach, myself and Irish government ministers have met with members of the NI Executive on over 50 occasions.  I can think of no political dialogue that is more intensive, more constant.

We can take on the challenge of national reconciliation together also.

Let’s aim not simply for a decade of commemoration.  Let’s work together on a decade of true national reconciliation. 

Let’s make it a fundamental part of our programme for national recovery.  And let’s start now. 

Chuaigh an SDLP sa bhearna bhaoil. Throid an SDLP le fórsa argóna agus loighice ar son todhchaí agus rath an phobail.  Níor loic sibh ar mhuintir na hÉireann riamh agus ní loicfidh sibh go deo.     

Tá mé an-bhuíoch thar ceann mo pháirtí agus Rialtas na nÉireann go seasann an SDLP le Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.  Molaim ról láidir an SDLP san comhoibriú idir Rialtas na hÉireann agus Feidhmeannas Thuaisceart Éireann mar chuid den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.