Speech by Tánaiste Simon Coveney T.D. at Queen's University Belfast
10 April 2018
**Check against delivery***
President Clinton, Senator Mitchell, Secretary of State, Vice-Chancellor, A Dhaoine Uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen,
10th April 1998 was an extraordinary day to be from these islands. The news of the Agreement which trickled out over the airwaves on that Good Friday afternoon gave us a new truth. Agreement – unlikely, improbable Agreement – had been achieved. Relief and joy took the place of despair. A new hope and faith in our politics, in our people and in each other took root that day.
It was a remarkable time. It is an honour and privilege to be here today with so many people who stood then - and who continue to stand today - steadfastly with the people of these islands, their two Governments and their political parties. People who walked a hard road with us twenty years ago and who have stayed with us on this journey of peace and reconciliation.
I listened carefully to the challenge set by the young people in the video we saw a few moments ago. I believe it is one we can and will rise to. And it is one that I know the Secretary of State and I are utterly committed to.
I want to speak briefly today on three themes.
The first is the need to remember.
We need to keep in mind what it was like before the Good Friday Agreement and to remember why we felt such joy and optimism two decades ago.
After twenty years of peace – fragile and imperfect peace, but peace nonetheless – some memories have faded. It is all too easy to forget the extent and impact of the conflict on people here. The legacy of loss, injury, fear and violence has left deep scars. And tragically those wounds are not confined to my generation or the generations which came before.
The traces of the conflict on our physical, social and psychological landscapes are still evident today - evident in segregated schools and communities, in peace walls, in areas of economic deprivation, and along our shared border. They surface from time to time in Belfast, in Dublin, in London, in Omagh, in Armagh, in every town and village and hinterland.
And these traces pale away in comparison to the pain and loss experienced by the very many people who were most affected by the conflict.
The victims, the survivors, the bereaved, the injured, the carers, the loved ones.
If there is one particular area in which we have failed in twenty years to make sufficient progress - and I know that there is more than one - it is in what we often call “the legacy of the past”. We’ve used the phrase so often that we possibly risk losing sight of what it means.
Thousands upon thousands of individual and family stories. Stories that are still barely whispered and stories we think we understand and probably can’t even begin to grasp.
Shakespeare, in his play The Tempest – a play about a storm and an island, by the way – famously wrote “What’s past is prologue”. Does anyone here doubt it?
We owe it to the memory of all those lost to the conflict to make progress now on addressing the past. Time is not going to lessen that debt. Rather it will compound it.
“What’s past is prologue”. We cannot undo the past but we can change how it shapes the future.
And that leads me to my second point, the need for renewal. The words of the Agreement are as true today as twenty years ago. And perhaps after twenty years, we need to commit again to a new start, a new beginning.
Despite the sometimes strident voices of despondency, I believe that the Agreement has profoundly transformed lives on these islands. And it will continue to do so.
It remains the cornerstone of the peace process and the fundamental framework for relationships across these islands.
The people of this island voted overwhelmingly for it and continue to believe in it.
I know all of us gathered here today also believe profoundly in the Agreement, in what it has delivered and in what it can yet deliver - with a restored power-sharing Executive and Assembly as its beating heart.
Today is an opportunity to renew that commitment to see the promise of the Agreement – reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust – fulfilled.
And that brings me to the last of my three themes: Reconciliation.
Reconciliation - which means so many different things to different people and is the hardest and yet most essential aspect of this peace process - and for the lives of generations to come.
In twenty years we have travelled a long way on this path – even if the journey is still incomplete.
Long years of a hard history leave us falling all too easily into oppositions. If I’m this, then at least I’m not that. Us and them.
For all of this to work, for us to live together on these islands as neighbours and friends, we have to find ways to stop shouting at each other as if across an unbridgeable chasm. Twenty years on, we should look around and realise that so many of us are already calmly crossing the many bridges that have grown to span the gap.
And the genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it allows, indeed enables us, to find ways to bridge and ultimately to celebrate our differences.
It allows for an expansive Irishness, an expansive Britishness, the space for the people who are both and who are shared citizens of the two co-guarantor States.
A more complex set of identities and allegiances is possible and will only enrich us all.
That is the promise of the Agreement and it is one we can all make happen.
We can begin again today. We have a further chance. We should and we will take it.
Remember. Renew. Reconcile.