Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here today for the opening of what I believe will be an extremely valuable and important conference.
London was the centre of the political and parliamentary life at the time of the Ulster Covenant and it is entirely appropriate that there should be an important commemoration event here.
The second decade of the 20th century was one where identities and political allegiances were defined and crystallised. Cultural, political, social identities and allegiances were not asserted for the first time of course, but they were crystallised in a new, sharper, way, with a greater appeal to larger numbers of people acting together. They were also defined in the context of demanding new political and economic circumstances – the deluge of the War, political developments at Westminster relating to Home Rule and the House of Lords, and economic developments spurring the growth of the trade union movement.
Fundamentally, the defining and assertion of identities, allegiances and social values is a positive development. (At the very least, it is better that they are defined than sublimated or suppressed.) And so, one hundred years on, in the second decade of the 21st century, we can look back and celebrate and reaffirm, to our own preferences, the positive aspects of defining and asserting identities, allegiances and values of that tumultuous decade.
However, I am acutely conscious that I am standing in a room full of experts who know more than I do of the events which changed the course of our history 100 years ago.
So be assured - I am not going to risk my reputation by trespassing on your territory, or speaking to you in any great detail about the events of that time. That is your job.
But like many before me in politics, in Britain and in Ireland, on the left and on the right, unionist and republican, I have drawn inspiration from some of the political figures of this period.
For me, as a practicing politician and a member of Government, I take my inspiration most from the assertion of values of social justice and equality led by the Labour movement founded by James Connolly.
And though I look more to Connolly and Larkin than to Carson and Craig for my inspiration, no one could fail to admire the scale of achievement the Covenant campaign represented.
Over a period of just a few months in the summer of 1912, the leaders of the campaign were able to mobilise over half a million Ulstermen and women to actively participate in a political campaign against Home Rule.
Even today, in the era of Facebook ‘likes’ and text message voting on T.V. talent shows, those figures would be impressive. In the context of the time, without the benefit of such technology, they are no less than astonishing.
I want to take a moment to reflect not on the Covenant – you will do that – but on your work, this conference and its wider political significance.
Commemoration is a political act and a human need as much as it is a historical process. It is as difficult and complicated as it is vitally important. Handled with respect, sensitivity and accuracy it can be enabling and even transforming.
Of course, commemoration can also be mishandled - or not handled at all.
Looking back on the decade that we ourselves are now remembering, William Butler Yeats reflected:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.
When it comes to feeding ourselves on fantasies, an Englishman put it more pithily. In the long run, wrote EM Forster, “spoon feeding….teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon”.
Well, long after Yeats wrote those lines, we continued to feed ourselves on fantasies. Some of us still do.
The past has to be handled with respect. Respect for the record and respect for each other. Your work ensures respect for the record and for the complexity that marks our past. Ensuring respect for all traditions and points of view is a political challenge.
It is a challenge that the Irish government is acutely aware of. I want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Maurice Manning and his colleagues on the academic committee who are advising the Government on commemorations for their assistance.
The Queen’s visit to Ireland last year was a visible expression of the British Irish partnership – founded on respect, and closer than at any time in our history as neighbouring states.
We may not always have cooperated in the past, but we can cooperate on the past. And we know too that commemorations also present very real challenges.
I have enjoyed many discussions on commemorations with the Foreign Secretary William Hague and former Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Hugo Swire and I look forward to continuing this work also with Theresa Villiers.
The finest historical research and insight will not change human nature. We are political by nature and we will always differ in our perspectives and in the importance we attach to the various anniversaries. As the Queen noted in Dublin Castle last year the complexity of our history and its many layers and traditions is challenging, but she was right to remind us of the “importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.” I suspect that holds true for historians as much as for politicians. But the essential ingredient is respect.
Respect was nowhere to be found when scores of PSNI Officers were injured, some of them hospitalised, over two nights of disturbance this week in North Belfast. The recent parades-related violence in North Belfast is shocking and very regrettable. While great progress has been made in recent years, the scenes of rioting on television screens around the world s clearly sends out a very negative and confusing message about community relations. These scenes remind us of the need to address the root causes of division and sectarianism and the need to promote the shared future agenda.
What honour will it do to those who marched to express their belief in the Union, if this centenary is marked by violence?
“There’s no better way of forgetting the past than by commemorating it” says a character in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys.
While the Parades Commission is carrying out a thankless task in very difficult situations, it is unfortunately, having to make rulings that are not welcomed by all. The Parades Commission has received much criticism but it is sectarianism that is the key issue that needs to be addressed.
But I believe in the positive power of politics and I believe it can and will assert itself to ensure that this week is remembered for what Rory McIlroy achieved in Boston and Michael McKillop in London rather than for what has happened around Carlisle Circus in Belfast.
We must learn from the past and plan for the future. The commemoration of the signing of the Belfast Covenant is an opportunity to reflect on the past and to promote mutual respect and understanding.
It should not be an occasion of division but rather one which highlights that we can show tolerance and mutual respect for both traditions.
While we are aware of the challenges still facing us, great progress has been made and I have every confidence that the shared future agenda will be addressed and that future historians can mark the day when interface violence is a thing of the past.
One of history’s great gifts to politics has been to interrogate those fantasies that Yeats wrote about and to reveal the complexity that characterised our past, as it does our present.
Earlier this year, I invited First Minister Peter Robinson to deliver The Edward Carson Lecture at Iveagh House in Dublin. It was a reminder that Carson, the Dubliner and Irish language enthusiast represents an Irish unionism that is a part of our political legacy, as rooted in Dublin as in Derry. The First Minster considered the legacy of Carson, and left us with some provocative and challenging thoughts about the future direction of Unionism.
Later this month, we will be supporting a series of exhibitions in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan on the lives of the signatories of the Covenant in those border counties.
I am particularly glad that the Reconciliation and Anti-Sectarianism Fund has been able to provide assistance for this event. For many years now, this Fund has proven to be an invaluable tool in supporting initiatives to deepen understanding and build relationships between different people and communities in Ireland and across these islands.
One of the abiding legacies of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Rising in 1966 was the flowering of critical historical research in the years which followed. This has left us with a richer and more nuanced understanding of the events of 1916 and those who were part of them than was previously the case.
No doubt your work too will leave a legacy. We should consider now, at the start of the decade, how young adults emerging from our schools in ten years time will understand their history. How will that shape their sense of citizenship?
I hope that legacy – in part at least – will be a greater understanding of how people lived, how they understood their world and their place in it. I hope that over time, this history will be as familiar to schoolchildren as the names of the political leaders.
I know that valuable work is already underway in this regard. The launch of the website of Military History records last month will do much to enhance awareness of the individual stories of those who participated in the War of Independence.
I would like the next generation to learn what it would have been like for ordinary men and women to have signed the Covenant, stood with Larkin and Connolly in the struggle for a living wage, to have been part of an organisation like the Ulster Volunteers or the Irish Volunteers, to have joined the movement for women’s suffrage, to have fought at the GPO or the Battle of Messines.
Conferences such as this are an important step towards that goal. I am heartened to note that such a broad approach is being taken to understand the Covenant in its historical context.
I would like to thank Dr. Ian McBride and his colleagues at King’s College, as well as the staff at the Irish Embassy, for their hard work over many months in organising this event., and to wish you all every success in the coming days.