Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Northern Ireland Issues
Seán Haughey (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
It is important to acknowledge the enormous progress in building relationships on this island, both within Northern Ireland and between North and South, in the ten years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Compared to the long decades of the Troubles, we are truly in a new era of peace, prosperity and co-operation. An inclusive, power-sharing Executive headed by Dr. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was probably unthinkable only a few years ago but it is now a reality. Such positive developments demonstrate it is possible to change attitudes, develop relationships and work together for the benefit of all. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement collectively gave a commitment to take further steps to actively promote and develop respect, reconciliation and mutual understanding between the different traditions on the island. These commitments are as relevant today as they were ten years ago. They form the foundation stones for the new era of peace, partnership and prosperity which is being progressively built in Northern Ireland, and across the island.
In this spirit of reconciliation and inclusivity and of reaching out to all the traditions on this island, the Government decided to develop a visitor centre at the Battle of the Boyne site. Arrangements are being made for the Taoiseach and Dr. Paisley to open this new centre in the coming weeks. All Members will recall the genuine appreciation expressed for this work by all shades of unionism when Dr Paisley visited the site last May at the invitation of the Taoiseach. We will continue to maintain and develop this site as an expression of our ongoing commitment to our shared history.
It is, however, undeniable that there is much still to be done. In parts of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the number of so-called "peace walls" and "peace lines" has increased since the cease-fires of 1994. Such structures have been erected at the behest of local communities, both nationalist and unionist, which fear sectarian attacks and they are a sign of our collective failure to date to tackle sectarianism comprehensively. In this regard, I also refer to the attacks on Orange halls in the past few years, primarily in Northern Ireland, but there was also an attack on the Orange hall in Drumartin, County Cavan last autumn. In addition, there were attacks on GAA clubs in Fermanagh and Armagh last winter. I reiterate the Government's unreserved condemnation of such actions. These incidents have been rightly condemned across the community in Northern Ireland. They are cowardly attempts to intimidate and sow division. Those who perpetrate such acts are not representative of the wishes of the people of this island, North and South.
It is not all bad news on this front, with the overall number of reported sectarian attacks falling in recent years. However, it is clear that combating the scourge of sectarianism remains a key challenge in the months and years ahead. While leadership on promoting reconciliation and combating sectarianism must come primarily from the Northern Ireland Executive and the local communities involved, the Government also wants to play its part in dealing with these issues. In terms of specific action, the Good Friday Agreement included an undertaking "to positively examine the case for enhanced financial assistance for the work of reconciliation" by voluntary and community organisations. We have lived up to this commitment through the Department of Foreign Affairs reconciliation fund. Much of the work which promotes reconciliation is being carried out at a local level, by organisations that are small and that often have a relatively low capacity. We have long realised that even small grants offered to such organisations can have an immediate return, by building relationships and tackling issues head-on at a local level.
The positive example of these organisations is, unfortunately, juxtaposed with the reality that sectarianism is a continuing problem in many parts of Northern Ireland. The progress made at the political level is not always reflected in the experience of ordinary people and this was highlighted by the Senator. Thus, it was decided to include in the current programme for Government a commitment to prioritise the battle against sectarianism and, in pursuit of this objective, to establish a dedicated anti-sectarianism fund. This fund, launched by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in February is intended specifically to support projects designed to address the root causes of sectarianism. The projects availing of these awards illustrate the many ways through which we can challenge the scourge of sectarianism, assisting local communities to move forward.
For our part, we will continue to place reconciliation and the elimination of sectarianism, racism and other forms of hatred at the very centre of our policies. One of the projects funded by the reconciliation fund is Ballymena Learning Together which brings together the nine schools in the town in order that children from both communities can get to know each other. While at the political level much has been achieved, the true test lies at the community and grassroots level. Decades of division and mistrust cannot be dispelled in a few months. Reconciliation will be the work of a generation, perhaps more than one. Progress will be incremental but the goal of a better and shared future for the people of this island is one which, working together, we can and must achieve.