CAIN Web Service

Speech by Bertie Ahern to the Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) Conference, (3 April 2008)

[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
POLITICS: [Menu] [Reading] [Articles] [Government] [Political_Initiatives] [Political_Solutions] [Parties] [Elections] [Polls] [Sources] [Peace_Process]

Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), to the Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) Conference 'From Conflict to Consensus: the Legacy of the Good Friday Agreement' at University College Dublin, (Thursday 3 April 2008)


"I am delighted to have been invited to address you here today at the Institute of British-Irish Studies as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. 

It is appropriate that we use these days to reflect on what has been achieved and to articulate a vision for the future.

The 10th of April, 1998 stands out as a watershed in our history.

It was in some ways an ending – an end to sustained conflict and the culmination of long and intensive negotiations.

It also marked a new beginning – a new era of peace and mutual respect.

The negotiations leading up to the Agreement took place against a backdrop of sectarian murders and political discord.

The spate of killings - and in particular the murders in March 1998 of close friends Philip Allen and Damien Trainor in Poyntzpass -  affected everyone deeply and brought home to all of us just how high the stakes were.

We faced enormous challenges – to remove the causes of conflict, to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions of the past.

The only way this could be achieved was through a comprehensive Agreement taking into account the totality of relationships on these islands and taking on the big institutional issues that for so long had caused such alienation.

We also needed a new ethos – an ethos of tolerance, reconciliation, equality and mutual respect - to underpin that Agreement.

Many of the commitments made in the Agreement involved taking difficult decisions in the white heat of negotiation in the final days leading up to the 10th of April, 1998.

They involved difficult choices for the negotiators, having to accept unpalatable elements of the agreement in recognition of their importance to others. 

Some elements - especially the early release of prisoners - were deeply painful at a personal level for those who had lost loved ones in the conflict.

It was our collective best effort, and in that spirit, we recommended it to the people, North and South.

We had of course huge resources of leadership.

Some of those who were central to the process are no longer with us – Mo Mowlam and David Ervine made enormous contributions and are sadly missed.

John Hume and David Trimble, who led their negotiating teams, took enormous risks for peace and were rightly honoured as Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness showed great leadership in bringing their movement with them, first to the negotiating table and ultimately to the centre of the new power-sharing administration in Belfast.

In later years, Dr Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and others in the DUP showed equal vision and leadership in negotiating, and then implementing, the St Andrews Agreement that led to the restoration of the institutions and the hugely positive situation we all enjoy today.

President Clinton gave us Senator George Mitchell who was with us every step of the way.  The President also gave much of his personal time, as did his successor President Bush, their special envoys and their administrations.

International support for the process, including through the EU and the International Fund for Ireland, was and continues to be vital.

And of course, John Alderdice, Monica McWilliams, General De Chastelain and many others have continued to make significant contributions in various capacities right up to the present day.

In the period up to 1998, we were fortunate to build on foundations laid by our predecessors over many years – notably John Major and Albert Reynolds who helped bring about the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

And perhaps most importantly of all, in Tony Blair I had a partner as British Prime Minister who was prepared to work tirelessly for many years to settle our age old question. 

The framework we achieved in 1998 was truly comprehensive.

It is worth recalling here that the full range of commitments agreed included:

-        constitutional change for both Britain and Ireland;

-        inclusive power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland; and

-        the establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council, the North/South implementation Bodies, the British–Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

There were also crucial provisions relating to human rights, the transformation of policing and the criminal justice system, the decommissioning of arms, the normalisation of security arrangements and prisoner releases.

A crucial element was measures to promote reconciliation and addressing the needs of the victims of violence. 

While many of the obligations have been fully implemented over the past ten years, the solemn obligations to pursue reconciliation and to help victims remain ongoing by their very nature. 

They will remain at the core of our future work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I can well recall Senator Mitchell noting that there would have to be a lot of effort, in good faith, for a long time, to achieve the goals of this Agreement.

In the intervening years, there have been those breakthrough days which attracted the newspaper headlines and which will be written about in the history books.

There were many important moments, which hold a special place in our collective memory, culminating on that famous, historic day in May of 2007 when Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness took office in Stormont.

Before that, there were many other days when, without fanfare or publicity, the process of building trust, developing relationships and changing attitudes took place.

This took weeks, months and years of quiet work by ordinary people on all sides - slowly, painstakingly and steadfastly creating the space in which old enemies could come together and take forward the process of peacemaking and reconciliation.

As the Troubles recede into history, we can see more clearly the quiet work that went on for decades, both before and after 1998.

We are profoundly grateful to all of those who worked, and who still work every day, for peace and reconciliation.

In the bleaker times during the past ten years, when progress was slow or things appeared to be moving backwards, it was important to remind ourselves of why we were there.

The strongest motivator was the knowledge that the implementation of the Agreement was what the people of the island wanted.

The resounding endorsement – North and South - in the referendums which took place after the Agreement, underlined to all parties involved that an inclusive approach, underpinned by mutual respect and forsaking all forms of violence, was what the people desperately wanted.

It was a particularly proud moment for me as Taoiseach when the referendum here in this jurisdiction was carried by a majority of over 90%.

That decisive result confirmed the openness and the willingness of the Irish people to commit to new arrangements that would take account of all traditions and viewpoints, on the basis of fairness and equality.  

They did so because they appreciated that the provisions of the Agreement were balanced.

It was a fair deal.

So much has been achieved since 1998.

The inclusive power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, the Assembly and Executive, are now working to address the day-to-day concerns of the people.

A key moment was the recent agreement on the Budget, Programme for Government and Investment Strategy.

The North-South Ministerial Council and North/South implementation Bodies are now back operating fully.

Following the Patten Commission and Criminal Justice Review, the policing and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland have been transformed.

With Sinn Féin giving its full support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there is now a fully accountable police service, serving the community and increasingly representative of the community.

These changes did not happen by chance but rather, because the Patten Commission did an excellent job and the Governments and the political parties – especially the SDLP – worked to ensure that its recommendations were implemented.

Crucially, and after many years of arduous negotiations, in 2005 the IRA formally ended its campaign of violence and the independent decommissioning body verified that it had decommissioned the ‘totality of its arms’.

Ten years ago, Northern Ireland was scarred by heavily militarised barracks and watchtowers, many border roads remained closed, and there was a very large troop presence across the North.

Today, the physical landscape is transformed, the hardware of conflict is gone and the remaining troops are confined to barracks.

Throughout all of this process, the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been transformed from one of difficulty and disagreement to a vibrant modern relationship based on strong economic and cultural links and a shared vision for a peaceful future.

We are also continuing to develop the relationship with our nearest neighbours in a whole range of other ways, including through the British-Irish Council which was established under the Good Friday Agreement to foster East/West links.

Already, the Council has played a significant role in developing the relationships between all of the administrations on these islands. 

I was honoured to host the recent Summit meeting in Dublin. 

The venue - the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham – carried echoes of so much of our shared history, while the substance of the meeting showed a clear path to new and developing relationships for the future.

Of course, the attendance of leaders from Cardiff and Edinburgh were a clear reminder that the year 1998 saw more than one significant constitutional innovation. 

As well as the Good Friday Agreement, that year also saw the devolution settlements in Scotland and Wales. 

The future evolution of those devolved institutions will have important implications for everyone on these islands.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At its heart, the Agreement was about securing lasting change in how the two traditions on this island live and interact with each other.

When we agreed the North South aspects of the Agreement, we envisaged a North-South Ministerial Council that had the capacity to make a difference and improve people’s lives, North and South.

That is why we wrote that participation in the Council would be “one of the essential responsibilities attaching to relevant posts in the two Administrations”. We reflected further on this at St. Andrew’s.

And we have since turned our good words into positive action, especially over the last few months.

I was proud to lead our Ministerial team at the North South Ministerial Council Plenary in July last year. It was the first occasion in over five years for Ministers on both sides to sit around a table together, and we had a genuinely open and wide-ranging discussion.

We had further wide-ranging discussions in Dundalk in February, including on issues that affect the all-island economy.

Already, we have seen significant new initiatives.

We are implementing a massive programme of joint investment in infrastructure, including a major new inter-urban road between Dublin and the North West as well as the route between Belfast and Larne.  We also hope to see further improvements in the Dublin-Belfast rail service emerging from future meetings of Transport Ministers from North and South.

We have agreed on a new integrated cross-border approach to the development of the North West of the island through the North West Gateway Initiative.  This involves a holistic approach including local government, industrial promotion, transport and spatial planning, work force development and improving public services. 

An example of where this can lead was the recent approval of Government funding for a study into closer links between the University of Ulster and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. 

We are also co-operating and investing in new initiatives in the areas of higher education and research

A major new cross-border innovation fund was recently announced by the Northern Ireland Minister for Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, in co-operation with Minister Mícheál Martin.  Both administrations are also co-operating closely in their approaches to major EU funding for research under the new FP7 programme.

The single electricity market is already a reality, successfully launched by Ministers Nigel Dodds and Eamonn Ryan last November.  It is a crucial step in addressing our future economic prosperity and in linking us into the British and wider European energy systems.

We are also looking at other crucial economic issues, such as the all-island labour market, which will be the subject of a major conference later this year, cross-border mobility issues and cross-border charges in the banking and telecoms sectors.

Important and groundbreaking work is underway on co-operation in health, in education, in regional development, in environmental protection and in spatial planning.

We have agreed to begin the restoration of the Ulster Canal in Cavan, Fermanagh and Monaghan.  I hope that, in the future, that restoration will follow the full route and restore the link between the Lagan and the Shannon systems and fulfil the huge potential for regeneration and tourism in that part of the border region.

At our next Plenary meeting of the Council, we will have a substantive discussion on tourism, building on the excellent progress already made by Tourism Ireland in marketing the entire island. 

We will also address the key strategic issues of climate change and energy security.

There are many other projects underway, too numerous to mention. 

These are being carried forward by Ministers, Departments and agencies from North and South, as well as the North/South bodies.

They are changing the lives of everyone on this island for the better.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we reflect on our journey from conflict to peace, we will naturally accentuate the many areas where positive progress has been made.

However, we must not be complacent – there are still challenges ahead.

While the loyalist paramilitary groups have begun processes of transformation, they have unfortunately not decommissioned and a minority of people remain wedded to criminality.

For our part, we remain committed to helping loyalist communities move beyond the conflict of the past and to share in the peace and prosperity which is the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland. We applaud the leadership shown by many people in those communities who are moving on and are working daily with the rest of us to make a better future.

There are also small, unrepresentative groups on the other side who would propel us all back to a time of despair and anguish.  They will continue to face the full rigour of the law, on both sides of the border.

Of course, there also still issues from the past that need to be addressed. 

I welcome the continued focus on victims, including the recent appointment of the new Victims Commission in Northern Ireland.  We will also continue our work with victims in the South.

There is also the ongoing consideration of the many difficult issues from the past the still cause hurt and division.  The group headed by Denis Bradley and Robin Eames is looking at those issues and they have my best wishes in what is an immensely difficult task.

To build on the peaceful environment that has been created, we now need to move forward to the next stage of the process, when locally elected representatives take over democratic responsibility for policing and justice in Northern Ireland.

This is an absolutely integral part of the agreement at St Andrews that led to power-sharing and all-party support for policing. 

It should be implemented in good faith for that reason alone.

But it also matters to society. 

It matters that the political leaders of Northern Ireland take responsibility for tackling crime on the streets. 

It matters that people feel safe in their homes. 

It matters that investors can work with a stable, fully functioning government. 

The maintenance of law and order is a fundamental task of any democratic administration.

That is why we need to complete the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Both the Prime Minister and I made clear when we met recently that we believe that the time is now right to proceed with this final step. 

Along with supporting the investment conference, that will be the focus of the two Governments in the coming weeks.

It will be the last piece in the jigsaw that will give us the durable peace and prosperity we have been working for all these years.

There are also other outstanding commitments from Saint Andrews that I am confident we will see implemented in the near future.

Discussions are underway on the establishment of the North South Consultative Forum.  The Irish Government has had very positive discussions with the social partners and other interested groups.  Their input can add huge value to the existing North/South dialogue by highlighting important social and economic issues that affect ordinary people, as is already the case in the social partnership process in the South.  We expect to put forward a proposal on the consultative forum for consideration by the Northern Ireland Executive in the coming months.

The respective legislative bodies, the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly, have also had preliminary discussions on the establishment of the North South Parliamentary Forum.  At the same time, we have seen very positive engagement between the Oireachtas and the Assembly at Committee level, with a number of visits involving elected representatives of all shades of opinion. 

I hope we will see further progress on this issue soon, as well as on unionist participation in the East/West parliamentary framework.

For its part, the Oireachtas has established an important dedicated Committee to oversee the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.  Apart from its very important subject matter, that Committee is also significant for the participation, alongside TDs and Senators, of MPs elected in Northern Ireland.

There are other steps which must also be taken if we are to live up to the full aspiration of the Agreement “to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement”.

The scourge of sectarianism is still all too evident in Northern Ireland.

The peace walls still stand as an affront to our aspiration for a peaceful democratic society.

There are no easy answers.  This will be the work of a generation -  perhaps more than one – to overcome.

This problem must be tackled.

Of course, leadership on this issue must come from the Northern Ireland Executive and the local communities involved. 

The Irish Government hope to play our own small part through a dedicated Anti-Sectarianism Fund which was included in the Programme for Government and was recently launched by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern.

We will also continue to place reconciliation and the elimination of sectarianism, and indeed racism and other forms of hatred, at the centre of our policies.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Another important challenge that must be faced is that which faces all societies – to provide prosperity and opportunity for all of our people. 

That places economic and social progress at the heart of public debate and of government policy. 

We have seen this in Northern Ireland in recent times, in both the nature of the electoral contest of 2007 and in the policies of the Executive that was elected. 

It is a profound and welcome change.

This task of developing the economy, including on an all-island dimension, is crucial to the future. 

We have created the circumstances where a person’s opportunities are not determined by their political outlook, or their religion, or from where they come. 

Whether from the Bogside or the Shankill, everyone should have a fair chance to succeed in life based on their own ability and hard work.

That is now possible.  If we are to maintain peace and progress, we must make sure that promise comes true.

As well as the Northern Ireland Executive, this work must involve both governments, our friends in the United States, the EU and other countries. 

It must involve and engage the people of the South – in business, trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, the arts, the public sector and throughout our society.

We do not have a separate past from Northern Ireland and we cannot have a separate future. 

The durable success of the peace process and the future prosperity of everyone on this island, North and South, are essential to all of our futures.

The next phase of that work is underway, with the range of North/South co-operation I mentioned earlier and also in the forthcoming international investment conference in Belfast next month.

The Irish Government will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to develop the economy and improve society right across this island. 

It is profoundly in all our interests – from Bantry to Ballymena.

It is, of course, impossible to predict the future.

But we can learn from the past.

Much of the debate has been on lessons learned that might be applied to other conflicts.  It is a complex question and there are clear difficulties in applying the answers we found in Ireland to other parts of the world.

Today, however, we should focus on the lessons learned as they affect future policy and developments on this island. 

What have we learned and what does it mean for us here at home?

First and foremost, we have learned the futility of violence. 

Thousands of people died, thousands more were injured.  Thousands of families were left broken and grieving – without fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters. 

This happened in our country.  In our lifetimes.

Whatever the circumstances, whatever the motivation, whatever the hurt felt before hurt was caused, none of that violence was justified. 

None of the hatred and the conflict advanced the interests or aspirations of our people, on any side.

It was the ending of violence that allowed progress to happen. 

Let us honour the dead by ensuring that never – never – again do we see violence used to advance political aims in our country.

The Good Friday Agreement itself expresses this best, and I quote:

“The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering.  We must never forget those who have died or been injured.  But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”

While it is important to state clearly and unequivocally that there should never again be violence on this island, we must also take action to make sure that is the case.

It is our task now to ensure that the conditions that created that conflict never recur.

That is the core of what the Good Friday Agreement is all about.

The primary purpose of the Good Friday Agreement was, of course, to settle the conflict that had ravaged the North for three decades.

But it also created a framework for the core relationships that went to the heart of our historical quarrels – the relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Britain and Ireland.

All previous attempts to settle those issues had ultimately failed. 

The Act of Union of 1801 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 ultimately failed because, as we can see with hindsight, they contained the seeds of their own destruction. 

Perhaps chief among their problems was that they were not democratically accepted by all the traditions on this island.  There was always a minority who felt they had lost.

I would argue – and this is my most fervent hope – that 1998 changed all that.

We have found a way of developing our relationships that accommodates everyone and threatens no one. 

It accords legitimacy to all aspirations – whether for Irish unity or continued union with Britain. 

It permanently removes any suggestion – however illegitimate it may have been - that violence or the threat of violence is justified by reference to the democratic wishes of the Irish people.

For the people of this State, the amended Article 3 of our Constitution sets out that new and unalterable context:

“It is 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 of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of the majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island”.

For those of us who believe in Irish unity – and I will always be one of those people – there is a clear way forward through seeking to persuade those who do not share our beliefs.

For those who believe in the Union, there is a constitutional guarantee that the principle of consent is inviolable.

And for everyone in Northern Ireland, there is positive recognition of their birthright to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.

In that way, the Agreement positively empowers and respects each and every person on this island.

One of the saddest developments in recent decades has been the reduction in the number of people in the North from a protestant, unionist and loyalist background who regard themselves as Irish, or as both Irish and British. 

That is a huge loss, I would contend, to that community as well as to the entire island. 

It is a position that I believe is changing as the unionist community grows in confidence and as respect grows for their unique tradition and position on this island. 

That is a profoundly welcome development for all of us.

Through the process of building trust and reconciliation, the Good Friday Agreement has created new possibilities – possibilities that go beyond the old certainties and the unrealistic dreams.

Those new possibilities are about the unity and friendship of the people.

The last ten years prove yet again that history does not stand still. 

Irish history certainly never has.

And when we consider the centuries of division that preceded 1998, we must acknowledge that history is not necessarily on our side.

But if we reflect on our history since 1998, we can take enormous encouragement and inspiration. 

We have closed the bloody chapters and opened a new chapter of reconciliation and renewal.

We cannot rewrite our history. 

But we can and will shape the future in a different image.

It will be in the image of the Good Friday Agreement.

An image of justice, equality and opportunity for all of the people of Northern Ireland

An image of trust, co-operation and friendship between nationalists and unionists, and between North and South, on this island.

An image of partnership between Ireland and Britain. 

An image of respect for each other and of reconciliation with each other.

A shared future is being built on the solid foundations laid on Good Friday ten years ago.

Thomas Paine once pleaded:

“If there must be trouble let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

After all the centuries of violence and despair, our children have peace."



CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :