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Address by the Tánaiste at the 7th Reconciliation Networking Forum, RHK

Northern Ireland Peace Process, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Northern Ireland, 2012

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my privilege to welcome you here today to the seventh annual Reconciliation Networking Forum, an important gathering of beneficiaries and other stakeholders connected with the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds operated by my Department. I am aware that some of you have travelled considerable distances and I am grateful that you have taken the time to do so. I would also particularly like to welcome John O’Dowd MLA, Northern Ireland Minister for Education and my Government colleague Ciaran Cannon TD, Minister for Training and Skills, who will take part in today’s proceedings.

Since taking office just over a year ago, I have been hugely impressed by the range and depth of activities in the area of peace-building and reconciliation in which many of you here today have been directly involved.

British-Irish Relations

When we met in Dublin Castle last year, it was mere weeks after the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.  With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, we can now see quite how important that visit was.  It symbolised a new and mature relationship between Britain and Ireland.  A relationship of equals, built on foundations of mutual respect.

It is right that the take a moment to reflect on how far we have come.  We are deservedly proud of what we have achieved.  But in an environment which is becoming ever more challenging for all the citizens of these islands, we must not be complacent.  The visit of Queen Elizabeth laid to rest many of the ghosts of past conflict on these islands.  Now we must look to the future of relationships on this island and between these islands.  What will these look like in 5, 10 or 20 years?

The Taoiseach and Prime Minster Cameron set out many of the parameters of that relationship when they met in March.  Theirs was the first such meeting not wholly or primarily concerned with the situation in Northern Ireland and I have pursued this agenda in recent discussions with the British Foreign secretary William Hague.

We have highlighted a number of priority areas for cooperation over the coming decade.  In particular we have agreed on the value and importance of deeper economic cooperation to foster economic growth and create jobs.  In particular, we have identified some areas with great potential for closer cooperation: energy cooperation, including renewable energies, the agri-food sector, professional and financial services and the creative industries.


Last year, this Forum focussed on the issue of commemorations.  We had some very productive discussions about the opportunities, as well as the challenges, facing us in the coming years. 

The period from 1912 – 1922 was a defining moment in the course of Irish history.  The events of that decade defined the political structures and national identities which are still with us today.  When I spoke to you last year, I set out the principles which would underpin the government’s approach to the decade of commemorations: principles of tolerance, inclusivity and mutual respect.

We are now over halfway through the first year of the decade.  1912 was the year which saw the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill.  It saw the mass mobilisation of resistance against the Bill across Ulster, and throughout these islands.  We should acknowledge that this anniversary carries particular resonance for the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.  We have already seen some major initiatives to mark this anniversary, and more will be organised in September, around the anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant.

But while we respect the importance of this anniversary to many, all of us on the island of Ireland must also recognise that this is part of our history.  The past belongs to all of us, and it is beholden on all of us to mark the events of the past in a spirit of cooperation as well as respect for those who hold differing views.  These principles must apply across the decade, for all upcoming anniversaries.

The Irish government is fully committed to marking the centenary of the Ulster Covenant in this manner, with sensitivity and respect.  Through the Reconciliation Fund, we will be supporting exhibitions on the signatories of the Covenant in the border counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal.  We are also supporting an academic conference on the Covenant in London in September.

Earlier this year, First Minister Peter Robinson delivered the Edward Carson lecture in the ballroom of Iveagh House in Dublin.  In the course of that address, he emphasised how remembrance of the past can act as a guide for the future.  He reflected on the legacy of Carson, but he also outlined challenging agenda for Unionism, over the coming years.

I think that the First Minister has shown us the potential which commemorations hold for reconciliation and deepening mutual understanding.  Commemorating a shared history does not mean that we must always agree.  We can each remember the past in our own way, provided we do so in a manner which is respectful of the views of others.

Over the coming years, we must all be prepared to have our own conceptions challenged.  While we are determined to seize the opportunities the coming anniversaries afford – anniversaries such as the 1913 Lockout, the First World War, the 1916 Rising, and Partition – we are also aware of the risks these hold. 

Our task will be to draw out the complexities of history, in order to better understand the complexity of who we are today.  We must look not just at the famous events, or the notable figures, but also at the wider historical context.  What did the decade starting in 1912 mean for ordinary people, for workers, for women and for children?  How did the conflicts of those years impact on their lives?

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be to engage the interest of those not already interested in history.  If it is to be of any real worth, it is vital that commemoration is not just an academic exercise.  It must be something which engages young people and provokes thought and debate on our future as a society.

In particular, far more needs to be done with young people, through the education systems North and South, as well as through community organisations.  How best can we engage with young people on commemorations? What kind of adult will emerge from our schools in ten years time when this decade is complete? Will their sense of identity be less polarised, more inclusive than ours? What will their job prospects, their ambitions for the future, for their children? The steps that we now take will determine the future that we can offer them. These are some of the issues that John O’Dowd and Ruairi Quinn are faced with as Education Ministers and I believe that looking at North South cooperation in this area is one aspect of securing that future for our young people.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, education is one of the six areas of co-operation on which common policies and approaches are agreed in the North South Ministerial Council but implemented separately in each jurisdiction. In the education sector these include education for children with special needs, educational under-achievement, teacher qualifications and school, youth and teacher exchanges.

I know that the Minister Quinn and Minister O’Dowd are at present looking at their Departments undertaking  a cross-border “attitudinal survey” of school demand , which will seek to identify interest in cross- border pupil movement and assist in school planning.  

I should also mention that at the plenary meeting of the NSMC which took place last Friday in Farmleigh between the Government and the Executive, one of the issues that Ministers discussed was the importance of increasing cooperation between North and South on Third Level Education. With demand for third level and higher education on the rise, the sector in both jurisdictions is now facing serious challenges, including as a result of the changes to the fee structure in English universities. 

Northern Ireland faces new challenges of moving beyond the stability of the institutions and the evolving focus from peace to prosperity. A new generation has grown up since the 1994 ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and are more concerned by the future than the past but remain affected by the social and economic legacy of the past. There remain outstanding issues with the potential to destabalise Northern Ireland such as entrenched sectarianism and dissident activities exacerbated by social deprivation and exclusion.

Today’s event is focused on exploring how education and training policy can best prepare our young people to deal with the challenges of an uncertain future. We face many of the same challenges on both sides of the border and it is important that we take the opportunity to co-operate and learn from each others experiences. It is through education and training that we can try to give our young people the bext preparation for life ahead and offer them a positive and fulfilling future. A lot of good work is already being done by groups in this room in tackling vital issues inside and outside the classromm and I hope that todays even will give us the opportunity to  learn more about these efforts and perhaps start a conversation about how we, as Government and the community and voluntary sector can work together to build a bteer future for young people on both sides of the border.

I think the Reconciliation Fund has played, and will play, a decisive role in this.    I hope that those of you working in this challenging area will continue to see the Fund as a resource from which to draw support, and this Department as a partner with which to work on these issues over the coming years.

N/S Economic

Writing in the Irish Times at the beginning of this year, one of today’s participants Andy Pollak, the Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, expressed concern about a possible “turning away” from north-south cooperation, in the face of the difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves.  It was a thought-provoking piece, but I want to assure Andy, and everyone here, of my own commitment, and that of the government, to North-South cooperation, and the concept of the all-island economy.  

The Programme for Government includes a commitment to work for greater cross-border economic co-operation to accelerate the process of recovery and the creation of jobs on the island.  Ministers have identified priorities for advancing co-operation and are pursuing these on a joint basis with colleagues in the NI Executive through meetings of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) at plenary, institutional and sectoral levels. 

Tourism is a very good example of how we can all work together to promote our mutual benefit.  The Government is working  closely with the Executive and with Tourism Ireland to ensure that the sector’s potential is fulfilled, maximising the benefits of initiatives both North and South, including the Titanic Centenary this year  as well as the upcoming Derry City of Culture and  “The Gathering” in 2013.  Later this month we’ve got the Irish Open in Royal Portrush to look forward to.  Truly, this island is a golfer’s paradise and we all take pride in the achievements over recent years of Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.

With the focus on promoting jobs and growth, there is a particular need to maximise co-operation and participation in current and forthcoming EU Framework programmes for research and technological development; it has been shown that when institutions from the North and South come together, the chances of accessing funding are significantly increased.  

I myself meet regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, for example at meetings of the NSMC.  Likewise they both participated in a highly successful OSCE case study conference at this venue on 27 April.  The North-South Ministerial Council has a particular focus on measures to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland - including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis - on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the administrations, North and South.   In six sectors, co-operation is taken forward by means of the North South implementing bodies. The work they do is quiet, painstaking and often goes unheralded, but collectively they are very much the “engine room” of north-south cooperation.

In the 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement we have seen that politics and people can transcend community divisions. However, while a relatively peaceful society has emerged, the communities still identify very much as being different from the ‘other side’. Although the political situation has normalised considerably we still have a way to go if we are to ensure a lasting peace and a stable future for this island.

That so much has been achieved in the 15 years since the Agreement is a credit to those who worked hard to find common ground and solutions where differences emerged. I know that those of you here are continuing to carry out this work in your own communities. I don’t need to tell you that if we are to really cement this hard–won peace, we need to go further and build a future without sectarianism, without hatred and without division.

We must continually remind ourselves that peace is not an end in itself but the first and necessary stage on a journey towards true reconciliation on these islands.  The great challenge ahead for all of us is to maintain and progressively give effect to that great ambition.  We simply cannot afford to allow complacency to creep in or momentum to slow. 

There are those who do not wish to move forwards but rather try to draw us all back into divided viewpoints and opposing sides. We must remain vigilant of the hearts and minds of our young people that they do not become caught up in a romanticised vision of the past. Those of us who remember the darker times must work hard to pass the message of anti-sectarianism and peace to those who follow behind.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has devoted much time and resources to the fight against sectarianism in the past decade.  The Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Fund is key to our work in this area, work which must continue as long as necessary.

The Irish Government will continue to work closely with the British Government, the political parties in Northern Ireland and other actors to ensure the enormous achievements of peace and stability are sustained and embedded.  There have been challenges and difficulties, however, politicians in Northern Ireland have demonstrated an ongoing ability to persevere and work though issues.   This work must be built upon if the people of Northern Ireland are truly to have the peaceful, shared and prosperous future to which they all aspire.

As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and having regard to my Northern Ireland-related responsibilities, I and my officials look forward to continuing to work with all of you through the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Funds. Despite the difficult economic conditions in which we are forced to operate I am glad to say that the Government has continued to provide significant financial resources to the Funds. This is a sign of the priority that the Government places on the valuable work that you all do in the area of peace building and reconciliation. I have already approved grants of almost €200,000 this year towards commemorations and summer diversionary activities and I expect to be able to award up to a further €2.5 million over the course of this year.

We continue to carefully manage the work of the Funds to ensure that we and you can perform together to the very best of our abilities and to the greatest extent that available resources can permit.

This process may be challenging and give rise to difficult moments, but what matters now and into the future will be ensuring that the foundations of peace remain stable and strong and that peace delivers for the people of this generation and for those generations yet to come.

Such work will be almost as important as that of securing all our economic futures and even, at times, may be even more so.

There is no time to lose and there are many benefits to be gained.

Thank you for your attention.