Skip to main content

Kennedy Summer School 2014, New Ross ‘History Repeats Itself’ Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan T.D.

2nd September 2014 - Charles Flanagan TD

I am very pleased to be here this afternoon to participate in the Kennedy Summer School.

It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Dr. Ian Paisley today.

He was a man of strong principles and a deep religious conviction who was the voice of many people from his tradition. He was admired by many for his resolute spirit and his strength of purpose. These qualities were very much to the fore when he did what was once unimaginable and, together with Martin McGuinness, brought nationalist and unionist parties together in partnership government in the Northern Ireland Executive.

I want to extend my deepest sympathies to Baronness Paisley, their children and wider family on their loss. I also extend my sympathies to his friends and former colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party.

I’d like to thank the Chairperson of the John F. Kennedy Trust, Noel Whelan, for his kind invitation and to pay tribute to Noel whose vision and drive have been the key to the success of this Summer School, now in its third year.

The School is a fitting legacy of the Kennedy family links to Ireland, North and South. In particular I am pleased to have this opportunity to reply to this year’s Edward M Kennedy Lecture delivered by Baroness Nuala O’Loan.

The late Senator Ted Kennedy had a lifelong commitment to justice, equality, human rights and, through these prisms, made an enormous contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. A number of these themes and values are reflected in Nuala’s address today.

And in Nuala’s address, I heard echoes of Ted Kennedy’s own call for a commitment ‘not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out’.

Nuala is almost uniquely qualified to speak to the theme of truth and reconciliation on this island, and her insights merit deep reflection. She has that most important attribute, what we call in Irish ciall ceannaithe or earned wisdom, experience which she shares with great generosity and heart.

Her term as the first Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland was essential to the embedding of this important oversight institution, a corner stone of the new policing structures, one of the most striking and positive changes resulting from the peace process. The Patten report is now fifteen years old: the work of that Commission was essential to the construction of an accountable police service which has the confidence of the wider community and which is internationally recognised for its embedding of human rights principles at the heart of its work.

As we heard, her work on the legacy cases investigated by her office enriches our collective understanding of some of the dark corners of the Troubles and, in so doing, helps to bring some relief to families affected by violence.

Nuala’s work has also revealed, as her lecture shows, the complexity of what has become termed ‘dealing with the past’: it is time consuming, it is expensive, it is done in silos; there are competing expectations, narratives and perspectives – all the more so because so many families were scarred by the years of violence and each person, each family, affected brings its own needs and experiences to bear. To this we must add the human rights obligations which each State must observe, and which the work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland – to mention but one actor – does so much to vindicate.

I spoke of ciall ceannaithe: Nuala’s wisdom owes much to her personal experience of violence, including surviving an IRA bomb, though not without her own personal loss. We heard her speak of the Harryville protests, where for Sunday after Sunday to attend Mass she had to walk past unvarnished hatred. Society’s ills have touched her and her family in profound ways.

Nuala spoke of ‘watching the changing of hearts and minds’: she, however, has been a participant, a protagonist in the very essential process of changing those hearts and minds. And she continues to do so, through her ongoing engagement with peace building in many parts of the world (including for a period as the Government of Ireland’s Roving Ambassador for Conflict Resolution and Special Envoy to Timor-Leste), in raising awareness of human rights, and her continuing engagement with a number of accountability processes.

It is through Nuala’s contribution and the contribution of many others, some celebrated and others anonymous, that peace has come to Northern Ireland – imperfect perhaps, but still much better than what preceded it. As Nuala highlighted in her paper, much has been achieved. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Things that were unimaginable a few years ago have become everyday reality.”

For me, it is the very banality of most of political discussion in Northern Ireland that is the real marker of change, based as it is on daily engagements around issues that affect the whole community rather than perhaps the landmark events – big house talks, agreements, great leaps forward – which we most often celebrate.

Relations between these islands have been transformed – the State visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland and of President Higgins to the UK symbolise the deep friendship between two equal partners, united by a shared and complex history – part of whose complexity we are giving expression to in this decade of commemorations. Also we frequently find ourselves in common purpose across the gamut of issues which our Governments face, in particular as we come together through our membership of the European Union and our deep economic interdependence. The two Governments role as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement binds us together beyond mere geography, while our friendships are reinforced through family ties and a close economic relationship. This relationship has never been closer and continues to evolve. We are islands truly reconciled.

That said, and as Nuala rightly questioned, the process of reconciliation and healing in Northern Ireland continues – the wounds of the past still pain in our present. Given the trauma suffered by so many, this is no surprise. While politics is much more banal, much more normal than twenty years ago, the embedding of the institutions remains a work in progress. The trust necessary for the day-to-day compromises and exchanges which make politics work are sometimes prisoner to old suspicions and wounds yet to fully heal.

Earlier this week, the First Minister articulated his frustration working in a system which he perceived was not delivering sufficiently on important and contentious issues. His frustrations are shared by parties across the political spectrum, by community representatives, by academics. They see a politics which has atrophied, affecting reconciliation, lives and potentially even the very process itself, a politics where the necessary trust to work a coalition has not been sufficiently constructed.
Difficulties in making politics work sits uncomfortably with the great courage shown by so many over the past twenty years in taking the steps necessary to achieve peace in Northern Ireland: I sometimes ask whether there is the same courage to lead on what are perhaps less challenging issues, to safeguard and build upon the substantial progress already made? Is there the courage to really build trust across party divides?

Building this trust is the responsibility of all in political life, who must demonstrate that compromise is not a dirty word but the very essence of successful politics. This may require a different dialogue with their bases, to articulate that successful politics is about understanding the needs of partners and finding mutually acceptable arrangements to accommodate what can be quite different positions.

The history of the peace process demonstrates that politicians and civil society in Northern Ireland have the genius necessary to resolve deep differences, through respectful and constructive dialogue. I don’t underestimate the challenge and difficulties which this encompasses. But the significant leaps taken over the years since the Good Friday Agreement show that the people understand and expect the necessary and enabling process of compromise, mutual understanding and respect – this should give the confidence to lead from the front, rather than behind.

Hearts and Minds
Nuala quoted President John F. Kennedy’s observation that peace “… lies in the hearts and minds of all people.” Given the scars, the wounds and the damage suffered, perhaps we should not be too surprised if from time to time the optimism we have for a reconciled and shared society falls short of our expectations: as W.B. Yeats said in another context, “peace comes dropping slow.”

The pace of peace can be picked up by focussing on healing those hearts and minds – and I agree with Nuala that this work must be incremental, because it would be naive to expect that wounds heal just so. We have been building incrementally over the twenty years since the ceasefires and the sixteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, although more has to be done.

But the pace of the healing can only be determined by the comfort levels of the people of Northern Ireland and political leaders with the progress to be made. Many choices must be made and challenges addressed in this process. The process of healing will continue to receive our unswerving support.

Nuala outlined some of the choices and challenges which must be addressed. These include her view – which in many ways echoes that of Dr Richard Haass, and which was so well mapped by the Eames-Bradley report – that an investigation commission would contribute to healing the past, in part through liberating the policing institutions to concentrate on the present. As was said when the Talks chaired by Dr Haass did not result in agreement, this was a step not taken. I expect that we will return to dialogue on dealing with the past (and parades and flags) again shortly, because it is right, because as Nuala has said it is necessary, and because across society people are demanding that real progress is made.

The theme of this Summer School is ‘History Repeats Itself’. And it does. History will repeat itself when dialogue and talks are again shown to be the best way, as they were in times of previous impasses, to make progress in resolving contentious issues in Northern Ireland.

I am very aware of the sensitivities which attach themselves to this subject: difficult choices are proposed, some of which may require us to rethink or reassess that which we hold true, and which could cut deep those most affected by the conflict. This is not to say the challenge is too sensitive or difficult to resolve. Instead, to move forward there is a requirement for generosity of spirit and genuine understanding from all if we are to continue the journey towards reconciliation.

Beyond the Past
In considering how generosity of spirit and understanding can be achieved, I reflect on the writings of the American political scientist, Howard Zinn, who said that:
“What we chose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

In 1998, we succeeded in spinning the world of Northern Ireland in a different direction. I believe we can do so again: while we must deal effectively with the cruelty of the Troubles, cruelty cannot be our only narrative – to move forward we must also celebrate compassion, courage and kindness.

Of course, “the past does not exist independently from the present.” There are present day issues which cut across the ability to deal with the past but which are rooted in history and perceptions of history. There are also decisions taken and decisions shirked today which complicate our ability to move away from the entanglements of the past, which complicate the normal stresses and strains of any political forum. Rather than shy away from the difficult conversations which can arise when differences emerge, it is time to talk openly, frankly and honestly around the causes of political and societal difficulty, in particular the past, so that we can move more decisively towards that reconciled, prosperous and forward-looking Northern Ireland that is our goal.

Over the coming weeks and months I will be talking to the political parties in the North, and with the British Government, to encourage the re-affirmation of our commitment to the fundamental principles of the peace process: power-sharing and partnership government; equality; ending division; human rights; parity of esteem; support for the rule of law and the devolved institutions. These conversations will take place in the context of the continuing role of the two Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. In recent weeks and days I have had useful discussions with the Party leaders in Northern Ireland. I appreciate their candour and constructive approach. I look forward to continuing and deepening those discussions in the months ahead.

The realisation of the full potential of the Agreement includes a bill of rights, a civic forum, the increased participation of women in political life, integrated education and shared housing. There has been a temptation to cherrypick only the elements with which one side of the community or another are comfortable – this cannot continue: we must have a truly multi-dimensional, inclusive and respectful politics.

I don’t underestimate the ambition required. Nuala’s exposition of the challenges of dealing with the past demonstrates this. Neither do I believe that this is a task just for the political class: politicians need to be given confidence to act bravely through encouragement by wider society – business, community groups, churches and others.

However, I do believe that the reinvigoration of the ambition and leadership which brought us the success and hope of 1998 has the capacity to address and resolve the challenges which remain – including and in particular that of the legacy of the Troubles – which Nuala has so poignantly discussed.

Thank you. 

Stay Up To Date With Fine Gael