Wednesday, 18 April 2018
Northern Ireland and 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement: Statements
I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to the House. I also welcome the group from the Presentation secondary school in Thurles. I hope they can listen to some of this important debate as we commemorate the Good Friday Agreement and the importance of it to the country.
I am glad to participate in the Seanad statements on Northern Ireland as we mark and celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
I welcome that this House is taking the opportunity to discuss and reflect on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which comes at another critical time for Northern Ireland. Twenty years on, it is important that everyone should recognise just how far the peace process has been able to progress since the agreement was signed on 10 April 1998, but also the path that is still ahead of us.
The anniversary is an opportunity, first, to remember all that has been collectively achieved through the agreement. The horrendous violence of the past has been ended and peace has been secured. Politics and daily life in Northern Ireland has been transformed, as anybody who takes the time to travel to Belfast or Derry will see. The agreement ushered in a new era in North-South co-operation, which brings practical benefits for people across the island. The Good Friday Agreement has also served as a key to unlock the full potential of relations between Ireland and Britain, which is so important given the depth of the mutual connections between our economies and our people. Perhaps most profoundly, the agreement enabled the journey to full reconciliation to begin, but there is a lot of work still to do on reconciliation.
In reflecting on these achievements secured through the Good Friday Agreement, we must also remember all of those who lost their lives in the violent events of the Troubles. We remember also the survivors, the family members and communities who suffer still from this legacy. The legacy of the past has still to be addressed and this requires the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement framework and there are, of course, other difficulties and challenges today that also need to be overcome within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement. Most immediately, the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council need to urgently operate again, and the Government is working with the British Government to seek a way forward from the current impasse.
In the declaration to the Good Friday Agreement, participants pledged to work in good faith, "to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established" under the agreement. As we seek to address today's challenges, that commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, in all of its dimensions, must be renewed. The Good Friday Agreement is the fundamental framework for relations in Northern Ireland and across these neighbouring islands. The anniversary is a moment to renew our commitment to that indispensable framework and our belief in what can be achieved collectively through the agreement.
Partnership between the Governments, power-sharing between the parties and parity of esteem between communities is what was agreed on 10 April 1998. The agreement was then endorsed by the people in the historic referendums, held North and South, the following month. It is incumbent on everyone with responsibilities under the agreement today to ensure that the overwhelming and enduring democratic mandate for the Good Friday Agreement is upheld. The agreement must be fully implemented, all of the institutions of the agreement need to operate, and the principles of partnership, equality and parity of esteem need to be respected and lived, particularly by those of us in politics. This demands leadership, courage and sheer hard work and diligence. That is something that the two Governments, working with the political parties, can and must provide in order to get all of the institutions of the agreement operating effectively and to continue to move the peace process forward in the years ahead.
As the House will be aware, over the course of the last year the Government and the British Government, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, have worked to support and facilitate the parties in their efforts to form an executive. The devolved power-sharing institutions are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and they need to operate, as does the North-South Ministerial Council, as I have already mentioned. Unfortunately, to date it has not proved possible to reach an agreement on the formation of an executive, despite intensive engagement. Following the absence of an agreement between the two largest parties in the last talks process at Stormont, the Taoiseach spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and emphasised the Government's full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. I have been keeping in close and frequent contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, who I met in Belfast on 10 April and again in London two days ago. I will continue my contacts with the main parties in Northern Ireland, as will the Secretary of State, and we will meet again in two weeks' time.
We must also work together in the context of Brexit, to protect all of the relationships and co-operation that the agreement has built - within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between the United Kingdom and Ireland as a whole.
As we renew our commitment to the Good Friday Agreement at this time of its 20th anniversary, I have also been placing the focus on the duty to seek a full reconciliation, which was finally made possible with the accord in 1998. Reconciliation is the deepest part of the peace process and it is understandable that it is a slow and difficult process given the tragedy and history involved.
I want to highlight and commend the many people, organisations, communities and politicians who have made enormous progress to try to advance the reconciliation that is needed. The Government is proud to support this work through my Department's reconciliation fund and through our contributions to the International Fund for Ireland. Our commitment will be sustained in the years ahead, as we seek collectively to further the process of reconciliation. We only have to switch on the news, listen to political debates or see some of the simply unacceptable views that are posted on social media to understand that we are not where we need to be in moving on from the past.
The full promise of the Good Friday Agreement can only be realised through the commitment in its first lines "to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust". That means neighbours living together in peace and treating each other as neighbours. The Irish language version of the agreement translates reconciliation as "athmhuinteras". Athmhuinteras means friendliness, neighbourliness or connection. The Good Friday Agreement enables us to live together on these islands as neighbours and friends, realising the full potential of our connections, without in anyway diminishing our identities, cultures or language - allowing for Irish or British, or both. A more complex set of identities is possible through the agreement and that can only enrich us all.
All of us need to keep that focus on reconciliation at the forefront of all that we do in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland - to seek a connection, and to speak and act, as a friend, or at the very least as a neighbour. As I have said, there is a particular onus on those of us who are politicians to stretch ourselves and to make ourselves uncomfortable if necessary to try to advance the greater good. That will not always be easy but it will be needed to make progress with the demands of this stage of the peace process, just as it was displayed at Castle Buildings in April 1998.
There is no better alternative than the Good Friday Agreement to reach the higher goals of peace and reconciliation through sheer determination to bridge practical differences because we are all in this together. After hundreds of years of strife and decades of recent conflict, we all stand - Irish, British, unionist, nationalist, loyalist, republican or something else entirely - as people who have the responsibility to find a way of living together.
Twenty years ago, we agreed through the Good Friday Agreement an accord to pursue new and better possibilities. Since that time, we have realised many of them, however imperfectly. On the anniversary of the agreement, we should remember how much has been achieved by brave courageous people from communities, from political parties and in terms of broader leadership. We should renew our commitment to the new beginning the agreement represents. We must take the next steps in our peace process with confidence and determination to address today's challenges and to achieve the full reconciliation that the Good Friday Agreement and its structures make possible. I look forward to hearing Senators' views.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. He will remember the words spoken at the SDLP dinner on the Friday night a fortnight ago, quoting the words of John Hume asking people to live for their country and not die for their country. People often refer to the two communities in Northern Ireland. I think we need to refer to them as the two traditions and the aspiration, of course, is to have one community. That is what the Good Friday Agreement promises.
An analysis of 64 peace processes around the world showed that at the time only 19 were successful. While there are numerous reasons that most of them had failed, there are common themes as to why peace succeeds or fails. One of those, which was tragically present in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, was the concept of a hurting stalemate where both sides were inflicting massive wounds on each other to the point whether neither could suffer any more and therefore decided that rather than continuing the bloodshed, they would sue for peace.
The analysis of those 64 peace processes also identified the need for an outside actor, who is neutral and able to act as an honest broker. We were lucky that we had the United States in that regard. Both sides need to pursue the same objective - in this case the Irish Government and the British Government. For the first time in centuries, all the stars aligned. All the actors and all the people and the leadership that were required were in place, in the form of John Major and Albert Reynolds initially, then and Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, David Trimble, Deputy Gerry Adams, and on the Protestant paramilitary side, David Ervine and all the rest, all pursuing the same agenda. Even then we saw how difficult it was up to the last day for it to come together.
Peace is not an event; it is a process and it will go on for decades. The current impasse can be resolved when one considers the scale of the mountains that have been traversed - bigger than Mount Everest. Decommissioning, the RUC and the UDR have all been addressed and we are stuck on a language Act. It is bigger than that; it is an issue of respect and is about culture. It is about the issues of identity and how two traditions can live in the one community. That is the challenge that still faces us.
Of course, we are despondent that Stormont is in mothballs and therefore the North-South Ministerial Council is not in existence, possibly at the worst time with the issue of Brexit. The most recent House of Commons report on our own Border identified that there are no current technological solutions anywhere in the world that would keep that Border frictionless and open, other than, to quote the House of Commons report, the aspirational. We are facing a very real threat that the existing 275 Border crossings will be reduced again to the number of Border crossings that were open during the height of the Troubles when 40,000 security force personnel could not keep them open and could not keep them secure. It looks like we will be reduced to 20 Border crossings. There have been calls for the Irish and British Governments to get together and hold an intergovernmental conference, that in the absence of the parties in the North being able to reach agreement that there might be a role for Senator George Mitchell or some other individual, although there is no one else in the world like Senator George Mitchell. However, as we reflect on all the things which are not going right at the moment, we must reflect on the last 20 years and all the things that have been achieved in that time and all the lives that have been saved as a result of the peace process. Brexit is a huge challenge to Northern Ireland. I fail to understand how the unionists are not pursuing the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland which is a foot in both camps and special status within the EU, while being part of the United Kingdom. It would give them the best of both worlds, yet they do not pursue it for ideological reasons. John Hume had many things to say about the pursuit of ideology for its own sake rather than asking what is the best outcome for the citizens.
It is interesting that the Minister quoted from the beginning of the agreement, regarding the achievement of "reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust," which as we all know is largely absent in Northern Ireland at the moment between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Expressions on all sides on the cultural issue in relation to the Irish language are not helpful. Once again, what I do not understand from the unionist perspective is how when one can have a Welsh language Act and Scottish language Act, and police vans in Scotland have "police" painted on them in Gaelic, why can this not be done in Northern Ireland? If I was a unionist, I would think that it strengthened the union, by respecting people's identity as they do in Wales and Scotland. It is something that makes them British.
If unionism was a business, it would be going out of business because it cannot attract new customers. Its new customers are to be found in the middle ground, they have been described to me as "small "N" nationalists and small "U" unionists" and are asking themselves what is the best future. I debated with Sammy Wilson on the radio on BBC Northern Ireland, when I said that we have a vision for the next 20 years and we think it is a united Ireland. The vision is down the line but it is one we can make; can unionism make an argument of what the best future is for all the people in Northern Ireland? Will a Brexit Britain be better than Northern Ireland in the EU? Sammy Wilson had no answer to that. There is no answer to that because as we all know, Northern Ireland will be the region most affected by Brexit, more than Scotland, Wales or England itself, which voted for Brexit. That is part of the problem. The unionist communities have concerns that do need to be addressed. If Stormont was up and running, we would be celebrating a huge success. In the challenges that lie ahead in getting it reconstituted, having it up and running again and having the trust back, it needs leadership from the DUP and Sinn Féin but also from Britain. The stars aligned in 1998, but they are not aligning now. With the DUP it is the tail wagging the dog in Westminster and Theresa May is largely hamstrung.
The Good Friday Agreement is lodged with the United Nations as an international agreement. To hear a British Prime Minister row back from the undertakings of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements that Britain has no strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future, and say it is no longer Britain's position, is a concern for us all. We know she is doing that because the DUP is the tail wagging the dog. When that situation ends we might see Britain being more flexible. The Government's approach in the negotiations on Brexit and on Northern Ireland are positive but the issue of the backstop is very important and more clarity is needed on it. Of all things that could destabilise Northern Ireland, the return of physical infrastructure on the Border would be the biggest backward step. We could live with Stormont being mothballed but the return of the Border, whether permanently or for a period, would be a very serious step backwards.
I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and thank him for his statement on Northern Ireland. It can be tempting when we think of Northern Ireland to look at its history. I do not want to dwell on the political history of Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland or indeed the United Kingdom for one minute. I had the privilege of being at a dinner held by the Goliath Trust at the Europa Hotel at which George Mitchell gave the after-dinner speech. Bertie Ahern was also there and there was a live link with Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair.
The Goliath Trust is an initiative which came out of the peace process to co-fund children and young people at disadvantaged schools from different cultural traditions and none. There was much conversation that night and music over the evening. That night I was struck by the number of young people who spoke of their disillusionment with both the DUP and Sinn Féin, who spoke of being let down. That is not a criticism of the parties, per se, but it is what they told me and I want to tell the House. They said that there was a vacuum, yet they had seen vigilantism, crime and a new appetite for aggressive and unacceptable behaviour in their communities and they felt helpless. They did not feel supported.
After a long evening, and various events the following day, having met teachers and community leaders, the thing I took away was that they all felt let down. In his own style, Bertie Ahern said something that only he could say - maybe he planned to say it - but he concluded the evening saying, "Lads, stop the messin'". I told someone that would be on the papers the next day, and sure enough The Mail Irish edition featured it. Our Bertie had come up trumps again. What he said was that the politicians ought to get on with the job that they were elected to do to represent their communities and their people and to show strong leadership with integrity and get on with the job. That is what I took from it. As the Minister has said, the Good Friday Agreement is the only game in town. People want parity of esteem and they also want leadership. They want the agreement to stick. There is a whole cohort of people who are totally disillusioned with politics who want people to lead them. That is the message that I took away from the people I spoke to in Belfast.
It is important that we build relationships and we continue our work. The Acting Chairman is on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly as I am. Just speaking to people, socialising, meeting them, travelling North and South is important.
I conclude by referring to Brexit. I pay tribute to Sinn Féin which produced a very comprehensive paper on it looking at special economic status for Northern Ireland. It produced a paper and that is more than I have seen from most people. It is worth looking at and taking a fresh look. The Minister is committed to it, but there is a strong case for a special economic zone for Northern Ireland.
It is a long process requiring patience. I thank the Minister for his work and acknowledge it in this area.
I had the pleasure of entertaining the Historical and Reconciliatory Police, HARP, Society in Leinster House and hosted them for lunch. It is a combined society of police officers from Northern Ireland and the Republic and includes the old Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary. That could not have happened without the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. As we had lunch, I recalled 1974 and being dragged out of public houses or wherever I happened to be to reassure my mother that I was alive because the IRA had sentenced me to death purely because of a career choice I made when I joined the British Army.Hundreds like me came under the same threat. One colleague from my battalion was taken from Derry into Donegal and shot. It was no joke.
It is important that we remember where we were then because I believe that history is being lost among the younger people in Ireland. We have had such wonderful peace for so long that people are inclined to forget what it was like; it was horrible. Many is the poor mother, widow or father who suffered badly. They are still suffering. With the Good Friday Agreement we got peace and the ability to reconcile among ourselves. I pay tribute to Sinn Féin, which has played its own part. The party members found it in their hearts to vote for me in the by-election that got me into the Seanad the first time. That cannot have been easy and I acknowledge that. Mind you, Fine Gael did too.
-----if ever this State needed somebody with understanding and with a sensitivity to what exists between the traditions in Northern Ireland, it is now. I am proud to stand here and say that the Minister is that man. The Minister is aware that I have met unionist groups in Northern Ireland. Their praise for the Minister has been second to none due to the Minister's understanding, his compassion and his patience. This is what our country needs right now. I am aware there are people who would like to see a Border poll and who believe we could get a Border poll over the line in the morning. We need to remember, however, that for some people when they live in Belfast they are British and when they are on holidays in Spain - for example - they are Irish. We have to try to understand this. I believe that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach, have hit that note. They understand that particular sensitivity. I pay a public tribute to the Minister for that.
The Assembly in Northern Ireland needs to get back and working together. I caution those people in the South who say "Why can they not just get together and sort out their differences?" It is not that easy. If it was they would be together now and they would have sorted it out. I will not lay blame on either side because, as anybody knows, in a divorce situation there is no guilty party; there are always two parties. There are two parties in the current Northern Ireland situation and among themselves they must find a way to get the Assembly up and running. They have to find the accommodation to do so. I am not ashamed to say it - and people may criticise me for supporting the Government - but we need people like the Minister out there, facilitating on the periphery, and we need a Government to continue chipping away at that granite block to break it down to eventually finish up with the goal we all want, which is peace. The goal we want, as Irish people North and South, is to be able to live together in harmony. We can worry about Border polls at some other stage. Let us first learn to accommodate each other, respect each other and get to know one another. It is so sad that so few in this Republic have ever travelled to the north of Ireland to see the beautiful coastline, to meet with the people and have the experience of Belfast, County Down, north Antrim and other parts of this beautiful country. It is sad that so few people from the North have come down to enjoy what we have down here. We need to do this. Border polls will not sort out that problem. Understanding and patience is the way to go.
If I am to say anything about the peace process it is "steady as you go". The Minister is doing a good job. He should just keep on the way he is going. If there is any help I can give at any time - and I am sure I speak for every Member in the House - we are behind the Minister. We will do what we can to support the Minister at any stage.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and I salute his hugely patient efforts in Northern Ireland. We have picked up anecdotally, and from various trips to the North and to London, that there is no doubt the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is winning the confidence of all the actors and major political figures in this whole drama. This is due to the Minister's sincerity, patience and genuine attempt to deal with this. I am aware that the Minister is putting long hours into this, leaving Northern Ireland to go back to Cork at all hours of the night. This merits our acclamation and encouragement. It is clear from the Minister's remarks today that he is not letting up on that.
I come from County Cavan, close to the Border, and I have an acute awareness of all that goes with this and all of the rawness of it. I can openly say that we were very close to being a Balkans situation at many stages during the Troubles. It got very close. What existed was shocking but on many occasions, such as at the time of Kingsmill, we were on the brink of being another Balkans situation or worse and becoming a genocide. Thank God this was avoided, and it was a great achievement. The Good Friday Agreement was born out of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and it merits repetition in a non-partisan way because we must be fair to everyone. That agreement was a prototype and it set the process in motion. It was crystalised and developed further into the Good Friday Agreement. The merit of the Good Friday Agreement was that it had the North-South structures, the east-west structures, an international agreement that the Republic was to give up its claim on Northern Ireland and the principle of a plebiscite of a referendum or Border poll was implied. It was a very wonderful and intricate political exercise. We should salute all of the actors and parties that were involved in it, and everybody who brought it about. This includes the Government of the day, the UK, Sinn Féin and the American dimension - which is very important to us. We salute everybody involved in the process who brought it on and subsequently the Governments on all sides who went on to work it.
At the event in Queen's University the Tánaiste said that it is very easy to forget how things were before the Agreement, especially the winter and spring before that Good Friday. They were shocking. Every morning we arose to more bad news. The agreement was so important. At the event in Queen's University Bill Clinton said that the agreement is a "jewel” in a world “where there are people who are aggressively trying to destroy the very idea of popular democracy”. The points made by the Tánaiste and by Bill Clinton at Queen's University, that the agreement got rid of something that was dreadful and that we should never lose sight of what it was like before the agreement, can only drive us on to hold on to it.
I put it to the Tánaiste and to Members that there is a generation that does not remember what happened then. There is potential to romanticise the past and there is potential for dissident activity to grow. We should never have illusions about that or be naive about it. Areas of disadvantage in Northern Ireland with high unemployment and vulnerable areas require positive interventions. We should advocate for this at all times. This is crucially important.
I shall now turn to the issue of Brexit. Any physical infrastructure on the Border such as cameras will be a potential pot-shot for dissidents, and the soldiers who then go to defend the infrastructure could also be a target. We could then be back to a dreadful situation. Apart from all the economic arguments, which are transparent, there is a compelling case to not have a hard border in the context of Brexit. There is a compelling case for the backstop solution to be implemented if necessary. Let us hope there will be a solution to involve the EU and the UK that will, effectively, maintain a customs union and will allow the Border issue to be dealt with. We have established the commitment for the free movement of people, which is vital. As a local in that area I realise the extraordinary significance of that commitment.While it is not germane to today's discussion, the significant social and economic impact of Brexit merits discussion on another day. I am a member of an all-party committee that is dealing with this issue. It is important that we preserve a seamless border and defend the Good Friday Agreement. In that regard, we fully support the Tánaiste's efforts.
As a parent, teacher and resident of a Border area, we should encourage as much cross-Border interaction as possible, for example, groups from the South travelling North and vice versa. It is often overlooked that substantial funds and grant aid were provided under the PEACE programme. The North-South dimension should have been tied in more strongly to this peace dividend. Physical evidence should be provided of links with groups on the other side of the Border. For instance, if a sports club in the Republic benefits from a grant under the PEACE programme, it should play games in Northern Ireland. While this may be a simple point, real peace is achieved from the bottom up. As a previous speaker stated, peace building is a process and not something one wakes up to some morning. The process dictates that there must be much more North-South interaction and the Tánaiste should seek to make greater interaction a condition of funding.
We aspire strongly to the establishment of a power-sharing administration in the North, the bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement. I cannot see why the Irish language needs to be politicised or why there should be a difficulty around the support of the language. Having checked earlier today with some of those involved, I understand communities can opt out of having Irish street names placed in their areas. A language commissioner should be appointed. I appeal to the DUP to view this solely as a cultural, identity and heritage issue. The Irish language is not a threat to anyone and should not be interpreted as such. I also appeal to Sinn Féin to continue working towards reaching an agreement and to provide as much reassurance as possible on the Irish language issue. In accepting that an Irish language Act should be introduced, I ask Sinn Féin to make further concessions if it is possible to do so.
The two critical issues are the need to maintain a seamless border in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the imperative of getting the devolved institutions up and running again. The self-interest of the people of Northern Ireland dictates that this be done. Political representatives who are not prepared to do so are not doing the right thing by their people.
I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to the House. I am honoured to be able to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a momentous achievement and one of the most significant political milestones of my lifetime. I still remember the incredible feeling of optimism and hope that prevailed on 10 April 1998. The Good Friday Agreement has been an essential vehicle for peace on this island. As parliamentarians, we must do everything in our power to maintain and strengthen it. As the Minister stated, there is no better alternative to the agreement.
While strengthening the Good Friday Agreement will not be an easy task, it is more necessary than ever that we do so. Britain's decision to leave the European Union has put serious pressure on the agreement and dedication, leadership and commitment will be needed to protect it. In that respect, I note the Tánaiste is working extremely hard and doing his best. We must not forget the spirit of reconciliation and desire to put conflict behind us. We cannot accept those who would speak flippantly about the progress the agreement has brought, imperfect though it may be.
I am delighted to note the firm commitment to support the agreement evident across the Chamber today and in my work on the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The committee's recent outreach to community groups in east and west Belfast had a great impact on members and brought a renewed sense of hope regarding the importance of the committee's work. I spoke previously to the Minister about our amazing trip to Belfast where we met representatives of Irish language groups. I was moved to hear them speak from the heart about their belief that their identity was being taken from them. We then visited the Shankill Road where people told us they did not have a problem with the Irish language and wanted decent homes, jobs and mental health services and the regeneration of their communities. The visit was an eye-opener for me.
We must be clear that the Good Friday Agreement is not just a political agreement negotiated to put an end to conflict, but an aspirational document which sets out a vision for a transformed and shared society. The large majorities, North and South, who supported the agreement voted not only for peace but also for shared progress, opportunity, and development. They did not just want a peaceful society but a society that protects the rights of all citizens and provides the education, employment, health care and housing needed for human dignity and to flourish. These goals remain to be realised.
As the Minister will be aware, because we met at the event, I visited St. Mary's College, Belfast, last week where I was struck by some of the testimony on how far the North had come and how much still needed to be done, particularly on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I was especially impressed by speeches on the challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ community and the disproportionate barriers and discrimination that still exist. A young transgender person, Alex Moore, gave an incredibly moving description of the discrimination members of the community face in schools and colleges and the impact this has on their mental health. I fully support the vitally important fight for marriage equality. However, we must ensure the principles of equality enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement extend to all aspects of society. Speaking at the event, Ms Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International summed up the feeling very well when she stated that we cannot claim to be a rights-based society until we are a society of equals, that we cannot be a society of equals while rights are denied and that human rights and equality are fundamental to progress in the North. I was struck by Ms Teggart's words. We must ensure that Britain's decision to leave the European Union does not undermine the human rights and equality protections that are such a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Much of the discussion on Brexit so far has focused on economic issues, particularly trade and agriculture. While these are vital issues that affect the daily lives of many, we cannot allow an exclusive focus on economic issues to overshadow the impact that human rights laws and protections have had. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into the North's domestic law. The convention prohibits discrimination based on "sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status". In 2010, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union came into force and built on the convention, offering improved protections on workers' rights, fair and just conditions, protections against unjust dismissal, access to healthcare, housing and social support, environmental standards, non-discrimination, gender equality and disability rights. The British Conservative Party has stated Brexit will mean a repeal of the Human Rights Act that underpins these protections. We must be absolutely clear that this cannot result in a diminution of human rights protections in the North. We must ensure the protections currently available are upheld and remain legally enforceable and equivalent to those available to people living South of the Border. This equivalence is vital.
Similarly, the extreme recklessness with which the British Government is pursuing a hard Brexit could have a serious impact on the work done to support peace and reconciliation in the North. In my role on the committee dealing with Brexit, I have observed at first hand the vital role European Union funding has played in addressing the legacy issues from the conflict. For example, the EU-funded PEACE programme has provided thousands of people with direct support related to post-conflict recovery.
This includes assisting victims and survivors, conflict resolution workshops, trauma counselling, dealing with post-conflict substance abuse and addressing barriers, physical and non-physical, to fully acknowledge and deal with past trauma. This is the slow, daily, almost unremarkable work that is important for realising the hopes and aspirations contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
As we mark its 20th anniversary, I want to see the British and Irish Governments show real commitment to these principles, and give a firm promise that funding for individuals, families and communities will be maintained, no matter what happens in March 2019. We simply cannot allow a hard Brexit to undermine the work that has been done over the past two decades. More than anything, we should see this anniversary as a moment of renewal, a chance to rely upon the spirit of co-operation and reconciliation that brought the Good Friday Agreement into being in the first place. As elected representatives we must make that our daily work.
I am lucky enough to share a birthday with the Good Friday Agreement. I still remember the incredible power and hope on that day. It has been a beacon globally which has been shown to impact on peace agreements in Bosnia, Sudan, South Africa, Colombia and around the world. It is a beacon not only in itself but because of how it was achieved, including the role played by women, from Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1976 for their work in building reconciliation, to Monica McWilliams, who represented the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition in the talks, to people such as Inez McCormack and Mo Mowlam. Ireland has followed through on this in championing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace building.
It is important that this beacon is not dampened or quashed. Committing to the success of every arrangement must involve the assembly, the human rights and equality commitments and community co-operation. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of that. It is not only an important time, however, in the North it is also a hawkish moment worldwide. It is vital that we do not slip into the old politics of interests, alliances and big powers but champion the multilateral diplomacy and the complex work of peace building represented by the Good Friday Agreement over any lure of militarism. Ireland can and will, I hope, continue to lead in this area.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. Tá lúcháir orm go bhfuil deis agam cúpla focal gairid a rá i gcuimhne go bhfuil 20 bliain caite ó síníodh Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta. I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for attending and speaking at the community event organised by Féile an Phobail in St. Mary's University College and his attendance at Queen's University. St. Mary's, Queen’s and Féile an Phobail are very important institutions in the political, cultural, educational and social life of the people of the North. Both universities are important centres of learning for the people of Ireland, North and South. I also thank former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the former leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy Gerry Adams, for their participation in both events. I extend my appreciation to all those who took part in the events at both universities, including former US President, Bill Clinton, former Senator George Mitchell and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Both events were very impressive and complemented each other's focus and content. The organisers deserve our appreciation for their efforts.
The importance of the Good Friday Agreement as a living document was reflected in the breadth of the attendance at both events and the content of what was said. It was also a time to say thanks to, and remember, Mo Mowlam, David Irvine, Inez McCormack, Martin McGuinness, John Hume and many more for their invaluable contribution to the formation and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Minister's speech was thoughtful, set in an all-Ireland context and addressed the totality of the relationships within this island and between this island and Britain, just as the Good Friday Agreement did 20 years ago and still does to this day. His speech revolved around three themes, and he touched on some of them today: remember, renew and reconcile. In addressing the politics of the here and now in this way he set a fresh framework for today's political leaders in their endeavours to re-establish the all-Ireland institutions on the only credible and sustainable basis, namely, equality and respect.
It is important to remind ourselves that much progress has been made in the past 20 years in moving our society out of centuries of conflict but much more needs to be done. The agreement provides a solid foundation on which to build a democratic and progressive society in the North as part of an island-wide arrangement, as we journey peacefully toward a new, united and independent Ireland. The Irish Government is central to the development and achievement of a democratic society in the North. It is particularly important now because of the behaviour and attitude of the British Government and of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP. They are supporting each other and blocking essential and democratic reform in the North and of course the added dynamic of Brexit in this already toxic environment has made a bad situation much worse. In my view, despite what the British Government and the DUP say in public, they do not want the institutions of the North restored on the basis of equality and respect for all, not for now at least. For these reasons it is important that the Irish Government steps into this political vacuum with proposals based on the Good Friday Agreement to steer the North forward. The people of the North, not least those who do not vote for the DUP or support the Tories or Brexit, should not be denied their democratic rights or access to their political leaders and institutions.
The Irish and British Governments should convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The political impasse must be filled with political initiatives to ensure the progress made over the past 20 years is not frittered away because of political inertia. The North is not a foreign affair. It is a home affair. It is a national priority and must remain so because of the failure of partition and the inherent unstable and undemocratic nature of politics there. The Irish Government's presence in the North and its leadership role are crucial in moving politics forward progressively. The Good Friday Agreement provided momentum for change on many fronts and continues to do so. That is the welcome reality 20 years after it was agreed.
I am acutely aware of, and am a privileged beneficiary of, the change the Good Friday Agreement brought about for us. I am conscious of the loss, the hurt, the sacrifice and the pain that still prevails but I am also thankful for the courage to take the leadership steps that were required at that time and continue to prevail, thanks be to God. I am conscious too of my generation who were young at the time of the signing of the agreement who looked on with great expectation and continue to do so, but unfortunately are disappointed. They are aghast, frustrated, annoyed, angry and fed up at the failure to fully realise that agreement. Even now when we reflect on the momentous initiatives such as policing reform and decommissioning but the agreement is being held up by a denial of people’s rights, their place, national identity, culture, language and citizenship. I do not believe that is insurmountable. If the recent celebrations have done anything that was to act as a reminder and catalyst and that if the political will is there, if the Governments are invested we can overcome those issues. We look upon the agreement, the Governments and political parties with a great deal of expectation. We want delivery and to see the promise of the Good Friday Agreement fully realised.
When we all talk about reconciliation it is not a process between two parties or blocks in the North, the reconciliation envisaged in the agreement was promised to all of us on this island. The legacy of conflict is not a recent phenomenon. It permeates every aspect and fabric of life across the island. We need to look inward for reconciliation, to reflect on the sentiments of what we say and the word and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. We too in this State have an obligation to engage fully in the reconciliation process. That does not mean just attending a meeting or a dinner or looking on in support and a cheerleading role but to be invested and involved, practically, tangibly, on the ground in this process. It also means that people in this Chamber should reconcile with me as a republican from Belfast and I with them. It means accepting the democratic will of the people of the North. I urge the Minister to continue to stand firm in defence of the Good Friday Agreement not least given the potential threat to, and jeopardisation of, it posed by Brexit.Again, I thank the Minister for being present for the celebrations last week. That is not lost on people and is an important part of the Irish Government's role, which I would respectfully suggest was somewhat missing before the Minister's tenure in office. I call on him to keep it up. I urge colleagues in this Chamber and the other House not to take their eye off the ball. Yes, remember, but as the Minister rightly says, reconcile and I would say above all, renew. Renew the passion, renew the dedication and renew the leadership to see the Good Friday Agreement through.
I welcome the Minister here today on this very special day. I do not think most people realise that the Republic officially came into existence on this day 69 years ago. I suppose with every issue, there is always a counterbalance. That brought the Ireland Act 1949 to the House of Commons, which effectively recognised Northern Ireland. Some would say this drove partition or ensured that partition was even more divisive. One of the great days of my life was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. It was signed by Garret FitzGerald and the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and I believe it paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It also ensured that the Republic of Ireland had an official consultative role in affairs in Northern Ireland and brought Ministers from the Irish and British Governments together for the first time since partition.
I have talked to many politicians who say that in the 1950s and 1960s, we effectively operated in our own little silos. There was a big island on the other side, and diplomatically and politically nothing happened. I acknowledge the Anglo-Irish Agreement had its critics but it gave us a role and a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and we are now in a much better place.
I was also in Belfast last week, and I must reiterate what Senator Boyhan said at The Goliath Trust gala in the Europa Hotel on Wednesday night. That organisation works hard to improve disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland that are underachieving in education. Bertie Ahern summed it up. When he was asked for his opinion, he replied that those involved should stop the messing. Before a crowd of perhaps 500 people, he called on the two parties to do so. I understand that it is much more complex than that but he made that appeal. One could see there is a cohort in Northern Ireland that wants Stormont to set up again. To me it was an iconic moment.
Another iconic moment came the day before, when the Minister was at Queen's University in Belfast. We have come a long way, but I think Seamus Mallon sent out a signal when he said that unionism needs to breathe. He noted that at present, its adherents are angry and fearful but they need space to breathe. As a Parliament, with Brexit imminent, it would not be helpful for us to call for a Border poll. That is only my personal opinion.
From what I am hearing and what I see on the ground, we are in a much better place. I pay tribute to all the brave leaders of all the political parties, to the men and women in Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland, and the two islands who made a huge difference in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There are a few difficulties we have to iron out but we are in a much better space than we were 20 years ago.
Brexit is bringing huge challenges to the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation. I still believe that the Irish border will be the Achilles' heel of Brexit. The people of Britain, rightly or wrongly, did not think of the Border issue or the island of Ireland when they were making deliberations on Brexit. These things happen in referendums. We have had 27 referendums in 27 years. People sometimes do not vote on the question that is put to them in referendums. They may not like the Government. It could be due to turf-cutting or water. In this case, it was immigration and the Irish Border did not come into play. I hope it will be the Achilles' heel for Brexit and that the British people will have a change of heart but I it poses huge challenges to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which has been so successful for the last 20 years.
Finally, I note we are in a much better space. It is great that we can talk about all the good that has come out of the Good Friday Agreement and it is wonderful to see that the people of Ireland are united in one thing; that they want peace and a better future for the people coming behind them. As parliamentarians, we have a role to lead and to challenge the narratives but we are in a much better space.
I welcome the Minister and his adviser to the House, and I compliment him on the sterling work he continues to do. This undoubtedly is a day of celebration. I am old enough to remember the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the appalling violence that went on and I do not think it was justified. While there was discrimination, the lies that were told were completely obnoxious. I refer, for example, to the idea that there was not one man, one vote. Of course there was, except in the local authority elections, where there was a property qualification and that was exactly the same down here in the South. The tragedy was that those property qualifications roughly followed the line of the sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and that made it really poisonous. There was also gerrymandering.
Another thing I would say is this. The Good Friday Agreement is wonderful and we do celebrate it. On the other hand, there is a great deal of black bitterness among some sections of the community in Northern Ireland and we must recognise that fact. We have to work to educate those people and bring them forward into a future that is not threatening. I recite today with great pride the names of some of those who were involved in the Good Friday Agreement, such as Seamus Mallon, who is often forgotten and sidelined nowadays. He may have been socially very conservative but was a real beacon of rationality, decency and good faith. John Hume took decisions, very courageously, to meet the IRA leaders and sacrificed his own political future in so doing. There was no doubt that one of the dividends of this agreement would be that the moderate parties would be greatly diminished in political strength. That was an act of great political courage.
On the other side, David Trimble often is not given credit. He took a very courageous decision in the Good Friday Agreement. Then there was Bertie Ahern. I remember that during a sensitive stage of these negotiations, his mother died but he continued. That was an act of great courage on the part of Bertie Ahern. Mo Mowlam, although sick, played a sterling role in this regard. Then of course, there was Senator George Mitchell. Tribute has been paid to the patience of the Minister but if anyone ever had patience, it was George Mitchell. One also must acknowledge the role played by Deputy Adams and Martin McGuinness. Interestingly, as I recall it - I am sure I am right - Mary Robinson actually argued against the Good Friday Agreement because of her sensitivity to the feelings of Northern unionists. That is a very curious little sidelight on history.
The position of the Good Friday Agreement must be maintained in the teeth of the disastrous decision of the British people to leave the European Union. If a Border comes back, with Border posts and the rest of that paraphernalia, it will be a magnet for the lunatic fringe of republicanism. I was in the North recently and went past Newry, where there used to be enormous fortifications, barbed wire, gun emplacements and so forth. All gone. Please God we will keep that gone.
I have to say that the Good Friday Agreement was a very useful fudge in many ways. It is not fully democratic. Let us be honest and open about it; it is not democratic. The d'Hondt mechanism, for example, flies in the face of democracy. However, it was necessary.I hope the stage will be reached where this sort of fudge of political reality will be unnecessary. We have a job to do on education also. I spoke about educating the people of Northern Ireland, but we must also educate some British Members of Parliament such as the Labour MP who said the Good Friday Agreement was nothing but a shibboleth. It is complete nonsense and ignorance. We had 30 years of violence which the younger generation does not remember. I remember it very well. I remember being a colleague in this House of both John Robb and Gordon Wilson who added a great deal to the proceedings of the Seanad.
The Republic of Ireland paid a price for the Good Friday agreement. We got rid of Articles 2 and 3 from the Constitution, which was a visionary thing to do. The process which led to the Good Friday agreement was an essentially democratic one. A referendum was passed in both parts of the island, the figures in respect of which I will place on the record. It was passed in the North of Ireland by a "Yes" vote of 676,966 votes, or 71% of the Northern community. The "Yes" vote in the Republic was far higher. Here, it was passed by 94.39% of the Irish population, which was absolutely overwhelming. It was 1,442,583 votes. More than 2 million people on this island gave their assent to the Good Friday Agreement. From this, we must continue on the construction of a new Ireland, whatever form that takes, which is in the interests of all the people of this island.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins spoke about women and families and we can start and finish there in relation to many things when it comes to trauma, stress and violence. It is the women who pick up the pieces. I am reminded of a poem from the First World War, although I cannot remember who wrote it, which asked did not the German mother sitting at home knitting socks for her son at the front have the same instinct and feeling as the British mother. There is no difference when it comes to families. Can we move back from the centre and find something we all understand emotionally?
When I was a small fellow in second class at school in Tipperary, one of the teachers, Mr. Corcoran, who was not a Christian Brother, told us a story about a British soldier who jumped onto a grenade from which the pin had come out to save his comrades. He gave his own life. It was not until 20 years later that I began to take an interest in the Somme, Passchendaele, and the First World War, having studied the war poets. I wanted to see where some of them were buried. I was interested in Thomas Kettle, Francis Ledwidge, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen. Reading a book by Philip Orr on the 36th Ulster Division, I realised that the man Mr. Corcoran referred to was a member. It was the only division with a placename in it. The incident happened a day or two before the Battle of the Somme commenced. I reflected on his sense of love, care and respect for his brothers. The tragedy of Northern Ireland is that there is as yet no settled understanding of who are our brothers and sisters there. We are coming to that slowly.
A different story I tell relates to disability. The Irish Wheelchair Association and its athletes have always operated on a 32-county basis. There was no division. Lads would go from Dublin or wherever to play basketball on teams from the UK or Northern Ireland. I know one man who lost his leg in a sawmill. He played basketball with lads who lost legs in other activities. They were participating in a sport they could enjoy. On the way home from Belfast, these lads needed a comfort break, so to speak, and their bus pulled over on a country road north of the Border. The lads disembarked to do their business and were surrounded in the next instant by British soldiers. The tension was diffused when one of the lads said with typical Dublin wit "If ye put away your weapons, we will put away ours". There was a sense of sport and the community thing it can be.
There is a Seanad by-election around agriculture currently. Surely, that is something that can be dealt with on an all-island basis given that it is the same weather and farmers face the same issues. There has always been great support from the Republic for Northern farmers, often more than has been provided by their own government which may not have the same sympathy or closeness to it. I go to the Continent of Europe and people ask me what is happening now. They have a sense of fear about it. I have more colleagues on the Continent in relation to disability than I have in Northern Ireland. It is something I have to ask myself about also. The paraphernalia and psychology of a border have the potential to trigger us too easily back. The ability to take risks is needed again. Another way to look at risk-taking is as the building of confidence. If we are not building confidence, we are eroding it. Since the start of last year when democratic processes, such as they are, were placed on hold, it has caused an erosion which is very dangerous. Senator Higgins referred to the hawkishness in Europe and around the world now. It is too easy for some people to slide us back into something. Those of us in the Chamber and those who have an involvement in Northern Ireland must step closer to each other. Even if it is only in relation to sport, people must come together. We are at a very difficult moment. I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to the debate.
A number of members referred, quite rightly, to individuals and bodies who played an important role in achieving the Good Friday Agreement. They have been remembered over the last fortnight. Senator Norris listed quite a number of people, including Gordon Wilson, who went to the same school as me, while Senator Higgins made particular reference, importantly, to the many women who played such an important role in the peace process and the agreement. One body which has not been mentioned much, if at all, in today’s debate is the European Union, formerly the EEC. It also played a role in the peace process, not least financially going back to 1989 with the commencement of the peace funds which have pumped billions of euro into Northern Ireland to maintain peace. Those funds were very welcome.
Northern Irish MEPs like John Hume played a role in that as did John Cushnahan, albeit representing a Southern constituency, and Jim Nicholson, who remains in the European Parliament. They pushed the peace agenda constantly in Brussels and Strasbourg, as has the Tánaiste during his time, on the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. That is a very important role that was able to grow into a much more benevolent one, in that our common membership of the European Union meant that after the Good Friday Agreement Ireland, North and South, was able to reach normality far more rapidly than other conflict zones on the Continent. People were able to cross the Border with ease due to the common travel area. They were able to trade with ease, able to go to each other's universities and hospitals, to benefit from with various levels of funding; Common Agricultural Policy funding, Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ and so much else. All of that is under attack, not by individuals in Northern Ireland or this jurisdiction but by the concept that is Brexit, and the ignorant opinion of what Brexit should mean held by many people in England, and I specifically say England.
Senator Norris was right to say that the comments by the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Barry Gardiner MP, referring to the Good Friday Agreement as a "shibboleth" or a purely economic concern were not only ignorant; they were insulting. We must take it upon ourselves to educate, inform and where necessary argue with people in the UK who take the Good Friday Agreement for granted and allow an apathetic mindset to prevail. I would like to conclude with those comments, and I thank the Tánaiste for giving us so much time.
I will pick up where Senator Richmond concluded. As somebody from Buncrana, my peninsula of Inishowen is intrinsically linked to Derry city. It is our city, and the difference between the way it was during my childhood and what it is today is absolutely incredible. Hearing Brexiteers in England, some of them senior politicians, talking about the Good Friday Agreement being dismantled is absolutely shocking in its ignorance of the reality of our lives.
On a positive note, what Brexit has done is unite political opinion on this island around the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. There is another point. I do not think I fully appreciated this either, and Senator Richmond touched on it. What underpinned the peace process was the fact that both jurisdictions and both of these islands were part of the European Union. That meant there was free movement of goods, capital, people and services on the island. That underpins the new sense of normality. It underpins the new peace process, and has underpinned it for all of the years since. Indeed what we have sought to do in Donegal, Derry and Tyrone is to further break down the Border by co-operating in health services and education. We try to see the north-west of Ireland without a border, but with access to 500 million people who need services. That is the positive progress that we have made. We cannot even contemplate that being undermined by the political desires of some in England, and a much smaller number in Northern Ireland, in the form of the DUP.
To comment on some of the issues that are blocking progress in re-establishing the institutions, I was part of a parliamentary delegation that went to Wales. I was the Chair of the Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. We reviewed the Welsh Language Commissioner and compared their services to our own Coimisinéir Teanga. We were mightily impressed with their Commissioner and the resources they had to promote the Welsh language. We then went to the National Assembly for Wales, where one hears both Welsh and English being spoken not only in their Assembly chamber but in their committees. One has the ability as a visitor to listen to both languages. That was a beautiful thing, and right and proper and representative of all the people of Wales.
Similarly when one goes to the Scottish Parliament, one sees the equality of esteem for the languages. Is it too much to ask that we can be mature enough on this island to respect both the English language and the Irish language equally? Unionists in the North particularly, who I fully accept see themselves as British and intrinsically linked to the United Kingdom, must surely look at the practice in Wales and Scotland and understand that they must do the same in Northern Ireland. It has to happen.
Obviously the fact that the ten DUP MPs hold the balance of power in Britain has it difficult for the British Government to focus its mind on what has to be done. I ask the Minister to continue his good work and continue to defend the interests of the Irish people across this island, whether they are nationalists, unionists or whatever, as he has done. I ask him to continue on the path he is on. As long as he does that, he will have the support of the people in this House.
What strikes me about this debate is the unity of purpose across different political parties. I am glad to say that no one is taking the opportunity to be unnecessarily provocative here, and it is always easy to be that way when we talk about Northern Ireland. I thank everybody for their contributions, which I think were thoughtful.
It is true to say that at times in England there are comments that are infuriating for us to listen to. I think it is important to understand that there is sometimes a genuine ignorance about the British-Irish relationship, and comments are sometimes made without understanding of the significance of their meaning. At times in Ireland we simply need to correct the record firmly, but not take deep offence to some of what is genuine ignorance. I think Irish people's understanding of Britain is much deeper than many British people's understanding of Ireland, if we are honest about it. I say that as someone who lived in England for over three years and worked in Scotland. When we grow up, our history lessons in Irish schools are dominated by Ireland's relationship with Britain. In England in particular, but also in other parts of Britain, education is certainly not dominated by Britain's relationship with Ireland. That being said, that is all the more reason for clarity from Ireland on the significance and importance of the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago and the importance of that Agreement today.
Let us not forget a number of things. This is the people's agreement. This is not owned by Governments. There is no mandate for any Government, British or Irish, to change the Good Friday Agreement. This is a treaty registered with the United Nations. It is an intergovernmental agreement. It is a party agreement also, and I was delighted to see the DUP represented at the highest level in Queen's University last week. That is a recognition that they also recognise the importance and significance of the Good Friday Agreement, despite the fact that they did not support it 20 years ago. Of course, it is most importantly an agreement that was endorsed by a huge majority North and South. As such, nobody has the right to undermine, change or amend the Good Friday Agreement without a process that deals with the significance of the mandate that the people have given for the implementation of this Agreement. I say that very clearly 20 years later, now that I have a responsibility on behalf of the Irish Government to ensure that we on this island provide clarity on the significance of this Agreement, why it is so significant and important today, and why it has so many of the solutions for the challenges that we need to overcome today.
In the Good Friday Agreement there are many mechanisms that are not being used today, mechanisms that if triggered, implemented and used in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement can help us overcome many issues. They can put structures in place around east-west relationships between Britain and Ireland post-Brexit, to ensure that we as neighbouring islands continue to live together in a way that actually improves the quality of life in both countries and on both islands.
In regard to the challenges we face today, the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive is perhaps the most important issue that we need to try to overcome. Without that, some of the broader reconciliation issues are very difficult to deliver on. However, I would hope that even in the absence of the re-establishment of the Executive, we see some of the new legacy structures that were agreed in the Stormont House Agreement brought forward, along with the public consultation process that has been promised and new legacy structures.I hope that, even in the absence of the re-establishment of the executive, we would see the bringing forward of the new legacy structures agreed in the Stormont House Agreement and the promised public consultation process on them. I hope we will see these progress sooner rather than later. I supported that position several months ago. Then we wanted the re-establishment of an executive and the bringing forward of a legacy consultation at the same time because we felt they would be mutually reinforcing. We felt it would help create a new positive momentum in Northern Ireland where political leaders could show the way of working together and communities could start to show the way in understanding each other's pain in the context of memories, history and legacy.
We have much to do. This generation needs to show the appetite for risk. This generation of politicians must also show it has the appetite to actually take decisions that make themselves and the communities they represent uncomfortable. They must show the leadership to be willing to do that in order to move the process forward for the betterment of everybody. I say that to nationalists, as well as to unionists. When one thinks of what was overcome 20 years ago, the challenges we face today are not so large. This is about trust and respect for each other and for each other's communities.
Twenty years after that trust and respect delivered an extraordinary new opportunity for Northern Ireland, for the island of Ireland and the relationship between Britain and Ireland, which was transformed as a result, along with EU membership, we need that kind of spirit again. That is why I have focused all of my speeches over the past ten days on these themes of remembering why this is so important and of renewing the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement to try to instil the leadership needed today from politicians and community leaders. I have also focused on what the peace process, ultimately, needs to lead to, namely, reconciliation on the island of Ireland which will contribute to a quality of life in a way which, unfortunately, generations which have come before us could not have even dreamed of.
I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to discuss these matters.