Address by Minister, Charlie Flanagan T.D. - Annual Reconciliation Networking Forum 201416 September 2014
It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon in Dublin Castle and to have had an opportunity to listen to the end of what has clearly been a day of serious and informed debate and discussion at this Annual Reconciliation Networking Forum. These discussions matter. While the principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement will always be the template for progress, the need for the work of reconciliation continues and is as important as ever.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of Albert Reynolds and Ian Paisley, two influential figures who at different points and in different ways took leaps of faith in support of peace.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am acutely conscious of the role of the Irish Government as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. I have been in regular contact with all of the political leaders in Northern Ireland since my first day in office last July seeking to make progress on contentious issues.
In parallel with this important dialogue with political leaders, I intend to engage actively with communities in Northern Ireland and that process has already begun. Today is an important element of that.
If we are to continue to make progress and to resolve the political impasses to reconciliation, as part of our work we need to encourage public conversations about how best we can manage the legacy of the Troubles; about how we can combat sectarianism; and how can we reduce segregation. Today’s Forum is an opportunity for one such conversation. It will help to inform my Department’s approach to reconciliation and to community development and I would hope that it is also an opportunity for each of you to deepen your understanding of what is happening on the ground in other communities and identify where we might all need to refocus our efforts.
I was in East and North Belfast in July to meet with a number of people who are at the forefront of reconciliation work in their communities. I took a few important messages from that visit:
First, despite our peace, sectarianism and division continue to blight communities across the North and that the past eighteen months have been particularly difficult;
Secondly, in many instances, communities are frustrated by the slow pace of progress at a political level;
Thirdly, there is a wealth of knowledge, vision and ambition at grass-roots level across the community in Northern Ireland and in academia, in business and in the churches. This community spirit and resource will be essential to the political process in the challenging months ahead.
Issues raised at today’s Forum
I have heard these messages loud and clear here today.
Hannah Arendt, German Jewish philosopher who survived the Second World War, was quoted here this morning. Her words - “Life is irreversible. Hurt cannot be undone” - frame the context of all our work and remind us that whatever way forward we find, we have to face up to and work through that hurt.
As we heard today, that work is well underway at community level.
And, your work at community level is a positive challenge to us politicians to keep the process of reconciliation moving forward for the benefit of all on this island; Irish, British or both.
In two years time those young men and women born the year of the Good Friday Agreement will be eligible to vote. I would like to see them offered the opportunity to endorse the positive politics of reconciliation. This is a generational challenge to us all and one I know that you recognise as it was raised today. Also today were discussions around education and segregation as well as the need to create social and economic opportunities for the next generation, both men and women.
And we need to ensure that both men and women of this generation are given the opportunity to lead this change. And at a most basic level, we need people to feel safe in their communities, safe about raising difficult issues and safe about challenging sectarianism.
Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that the work of reconciliation is somehow at the soft end of peace process work. They could hardly be more mistaken. There is very little motherhood and apple pie about the work which you are doing or about the conversations you have had today.
The issues that have come up in your discussions here and that have been raised with me in my recent meetings make it clear that people are genuinely concerned that the political process is not delivering sufficiently on the most important and contentious issues.
At a political level, there are times when summit-level politics is what is required and there are other times when what are needed are quiet conversations and encouragement. In either scenario, however, what is a constant and without alternative is the need for engagement, leadership and vision at a community level.
Many of you are on the front lines of communities dealing with the divisive legacies of the past. In often challenging circumstances, you are addressing the sectarianism that still lingers and working to ensure that new versions of this virus do not gain ground and spread.
Repairing the issues that lead to division and building a peaceful, reconciled and forward-looking society go hand in hand and one will not happen without the other. I and the Irish Government remain committed to working with all the political parties to overcome the current political impasse. The primary responsibility may rest with the politicians but the transformation that is needed is going to require a renewal and redoubling of efforts from all concerned. This has to include Civil Society. Your role is vital. People and communities working on reconciliation and actively trying to reduce sectarianism have to speak up for the society that they want to see and help create the momentum for positive change. This will be critical to the success of the political process and I warmly welcome the clear commitment made here today by so many of you to be reconciliation leaders and agents of change. I heard too support for a strong and enabling Civic Forum.
Our support to Civil Society, through the Reconciliation Fund, is an important dimension of the Government’s approach to peace and reconciliation. Since 1982 we have funded over 1800 projects which have contributed to achieving reconciliation and reducing sectarianism. Earlier this year, as you know, we put in place a new Strategy for 2014 – 2017. The new Strategy takes account of the feedback and views expressed by our partners, including by some of you at last year’s Forum. Based on your feedback, the Fund will introduce a new multi-annual funding stream from early next year, which will enable selected partners to develop their strategy and plan with predictable funding for up to three years.
We want the Fund to remain flexible and responsive so that we are able to work with you to find innovative ways to overcome the remaining obstacles to reconciliation. All the more so because this is a challenging time for politics in Northern Ireland and your efforts to repair the divisions of the past and build a peaceful, reconciled and forward-looking society are an essential part of any solution.
We will work with you on this and we will continue our support for the essential work that you are doing, across so many different areas from commemorations and youth work, to arts, culture and sport.
We may come from different traditions, different places, but I believe that we here and the overwhelming majority of people have a shared vision of a peaceful, reconciled, and prosperous island of Ireland.
I and my Department are determined to continue to work with all who share that vision
Thank you all for participating today.