Tánaiste Keynote Address to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy
Speech13 March 2023
Looking Back and Moving Forward:
Celebrating 25 Years of the Good Friday Agreement
The National Committee on American Foreign Policy
Micheál Martin TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence
Secretary Clinton, friends of Ireland, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to deliver this evening’s address, especially given the focus of today’s conversations on the 25th anniversary on the Good Friday Agreement.
Thank you, Susan, for the invitation. Can I thank also John Greed, and all at Mutual, for hosting us here in their landmark premises. John, your role, leading Mutual, comes with a particular heritage in Ireland. Thank you for your enduring support and engagement with that heritage.
The National Committee on American Foreign Policy holds a special place in the history – and ongoing journey – of the peace process on the island of Ireland. At defining moments you have helped shift the dial: you challenged key actors and policy-makers to be more ambitious in their efforts to bring an end to the violence that blighted so many lives.
In 1995 in Derry, President Clinton told us that if we had the patience to reach for a just and lasting peace, “the United States will reach with you”. The National Committee has always helped Ireland make that reach.
Today I pay tribute to the efforts of the leadership and members of the National Committee down the years, and recognise the enduring impact of their work.
The leadership of the National Committee and Mutual of America converged through Bill Flynn and Tom Moran.
Together, they set out to make a positive, active contribution to Ireland and to peace.
The National Committee’s invitations to full range of Northern Ireland’s leaders, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist, was an important staging post on the road to the Good Friday Agreement.
Bill Flynn and Tom Moran wanted them all to have their voices heard here in the US. And they were right. They reached deep across the dividing lines in the North, developing deep understandings of the complex dynamics at play.
Bill and Tom made things thought impossible, possible. They made a difference.
Can I thank Joan Moran for sharing Tom with Ireland.
Tom was of course succeeded in his role as Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast by Secretary Clinton.
Her enduring commitment, not only as a public representative but on a personal level, to Northern Ireland is deeply appreciated. It is great that Secretary Clinton is here tonight, and I look forward to hearing her reflections.
While I am thanking people, there are two others I know I can mention without controversy.
This is because you all know the hard yards they put in in the 1990s, and since, to make peace possible and to secure it. Please join me in thanking Niall O’Dowd and Loretta Brennan Glucksman.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Over the years, the National Committee has been the convenor of numerous, well-timed conversations on how, collectively, we can advance peace and reconciliation. Today continues this fine tradition.
When I looked at today’s conference line-up, I was struck by the diverse range of voices represented. Individuals from both sides of the Atlantic, from across the political traditions on the island of Ireland, together with those forging new paths. Figures that were there during the crucial period leading to the Good Friday Agreement.
Importantly, too, you have included younger voices – those who will carry on this work when those of us in positions of authority move on.
Each of today’s speakers brought their unique perspectives. They were also united in their desire to see Northern Ireland achieve the potential unlocked in 1998.
As a member of Cabinet at the time the Agreement was negotiated, I was deeply aware of how high the stakes were then – of what success, or failure, meant for people right across our island.
A quarter of a century on, it is important to remind ourselves of just how steep a hill the negotiators had to climb.
- Thousands of lives were taken in the most brutal circumstances, and countless more traumatised.
- Communities were fractured by divisions within as well as between groups.
- Trust and understanding were vanishingly scarce – Senator Mitchell’s famous shuttle diplomacy reflected the fact that participants would not share a room with one another.
Many saw the negotiations as a hopeless task – with so much scar tissue right across society, how could groups with diametrically opposed visions for the future find a way to end the violence and forge a radically new politics?
It is difficult to imagine a more challenging starting point. But this was precisely the moment when the United States doubled down on years of quiet diplomacy and the investment in relationships with the island of Ireland; investment made by generations of political leaders from both sides of the aisle.
At the moment of greatest need – and at significant political risk – the United States reached.
Those in this room know just how momentous an achievement the Good Friday Agreement was, and still is. I would like to pay particular tribute to those who showed leadership by challenging voices from within their own communities who wanted a return to the divisions of a past. They rejected simplistic narratives and instead chose the more difficult path necessary to deliver peace and hope for the next generation.
As John Hume said following the conclusion of the Agreement: ‘We have succeeded not because we have challenged others. We have succeeded because we have challenged ourselves.’
At the core of this success was a recognition of how deeply intertwined the lives and politics of our islands are – reflected in the three strands of the Agreement.
By working together – North and South, East and West and of course within Northern Ireland – we could through personal relationships and practical cooperation begin to build the shared future that our people deserve.
Through the structures of power-sharing, the Agreement enshrined the fact that the people of Northern Ireland have a fundamental right to participate in devolved, cross-community government.
With that right comes responsibility: the responsibility to use the privilege of government wisely and inclusively.
Underpinning the Agreement is the endorsement by an overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland in referendums in both jurisdictions held on the same day in 1998. Acting together, the people of Ireland, North and South, gave a resounding ‘yes’ to ending violence and to committing to a new politics of peace.
As co-guarantors of the Agreement, the Irish and British Governments have not just a legal duty but a moral obligation to safeguard these values and structures.
No community got everything they wished for in 1998, but everyone got peace. To get that peace, delicate balances were required. Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom was affirmed, until and unless a majority in Northern Ireland voted otherwise – the principle of consent.
As part of those delicate balances, Ireland’s constitution was changed, including to enshrine that principle of consent, mirroring language in British legislation.
We each have a duty to nurture the peace. That means nurturing the balances that underpin the Agreement.
Securing and embedding peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland has been the over-riding priority of the Government of Ireland for the entirety of my life in politics. It is the lens through which we look at every challenge and opportunity that has arisen – from the mundane to the seismic and unexpected.
There have indeed been many challenges, particularly in recent years with the fundamental realignment caused by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
During such moments, my Government’s focus on peace, stability and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement has helped us to chart our course, informed by one core objective:
protecting and building on the promise of the Agreement.
I would like also to recognise that voices on this side of the Atlantic – from all parties – have been unwavering in insisting that the Good Friday Agreement be kept at the heart of how we collectively navigate recent challenges.
This has been invaluable in maintaining political focus throughout the difficulties brought about by Brexit, but also in supporting a principled approach on dealing with the legacy of the past that does not damage the process of reconciliation. Listening to the voices of victims and ensuring respect for human rights obligations must at the centre of how we do this.
In difficult moments it is important that we return to the fundamentals on which our peace has been
- The two Governments working in partnership, recognising that unilateralism breeds instability and division
- Respect for the delicate balance achieved in the Good Friday Agreement, including the core concepts of consent and of parity of esteem
- Rewarding political bravery from across the traditions in Northern Ireland
- An enduring commitment to working all the institutions of the Agreement
- The support and guidance of our international friends and partners, especially those in the United States, who have never lost sight of the duty of hope.
After a difficult number of years, we have started to see real progress on some key issues. I warmly welcome the agreement in principle of the Windsor Framework.
Both the EU and the UK worked incredibly hard to address the genuine concerns that had arisen from the operation of the Protocol made necessary by Brexit.
To achieve this, both the EU and the UK reached. It is a sign of what can be achieved when we come together with genuine political will.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The people of Northern Ireland expressed their democratic voice in Assembly elections last May. They deserve to have that voice heard, on issues which impact on their everyday lives such as health, energy or education.
With the Windsor Framework agreed, we now have an opportunity to bring hope, energy and momentum back into politics for Northern Ireland. It provides a stable set of arrangements to address the outworking of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
It is time to focus attention on building a brighter future.
That spirit is at the core of the Shared Island Initiative that I established upon becoming Taoiseach. It is a whole of Government priority that aims to fulfil the potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
It aims to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on our island.
It engages with all traditions and perspectives on the island, in a spirit of respect, to try to build an agreed vision for the future of our shared island.
Through investment in infrastructure, systematic research and a structured programme of dialogue covering everything from biodiversity loss to the complex issue of identity, the Shared Island Initiative is the vehicle to positively transform North / South and East / West relationships.
And on the subject of relationships, I want you to know that I understand and deeply appreciate the commitment of those here tonight, and of the United States as a whole, to a better future for Northern Ireland. President Biden’s appointment of Joe Kennedy III as Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs is proof of the United States’ ongoing commitment.
In this anniversary year, the Government of Ireland is thinking not only of what was achieved 25 years ago, but of all that can still be achieved in the 25 years to come.