As we fast approach the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement now is a very good time to take stock of where we are and what the agenda should be for the future.
I’m conscious that for many of you here, the phrase ‘Good Friday Agreement’ is just an historical term. But what I want to talk to you about this evening is how the potential of that document remains unfulfilled, and to lay down a challenge to us all; to lay down the challenge of unleashing the power and potential of that Agreement, especially in the context of all-Ireland politics, in a way that the political class has so far failed to do.
For those of us who grew up against a background of near permanent and escalating violence, the Agreement was not just some abstract historical moment – it marked an emotional departure from politics as we knew it into a new and more cooperative era.
Today, the achievements of the peace process and the Agreement remain as impressive as ever. Internationally they continue to be studied and used as blueprints by regions and societies in conflict.
For all this, something which is rarely said is that that Process and Agreement are no longer new. Over 21% of the people on this island, or 1.3 million people, were not even born when the Agreement was signed. Many more were too young to understand what was going on. Almost no schoolchild North or South grew up in pre-Agreement Ireland.
It is today reasonable to look at the workings of the Agreement and to see ways in which it can be improved. As Seamus Mallon so rightly put it, the Agreement was not an end in itself, it was a “new dispensation” – it was a dramatic opportunity to reshape politics on this island and to do so to the benefit of the welfare of all communities. Its institutions provided a means for cooperation to replace conflict without obliging any tradition to abandon deeply held beliefs and aspirations.
Fifteen years on the progress is undeniable. Lifting from society a constant fear of violence is a dramatic achievement which remains in place in spite of the efforts of a handful of extremists. The difference on the streets of Northern Ireland is undeniable and sustained. The long-term social and economic benefits of peace are unchallengeable – and those benefits are to be found across the whole island.
However just because there has been progress does not mean that we should be satisfied – and it certainly doesn’t mean that the full potential of the Agreement has been fulfilled. In fact I believe that much of the potential presented by peace remains unfulfilled. The challenge of reconciliation remains and the full benefits of cooperation have not been achieved. As I have said before, the peace process was supposed to be about more than an absence of violence.
The evolution which is a core concept in the Agreement has largely been ignored. The practical working and agendas of institutions and bodies have not progressed much beyond what was set down 15 years ago.
I believe that the enormous potential of developing an all-island approach to many issues has barely begun to be realised by the political establishment.
Recent events, as well as the widely reported Spotlight poll have shown for anyone who cares to pay attention, that there is a clear and growing disillusionment with government in Northern Ireland in significant parts of both communities.
To a very worrying degree, there is a growing tendency to see a settlement designed to be fair to all as favouring one side more than the other. Irrespective of the truth of these fears, and I believe they are wrong, they have not been addressed in any concerted way. Partly, I fear, because it continues to suit the dominant political parties to lock their communities and the media in a never ending cycle of controversies and conflicts about old-style identity politics and what ‘the other side’ are doing.
I believe that clear political failures lie behind this, in particular the failure to act within the spirit of genuine cooperation and urgency which brought about the Agreement. This shows itself in many ways.
The greatest responsibility lies with those who spent nearly a decade standing in the way of full implementation of the Agreement. It has not actually been in operation for the full 15 years. Key implementation measures remain deadlocked. An unwarranted boycott and a repeatedly delayed failure to decommission weaponry combined to keep the idea of competing camps alive for far too long. They directly undermined the working of all-island groups and organisations.
The risks for peace taken by John Hume, Seamus Mallon and the SDLP, and their work with Dublin governments, remain a foundation without which the Agreement would have been impossible. On every major issue at every point, they put the people’s interests before their party’s interests and this should never be forgotten.
It is a great success of the Agreement and a victory for moderate politics, that the DUP and Sinn Fein are now sharing power. Without the steady leadership and commitment of centre-ground, constitutional parties over the last twenty years this would have been impossible. However they remain two parties deeply committed to their own interests. Just as they happily exploited the risks for peace taken by others in the early years of the process, their approach to all issues remains, to this day, primarily motivated by party interests.
Unfortunately, what has also happened is that the British and Irish governments have significantly disengaged. That’s not to say that they are disinterested, but no one could look at their level of activity at the most senior levels and say that they view the development of the Agreement as a real priority.
In the last two years there we have seen no ambitious initiatives, no new agenda, no sense of urgency. The formal basic structures of the Agreement have been the only focus. There are a lot of warm words, uttered with absolute sincerity – but the scale of involvement and hands-on management required to tackle entrenched problems has been missing.
Only last week the Taoiseach told me during Dáil questions that he is very happy with the level of engagement on Northern issues. This he justified not because of any particular achievements, but because there have been more meetings of ministerial council than before.
This is exactly the sort of formulaic approach that causes disillusionment. If the main political leaders concentrate on formalities rather than substance, and if they let party interests take precedence over real cross-community engagement how can the potential of this part of Ireland possibly be realised?
Securing all of the benefits of the Agreement require all who care about the future of this island to renew their commitment to a process based on active cooperation. We must have a more urgent focus on the wider agenda of the agreement. Politicians sharing the trappings of power was never the objective of the Agreement, it was intended as a means towards achieving something bigger. It was intended as a means toward creating an entirely new dispensation that delivered a better quality of life for everyone.
I believe that there is both a compelling need and an opportunity to reinvigorate the all-island dimensions of the Agreement and that politics in both jurisdictions would benefit. I further believe that there are clear social and economic benefits which will come from this. The failure over recent years to make any recognisable progress on the all-Ireland agenda is hugely disappointing.
It is also clear that the great challenge of reconciliation and mutual respect in communities across the North has not progressed as it should have. Again, part of the problem has been the manipulation of the process at various times by party interests. The only way to read the flag disturbances and the Spotlight polling is as a wake-up call.
An ambitious anti-sectarian agenda is now an absolute priority. As a starting point, I believe that the situation that has been allowed to develop where the PSNI have returned to the centre stage on the issue of parades and protests, and where the PSNI and the Parades Commission are openly disagreeing with each other on what powers of intervention they have must be addressed and dealt with by political leaders urgently. In this same context, I think that the illegal parades past the Short Strand interface should stop and they should stop immediately.
Similarly, the Executive needs to stop delaying and publish a comprehensive Cohesion Sharing and Integration Strategy without further delay.
Parties have a major role to play by changing the ways in which they assert their traditions. For example, as President of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, I believe that I have an added responsibility to respect the symbols and traditions of Unionism. Perhaps the biggest thing which has been missing in the last 15 years has been a willingness of behalf of some to be more challenging of themselves and their own roles in fostering division. To overcome those divisions we need much more openness about the past and more honesty about, and regret for inexcusable actions.
For twenty years my party has been relentless in seeking opportunities to show how all traditions can be valued – and how the act of commemoration does not have to be either triumphalist or sectarian. We’ve repeatedly addressed what we acknowledged as the failures of the Irish state and sought ways to strengthen supports for minority traditions. For example, for the first time ever the Irish state has specifically commemorated those who died in the service of the British flag.
A culmination of this was the invitation from former Fianna Fáil Leader and Taoiseach Brian Cowen to Queen Elizabeth to undertake a state visit to Dublin. During that visit, she was accompanied by the President and leaders of an independent Irish state as she paid tribute to both those who died on the Somme and those who died in the fight for Ireland’s freedom.
Yet where was Sinn Fein when the British monarch bowed her head in tribute to Padraig Pearse and James Connolly? It was on the street outside chanting and holding protest signs. It was seeking to discipline the one Sinn Fein councillor in the country who knew the party’s position was inexcusable and had the courage to defy it. These were empty and divisive stunts, witnessed by millions.
Sinn Fein cannot be fully committed to all-island, all-community politics if it continues to insist on its own version of history and what it means to be Irish. How can a party be truly all-island and committed to convincing unionists if it sells t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with “IRA undefeated army”?
Increasingly, SF is not only demanding respect for its tradition of militant republicanism, it is trying to promote this as the only real republicanism. In spite of the fact that the large majority of republicans on this island repeatedly rejected the campaign of the Provisionals, they demand that their party icons be accepted by the rest of society. Recently Gerry Adams even told the Dáil that Provisional IRA members stood alongside Pearse and Connolly. Simultaneously, his party has undertaken an aggressive policy of trying to turn the commemoration of events of 1916-22 to their narrow party advantage.
In case anyone still believes that Fianna Fáil says these things about Sinn Fein because of a fear of electoral challenge, the fact is we have been saying these things for years and, they are in no way our direct competitor.
Their basic positioning is as the all-purpose, anti-everything protest party. Ours is to be a centre-ground alternative, offering responsible opposition. We never have and never will cede to them the right to define Irish republicanism.
Fianna Fáil speaks out on events in the North of Ireland because we care deeply about this part of the country and because we have invested too much in the process to simply walk away.
Sinn Fein need to realise that the non-stop effort at trying to be “more republican than thou” is a direct impediment to fulfilling the potential of the Agreement in terms of all-island development. It stands in the way of building a credible cross-party agenda and it reinforces the fears of some in Northern Ireland that Sinn Fein does not genuinely respect their place in Irish society.
I and my party are working for the day when the people of this island agree to share a common state – however this will never be achieved by gesture politics and failing to show a more urgent commitment to developing the institutions of the agreement.
Unionists that will need to be convinced of the benefits of a new Irish State must first be convinced that republicans respect their identity within the current constitutional arrangement.
Parties need to return to the founding principles of this process, which see everyone as having a shared stake in success and which say that we should all try to respect our histories in a way which is non-divisive.
After the intensity of the years of violence and then the negotiations, the level of all-island news coverage has significantly fallen. Media outlets should take steps to make sure that citizens in both jurisdictions have a proper ongoing knowledge of events in the other jurisdiction. This is where real understanding will develop.
If we only pay attention to each other when there’s trouble, we’re going to see very limited.
The framework already exists within which institutions and cooperation can develop.
Unfortunately the governments have not been pushing the need to develop this all-island approach more assertively. The economic crisis is not over in Europe, but the contours of what it will take to succeed are becoming clear.
If you take these into account, by every reasonable measure, sustained growth and employment creation both North and South would be helped by deeper economic cooperation.
From my time as both Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I know that to attract investment, to grow trade and to have stronger domestic demand, using the full resources of the island are to everyone’s benefit.
To give one example, energy generation and supply is central to economic success and vital environmental objectives. A genuine integration of energy markets would improve supply, reduce environmental impact and benefit both consumers and industry. Electrons don’t come in green and orange versions.
We can already see the benefits of smaller cooperation. Here in Queens you have an energy research centre which gets significant funding from Dublin as an all-island leader in a growing area.
The benefits of systematic cooperation in the field of education have not been fully realised. Good pilot programmes have been run and now need to be developed. With budgets under pressure, shared resources are a benefit to all.
We can visibly see the results of co-operation in the health services .Patients on both sides of the border avail of jointly planned dialysis and breast care services. In December 2011 there was a Report published by the North South Research Forum along with CAWT which identified more services that could be opened up on both side of the border, such as services for cystic fibrosis, paediatrics, orthopaedic and ENT surgery.
The other service that they identified which I believe should be prioritised as a matter of urgency is the area of mental health services. Given the recent all island report that showed we had the highest suicide rate in the EU we need it to be addressed collectively.
Surely a greater urgency on implementing an all-island cooperation on critical health services is something positive which can be treated with urgency?
North and South of the Border, the opening up of proper transport links has already made a big impact, but again there is a need for a more systematic engagement. Regrettably, the Dublin Government has decided that there will not be immediate progress on the A5, citing economic pressures. However, no excuse remains for delays on progressing the bridge at Narrow Water. In that case, we just need Minister Sammy Wilson to give it the formal go-ahead and European support will be released.
Agriculture is also an area that is crucial to the economies of both north and south.It makes sense that there is co-operation particularly during the CAP negotiations, animal welfare issues and in areas of cross border rural development .
These are a few of the many, many areas where a greater cooperation on an all-island basis would be a benefit to all. Equally I have no doubt that the broader perspectives of a deeper and more systematic engagement about social and economic policies between our political systems would be to the benefit of both.
I have specifically not gone into the work of the cross-border bodies because I want to make the point that the all-island agenda cannot be defined by their tasks or the compulsory agendas of ministerial councils. Genuine cooperation doesn’t need a legal basis, it is an ongoing search for areas of mutual interest.
It is worth noting that one of the areas where there has been real progress has been the engagement of non-governmental organisations and academics. Much of the best policy development and debate has been facilitated by groups outside of government pushing no political agenda and interested only in the long-term, sustained development of this island.
A significant increase in political engagement and economic activity on an all-island basis threatens no one and offers real benefits to all.
All of which brings me back to you, a new generation of students studying the art of politics. The Agreement of 1998 is not history. It was meant as just one stage in a dynamic process, not an end in itself. Problems built up over hundreds of years, and urgent contemporary social and economic needs, could never be overcome in a short period. The sense of drift and disillusionment which are undeniably now a growing factor, and which have the potential to threaten hard-won progress must be overcome. To do this parties have to understand their responsibilities and they and the governments have to show a greater commitment to developing rather than just managing the institutions of the Agreement. Central to this must be to properly the all-island dimensions of cooperation and political engagement.
But there is also an obligation on you. There is nothing inevitable about peace and there is nothing inevitable about progress. You have an obligation not to accept the assurances of any political party or orthodoxy at face value. You have an obligation to take up the process and make it bigger, make it better – to deliver the potential that was written into the Agreement and remains untapped today.
This generation has been given a historic opportunity. It must not waste it.