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Speech at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle


Chairman, friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I want to welcome you all here today.

This Forum has been reconvened in response to a number of requests from political parties who felt that the Forum could play a useful role in current circumstances.  Because of the political challenge that suspension entails, I share the view that all of the stake-holders in the peace process should be given an opportunity to deliberate on it and add their contribution to finding the way forward.  I believe that our discussions here are timely and I am pleased at the positive response by all the parties to meeting together today under Senator Hayes chairmanship.

The multi-party talks which reconvened last week and which will meet again tomorrow, are a vital part of our efforts to have devolved government in Northern Ireland restored. This is where the primary focus must remain. Nonetheless, I believe that this Forum can complement these efforts in a most useful and positive way.

The value of the Forum, today as in the past, is the momentum it imparts at difficult times.  It has in the past played a crucial part in peace process.   The Forum acted as a vital bridge between the paramilitary ceasefires and the beginning of all-party talks.  The peace process has brought immense change to the people of Ireland, North and South. Measured against the magnitude of division and the duration of conflict, the pace of progress has been staggering.

The Agreement that we crafted was an historic compromise between the great traditions of Ireland, which are historys inheritance, sometimes burden, more often wealth. What distinguishes the Agreement is not simply its scope, ingenuity and vision but its durability.  I believe sincerely, as a politician and as a citizen, that this Agreement and the institutions it establishes will serve the people well for many, many years.

In May 1998, the people of this island voted for the Good Friday Agreement.  In doing so, they conferred on it the sanction of democracy for the mandate contained within it. 

For the people of Northern Ireland, it meant an election to the new government of Northern Ireland.  And under the Government of Northern Ireland Act, 1998, the people of Northern Ireland were told that they would be given an opportunity to express their verdict on the performances of the parties elected to that Assembly and Executive in new elections in May 2003.

What are the implications of that date?  I believe there is one implication of over-riding and singular importance.  That it places a solemn democratic obligation on all of the parties to the Agreement to offer a fully implemented and working Agreement to the Northern Ireland electorate for their judgment at the appointed time.

It is to that end that Prime Minister Blair and I are dedicating our efforts over the coming months.  As we and the parties in Northern Ireland pursue the acts of completion necessary to achieve that end, no one should expect surprises. 

Such acts comprise a range of issues and areas.  What needs to be done is set out in the Agreement itself.  The only surprise will be reserved for those who have declared their hostile intent toward the Agreement, have judged that it would not work, or have connived to see it fail. Because the Agreement will endure. And it will succeed.

The Agreement has served us well already even on the vexed question of paramilitary violence and intent.  As a measure of the change we have witnessed, think of the changing character of the questions asked of the IRA.  When the ceasefire was called in 1994, the question was variously is it for real, will it last?  By 1998, it was will the IRA decommission its weapons?  Now the question is will the IRA cease all activities incompatible with peace? and do you accept the authority and legitimacy of the new policing arrangements?

It is an error to believe that the demand for the rule of law and the probity due to democracy is an exclusively unionist ultimatum delivered to the IRA.  For that is to suggest that nationalists in Northern Ireland set a threshold of acceptable behaviour that tolerates or accommodates punishment beatings and other unlawful activity associated with paramilitary activity. 

I believe that that is not only not true but insulting. There is no doubt in my mind that nationalists, no less than unionists, want to see the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means being brought to completion and all paramilitary groups becoming a thing of the past.

Despite the knocks it has taken, the durability of the Agreement and the progress it has overseen have been impressive.  We may have stalled from time to time.  But we have never gone backwards.  We may be in a stall now.  But I am convinced that it is temporary.

Yes, the process of implementation has been uneven.  We need to move that process from the lurching stop-start of the last few years to effective and assured functioning.   The moment has arrived to achieve that.  I believe the will and the means are there to do it.  And I believe it can be done so as to ensure that the institution is restored in good time before the May elections.

With the re-establishment of the institutions following the essential acts of completion on all sides that have been called for, an unprecedented era in political stability for Northern Ireland will lie within our grasp.  Devolution has been good for Northern Ireland. The Assembly and its Committees worked effectively and well. There was a genuine sense that this was an opportunity for local representatives across all parties to hold local Ministers to account and to influence local policy-making and the opportunity had been grasped.

And, even in the short time that the Executive was operating, individual Ministers from all parties, the SDLP, the UUP, Sinn Féin and the DUP, demonstrated a high degree of commitment to their portfolios and took policy decisions that will have a lasting impact on the lives of very many people in Northern Ireland. The experience of devolved Government clearly demonstrated that in the ordinary, routine, business of governance, politicians in Northern Ireland can work effectively together for the benefit of all the people.

I believe that Northern Ireland can enjoy an Executive and an Assembly free of disruption and interruption giving expression to the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland in policies covering education, health, economic and social policies, agriculture, culture and justice. 

I believe that it should be possible for criminal justice and policing to be devolved to that Assembly and Executive, giving the people of Northern Ireland a direct say in that most vital of areas for the good governance of any society.  I believe that a fully inclusive Policing Board, comprising all the main parties including Sinn Fein, is achievable thus underpinning the new policing arrangements.  And structured cooperation on policing and justice will facilitate a new era in tackling cross border and all-Ireland crime and law enforcement issues.

The North/South Ministerial Council is already a proven success story. I am confident that it will continue to work for the benefit of both societies, securing advances that would not be possible separately.

And I believe that it will also be possible to give effect to other areas of the Agreement where progress has been slow.

Realising this is not simply an ambition.  It is the imperative of the peoples mandate and it is the obligation of all political leaders and their parties to deliver it.

The deliberations of this Forum can add momentum toward our goals.  It is right and proper that the parties in the South have an opportunity to express their views in concert with the parties from Northern Ireland.   In that regard, it is a matter of regret that the representatives of the main unionist parties are not attending this Forum.  Their contribution would have enriched our dialogue and added to the ebb and flow of ideas.

It will be a matter for the Forum itself to decide on its future work.  I do not believe that this need be protracted particularly in view of our goal, and our sincere hope, of an early restoration of devolved government. There are, however, a number of areas, including, for example, issues such as parity of esteem on which there could be a useful focus.  This was a formulation that did much to advance the deliberations of the Forum in the past.  It remains relevant to ensuring respectful dialogue between the two traditions that share this island. We have come some distance but a great deal more needs to be done in this area. 

By gathering together so many speakers from the island as a whole at the outset of the peace process in 1994, this Forum was a symbolic assertion of the primacy of debate and politics.  It was an expression of the belief that debate, the exchange of ideas and honest arguments are the means of achieving agreed outcomes and lasting progress. I want to thank you all for coming here today to affirm those values, to assist in the definition of the issues affecting peace and reconciliation on this island, and to add to the momentum toward a resolution of the current difficulties.

Thank you.