Tuesday, 30 May 2023
25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:- celebrates the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement;and calls for:
- acknowledges the thousands of lives saved over the past 25 years;
- recognises the personal and political risk that participants in the multi-party talks undertook on all sides;
- remembers the lives lost and families bereaved during the Troubles;- all parties on these islands to recognise the spirit and respect shown by each political party involved in bringing about this agreement.
The Tánaiste is very welcome to the House this evening for this Fianna Fáil motion. Senator Blaney is unable to be here this evening, for which he is very apologetic.
It is an honour for me to stand here to propose that we celebrate the Good Friday Agreement, which was a truly historic moment for this island. It marked a new beginning; a time of hope, "what if?" and real optimism. It is not an overestimation to say that the Good Friday Agreement is one of the most significant achievements in Irish history. It brought together political leaders from all sides to create a framework for a peaceful future. It was a hard-found resolution of compromise for the greater good that recognised the rights of both traditions in the North while at the same time committed to a democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences.
I know myself growing up that I felt sometimes like there was no hope. There was fear and distrust with bombs, bomb scares, British soldiers putting the fear of God into people when they met them on the road going about their business, and the lookout towers. Through the eyes of a child, the constant news of murders, collusion on all sides, threats and bombs and the ominous sight of the British Royal Navy gunboat in Carlingford Lough had a depressing effect on people's outlook.
In communities it was the norm, and still is to large extent, to keep their mouths shut. Communities are traumatised and, back in 1998, I genuinely did not think an agreement was possible. Then politics worked, however. It most definitely shaped my expectations for my future and the ambition I had for myself and my country. It all felt possible. A person could come from a wee place in County Louth and achieve. Ireland could come from a place of violence and achieve, and it most certainly has. The people on this island are undoubtedly better off now than they ever have been.
It is important to acknowledge those who lost their lives and the families who experienced unimaginable destruction during the Troubles. Their loss was not lessened by the cessation of violence. They still live with the wounds, the empty seat at the table and the painful memories. There are still too many unanswered questions. Families are forced to continue to live without answers or justice and often live under a veil of intimidation and lies to ensure the truth is not found.There are still too many unanswered questions. Families are forced to continue to live without answers, without justice and often live under a veil of intimidation and lies to ensure the truth is not found. I think of those who were disappeared, in particular the McVeigh family who are praying and hoping that their nightmare of not having their brother's remains will end. Peace is here, but sometimes it is very hard to reconcile all that loss.
Huge progress has been made. Nevertheless, we must not forget that we have a long way to go. We all agree serious issues require attention and action. There are many problems, and we should not dance around the issues. Terrorist gangs still control many areas, a cloud of "say nothing" still hangs over many people. That "say nothing" attitude has led to the murderers of Paul Quinn remaining at large and the family living without answers.
The failure of the institutions to operate fully and the ability of a party to obstruct and paralyse democratic norms is having a really detrimental effect on the growth and progress of the North. We have to be concerned that no responsibility is being taken. To be elected to govern is a responsibility and an honour. To continuously blame others, as a reason to perpetuate chaos and delay progress, is juvenile and 25 years on from our greatest challenge, it is quite tiresome.
I urge parties in the North to put differences aside and stop running away from duties, often heading to Dublin or London to find solutions. In reality, the only solutions that will have longevity will be solutions found by the people and those elected in the North. There is a time when maturity is needed, to take responsibility, get back to Stormont, form a government and work for those who elected people.
I mention the unilateral action of the UK Government with the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. It is causing severe distress and anger on all sides. Strongly worded correspondence and robust meetings with UK Government Ministers and officials is not cutting the mustard at the moment. They are not making the changes. We have a responsibility as a State and as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement to utilise every single method of opposition we can. The UK Government is failing to heed the overwhelming opposition to this Bill and continues to ignore calls for the legislative process to be paused, the Bill abandoned and to commit to an agreed way forward. Amendments outlined by the UK Government to date are merely cosmetic and fail to address the fundamental flaws of the Bill.
I support Amnesty International, which called for the Irish Government to put a public marker down, that if the UK pushes this Bill through, it will be met with an inter-state challenge by the Irish Government. If the UK Government continues to ignore the overwhelming opposition to this Bill and the obvious breaches of human rights' obligations, including Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, that must be challenged. The rule of law and respect for victims' rights must be at the centre of legacy processes.
To be in politics one must be an optimist. One must be unapologetically ambitious for one's country. I am absolutely that person. I am optimistic for the future. I am excited for what it can bring. Supporting and promoting the entire island is the only way to fulfil our true potential. I have said it on many occasions that the future is the only thing we can change and that is why I am such a huge advocate for the share island unit. For the first time in the history of this State, the Tánaiste, when he was Taoiseach, created a dedicated unit with the sole purpose of looking at how we on this island can work closer together across the entire island, to create the synergies through capital projects and through research on topics like education, healthcare on both sides of the Border. We saw today that there was a social enterprise report published. The Narrow Water Bridge project in County Louth is a huge symbol of what can be.
The shared island unit is truly historic and should be applauded from the rooftops. It is dedicated to harnessing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation on the island and engage with all communities and all traditions to build consensus around a shared future. This shared future is the only thing that is absolute - the only thing that is for sure.
We have a responsibility to work together, acknowledging that we do not know what the constitutional relationship will be in future. The outcome of a border poll is not a given. I know I will vote "Yes" every single day of the week for reunification but I am not part of the demographic we need to convince.
We need to work to enhance the share island unit, build those relationships and friendships North and South, to build an understanding and take heat out the debate. We have to accept that desperate things were done and that the hurt and fear continue. We must rebuild trust.
However, we are operating in a bit of knowledge vacuum. As we know, the British will play with the lives of the people of this island for their own political gains. We saw that so many times during Brexit debates and we see it now with the legacy legislation. We need to ask our British neighbours to examine practically what the requirements are for a referendum on reunification. There are currently too many unknowns and it is unfair on every side and we, as a State, need to support that work. Unknowns create vacuums; vacuums create misinformation and misinformation creates turmoil.
It is our collective duty to work together to ensure that the next 25 years are marked by peace, equality, and progress for all on this island. We must build an inclusive and prosperous society, where everyone feels valued and respected, regardless of their background. We must continue the work of the Good Friday Agreement to ensure that future generations of people on this beautiful island can live in a place that is free from violence and fear. Today is a day of celebration. We spent a lot of time over the past couple of months reminiscing, talking and reflecting. We need to move past that now. Yes, we have done well. We have patted ourselves on the back for 25 years of peace. We must now think about what we need to do for the next 25 years and start building that programme with the shared island unit and the institutions. We must support the institutions, with the North-South Ministerial Council working with the share island unit, the British Government and the State, to make sure nobody is left behind. Dare I say it but that is a real republican message.
To me, republicanism is about freedom, equality and about leaving nobody behind. Nobody has anything to fear from real republicanism because it is about respect for all traditions. Today, I am very glad to propose this Fianna Fáil Private Members' motion because it is very important to remember but it is also very important to be absolutely unapologetic and unapologetically ambitious for this entire island and to work towards that. Go raibh maith agaibh.
I second the motion.
Senator McGreehan is so passionate about the Good Friday Agreement and everything it brings that I thought she was going to use all of her time and possibly even go over time. I also commend Senator Niall Blaney on the work he does in this area.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. It is really important that he is here to celebrate, acknowledge and look forward in terms of where we go from here. It is said that politicians speak of events in one way and that poets do so in another way as do historians. No matter what interpretation anybody puts on the Good Friday Agreement, there is one fact that stands out. During the Troubles, 3,800 people died and more than 50,000 were injured and maimed. When we think of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends and neighbours that we count among all of those and of the horrific impact on families and communities, it is almost unthinkable. When we look at the last 25 years, 168 people were killed. It is still 168 people too many. They were killed as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. That figure alone stands out to me in a very stark way in terms of how lives have changed over the last 25 years.
When Mr. Bertie Ahern was here last week giving us an opportunity to reflect, he spoke about the importance of having that time to reflect and renew.The people of Northern Ireland continue to have differences and we understand and respect that but we must send a strong message to the present day leaders to safeguard and extend the work of the Good Friday Agreement. I want to echo that we need them to act with the same courage, conviction and vision as our leaders did 25 years ago. We need them to reinstate the Northern Ireland Assembly and give true democracy to their citizens.
I had a number of opportunities within the Council of Europe to participate in debates on peace, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in all of our 46 countries and collectively on how peace processes have been delivered and have continued to impact time after time. Those from different countries hold the Good Friday Agreement up as a beacon of hope more than anything else. It is really important that we recognise that and that goes beyond the geographical Council of Europe countries. It is right around the world because the Good Friday Agreement was a triumph for constitutional democracy on our island. It helped to end one of Europe's most deadly and enduring campaigns of violence and it inspired people throughout the world with its message of hope and endurance which continues today.
The agreement and the key steps which preceded and followed it involved many great figures who were determined that the people's faith in democracy would prevail, and it involved the steady support of the Irish people and the island of Ireland, both within the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland. It is a moment in our national story which belongs to everybody and as a party it is important we acknowledge so many people, which I do not have time to do. It is important to say that we are as committed as ever to the spirit of the agreement and I know the Tánaiste will do everything possible to help return effective government to Stormont. I know the Tánaiste is continuing work to build on the new spirit of co-operation with London, which helped so much late last year and in recent months to reach agreement on critical issues. The work of and the investment in the shared island unit is hugely important and significant and I thank the Tánaiste for his vision and commitment and understanding in that.
I want to make a personal recollection and to say there are many architects in the house of peace and many who need to be remembered, appreciated and thanked for their roles in changing the course of history. We want to acknowledge the role of women in the peace process, including Monica McWilliams, Mo Mowlam, Liz O'Donnell and all the mothers and sisters of Northern Ireland who came out and wanted to have peace for their children coming after them.
My last recollection is something the Tánaiste was involved in when he was a Minister. It is 20 years ago this month since the Special Olympics World Games came to Ireland. I had the wonderful challenge and opportunity of recruiting host towns around the island of Ireland and we were determined that this was going to be an all-island approach. We had 21 towns, cities and communities in Northern Ireland that put their hands up and said they would like to host a country. Over three years I spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland getting to know these communities and in almost every case I worked with officials as well as elected representatives and people on the ground. On nearly every occasion the officials would say to me that this was the first time they had ever seen the two communities come together. I know that feeling of walking into a room and seeing people on the left and people on the right and it might take five, six or seven meetings for them to gel together but it worked.
It was an incredible experience and I saw first-hand how the newly set-up PSNI could work with those communities for something that was for the greater good. A moment I cherish and that I know so many people on the island of Ireland cherish occurred at the opening ceremony - which the Tánaiste attended - in Croke Park, when we saw the PSNI and Garda come in with the flame of hope that came in from Bangor. That moment crystallised something special in so many minds, hearts and souls; that we can work together and that we can help to deliver hope and peace to communities. It is something that will always stay with me. I thank the Tánaiste for all the work he is doing and that he continues to do. He knows he has our full support.
I thank Senators McGreehan and Blaney. I know that normally wild horses would not keep Senator Blaney away from a debate like this so I hope everything is okay. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs is welcome to the Chamber and I thank him for all the work he has done on reconciliation, Northern Ireland and the shared island unit as Taoiseach. It comes from a genuine place and that comes across. I am appreciative of his work and I am grateful for his kind words and gestures when my father died.
This is about the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the greatest gift we have is the opportunity to live in peace. When you have experienced the times when we did not have that, you never take it for granted. We have spoken about the Good Friday Agreement a lot in this Chamber and we also have to be honest that the vision we had for the Good Friday Agreement has not transpired the way we would want. We also have an imperfect peace. Power sharing has not worked exactly the way we wanted. It is all interlinked with the fact that we are still working with a divided society. We can blame Brexit for the problems in Stormont but we also know that over the course of 20 years there have been lots of times when the institutions of Stormont were not up and running and other parties have collapsed power sharing too.
I mention the impact of the North-South Ministerial Council. I would have hoped that 25 years on we would have seen more of an evolution of what we are doing between North and South. We have a disconnect North and South and our young people have a disconnect with the Good Friday Agreement and do not really understand how relevant it is. It is not a relic but a resource for us all to work together. The one area that is working at the moment is the third strand, the east-west institutions. That did not get the priority it needed over the years and for a lot of the time we relied on the relationship we had. It was a good relationship at that time but it was not a replacement for those institutions. This is a reminder of how important it is to work on all three institutions. That is even more important now that the UK has left the EU where we had that hand and glove relationship, working side-by-side and sharing common membership of the EU and of sharing regulations, laws and the European Convention on Human Rights. With that gone we have to rely on the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to bring that relationship closer together again.
We are skipping on in time so I will move on to the most important thing I can say this evening, which is on legacy, and this is similar to what I raised, both at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly directly with the UK Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker MP - Senator Wilson was there too - and also with the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. We are in such a precarious place when it comes to the UK's Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. I know the Minister has spoken to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 25 May and on 16 May, as did Deputy Coveney before him.We have relied on diplomacy and encouraging the British Government to do the right thing. We talked about the Good Friday Agreement and have used its anniversary to impress upon it the need for multilateralism and working together by consensus in the spirit of that agreement, which is important in the context of everybody agreeing, apart from the British Government and the Conservative Party, that this is the wrong way to go. We talked about the importance of reconciliation and, of course, meeting international obligations on human rights but the British Government has gone ahead and appointed a chief commissioner. It is driving this through. We are looking at potential amendments on Report Stage in the House of Lords on 21 June. We know these amendments will not fix this Bill that is morally wrong and rotten at the core because it puts perpetrators before victims. Those amendments will not change that.
When do we stop encouraging? When do we shift this into another phase and really start fighting for victims? Everything the British Government is doing is showing us it is determined to bring in this legislation before the summer and have it operational immediately with this new chief commissioner. What is our plan B at this stage? We were told previously that we are not taking anything off the table in our next steps. Does that include an interstate case? Have we made any moves towards preparing for an interstate case? Are we communicating that with the British Government? So much is at stake here that we could be in a position where the rule of law does not seem to have mattered for 30 years. How are innocent families who never retaliated being looked after in this legislation, particularly at a time when the rule of law is so important? In the context of other developments in Europe and the Russian war on Ukraine, how can this legislation go forward? I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste would share with us what our plan B is.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. Along with the paralysis of the ongoing suspension of Stormont, the other main issue of deep concern to citizens on the island of Ireland and further afield is, as other Senators said, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill the Westminster government seems to be persisting in progressing through its legislative process. This Bill would provide immunity for people accused of crimes during the Troubles, as long as they co-operate with the new independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery. It has been criticised by political parties in Northern Ireland, which is refreshing - they do not agree on too much but this Bill is one thing they all agree on - as well as victims and human rights groups. However, the British Government seems to be persisting in its stance of ignoring the view of all democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland. The Bill has passed Committee Stage in the House of Lords and Report Stage is scheduled for 21 June. The UK Government has begun to appoint members of the body responsible for it.
It was widely reported in the media recently that the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, provided answers to a family concerning a 1974 murder in Belfast. The late John Crawford, a father of nine, was shot dead in west Belfast in January 1974. Almost 50 years later, the family of the late Mr. Crawford was given a report by loyalist paramilitaries setting out the circumstances of the killing. His son, Paul, got the report from the UVF. It is important to point out that an investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team, HET, confirmed his father's innocence. Mr. Paul Crawford began a seven-year communication with an intermediary to try to get some answers. He said it meant that the greatest degree of resolution possible has been obtained. It was reported in the media that he said:
I do not believe in closure – my father was brutally and unjustifiably taken from us and that is a wound that will never heal – but as far as I am concerned this process has delivered absolutely full answers and full resolution of what I was seeking.
It does not undo the immense, irreversible hurt. However, that family got a crumb of comfort. It is great to give them anything as they suffered so much, but they might be one of the last families to get such comfort. Due to the decision of the British Government to proceed against the wishes of the Northern Ireland parties, families will not be afforded the explanation Mr. Paul Crawford was given.
Professor Kieran McEvoy, a professor of law at Queen's University Belfast, said that the fact the British Government has now abandoned the terms of the agreement meant that the option of going through interlocutors was now lost to families. Under the controversial UK Government proposals, which, as I said, are progressively working their way through its parliament, all civil and criminal options would effectively be shut down to families of the Troubles' victims. The issues with the Bill are being condemned not just by people in Northern Ireland but international bodies and experts. The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers has stated several times that it has serious concerns about the Bill and whether it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed similar concerns and called on the UK Government to withdraw the Bill. Ireland's ambassador to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, Mr. Breifne O'Reilly, has said that, as the Bill is currently drafted, the UK is seeking to introduce an amnesty for crimes that amounts to gross human rights violations.
The Irish Government's position is that it has not ruled out taking legal action against the UK Government if it proceeds with the Bill. I hope the British Government has been left in no doubt that it is quite likely that should and will happen, if the Bill is enacted. The Bill must have the concerns of victims and their families, not perpetrators, front and centre. An article by several academics in Queen's University Belfast looked at whether Northern Ireland had received a peace dividend following the Good Friday Agreement. It found that since 1998, Northern Ireland had the strongest employment growth of any region in the UK outside of London; the total number of people employed had increased by 27.7% by 2022; and unemployment has fallen although, at 8.9%, it is still higher than the UK average.
There have been many positives for the people of Northern Ireland, including the reform of the police service. At that time, who would have thought it was possible to change the name of the RUC? It is never too late. David Trimble and others stood up, although Ian Paisley was very late coming to the table. As we are so grateful for the Good Friday Agreement, it would be churlish or mean-spirited not to mention the leaders of militant republicanism who played a crucial part in bringing about a resolution. It is also important to acknowledge the role of Fianna Fáil, the republican party. The Acting Chair, Senator Wilson, is a very proud Ulsterman with a very proud republican tradition. Fianna Fáil is a party of fervent constitutional republicans. It would have been so easy to go off-script and come up with slogans, but it held the line at a most critical time. That was unlike one of its predecessors, who did some good, but at the time of Anglo-Irish Agreement we did not all have unity of thought and expression and the then leader of Fianna Fáil opposed that agreement. I accept that was maybe a different time and different climate.
I believe we will not have an authentic peace until we have healing, reconciliation and understanding, and more brave leadership, taking risks and compromise for a long-term lasting peace.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste agus fáiltím roimh an bplé agus an rún atá os ár gcomhair anocht. Seal eile atá ann chun plé tábhachtach a bheith againn i gcuimhne ar 25 bliain de Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.I welcome the Tánaiste and thank the proposers of the motion, which I support. As the Tánaiste knows, the Good Friday Agreement has been a beacon of light in the past 100 years of darkness caused by the partition of this country. It has lit many pathways in the construction of a new political ethos, which is helping, and has helped, to forge new relationships among the people of Ireland and between the people of Ireland and Britain. For me and many like me, the Good Friday Agreement has signposted a peaceful way forward to a new and independent Ireland, based on the consent of the people of Ireland, reflected in the agreement's commitment to constitutional referendums nationwide. It led to the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act, which wilfully and immorally laid claim to the North on behalf of the British Government. Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann were also amended to reflect:
... the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity in their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.
A staging post to that outcome is the all-important clause that recognised:
... the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.
The agreement's appeal and durability are rooted in its ethos, which rests on several pillars. Those are respect, inclusion, equality, reconciliation, human rights and justice. The agreement is rightly future-focused and places the need for truth for the relatives of those who died in the conflict at the centre of its mission for a new society and a new Ireland. Its existence has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives over the past 25 years. The agreement is infused with the language of equality, human rights and, crucially, parity of esteem. The section on human rights is worth quoting in full. The parties to the agreement affirmed the right of free political thought; the right to freedom and expression of religion; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means; the right to freely choose one's place of residence; the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender and ethnicity; the right to freedom from sectarian harassment; and the right of women to full and equal participation.
The agreement enveloped this ethos in the strand 3 Ireland-based governing institutions, namely, the North-South Ministerial Council; the Executive and the Assembly; and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and British-Irish Council. Commitments were also made to recognise and invest in the Irish language and Ulster Scots, as well as ethnic minority languages. There were also commitments to a new police service, the release of political prisoners, the demilitarisation of society, decommissioning, the safeguarding of the European Convention on Human Rights and a bill of rights for the North, a civic forum in the North and human rights commissions North and South.
In addressing the "totality of relationships" at the heart of the political conflict, the changes that the agreement brought led to the IRA ending its armed struggle, a truly remarkable and historic decision that also contributed to the process of change which has led us to this juncture.
In 1998, the vision of the Good Friday Agreement under the stewardship of Senator George Mitchell marshalled the best that the Irish and British Governments could bring to the negotiating table. It was matched by those who joined them at the table, nationalists and unionists, republicans and loyalists. Twenty-five years on, considerable progress has been made and, of course, more needs to be done to ensure those elements of the agreement not implemented are implemented fully. This is particularly so for relatives seeking justice for their loved ones, as other colleagues have already said and I am sure others will go on to mention. As has also been said, the British Government's legacy proposals are an affront to the relatives of those who died and those who were injured in the conflict. They are an affront to the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. The British Government should abandon those proposals and invest its authority in the Stormont House Agreement, which has the support of most of the political parties who support the Good Friday Agreement. Like Senators McGreehan and Currie, I am keen to hear the response of the Tánaiste in respect of practical next steps and what the Government will do if the British Government and Parliament pursue and pass this legislation. Will this Government prepare to take an interstate action? That is the juncture we are about to reach. That is what families, survivors and victims are asking us. They deserve an understanding of where the Government intends to go.
The process ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement continues to this day. It is reflected in the improved relationships between the nationalist and unionist populations, whatever about the absence of the North's Executive and Assembly. However, the DUP should play its part and join with the rest of the parties to re-establish the institutions of the North. That is what the vast majority of people want. There is greater awareness today of the need for a new and independent Ireland that reflects the British and unionist identity and culture, as well as the side of nationalists and the many other communities who make up our society across Ireland. It is reflected in the democratic changes that are taking place in the North where in the local government elections just a few weeks ago, the votes for pro-Irish unity parties outnumbered those for pro-union parties for the first time ever in a Northern election. It is time to fulfil the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to hold a constitutional referendum on Irish unity and, indeed, to establish a citizens' assembly so the planning for the referendum and its outcome can begin. I agree with Senator McGreehan that the British Government should outline the criteria for a border poll. I do not think it is controversial to seek that. It is common sense and practical to do so. It is not too much to ask. The Government will, in that scenario, have to plan for a referendum so it is only right and proper, and neighbourly, for the British Government, as co-guarantor of the agreement, to outline to the Tánaiste the criteria it intends to be met.
Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement, the Tánaiste will know and agree that it is time to let the people decide on the next 25 years and what kind of future they want beyond that.
I too welcome the Tánaiste to the House to discuss this important matter. I also thank the Fianna Fáil Senators, in particular Senators Blaney and McGreehan, for using their Private Members' time to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which the Labour Party supports in full. It is, of course, only right that we mark this important milestone on this island.
The agreement brought an end to decades of bloodshed, suffering, grief and turmoil for many families. It ensured a generation could grow up in peace. The agreement is, and must always be looked upon as, an instrument for the future of this island and for those who live on both sides of the Border. It has allowed space and a timeframe that must never be lost and into which further division can never grow. Many people were part of this historic agreement, including people from political parties and community groups, and individuals, who came together to ensure that this island had a future and that peace would return to us all. The Good Friday Agreement has created a path, as I have said before, for the future of this island, an island that can and should be shared by all of us, including those of particular religions and none, and those who were not born here in the first place.
I have listened to a lot of commentary in recent weeks, particularly since the local elections in the North, about the need, first and foremost, to get the institutions up and running. If we are to be sincere as politicians on all sides about the future, this must be the starting point and must happen in the quickest possible time. Democracy has spoken and now the time has come for all politicians from all sides to ensure that the wishes of the people are enacted and we see politics and politicians at work for the people who elected them.
During my three years in the Seanad, I have worked on a number of committees in respect of Northern Ireland and its future. One of those, the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which considered the effect of Brexit, was chaired by Senator Lisa Chambers. It examined many of the day-to-day problems experienced by business and community groups in the North, the fallout from Brexit and how it could affect trade and how it was affecting trade and commerce on this island on an almost daily basis. There were similar conversations at another committee with which I was involved. Representatives of both traditions and a number of community groups attended the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland, chaired by Senator Mark Daly. We were told by many of the communities who were working together that it was the future they wanted. Both sides recognised there could never be a return to violence and what happened in the past. That is why it is so important that everybody now comes together and that these institutions get back up and running.
There is a generation in this country who have never known what it is like to turn on a radio or sit in front of a television and witness the murder and destruction of communities and families on a scale that so many of us in this House witnessed and lived through. The Good Friday Agreement has given us the instrument to ensure that will not happen. It is a conversation I have on a regular basis with my eldest child, who was born in 1999, which was after the Good Friday Agreement. I tell him the stories about what happened. It is a conversation that everybody on this island should have with children who were born after the agreement. They need to know what went on. They need to know what the Good Friday Agreement did for peace in this country. It is an important conversation for the younger generation who have not seen on their television screens what happened on the streets in the North. I worry when we hear about attacks like the recent one on senior detective John Caldwell. The latter was a flashback, if it was needed, to why we need the Good Friday Agreement to keep that violence away from us all. It is a flashback we should all take on board. We need the Good Friday Agreement to work for us.
It is important to acknowledge those who have lost their loved ones and to acknowledge their families tonight and always over those many years. Indeed, as has been said, the number is 3,800. It is also important to acknowledge the families still waiting for news of where their loved ones are buried.
Like others, I am excited about the future of Ireland - a shared island as the Tánaiste has themed it in the past with his initiative. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done on the shared island initiative. Its importance has been acknowledged by business groups, etc., that we spoke to when our two committees were in train. That is a path we need to take as we plan the future of this island. We need to bring everybody with us. Let us never forget those who worked to get us this document and ensured it got over the line so this country can have a collective future.
The Tánaiste is welcome. I welcome any opportunity to talk about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. I thank Senators McGreehan and Blaney for using their Private Members' time to table the motion. I know how passionate they are about the issue. I commend my colleague, Senator Currie, on her phenomenal work fighting against the legacy Bill and her strong passion and empathy for the families impacted by the legacy Bill.
The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph of peacemaking and diplomacy and held real political and personal risk for the parties involved. It required the participants of the negotiations to do phenomenally hard work in collaborating with those of radically different viewpoints in a respectful and productive manner. There are important lessons to be learned from a process that can contribute to our understanding of how to make a modern, inclusive and pluralistic society work.
The agreement provided us with many things. The first and most obvious dividend was peace. The end of the conflict was a relief to everyone on this island but was felt most acutely in the areas that had suffered most. The end of the conflict allowed for a process of repair and redemption that is vital to making Northern Ireland work. It allowed for greater economic development, social integration and social change. In our attempt to praise the peace, we must not forget how much work is left to do. Unfortunately, the North of Ireland is far behind the South in the context of economic productivity. It has higher levels of poverty and chronic ill-health. The resistance to school integration and modest Irish language proposals, as well as the recent bomb threats at the East Belfast GAA club, are a staggering reminded that exclusionary supremacy ideology has not gone away.
We must also recognise the elements of the Good Friday Agreement that are not functioning. The agreement contains a provision for the creation of a bill of rights. Tragically, this has never been implemented. A strong, legally enforceable human rights framework is a vital component of a functioning society. I would love to see more political capital expended on working for this element of the agreement to bear fruit.
Another crucial element of the agreement is the provision of a democratic, peaceful path towards constitutional change on the island. We have to face that a border poll is an increasingly likely prospect in the coming years and would provide a way for Northern Ireland, which was taken out of the EU against its will, to rejoin, as well as create opportunities for social and economic development across the island.
As chair of Ireland's Future, I have seen the hunger and longing that communities have for open, respectful and informed discussions about potential constitutional futures. These conversations are enriched by the great work being done by academics working in the Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South, ARINS, project, among many others, and by the work the Tánaiste and shared island unit have undertaken. It is fantastic work. There is also the work of the Good Friday implementation committee and other State bodies. However, there is still much to do and planning and preparing for potential constitutional change is vital.
The motion rightly centres the importance of remembering the victims of the conflict. It is vital that we remember all those lost and the impact of their loss on families and communities deprived of their loved ones. Unfortunately, the British Government is creating great anxiety and pain among those families and communities with its legacy proposals. The British Government's legacy Bill provides de factoamnesty for people who committed brutal crimes across this island, sometimes with state collusion. This legislation has been rejected by every political party, North and South, as grievously insulting and clearly impermissible under Article 2 of the ECHR, which mandates states to effectively investigate suspicious deaths. I hope the unanimity of the opposition to this Bill convinces the British Government to step back from this ledge, but I do not have much hope on that. The British Government seems to be in the thrall of its most radical right-wing elements, which is extremely worrying. This crude attempt to whitewash history and impose impunity has no place in a democracy. It reflects a broader authoritarian rift in British politics. That should concern us all. We must resist it by any means, including interstate litigation at the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary. We owe it to the families of these victims to fight for their rights to access justice.
The Good Friday Agreement has provided us with precarious peace and badly needed social and economic development. It also provides us with the opportunity to protect human rights and improve North-South co-operation and with a democratic path for reunification. We need to pursue all of those goals wholeheartedly in order to create a peaceful, prosperous and dignified life for everyone on this island. Again, I thank Senators Blaney and McGreehan for using their Private Members' time to highlight this very important issue.
I welcome the Tánaiste. I commend my colleagues, Senators McGreehan and Blaney, on tabling this important motion. Last Easter marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998. The 25th anniversary celebrations provided an opportunity to reflect on what was achieved and what is left to be achieved. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and one of the main architects of the agreement, in his address to the Seanad last Tuesday, 23 May, stated:
In the human journey, anniversaries play a significant role. They serve as markers of memory, calling to mind an event, moment, person or group of people of significance to us personally or as a community. The exercise of recall serves many purposes – remembering, memorialising, honouring and reflecting – and it can also be a catalyst for renewal to resolve or redouble efforts associated with the person or event being recalled. Landmark anniversaries like decades or centenaries have even further significance in the outworking of memory. Twenty-fifth anniversaries undoubtedly sit in that category of significance. Whether we are talking about the life of a person, a marriage or an organisation, or even a country, reaching the quarter-century mark has an impact of special importance to us. Making it to 25 years carries a certain status. It speaks of viability, endurance, resilience, staying power and, yes, achievement. Of course, no human endeavour is perfect but arriving at the milestone of a score and five years deserves to be acknowledged and saluted.
I acknowledge and salute the roles played by all of those involved in bringing about this historic agreement. One of the main things we can celebrate, as Senator O’Loughlin alluded to, are the thousands of lives that have undoubtedly been saved. During the three decades of the Troubles, 3,720 people were killed - 1,533 of these victims were under the age of 25 and 257 were under the age of 18 - and 47,541 people were injured.There were 36,923 shootings and 16,209 bombings. Countless numbers of people were traumatised, and that trauma is transgenerational.
The non-functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive is a major worry. I take this opportunity to call on the DUP to take its place in the assembly. I appreciate that the party has some difficulties, but those difficulties can be ironed out. Major steps have been taken to deal with the majority of the party's concerns. Democracy should not be taken for granted. It is too precious a commodity. I have outlined statistics about deaths, injuries and bombings, the majority of these occurred in the Six Counties but they also took place on the rest of the island of Ireland. None of us wants to see a return to that. Notwithstanding all its flaws and failings, democracy is the best process, although it should not be taken for granted.
On the legacy legislation, I join others in paying tribute to the Acting Chairperson, Senator Currie, for her contribution, especially at the recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Jersey. She was very forceful and was speaking from experience, namely, the experience of a young girl growing up in the North of Ireland. I was struck by that. Copies of her contribution should be circulated in order that other people can read it. The UK Bill is called the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. If passed, it would allow the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to grant immunity in respect of crimes committed during the Troubles. The Bill is opposed by all political parties in the North and the Republic. All the political parties in the North can agree that it is flawed. The UK Government is failing to heed the overwhelming opposition to the Bill and continues to ignore calls for the legislative process to be paused, for the Bill abandoned and for it to commit to an agreed way forward. If that legislation is passed, the relatives of the 33 people killed and the 300 injured by the bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 will never get the truth. Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley were both were blown to pieces in Belturbet 50 years ago. Their relatives and the relatives of the eight people injured in that blast will never get the truth if the Bill is passed.
I will finish on a positive note. I commend the Tánaiste on his involvement in the purchase of 1,000 ha of upland habitat in west Cavan for the Cuilcagh Lakelands UNESCO Global Geopark. It is the only cross-border UNESCO Global Geopark in the world. I commend the Tánaiste on his efforts in that regard. Deputy Brendan Smith and Councillor John Paul Feeley brought the matter to his attention. I thank the Tánaiste for providing the moneys for that development from the shared island fund. We look forward to considerable amounts of money into the future in order to develop the rest of it as well. There are so many positive things we can do together on the island. There are faults and failings with the Good Friday Agreement that we do not have time to go into, but the main outcome relating to it is that there are thousands of people alive today who would not be where it not for the agreement.
The Tánaiste is welcome. I apologise for being out of breath. I was stuck at another meeting and could not get away. I also left my notes behind, but I will do the best I can.
It is great to see the Tánaiste here. Along with his Cabinet colleagues at the time, he certainly played a major role when the Good Friday Agreement was being drawn up. Everybody who played his or her part in bringing the agreement about deserves great credit and respect. I include all parties in that. At this time, I think, in particular, of Albert Reynolds. He had the courage to reach out to the terrorists and to invite them to give up the path of criminality and come into the mainstream of politics, and they did. They were reluctant, but they came in. I often think that was a paramount move in the whole thing. How many countless lives have been saved because of the agreement? How many people are walking around the streets of Belfast, Derry, Omagh and other places, and, indeed, the streets of Dublin and the rest of the Republic, who would not be here had it not been for the peace agreement? We celebrate that and welcome the motion. It is unfortunate that Senator Blaney is unavoidably detained, because he and the Acting Chair, Senator Wilson, put much work into that.
In celebrating the agreement, we must also face the fact there have been some major disappointments and many lost opportunities over the past 25 years. Lives are not being lost daily, and that is the most important point, but the whole idea of restoring normality to this island was equally important. From the word go, a certain element in our society had no intention of buying into what was required of them to see that normality could be restored. The old attitudes still prevail. The old them-versus-us attitude still prevails, as does the belief to the effect that "We are going to outnumber them someday and we will make them dance to our tune".
We all grew up with fond ideas of an Irish Republic. I come from that political background. Many of my granduncles and others made sacrifices to bring it about. As I have matured and got older, I have learned things are not resolved by constant confrontation, agitation and ugliness towards others. A normal society is brought about by reaching out one's hand in genuine friendship. I have been doing what I can over the past number of years to reach out the hand of friendship to our loyalist neighbours in the North. Those who do not share our nationalist opinions are equally entitled to their opinions. I have found many of them to be very decent people. My family and I worked for a long time in the menswear business. As Members may know, Northern Irish people are very much to the fore as agents in Ireland in the textile industry generally. Most of the people I dealt with, North and South, were of the other persuasion. I found them to be tough, uncompromising, honest and reliable in business. It was from that experience I gradually found myself becoming more measured and balanced in my views.
Where do we go now? As I said, huge mistakes have been made. I do not want to join in with lacerating any particular group; the DUP must answer to its own supporters. However, its elected members are excluding themselves from Stormont and therefore it cannot function. Let us not forget though that the Sinn Féin party excluded itself from Stormont for reasons far less valid and kept it in abeyance for a number of years. Its members are now singing and dancing about the DUP. We all know what politics is about and we accept a certain amount of it, but this issue is too big. This is about human life. This is about peace. God forbid this happens, and I am not forecasting that it will, but should there ever be a resumption of violence, an awful lot of the people who are going around blithely calling for border polls and constantly sniping at unionism will have much to answer for.On the border poll issue, I think this is very wrong. At a time when people have another opportunity to make the North work and to work together, there is a group that is constantly agitating for a poll that they know they would lose if it was held in the morning, which is the most ludicrous thing of all. There is absolutely no chance. If you do not believe me, go into Paddy Power bookmakers. At the moment, if you believe that a border poll will be carried between now and 2030, you will get 4/1 against. That is a generous offer and I like to bet on our horse. If you think that it will not be carried, your chance is only 1/7. In other words, you have to put on £7 to win £1. That is as good a racing certainty as I have ever heard.
Let us be real about it. The border poll enthusiasts know there is not a hope in hell right now, in the short term or even in the medium term. Why are they doing it? We must ask ourselves why they are doing it. They are doing it because it suits them to use it as a stick to beat unionism and loyalists from here to eternity and to gather votes for a certain political party. They can turn that on and off at will. I will finish. If things are not right, they will play it down. If things need a bit of jizzing up, they will play it up. One will not hear much about the border poll in our next general election down here because they know that people down here see through that and see through the codology. I want to tell the truth. I speak the truth in here and I see nothing but hypocrisy from a certain element in this House when it comes to the North of Ireland.
We will finish on a positive note. All those who played their part in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement will never be forgotten. Let me finish by quoting the great Seamus Mallon. It is all about sharing with people. It is not about defeating people.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis seo chun rún faoi Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta a phlé, chun machnamh a dhéanamh ar an méid a dhein ceannairí ag an am sin chun conradh a chur i bhfeidhm, agus chun machnamh a dhéanamh ar ról Rialtas na Breataine agus Rialtas na tíre seo agus ar tábhacht na comhpháirtíochta idir an dá Rialtas. Sin bunchloch an chonartha agus na comhpháirtíochta. Níl aon amhras orm ach go bhfuil an saghas comhpháirtíochta sin ríthábhachtach ó thaobh todhchaí an Tuaiscirt chomh maith.
I welcome the opportunity to join Members in Seanad Éireann today in endorsing this motion. I thank Senator McGreehan for proposing it and I thank all Senators for allowing this Chamber the opportunity to reflect on 25 years of peace and what more needs to be done if the opportunities of that peace are to be consolidated.
A quarter of a century has passed since the people of this island voted for peace in parallel referendums on the Good Friday Agreement – the first time since 1918 that all people on this island voted together. We had a fascinating presentation last Thursday night in Banbridge from the son of the election returning officer, Mr. Bradley, on the lead-up to the poll and the politics around it, which I had not quite heard before. There is a book published on it that is worth a read. That endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the people was a remarkable achievement and it has been transformative for the people of our island. A generation born in the years since 1998 has lived free from the shadow of uncertainty and violence in which their parents and grandparents lived. I think it was Senator Wilson who made the point about that generation since then and praised Senator Currie for her contribution at recent meetings on that. That is certainly a fair point and the Secretary of State makes the same point in respect of young people in the UK. There is a need to make younger people and particularly younger generations aware of the magnitude of what was achieved and the impact it has had.
It is only right we celebrate the anniversary of the agreement and its democratic endorsement. In doing so, we must not forget the terrible cost that almost 30 years of violence wrought upon families across these islands. As President Biden recalled in his remarks to young students in Ulster University in Belfast, "Every person killed in the Troubles left an empty chair at that dining room table and a hole in the heart that was never filled for the ones they lost.” Senator Wilson outlined in stark terms statistically shocking numbers. I was struck by the number of young people under the age of 25 who were killed, maimed and injured.
The agreement addressed core constitutional issues. The British and Irish Governments each committed in the agreement to "recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland”. In resolving the delicate constitutional balance of Northern Ireland, we changed our own Constitution. When the people of this island, North and South, voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, they not only rejected violence, they voted for the establishment of new institutions that are intertwined and interdependent. These are strand 1, the assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland; strand 2, the North South Ministerial Council, NSMC, and bodies; and strand 3, the institutions reflecting the British-Irish relationship. In short, the people voted for politics that worked and would deliver for them in their everyday lives.
It is a matter of particular regret that we mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement at a time when the assembly and Executive that it brought into being have not been functioning for more than a year. Today, Northern Ireland is not governed by its elected representatives. This flies in the face of what people voted for in 1998. I take on board what Senator O'Sullivan said in respect of the stop-start nature of strand 1 within the overall lifetime of the 25 years since the agreement. The Executive and assembly have been down nearly as much as they have been up. That is a failure of many political parties at the time, and different political parties at different times saw fit to have the assembly not meeting. That is not acceptable in respect of the will of the people. The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to a functioning assembly and Executive. I encourage all MLAs to take their seats as soon as possible to ensure the critical everyday issues facing Northern Ireland can be addressed by those elected to do so.
Even before the Executive was brought down last year, the NSMC had been prevented from functioning. We are a small island. North-South co-operation in practical areas like health, education and tourism is essential. The NSMC cannot be treated as low-hanging fruit for those who wish to prevent the operation of the institutions for political reasons. It must be allowed to function alongside all institutions of the agreement.
I reflect on the weight of responsibility upon those who negotiated the agreement and how they struggled with challenges but overcame them for the good of the people. It is because of their courage and their sacrifices that we all live in a peaceful society today. As Senator George Mitchell said in his powerful address in Queen’s University in Belfast last month, "it would take other leaders in the future to safeguard and extend their work ... Life is change: For every human being, for every family, for every government, for every society."
I hope all those who have the privilege of being elected to represent their constituents will build on the leadership and dedication shown by their predecessors. This House heard from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern last week when he set out in some detail how the agreement came about. Success was not a foregone conclusion but reaching an agreement was an imperative. As he recalled, the atmosphere was, at times, “tense, suspicions were high and progress, if any, was painfully slow”. At different times and in different ways, all the women and men at the table had to make compromises and accept what would previously have been unacceptable to them. Bringing reluctant members of their own negotiating teams along was one challenge, but greater was to come – persuading those of their own community or tradition that the agreement, taken as a whole, was a decisive step in the right direction. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who took those risks to achieve a deal.Sadly, many of those who provided leadership and made difficult compromises are no longer with us, but we continue to be inspired by their actions and words. I think of people such as Albert Reynolds, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, David Trimble, David Irvine, Martin McGuinness and Mo Mowlam. Their collective determination and courage, their humility and humanity, helped achieve what many believed was not possible in those dark days. Behind each of them stood families who worried about them, but offered strength, encouragement and support, who gave them the strength and determination to move the process forward, despite the risks, struggles and criticisms from both communities. The occasion of the unveiling of the statue to David Trimble was a particularly noble endeavour of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I recall that in Cabinet at the time, when people were impatient with the unionist leader with regard to his coming forward, the then Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, reminded us all of Mr. Trimble's predecessors within unionism who had compromised, and who paid a price in compromising. It struck me at the time how prescient that was. In the time to come, it proved to be the case. That courage has to be acknowledged.
At times, when the challenges seemed to be insurmountable, support from our international partners injected much-needed focus and strength into the process. The internationalisation of the issue was a great added dimension which John Hume brought to this entire question, both at the European Parliament, in particular, and on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. We are thankful for the unwavering support of countless US Administrations, which actually began as far back as President Jimmy Carter, who made the first major intervention of an American President in Northern Ireland. In more recent times, President Joe Biden has been a steadfast supporter and of course there was President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell.
With assistance from the European Union, South Africa, Finland and Canada, international experts became a part of moving peace forward to enable hope for future generations. Individuals such as General John de Chastelain and Brigadier General Tauno Nieminen worked quietly and tirelessly to achieve decommissioning of weapons. It is also essential that we recognise that the agreement and the peace process as a whole were built, and continue to succeed, thanks to leadership at community level. The focus on political leaders, which is appropriate, can sometimes overshadow those working day in and day out on the ground. They created safe space for politicians to connect. They helped generate the ideas to change how we looked at supposedly unsolvable problems, and they built momentum for peace. Today, it is through their leadership and courage that communities can forge new relationships of trust across traditional boundaries.
Through our reconciliation fund, we have been proud to support many of the organisations working in communities from the early 1980s until today. The achievement of peace owes much to them working quietly in the background, playing a pivotal role in creating a better future. As we mark the anniversary of the agreement, the Government is acutely aware of the work that remains to be completed. As we look to the future, it is essential that we do not lose sight of the senseless cruelty and destruction of the past, which continue to cast a long and often intergenerational shadow.
The agreement brought about an end to three decades of violence in Northern Ireland. By April 1998, more than 3,500 men, women and children had been killed and many thousands of others were injured and traumatised by the needless violence. We got some of the figures earlier, as I said, from Senator Wilson. Those years saw gunmen and bombers claiming to act on behalf of communities, but without any mandate from those communities. The real inspirational bravery was shown by those who, acting with purpose and without violence or its threat, sought to forge a better way forward. I pay tribute to Senator Currie's late father in that respect.
As a Government, we are acutely aware that the legacy of violence is still very raw for many people. This issue needs to be addressed in order to allow true reconciliation on this island. As I have stated previously, Northern Ireland works best when the two Governments, British and Irish, are working in partnership with the political parties. It is a matter of deep disappointment to me personally and to our Government that this British Government has chosen to take unilateral action with the introduction of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. We firmly believe that this Bill is fundamentally the wrong way to go. It is not fit for purpose. The Taoiseach and I have reiterated to our British counterparts our opposition to the Bill. In my recent engagement with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I urged him to pause the Bill and to return to a partnership approach in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
Two weeks ago, I spoke at a memorial event for those who were killed and injured in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I sat on Talbot Street and spoke to sons, daughters, sisters and brothers of those lost that day. I met Maeve Taylor, now 95 years old, who with her three daughters survived the bombing. I have met with and listened to many families who were bereaved during the Troubles. Hearing their stories of loss and understanding their need for answers makes me all the more convinced that they deserve a path to truth and justice for their loved ones. The trauma is transgenerational. We will continue to engage with the UK Government on this issue at every available opportunity and we have indicated that we are not ruling out an interstate case if the legislation is passed.
Senator McGreehan raised the issue of the disappeared. I have met with many victims' groups. I also genuinely think that there is an obligation on other parties, other than government and the British Government in particular, to deal with the issue of legacy. Sinn Féin has a role in dealing with the issue of legacy. Loyalist paramilitary organisations, including the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, and the Ulster Defence Association, UDA, all have a role to play. I was interested in Senator Martin's presentation with respect to a case, which I had heard of. It is one of the few I have heard where there has been that sort of reaching out. As Senator McGreehan mentioned, I met with the McVeigh family and Oliver McVeigh recently, and he cannot get meetings with people to discuss the disappearance of his brother. People in leadership in Sinn Féin have not met with him. He told me this. I met with people who were victims of loyalist paramilitaries and they cannot get any sense of what has transpired. That is where the legacy Bill is wrong. I think it is far too easy for some to just say that closure is just for those killed by British state forces. I do not think that is enough in itself. There is a real issue there which has not been dealt with or grasped. If the legacy Bill passes, there will be no obligation on those organisations to come forward in any shape or form and help victims. I have met with victims of the Provisional IRA, the UVF and the UDA and they are getting nothing at the moment. They have no access to the truth. That is something I ask people to reflect on. It is interesting that in many of the groups I meet, it is the nephews, grandnephews and grandnieces who are coming forward to present on these issues.
As we look back and realise how much this island has changed, how the relationship between these islands has changed and what has been achieved, we also need to think about the next 25 years. Senator McGreehan made that point for all Senators, as did Senator Ó Donnghaile. We will have challenges. This is a peace process. The journey is ongoing. Nobody has ever said it would be an easy journey. However, when we look at how far we have come, we know what can be achieved into the future. We must show the same spirit of courage, determination and creativity which was demonstrated by those leaders who brought the agreement to fruition.
As the Irish Government, my colleagues and I are absolutely determined to play our part to help build relationships on this island and to support partnership and friendship across these islands. Through the shared island initiative, which I established upon my election as Taoiseach, we are investing in projects and infrastructure that improve communities and brings them closer together. Senator Wilson mentioned the 1,000 ha in Cuilcagh, which is a fascinating project in itself. It is a cross-Border geopark which is vital, by the way, to the biodiversity of that region. Apart from politics altogether, it shows what we can do on the island on issues like climate change, biodiversity preservation, conservation and restoration. Then we have developed the Ulster Canal project, the Narrow Water bridge project, and also civil society projects. Community and voluntary organisations are jointly working together, and the shared island initiative is helping to fund, for example, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, NICVA, The Wheel in the Republic, and likewise, we have up to 25 county and city councils working in partnership, North and South, on various projects.To me that is the real agenda right now. It is bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and with very different experiences through a process of dialogues that are genuinely inclusive and open, where thousands of people have come together. One of the better contributions to one of those dialogues was by the new host of "The Late, Late Show" Mr. Patrick Kielty. His contribution went viral when he spoke about his sense of identity in coming from Northern Ireland and what it meant to him. The value is in giving space to people to talk about these things without putting people into pigeonholes, constitutionally or any other way. There are a lot of things we can discuss and share.
We are conducting and facilitating substantive research, for the first time ever into the North and South jurisdictions around areas of education and health. It is looking at the education completion rates in the North vis-à-visthe Republic. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, did a very good study and analysis on that. This research is giving us an accurate picture of what is happening in different sectors across our island, in some cases for the first time.
The shared island initiative recognises that we need to find new ways to tackle problems that cross boundaries. It recognises that such co-operation is essential to the wellbeing, the prosperity, and the progress of the people on this island, regardless of their individual view on what the constitutional future should look like. Everybody is entitled to their perspective on the constitutional future but there is a hell of a lot we can get on with in bringing people closer together and in developing a shared understanding and shared perspectives. I remember meeting Mr. Derek Ervine at Corrymeela. It was the first time I ever met him. There were 12 unionists and 12 Senators and Deputies from these Houses. We were asked by the facilitator, who was a Quaker facilitator, to put onto the blackboard what we thought of unionists. We put up everything we thought of unionists. There was another question asking what we thought of nationalists. One Deputy said they do not even smile and were beyond smiling. We asked for five minutes to get out of there before they could see what we had written. The point is there are myths on each side. One unionist politician genuinely thought the parish priest wrote my political speeches. There is mythology on each side. The point is that when people sit down together and try to see something from the other person's perspective, we can begin to move to reconcile peace and get an accommodation. That work still continues and we must make sure we do not go back to the simple sloganeering of 30 years or 40 years ago. We must avoid that. We have to really educate the younger generation not to go back to that sort of sloganeering. It is about communities engaging. That is the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
I recall that when the process started, I was the Minister for Education and Science and I met with Martin McGuinness when he was appointed the Minister of Education. It really was about trying to understand all sides. People reach out to understand. I get the sense that as we have moved on, we are kind of closing that down again and getting into sorts of pigeonholes and asking, "What is your position on this or that?" I do not believe that is quite in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
We would ask those in similar political positions now to pause, come together, listen to one another and start to think of all the people of Northern Ireland, especially those who have a different perspective, like so many leaders before them did in the long and often difficult months leading to the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I assure this House, the proposers of the motion and all Members who have spoken that we, in government, will continue to work towards its full and effective implementation. The legacy of those leaders, and the clear voice of the Irish people expressed in those referendums, commands us to do so. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Seanadóirí go léir. Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus go n-éirí an t-ádh libh.
I thank the Tánaiste. Anniversaries are important because they allow us to reflect as well as to look forward. The initiative of the shared island unit, which came out of the formation of this Government and led by the Tánaiste, is bringing people together. It is an important initiative. It is bringing people together on all sorts of things where we can make a difference to improve the lives of everybody. The issue around the legacy Bill, which Members of this House have been very strong on, has had one extraordinary effect. It has managed to unite all of the political parties on this island for the first time ever. I am aware that Senator Currie was in Belfast City Hall with Raymond McCord, who the Tánaiste knows quite well, and who led an initiative that included the families of victims involved in the Birmingham bombing. He got all of the political parties to sign one document, including the DUP, which has never happened before, with all of the major parties on the island opposing the idea of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill before the British Parliament at the moment. As the Tánaiste said, peace is a process. Long may the journey continue.
I thank all Senators for their contributions this evening. There is a collective agreement that we are all very grateful for the sacrifices many men and women have made. They pushed for better and they dreamt of what could be. For me, as a new Senator and having been given an opportunity to be in this House, probably one of the greatest privileges I have had is to meet people who were part of that. Genuinely, they were my superstars when I was growing up. I was not too interested in music or whatever: I was interested in politics. This was my thing. I was interested in my community. I lived on the Border and we were living the historical mistakes of the past. That was my reality. Senator Currie lived that as well. We lived it, so it was not just something to be interested in, it was something to be captivated by and to be part of.
When I got to meet people like Monica McWilliams and George Mitchell and have conversations with them it was, to say the least, a fan girl moment. People like them make me want to be in politics. I recall Mo Mowlam, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. This is why we are all here. It is because politics works. It is the best gig in town if we want to make proper changes. We must all remember this when we despair at little about politics.
We are taking this opportunity of the anniversary to reflect as well as renew our ambitions for the future over the next 25 years. As the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said, it is a time "to resolve or redouble efforts", and to look at what we are. We are the sum of all our parts, the orange and green, and we must embrace that. We must remember the selfless courage of so many political leaders back then. There was the compromise for the good of all the people. People sacrificed their careers doing that. We must look at those sacrifices. We must also look at the Good Friday Agreement and see those legitimate goals and that ambition.
When we talk about this abstract thing of a border poll, it is often forgotten that there are so many people in the North who want to be part of this place. There are so many people longing to be part of these Houses, and to have a voice in a 32-county island. That is legitimate. They are impatient and we must understand that impatience. I sort of get where Senator Ned O'Sullivan is going. I understand that we take into consideration other people but there is a want, a desperation and a will among so many people of the North to be part of this place, to be part of the Ireland we created down here. Over the past 100 years, we have created a damn good place to live in.
I congratulate the Tánaiste on his role. He is aware that I am an absolute advocate of the shared island unit. It is the legitimate place to look at how we move forward over the next few years. It is putting money where our mouth is, creating projects that matter to people, and bringing people together. That is what matters. I wish the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs well in his negotiations with the UK Government. He has the support of all parties in this House in opposing the legacy Bill in the UK. We will support him and urge him to take it as far as possible if the UK authorities do not drop this Bill.
There were no outright winners in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. The winners are people like Senator Currie’s children and my children, who have no clue what it is like to wake up in the morning and hear about bombs going off or people being terrorised. That idea belongs to a time that has passed. That is a victory. We will continue in that vein of victory because it is the only game in town. It is how our children do have to put up with this or our communities being in turmoil or the potential that daddy or mammy might not come home because of something. That has been our greatest victory over the past 25 years. Thank goodness for political courage and the will to change.