Speech by the Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, at the Institute of British-Irish Studies, Dublin, 21 March 2000
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Speech by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, at the Institute of British-Irish Studies, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, 21 March 2000
I am delighted to be here for the launch of the Institute of British-Irish Studies.
It is always a good time to embark upon such an ambitious programme of research into British-Irish relations but now is a particularly decisive moment.
We have always tended to see British-Irish relations exclusively through the lens of Northern Ireland.
This is understandable - Northern Ireland is our top priority and the partnership that we have forged between the British and Irish Governments has been crucial to every step that we have taken thus far.
The unprecedented level of co-operation that we have established over the last two years has been the high water mark of British-Irish relations.
Over the coming weeks, as we seek to rebuild the confidence we need to revive the institutions, that partnership will be needed again.
The Agreement gave us a framework for a new constitution and it laid the basis for a new Northern Ireland - and it remains the only workable framework available.
The importance of this framework is enshrined in the principle of consent - the determination of Northern Ireland's future by a majority for the people living there - and the acceptance of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom while a majority supports that.
The establishment of this fundamental principle needs to be borne in mind by those who wonder what benefit the Good Friday Agreement brought to Northern Ireland. It embodies the commitment of all those pro-Agreement parties to pursue their aims by peaceful and democratic means. It brought with it the changes to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution and the repeal of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
These irreversible changes should be recalled especially by those who now describe the Agreement as a one way street. The original flow down this street settled the age old constitutional argument in these isles, affirming the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's place within the UK. That is no small achievement.
Since then, there have been different flows designed to reconcile all of Northern Ireland's population to this settlement. These may cause irritation to some unionists who view any recognition of nationalism as a dilution of the union, but this was the basis of the original settlement and is well understood and accepted by the majority of unionists. It has sustained the ceasefires, brought an enduring, if not perfect, peace and will provide the framework in which the outstanding issues, including decommissioning of arms, will be resolved.
This does not mean that any change is justified to respond to any grievance, real, imagined or otherwise, held by nationalist opinion. There has to be a reasonable balance struck, a sensitive use of symbols, so that more than lip service is paid to the principle of consent without upsetting the political equation that lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.
This whole movement of change has only been as successful as our willingness to learn allows. And no politician and no Secretary of State - however wise or skilful they may be - is immune.
Both sides have abandoned old shibboleths and seen their own likeness in their erstwhile enemies. They have left their fortresses and gathered on common ground.
Now as we begin again the process of building trust and moving forward together, both sides must make new compromises and take fresh risks. There is no room for stubbornness or wishful thinking, for threatened vetoes or unjustified preconditions. Both sides must prepare their constituency for change.
We must start the process of learning all over again.
Often the hardest lessons are the most valuable. I know that you will make an important contribution. I know that you will challenge our assumptions and point us in the right direction.
I wish you a long life and successful collaboration with Queen's University in Belfast, the University of Wales in Cardiff and Edinburgh University.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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