Address to Alliance Party Annual Conference22 March 2014
I want to pay tribute to David Ford who has put both the Alliance Party and the Department of Justice at the forefront of the debate about change for the better.
I want to praise his integrity, his tenacity and his commitment to justice for all.
I salute him for his leadership which shows how devolution of policing and justice can - and is - being made to work progressively for the benefit of people, peace and policing in every quarter. And in doing so, he has defied those doubters and naysayers to prove that real change for the better is possible and will continue.
And I join with David in his words of praise for Naomi Long, MP.
Naomi is a fearless democrat who is firm in her belief in positive change. We stand with you, with your party colleagues and with all public representatives, who have faced threats on the grounds of race, political beliefs or gender.
And I would say to you all – we can find a better way if we stick to the vision and values of the Good Friday Agreement.
I believe that this is what many people all over Ireland are looking for. We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a sense of purpose and respect. We want growth and peace, and we want to live together and step forward together.
Today’s conference takes place at the end of a week which marks the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, a conflict which has led to the appalling suffering of so many. This week too we have seen a deepening political crisis in Ukraine. These are issues that are critical for all of us and the Irish Government will continue to work with our EU colleagues and with the international community to find solutions in the period ahead.
This is, of course, also the week in which Irish people and friends of Ireland around the globe have marked St Patrick’s Day. As part of the Irish Government’s ‘Promote Ireland’ campaign of international activity, 27 ministers took part in over 100 business events and 80 high-level political meetings in 35 cities around the world over the St. Patrick’s Day period.
And when my Government colleagues and I attend these St Patrick’s Day events around the world, we encounter time and again a remarkable level of enduring support and admiration for the Northern Ireland peace process. This year, we witnessed this enormous and informed goodwill again, most particularly in the United States.
And the clear message which my colleagues and I received was that we should not underestimate the importance of the peace process on this island to those who are contending with the enormous crises of our times. It remains, for all the sometimes frustratingly dulling effects of sectarianism, a beacon of light for many. And rightly so.
Staying the course
The Agreements which underpin the peace process were hard-won and are harder still to implement. The past year has seen some very testing times for Northern Ireland with legacy issues from the Troubles, the ongoing threat from dissidents and persistent street unrest consuming great political effort and frustrating those who would wish to see faster progress. But we must all stay the course.
Many difficult decisions were taken throughout the period of the peace process both before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and since. The Weston Park Agreement like other Agreements was reached in the conviction that all its constituent elements were in the wider interests of the peace process. The decisions taken then were taken collectively to support the foundations for peace.
These steps were not taken lightly. These were and are sensitive issues the purpose of which was to see an end to armed conflict and to create the conditions for reconciliation. We can never forget the terrible events that occurred during the Troubles and we must pay heed to the ongoing suffering of surviving victims of the Troubles in Ireland and in Britain. Nevertheless, we cannot allow the past to undermine the peace and stability of the present and the prospect of a better future for generations to come. This is the most immediate and pressing challenge for the political leadership in Northern Ireland and it is one in which the British and Irish governments also bear responsibilities.
And that is why the Northern Ireland Executive parties deserve the full support of both Governments as they work now towards agreement on a comprehensive framework to deal with the past, flags and identity issues and parades. Agreement on those divisive issues is the necessary step not yet taken, but the step forward now required - the step forward rightly identified by your conference theme today. Getting the frameworks for peace and reconciliation right and fully functioning is important for stability and security. It is vital also so that greater priority can be given to setting the right conditions for economic growth and job creation, especially for young people. And we all have a common interest in that.
North/South and East/West relations; supporting peace and reconciliation
The Irish Government has no closer relationship than with the NI Executive. And there are great opportunities currently to deepen our cooperation in a practical direction to support job creation and economic growth, North and South. We each face major financial and economic challenges and improved cooperation bilaterally and within the EU can bring us real results.
Relations between Ireland and Britain are strong and close. Next month, President Higgins will make a State Visit to the UK at the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whose own successful visit to Ireland in 2011 marked an important moment of reconciliation. Both governments are conscious that we must keep deepening this reconciliation as we mark the centenary of events that once divided us deeply.
The British-Irish bilateral relationship has been both a catalyst for positive change in Northern Ireland and it has benefited from that change. Cooperation in support of reconciliation, prosperity and a shared perspective in Northern Ireland remain at the heart of the British-Irish relationship. We want to ensure that the strengthening of the British-Irish bilateral relationship benefits, and is reflected fully in Northern Ireland. Through reciprocal respectful visits, we can ensure that whether you are British or Irish that your identity, heritage and political aspirations are respected and valued whether you live in London, Larne or Limerick.
British and Irish Identity
The Agreements are based on that fundamental respect for differing identities, traditions and political aspirations.
This week, Anna Lo expressed her view as to where the future best interests of Northern Ireland lie.
She is perfectly entitled to do so and it is disheartening that her comments provoked, from some, a reaction which suggests that she was not entitled to make them.
As a first principle, we must have absolute respect for those who have a different view – and respect their right to express that view, free from intimidation or recrimination.
Our views should always be guided by the principle of consent. Without honest and open discussion, neither society nor politics can progress. The Alliance Party should be applauded for allowing and encouraging that discussion.
But I refuse to be disheartened. I know how far the British and Irish governments have travelled in the short space of time from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland three years ago to the eve of President Higgins’ State Visit next month.
I know how committed President Obama and Vice President Biden are to supporting progress here. And I know that the discussion on how we define our identity, how we respect and accommodate the rights of others and how we deal with our divisive past has been brought forward here too in recent months- initially by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan and, since January, by David Ford and the other party leaders.
‘Finish the Job’
There is no going back.
Three weeks ago, Bill Clinton spoke to an audience at the Guildhall Square in Derry and delivered a simple message to all of us. “Finish the job.”
I was reminded of another American President who delivered a similar message, almost one hundred and fifty years ago. President Abraham Lincoln knew intuitively that a society emerging from conflict faced a new set of challenges to its cohesion and prosperity that were as serious as those it had just surmounted.
The words that he chose to include in his Second Inaugural speech were specific to his beliefs, his time and his place but are strikingly appropriate to the challenge we now face:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves .....”