Speech by An Tánaiste, Simon Coveney T.D. at the 2019 Reconciliation Networking Forum
Speech05 March 2019
A cháirde, Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m conscious that I’m coming to you towards the end of what has been a long day, particularly for so many of you who had to travel early this morning to get here.
So, can I first of all say a special thanks to you all for participating throughout the day, and for staying on to hear me out.
And I can only hope it was me, rather than the promise of a glass of wine afterwards that kept you here!
I hope I’ll have a chance to meet with as many of you as possible afterwards at the reception before we finish up for the day.
This is our first time bringing the Forum to the Convention Centre. The Centre is a relative newcomer on our city skyline but it has already made a mark in Dublin’s unfolding story.
Indeed, it has many stories associated with it and you might have heard this week of the passing of its architect - Kevin Roche. Born in Dublin, he grew up in Cork, was educated in UCD, and went on to become a world renowned architect. It is an honour to be here today and to have the opportunity to appreciate the building that was his only Irish project.
It contributed to peace and reconciliation between our two islands - as the venue for the Gala Concert to mark the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 2011. The major cultural event to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising was also held here on Easter Monday 2016.
And this building, with its iconic conical shape, now also graces the pages of the Irish passport alongside a page of eloquent Ulster-Scots poetry by James Orr – and together, they have been carried across the globe.
A fitting location, therefore, for a gathering, a bringing-together, such as this.
I understand the day has gone well. But we’ll definitely be keen to keep bringing the Forum to new places – including hopefully to Cork, or Derry or elsewhere.
When I spoke to you at the last Reconciliation Forum, I’d been Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for just four months. I pointed out then that, while people often assume my job is all about exotic travel to glamorous places, in fact I’d been seeing a great deal of the M1!
Since then I’ve seen a great deal more of the M1!
But frankly, 16 months on, I had hoped that we would not be in such a challenging place today, still without functioning government in Northern Ireland.
Huge efforts have been made during those 16 months by so many people to find a way through that would allow power-sharing to resume. But unfortunately, we’re not there yet. And we have to acknowledge that Brexit has made this task much more difficult.
It has brought issues of identity and citizenship, loyalties and belonging, right to the forefront again in Northern Ireland. And fuelled genuine concerns, and even fears, about the future.
Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with many individuals and groups, both publicly and privately, from all sides of the community.
I’ve heard first-hand about their fears and concerns. I understand those very real concerns and have taken them on board as we’ve engaged with, and fed into, the long process of negotiation that led to the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK.
But I don’t wish to dwell too much on Brexit today. We know important votes will take place at Westminster next week. And I want to assure you all that the Irish Government continues to do everything that we can to ensure that Brexit happens in an orderly manner - in a manner that protects the integrity of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, and ensures that we do not return to a hard border on this island.
That is what we want to achieve, that is all we want to achieve.
There is no hidden agenda here.
The Good Friday Agreement is the foundation of our approach to the Brexit negotiations and has been our guide throughout.
That Agreement was an extraordinary achievement and we remain committed to implementing it in full, along with the important agreements that followed.
In my view, the current Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, offer the best – indeed the only currently available - option for ensuring that the UK’s departure from the EU does not compromise the gains of the peace process or the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Beyond that, our aim is to achieve an outcome that will leave us with the closest possible relationship with the UK.
For all our long and complex entwined history, the UK is our neighbour and friend. We greatly value the deeper connections and strengthened relationships that have been built up between us over many years of shared EU membership.
We want that close relationship to continue.
These are of course enormous challenges and key priorities for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, but I’d also like to talk about other matters today.
I’d like to focus specifically on Reconciliation.
Despite the very challenging backdrop, the work of reconciliation continues, on the ground, in communities.
I’ve said before that Reconciliation is the work of generations.
The Good Friday agreement brought armed conflict to an end but it couldn’t suddenly bring an end to the divisions in society. What it did was to provide the breathing space for the slow process of healing to begin.
For people to have the chance to start reflecting on the past, and looking in a calmer, more considered, way at how to build a better future for all communities in Northern Ireland. This is the work of Reconciliation.
We knew then that it wouldn’t be an easy path.
And 21 years on, we all know that it hasn’t been.
We’ve had many challenges and obstacles along the way, including the very real difficulties we’re grappling with today.
But we mustn’t forget that there’s so much to be positive about, too.
Tremendous work is taking place in communities on this island, through the extraordinary dedication and goodwill of people sitting here today, and many others like you.
Groups are working with survivors of the conflict and the bereaved to try to heal the wounds of the past, and to support them as they continue to seek the truth about what happened to them or their loved ones during those very difficult years.
Many of you are working on the ground in communities which were deeply affected by those years of conflict. You’re developing capacity at individual and community level – encouraging and supporting people in moving towards engagement with those who would have an entirely different perspective on the years of conflict.
With those who may have traditionally regarded been as “the other” or even “the enemy”.
Many of you deliver vital programmes that seek to divert vulnerable young people away from malign influences and into positive activity.
You provide training in skills, and in self-awareness and development,
increasing their chances of achieving employment.
And many of you are dedicated to helping empower women in your communities.
One of the most malign impacts of the Troubles was the subversion of women. Including the way in which so many women had to put their own needs and personal development to one side in order to just survive. Often as single parents, where partners had either been killed or imprisoned.
I know that many of you are working with those women, or with their daughters and grand-daughters, to build up their personal and professional capacity and help them develop into forward thinking leaders in their communities.
This is vital to the creation of a more cohesive society in which women take their place, in peacebuilding and in the development of links between communities.
So much of your work in reconciliation is about supporting people in trying to reach a stage where they can even start feeling comfortable with the notion of engaging with those from “the other side”.
With people who may have very different allegiances and cultural traditions but with whom ultimately, they may find they share a lot in common.
People who in reality are living very similar lives, but on the other side of the peace wall or at the far end of the village.
Reconciliation is about working towards an openness to meeting those people, sharing experiences and views. Finding some commonality, while also trying to understand, and accept, the genuinely very different perspectives they may have. Not only of the past history of this island, but also of its future direction.
Those of you gathered here today are engaged in these deeply challenging issues day in and day out. And I’m delighted that my Department’s Reconciliation Fund continues to support you in undertaking this vital work.
Some of you may have been present in Iveagh House last year when I announced that we are providing an additional €1 million for the Fund from 2019.
These funds will support core and capital costs, supplementing the €2.7 million already available to support projects in areas including youth work, women’s development, legacy, arts and culture, and commemoration.
As Fergal flagged in his opening remarks this morning, in tandem with this significant increase in budget we are also developing a new strategy for the Reconciliation Fund this year. I’m very pleased that in the panel and table discussions this afternoon you had an opportunity to focus on this opportunity to generate new ideas and fresh thinking.
It’s vital that the priorities of the Fund continue to be relevant and that we allocate funding to the activities and communities where it’s most needed.
Your feedback today will be very helpful to us as we work to develop that new strategy and I thank you for your time and input.
I’d also like to refer to our first panel discussion of the day which dealt with the issue of public engagement in the context of promoting reconciliation.
I think we have to acknowledge that, as we’ve tried to navigate our way through the challenges of the past few years, public debate and dialogue haven’t necessarily always been helpful.
As a public representative, I’m acutely aware of the responsibility on all of us in public life to be sensitive to the possibility that our messages may be heard and understood in a way that was never intended. How public utterances, maybe delivered too hastily, can offend and cause hurt.
Language really does matter.
We all need to be conscious of this as we go about our business.
And we need to be able to acknowledge when we’ve got it wrong.
Genuine reconciliation is about being prepared to admit when we’ve caused hurt.
It’s about seeking to understand why our words were interpreted as they were, why the hurt was felt.
Social Media poses a particular challenge in this regard.
We all know how very easily and quickly we can send out a tweet. But we’ve also seen how damaging the impact can be if the language hasn’t been thought through with care and sensitivity.
The morning panel had a very interesting look at this issue, exploring how we can foster a positive public dialogue, to promote good relations and deepen understanding between people who hold very different views.
I look forward to seeing the full report on that session and looking at what lessons there are for all of us about how we interact on the public stage.
As I said earlier, I’ve met over this past 18 months or so with many individuals and groups working to promote reconciliation on this island.
I’ve listened very carefully. And my sense is that many people in Northern Ireland have become deeply disillusioned with the political system and are not pressing for a return to devolved government.
I have to tell you - that worries me.
I know too that many of you are very concerned about the state of relationships on these islands in recent years, reflected very often in what we’ve been seeing played out in public discourse.
I understand all of these concerns.
But the current political impasse is not helping to address them.
It is the principles of the Good Friday Agreement that need to guide us now more than ever, as we try to deal with the changing nature of relationships and identities. And as people report that their sense of Irishness or Britishness is being undermined.
I see an absolute imperative to get the representatives of the people back into the Assembly and Executive and indeed the North-South Ministerial Council. Talking and debating and working through the issues that challenge them, working for all communities in Northern Ireland, and for sustained North – South cooperation.
I engage constantly with the Secretary of State and with the political parties in Northern Ireland trying to find a way out of this stalemate.
While there is a great range and diversity of views represented here today, I don’t think that there’s one of you here from a community that doesn’t have a deep sense of frustration about where things are at right now.
And I honestly don’t think there’s any path into the future that isn’t helped by a return to genuine, functioning power-sharing working on everyone’s behalf.
I’m determined to continue to do everything possible to ensure that the Government is playing its part to help achieve a return to shared, devolved Government. But there is an important role for you too, as there is for every citizen.
When civil society mobilises behind positive change, it can be transformational. We have seen alliances and partnerships formed across groups that have no previous history of working together – alliances to develop new thinking or fresh approaches, or to demonstrate that there are new points of consensus out there.
I believe all of you have the opportunity to contribute to that, and I believe that Governments and political parties have an obligation to really listen and engage when you do. Because - including through the work we support in the Reconciliation Fund - we have seen what the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland can do. We have seen you lift up your communities and we have seen you break down divisions. We have been proud funders and supporters of that work.
You are people of extraordinary talent and commitment.
You’re doing fantastic work at a difficult time, and in what I know is an increasingly tight funding environment.
I thank you for all your hard work and for your dedication to promoting peace and reconciliation. I look forward to continuing to support that work through the Reconciliation Fund.
And as you continue the vital work of reconciliation, I urge you to harness your collective energy and experience and talent, to do everything possible to support a civic space inclusive of everyone, and encourage a return to full operation of all the institutions of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement.
You and the people of your communities deserve nothing less.
Thank you very much for your time today.