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Address to 8th Annual Reconciliation Networking Forum



 I’d like to thank the 15 Years On Group and indeed everyone present for partnering with my Department for this year’s Reconciliation Forum. 

12 months ago, The 15 Years On group recognised the need to take stock of where we were in terms of peace and reconciliation a decade and a half after the transformational moment of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.   

In the years since the Agreement and since the restoration of devolution in 2007, there has been, I believe, a certain reluctance from commentators and from most people involved in the process to be critical of any elements of the peace process, as though this was the same as being critical about peace itself.  I think it’s very clear from what we’ve heard from today’s discussion, that there is a need and a hunger for honest discussion and I think that that needs to continue.

It was natural and understandable and reasonable that the lack of a critical approach to the process was necessary  in order to ensure that the process was grounded down, that stability was supported and to ensure that the institutions got up and running but I think that an unintended consequence of that discipline that people imposed, has been that public and political discourse was weakened.

Bland and formulaic words extolling the peace process as though it was an historical fact, signed, sealed and delivered, can ring hollow when we witness the on-going damage which division is having on society in Northern Ireland and on North-South relations.  A monochromatic presentation of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland also meant that some living in the South, as well as those in Britain, in the United States and in Europe and further afield believed the job was done: Northern Ireland had overcome the legacy of its past and no longer needed political and moral support. 

But there are new voices challenging us all to identify and remove the outstanding obstacles to a shared and reconciled society.  The Irish Government welcomes this.  The past 12 months have borne witness to a more vocal discontent across civil society and politics about the negative effect of sectarian division on the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland.  The vocalisation of this discontent is a good and necessary thing.  Firstly it bears witness to a growing confidence across business, community, faith and other sectors to demand real and consistent investment by all in a more reconciled and prosperous future.  Secondly it adds impetus and focus to political debate in relation to these matters, both within Northern Ireland, in North-South relations, in British–Irish relations and in the international arena.  Again this is a good and a necessary thing.   

This has been a fraught year for community and political relations.  It has provoked questions about attitudes to the fundamental principles on which the peace process was founded: equality; ending division; human rights; parity of esteem; support for the rule of law and for the devolved institutions; the continued responsibilities of the two Governments.

Today’s Forum is about working collectively to identity and to articulate for broader attention issues of immediate and pervasive concern.  Today is about listening to some of those who supported a new vision for Ireland back in 1998 and also listening to those new voices who 15 years on can see what still needs to happen to ensure that the peace and reconciliation process continues along the right trajectory.

Whilst we can all become “siloed” into our areas of interest, be that working at interfaces, in sporting organisations or in Government, ultimately we are seeing the same issues percolating through as the issues of primary concern. 

And so I have been listening to the feedback from your sessions today.  What is clear to me is that in the first instance:

  • We need to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental principles of peace - equality; human rights; parity of esteem; support for the rule of law and for the devolved institutions.  These must be shown to be as compelling and as meaningful to the new generations who are growing up post-conflict as they were to the generation who voted for the Agreement.
  • We also need to address the issues that have been neglected and which continue to be felt as absences in Northern Ireland and which have percolated to the top in your discussions today. And I have heard what you have said very clearly in relation to the Bill of Rights, the Civic Forum and the many other areas you have focused on

 You have identified a range of important issues today.  A number of these were raised with me also during the course of my recent visits to Belfast and to Derry. I will reflect carefully on these.    

In terms of some of the specific issues raised during the course of the day.

The first is the need for social investment to go hand in hand with economic investment and job creation.  Jobs are very important, but a reconciled society is not brought about by jobs alone.  Those of you who are to the forefront of this work know well the scale of the challenge ahead. 

The second theme is the clear concern over diminishing resources for reconciliation and how they should be deployed. I was very pleased that during Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union that we managed during the negotiation of the European Budget to include in that a €150m provision for the Peace IV Programme. There is of course the issue of how those issued will be deployed and where they will have best effect. 

A third issue and one I am particularly struck by from my meetings in Belfast and Derry, is the critical role of women in public life and by that I don’t just mean formal politics, but political life in its broadest sense. I had a remarkable meeting in Derry with the Foyle Women’s Information Network and I have to say that I learned more in half an hour talking to those women than I would in a full day talking to political counterparts. They were able to tell me about the impact on their communities and the people they know, on their friends children and their own children about the distribution of drugs and all the various social and family concerns they have and they certainly got me thinking about where and how we need to deploy our resources in the future.

A fourth and important theme is the need for renewal.  The Secretary of State and I did an event in the MAC in Belfast for the 15 Year Anniversary, where a group of schoolchildren who were born in 1998 and they talked for a while about how they saw Northern Ireland and what they saw their future being...


So what next?

  • I have asked my officials to draft a new policy framework to guide our activities in support of reconciliation.  Today’s discussion makes a very valuable input to this.
  • I will also ensure that a report of today’s discussions is provided to my Cabinet colleague Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who leads on Irish Government input into the programme for PEACE IV
  • I know that members of the 15 Years On Group will be meeting with Dr Richard Haass tomorrow and will be discussing the outcomes of this Forum with him. 
  • I too will be meeting with Richard Haass tomorrow and will discuss your work with him.  He has already previously made clear that he regards the views and input of civil society to be vital to the work of the Panel of Parties process which he is chairing. This is true in the context of the Haass process and will continue to be true in the years ahead as we work together, in a spirit of openness and honesty, to contribute to heal division and build a dynamic, thriving society North and South.

Thank you.