Chancellor's Lecture at the University of Ulster, Belfast
22 April 2010
Vice Chancellor Barnett, Members of the University, distinguished guests
I am delighted to join you here this evening. It is always a particular pleasure to come home to Belfast and see so many familiar faces. I want to thank the University and Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Barnett for extending this invitation to me to deliver the Chancellor’s Lecture on the subject of “The island of Ireland: the next decade.”
I am not about to take on the role of prophet or fortune-teller. Recent dreadful natural disasters and man-made financial calamities should make any one of us reticent about being too dogmatic about events yet to happen. But there is one thing we can see with clarity and that is the vigilance and commitment we bring to consolidating the peace we now have on this island will define its success and reveal its potential in the decade ahead and beyond. That great international statesman, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold once observed that “the pursuit of peace and progress cannot end in a few years in either victory or defeat. The pursuit of peace and progress with its trials and its errors, its successes and its setbacks, can never be relaxed and never abandoned.” His is a voice of wisdom and experience. It tells us that in the aftermath of the conflict which bedevilled this island for so long, it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that we have arrived at a destination called peace and so can switch off the engine of effort that got us here.
We are in fact only in the opening post-conflict phase of peace-building, the early chapters of the achievements of a new-born peace and consensus-oriented society. It took a mighty effort and many courageous changes of heart to get us thus far. Much of that effort went into creating the agreed infrastructure and architecture of the peace vehicle which will carry us to the future. Now with the completion of devolution and a decade of post-Good Friday Agreement politics and community effort, we are set to see real momentum gather as this hard-earned peace delivers on its promise and its potential.
The 12 years since the signature of the Good Friday Agreement have at times been exhilarating and, it must be admitted, at other times frustrating, even heart-breaking. But what is clear is that the overall trajectory in Northern Ireland has been one of enormous progress, both at political and societal level. The Institutions put in place by the Good Friday Agreement are maturing and developing and truly coming into their own. Inclusive government and cross-community decision making is at the heart of the Agreement and was one of the greatest infrastructural implementation challenges which faced political representatives, who were often also political adversaries in the past. They have risen to the challenge, engaged with each other in effective ways that defied the pundits and as a result have brought growing stability to political life and the institutions which underpin it in Northern Ireland.
Political energies are now freed up to allow a greater focus on the myriad of issues that affect daily life. Every day, Ministers in the Executive, who are political opponents, work to find the consensus that will keep driving the peace. The process by which agreement is reached may not always be an object of ethereal beauty but set against the ugliness and wastefulness of conflict it is a thing of wonder and reassurance. It is a thing of wonder because for a powersharing government to exist and operate at all indicates a remarkable level of individual and collective transformation, as well as a formidable commitment to a shared future where the two traditions could in time become one community. There has been no disappearance of the fault lines along which difference manifests itself, whether political, religious or social. There has however been the welcome appearance of bridges across those chasms, conduits through which dialogue has toed and froed in ways decisively different from the days when all that was heard was loud angry voices shouting across the gaps.
The tired old polemic of the past has given way to a new language of mutual encounter which is more collegial, more enabling of trust, more facilitating of joint problem-solving. We have seen considerable and encouraging change in the discourse within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Great Britain. The often fraught temper of discourse on those axes has disappeared and been replaced by a positivity and good neighbourliness that makes for constructive engagement and mature, sophisticated inclusive politics. The effectiveness of politics has been enhanced as a consequence and it allows us to hope that the shift in gear will facilitate many future benefits for all who share this island, but particularly for those who have lived so long under the dark shadows of violence.
Nowhere is the combination of structural reform and attitudinal change clearer than in the transformation of policing in Northern Ireland. Today Northern Ireland has a police service representative of, and accountable to, the whole community. The transition from the RUC to the PSNI was fraught with difficulties and complex sensitivities, yet it was accomplished with such a thoroughgoing professionalism and ethos of service to the community that it became a source of inspiration and leadership to all those working for reconciliation and a more inclusive future. New structures such as the Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman have created an advanced new system of accountability and best practice in policing. With the recent Hillsborough talks leading to the devolution of policing and justice powers and the appointment of David Ford as Justice Minister, the final settling into place of the elements of the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements was almost audible. So too was the relief of all the citizen stakeholders for the completion of devolution, tough though the process was, sent an unmistakable message to the wreckers and those who would damage the peace that this process is unstoppable, enjoys overwhelming cross-community civic support and is the only viable way to a fair and just society.
Another place where we can perceive the outworkings of inner change is in the growing culture of collaboration on this island. While we may not always know it, all of us have already benefited greatly from the work of the cross-border bodies and the North South Ministerial Council where strengthened cooperation on a wide range of issues is delivering improved services on a cross-border basis, particularly but not exclusively in border communities. This work is by its nature practical, often technical and not headline-grabbing. How many people have direct knowledge or indeed have read front page stories about the Single Electricity Market? And yet this provides consumers all over the island with a more sustainable energy supply and greater competition. It makes a real difference to ordinary householders and it makes sense. How many people know that for the first time ever between us we are able to do something that neither jurisdiction could do on its own and that is to offer specialist mental health services to the deaf? The change that innovation makes for a small and often overlooked community is quite simply life-changing and life-enhancing. There are many other working examples for it simply it makes sense on an island this size and this peripheral to have joint approaches to marketing tourism, to managing our shared waterways and lakes, to guaranteeing food safety, promoting research and encouraging cross-border trade and investment. Over the coming years these collaborations will prove their worth on both sides of the border.
I am very conscious that both parts of the island are currently grappling with difficult economic situations arising from the global down-turn and, in our case, compounded by a dysfunctional property market and reckless past practices in the banking and financial sectors. People are rightly angry about the consequences of these failures which unjustly impact on them – increased unemployment, pressure on public finances and services and a reduction in living standards. While the brunt of this economic crisis has been felt in the South, Northern Ireland is not immune and is likely to be affected by whatever fiscal adjustments are made by an incoming British Government. Good progress has been made in stabilizing the economy and the trend lines may start to point upwards later this year. However, all the indications are that it will be a gradual and slow recovery and that the next couple of years will continue to be challenging as the economic health of the island is restored. The successful restoration of a sound prosperity will be a test of us. Ten years time will tell how well we did. We have some useful advantages however that were absent before.
In the past, economic adversity in Ireland was accompanied by a double failure – that of political division and conflict. In addressing the current economic challenges, we are mercifully free from the old millstone of violence that may have induced a sense of fatalism. Buoyed up by the knowledge and experience of how successfully we have addressed our political divisions, we can now bring the same qualities and talents, the same persistence and creativity, to bear on the resolution of our economic difficulties.
I am very confident that our people have the collective determination and capability to address these challenges and that our island economy will emerge stronger, smarter and more ethically sustainable. The economic prosperity of the previous fifteen years was the creation of a fortunate and gifted generation who benefited from an education system, in both parts of the island, which provided them with the skills and the self-confidence to create their own destiny. The leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow have had a bitter and chastening lesson which, if distilled into wisdom when allied to their talent, will turn this economy around.
We used to have the dubious distinction of having the land border within the European Union with the least commerce across it, an undistinguished past that smacked of lost opportunities but now offers a future with real potential for job creation, prosperity and a normalised interconnectedness that the vanities of history made all too difficult. The fact that both administrations on the island share similar fiscal challenges makes the incentive for North/South co-operation all the greater. The shared need to maximize the impact of public services and achieve better value for money from constrained resources creates an inevitable logic around the common provision of services. Why for instance replicate certain health services in separate catchments on both sides of the border if you can provide it more effectively and cost-efficiently in a shared and joined-up way.
It was Helen Keller who said “I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.” That is the kind of understanding offered by these newly evolving conduits to one another and partnerships with one another. They did not exist a little over a decade ago but they exist now and they are shapers of the future. We cannot tell where they may bring us but we know that they have already taken us out of darkness into a place of light and given us an optimism about the future which is itself metamorphosing into a confident hope.
But however strong the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement, however successful North-South cooperation, however positive the relationship between Ireland and Britain (and never before has the nexus of British-Irish relations been so constructive and so healthy), true peace is ultimately dependent on the relationships that we forge as individuals and as communities, in particular as active citizens who are willing to give real leadership and who want to be participants in the making of the future and not mere spectators. There is no chance whatever that politics and politicians alone could have shifted the dead weight of the old zero-sum paradigm from conflict to consensus. They themselves needed a backdrop which was encouraging of the risk-taking that led to political progress and cooperation. It took a vast amount of pioneering community work at the coal-face to improve the relationships between communities in Northern Ireland and between people, North and South of the border. It was dreadfully difficult, often thankless and even misunderstood work but it has been well vindicated by the progress made in powersharing politics, in the dismantling of the embedded culture of paramilitarism and in the growing communal solidarity around the peace process.
Every peacemaker whether a recent convert to the peace process or a longstanding believer in the need for inter-communal reconciliation and an end to sectarianism, knows that peace-making is not a hobby or a short-term project. It is a life-long endeavour that embraces every aspect of daily life, from being more sensitive and careful in the things we say especially to our children, introducing them to the possibility of living comfortably with difference from an early age, making a real effort to get to know the otherness of others rather than reaching for ready-made and cynical stereotypes, taking personal responsibility for building up the trust needed to counteract the years of mistrust and of hurt. It was John Hewitt who said “we build to fill the centuries’ arrears.” There is a huge big hole of history’s making and the more people helping to fill it in, the quicker we will walk on solid ground.
And there is today a real busyness about filling those arrears. The scale of that work has grown exponentially and, in so many diverse ways, is making friends of strangers and opening up new realms of mutual understanding and curiosity about the things which mark us as different. They are also revealing some of the overlooked things which we share in common. I was privileged lately to visit Gallipoli in the company of members of the Somme Association from North and South and to commemorate the many Irish men in British and Anzac uniforms who died there. That journey was part of a sequence of journeys made to bring back into shared memory the deliberately neglected history of World War I where Irishmen of all faiths and politics fought and often died side-by-side. That story is also emerging into the light of the next decade and to healing effect, both North and South.
Another investment in the future is the coming on stream of a new heritage centre at the site of the battle of the Boyne thanks to generous funding from the Irish government. While opinions will always differ about the outcome of that epic battle, the new centre there can be enjoyed by generations who are no longer held captive in their hearts and minds by the long and divisive history which followed it. These developments open up the hope that as the 100th anniversaries of those seminal events, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme come into view, a new openness to each others perspective will characterize the civic responses to those events and at the very least, a gracious respect will permeate their commemoration as it did on the 90th anniversaries, both of which were the subjects of official commemorations in Dublin. I particularly found it very moving to see the President of the British Legion in Ireland and the British Ambassador to Ireland attend official ceremonies in Dublin in honour of the 1916 rising.
The biggest change which will be effected over the coming decade is in the space opened up for community development by the dismantling of the culture of paramilitarism. For communities which were blighted by that culture and by neglect, the coming decade holds hopes of opportunities for them and for their children, opportunities that will make their streets safe, give their children the chance of good education and job opportunities and bring their communities right into the mainstream away from the perilous margins of alienation.
The successful outreach to those hard to reach communities will be a true test of the peace process and every step forward taken, every life opened up and helped to fully blossom, will be a nail in the coffin of those dwindling few who are still wedded to violence and criminality.
The greatest thing we have to look forward to in the years ahead is the unlocking and harnessing of once wasted human potential. People who were problems have the chance to become problem-solvers. People who watched as life overwhelmed them have the chance to take life on and give it their best. Our experiences tell us that given the right opportunities, the once excluded can become catalysts for change and development in their own communities. It will be fascinating to watch as whole communities are reenergised and reimagined, as this island is reenergised and reimagined as a place of peace born against the odds and built on new harmonious relationships carved out of the debris of hatred. Those relationships are part of the essential DNA of peace and like all human relationships they flourish when people work conscientiously and in good faith to keep them healthy and to keep problems from leading to breakdown.
There are still potential tripwires on the journey ahead. The toxic spores of sectarian attitudes are still embedded and they continue to outcrop in violence and in streets that are unsafe. Too many people still live lives in the false comfort of sectarian ghettoes. The peace dividend is not yet equally distributed and the weight of hurt and loss is still so hard to bear for some that they cannot yet sign up to this new dispensation. There are sorrows to be healed compassionately and patiently and there are some that will never be healed for the dead cannot be returned to us and not all physical or emotional scars can be erased. But those of us who have the gift of life and health have a responsibility to those who do not, to use the breath in our bodies in the decade ahead to make the world around us safer, better, happier, healthier, friendlier. Recent history teaches us what made our world miserable and unhappy. It is not a great mystery. We inherited a homeland where there was enmity and inequality, anger and distrust, conflicting political ambitions, seething sectarian tensions, intolerance and mutual ignorance. It was a mess and we have tried our best to sort it out.
We have carefully and safely corralled the conflicting political ambitions into the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will so remain unless and until a majority of its people decide otherwise. The creation of shared political institutions driven by consensus will over time make significant inroads into the problems of mistrust and mutual ignorance. The current work on parades is an important exercise in shared problem solving which has the capacity to bring considerable improvements to the decade ahead. The human rights, equality laws and other legal and policing provisions of the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements have created the context for a just and fair society of equals. The civic society work of reconciliation effected through many individuals and organisations will keep on trying to make the two traditions more mutually intelligible to each other. For through it all, it is within community that a new culture of goodwill and good neighbourliness will in the words of Martin Luther King “transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”
We have turned the corner from the gloom of the old age and now we are facing into the new age which will be of our making. A decade from now what will we have done with this amazing miraculous opportunity. Our children will be the judges of that and their children. We have the chance to be the generation that overcame centuries of hatred and replaced it with respectful partnership, the generation that faced into economic chaos and courageously faced it down, the generation that made the second decade of the twenty-first century the one which the history books will record as the best ever in the history of this island. Let’s do it. Let us surprise ourselves and stun our children with prosperity rescued and peace consolidated. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.