Reflection by the Tánaiste on the Good Friday Agreement Abbey Theatre, 2 April 2023
Speech02 April 2023
Is mór an onóir dom, thar ceann an Rialtais, fáilte a chur romhaibh go léir go Amharclann na Mainistreach, amharclann náisiúnta na hÉireann, ag an ocáid spesíalta seo.
Taoiseach, Secretary of State, Commissioners, colleagues, friends.
Twenty-five years ago, difficult choices, hard compromises and real leadership achieved what some thought impossible, peace in Northern Ireland.
Today, our island is at peace. Those difficult choices were worth it.
And while that peace is imperfect, life on this island, and in particular Northern Ireland, is so much better. This is undoubtedly worth celebrating.
Our childhood and teenage years in the Ireland of the late sixies and seventies were shaped and impacted by the Troubles. Our daily diet on RTÉ – (we were in single-channel land) – was one of bombs, bullets, beatings; massacres, murder, and mayhem – and above all, no sense of it ever ending.
The announcement of the Downing Street Declaration was akin to a miracle. We had to pinch ourselves repeatedly to believe it was actually happening.
Between then and the Good Friday Agreement, it faltered and hung in the balance.
The Good Friday Agreement itself was high politics at its best: compromise, parity of esteem, understanding where the other side was coming from. Painstaking negotiations, patience, perseverance, courage, emotional intelligence – all in evidence.
I became drawn into it, fascinated by it – absorbed. I’ve often said that it was Northern Ireland that drew me into politics.
Northern Ireland has also shaped and reshaped my politics.
As a young backbencher I travelled north, meeting other young politicians from all sides, in quiet places. We met without intrusion. We didn’t have mobile phones then.
Coming from the other end of our island, I knew that I had much to learn – and I realised, too, that I had things to unlearn.
As someone with a republican background, my encounters initially with unionists challenged me.
But I grew to understand the complexity of identity on our island and learned to challenge some people with perspectives closer to my own.
I remember being taken by the decency, humour and good grace of ordinary people from all sides. A people trapped in history for too long. A people yearning for a better future.
The relationships I made then continue to add texture and complexity to my understanding of our island. They are friendships that sustain me today.
I have been honoured to work on Northern Ireland matters over the course of my career, including as Taoiseach and as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
My involvement in the Hillsborough talks, which enabled the devolution of policing and justice – something impossible to agree in 1998 – taught me a lot.
But one of my most moving days in Cabinet was when the multiparty negotiations concluded, on Good Friday 25 years ago.
I remain in awe of the leadership shown by those who took chances for peace – the courage of those assuming risks for their parties and themselves, to bring their followers with them.
Leadership was not just political. It was in communities. In churches.
Above all the women of Northern Ireland said enough was enough.
People were mobilised by 30 years of trouble and tragedy to do better by their communities.
We were fortunate also to have remarkable international support. George Mitchell. The US. The EU.
- And can I thank Maroš Šefčovič and Mairéad McGuinness who are representing the Commission this evening.
We had South Africa. Finland. Canada. Australia. New Zealand. Some well-known. Others quietly effective. All heroes to me.
This evening is a rare chance to thank those involved in making the Good Friday Agreement. Those who are with us this evening and those who have, sadly, passed on.
Together you brought us all to a better place. Thank you so much for doing that.
In 1998, we didn’t leave behind all of the pain of the past – that pain is still raw for too many today - but a path was opened to a better future.
We have peace. But we are not yet fully reconciled. That was our motivation in establishing the Shared Island initiative, to find new ways of working and living together in this place we all call home.
We have more to do to deliver on the fresh start the Agreement promised. We will do this by staying true to the essential principles of the Good Friday Agreement, to its elegant balancing of the traditions on this island.
Principles of inclusion, consent, parity of esteem, and the protection of human rights are the bedrock on which politics in Northern Ireland is built.
And, at a time when the devolved institutions are not being allowed deliver for people of Northern Ireland, these are the principles that will allow politics to work again, with the Good Friday Agreement as our guide.
There are many different perspectives within this theatre this evening.
But we are all united, I believe, in wanting the best for the people of Ireland, for the people of Northern Ireland and for relationships across these islands.
And we are in a vastly better place than we were in 1998.
That is what we celebrate tonight.
2 April 2023