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Address by Bertie Ahern to the Joint Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London, (15 May 2007)

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Address by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), to the Joint Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London, (15 May 2007)


Ireland and Britain

A Shared History - A New Partnership

"Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker, Prime Minister, Distinguished Guests,

I am grateful for your welcome and I am honoured to be the first Taoiseach to speak here at the heart of British parliamentary democracy. But I speak not for myself today; I speak for the Irish people and for the history and the best hopes of our two island nations, yours and mine.

Today, following as it does so many remarkable days, is a new and glad departure in an old and extraordinary relationship.

Ours is a close, complex and difficult history. But now with energy and resolve this generation is leaving the past behind, building friendship and laying the foundation for a lasting partnership of common interests between our two islands.

For over two centuries, great Irishmen came to Westminster to be a voice for the voiceless of Ireland and at times a conscience for Britain too.

I am thinking above all of Daniel O’Connell and of Charles Stewart Parnell, but the tradition is long and noble. And their struggle to further the cause of the Irish nation in this Parliament resonated across the Irish Sea through the lives of every Irish person.

Those who travelled that sea to take a seat in this place believed in the proposition that democratic politics, however imperfect, is not, first and foremost, a career or a means of acquiring power. Rather it was, and is, the surest way to secure and advance a fair society.

This year, Britain commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Act of this Parliament that ended the appalling wrong that was the Atlantic slave trade. This happened despite powerful interests that argued the financial costs of abolition. But in one of the most remarkable examples of a collective political act on moral grounds, those interests were overcome. It was a moment of great moral authority and one of the great stepping-stones to freedom.

In the words of Daniel O’Connell who died 160 years ago today: "There is nothing politically right that is morally wrong". And it was this faith too that was turned to the cause of the rights of the Irish people.

It was O’Connell who built a mass civil rights movement to achieve Catholic emancipation, and then to take on the cause of the repeal of the Act of Union. The movement was founded firmly on principles of non-violence, and became an inspiration for peoples everywhere, confirming the power of an idea that again and again has changed the world. That idea is an inspiration to Irish people to this day.

O’Connell was also the champion of a wider and generous liberal tradition which looked far beyond Ireland’s shores to right injustice and support the weak and the poor.

Two generations later, Parnell and his colleagues used their disciplined mastery of the parliamentary system to force the issue of Home Rule to the centre of British politics and in so doing created the first modern political party in these islands.

We remember too that it was Ireland that first elected a woman, Constance Markiewicz, to the House of Commons - although she chose instead to take her seat in the first Dáil as elected by the Irish people.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

The historical relationship of Ireland and Britain too often seemed as if it could be more accurately measured out in repression and rebellions, over cycles of decades and centuries. Conflicts have become synonymous with years - 1169, 1690, 1798, 1916 and into the recent agony of the Troubles.

It is a litany that too often seemed to confirm the inevitability of conflict between us.

But, it was never the whole story - and now in our day and generation, we have seen the dawning of a new era.

In an act full of the symbolism of new days of hope and promise in Ireland, I had the honour last week to welcome the new First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Right Honourable Ian Paisley, MP, to the site of the Battle of the Boyne.

This was a battle for power in these islands and also part of a wider European conflict. Its outcome resounds through the centuries of Irish and British history to this very day. That time marked the beginning of an unbroken period of parliamentary democracy in this country. But its legacy in Ireland has always been a matter of deep contention and division.

It is surely a miracle of our age that the undisputed leader of Ulster unionism can meet with the leader of the Irish Government, on that battlefield, in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect.

The intertwined history of Ireland and Britain was - let us not deny the truth - in large measure indeed a story of division and conflict, of conquest, suppression and resistance. But, of course, there are episodes in that story which are a source of pride - just as there are others that are rightly a source of regret and anguish.

Last year, I was proud to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising. It was a hinge of history - and the turning of events has continued since.

Those who fought did so in pursuit of a state which, in the words of the 1916 Proclamation, "guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts cherishing all of the children of the nation equally".

The Rising did not have immediate universal support, and was opposed, at least initially, by many of those Irishmen who served in this Parliament, just as many in Ireland were shocked by the heavy-handed exercise of power by the British authorities in its wake.

Irish nationalism has its heroes as does unionism. We need to acknowledge each others pride in our separate and divided past.

In 1998, in a groundbreaking act of recognition of our shared journey, President Mary McAleese and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth jointly opened the Memorial Peace Park in Messines - a requiem to the 200,000 young men from across the island of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, North and South, who fought in the First World War, side by side. Some 50,000 did not return. Last year we renewed this tribute in Dublin - and paid homage at home to the spirit of an imperishable heroism - through a national commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme.

In another shining example of how we can engage with difficult chapters of history without descending into spirals of accusation, I remember the brave and generous initiative of the Prime Minister in acknowledging the failures of those governing in London at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

Of course, the subject of Ireland was not always welcome in this place. I recall the words of Gladstone, who in November, 1890, noted that:

Since the month of December, 1885, my whole political life has been governed by a supreme regard to the Irish question. For every day, I may say, of these five years, we have been engaged in laboriously rolling up-hill the stone of Sisyphus.

Prime Minister Blair and I can certainly empathise with this!

The so-called ‘Irish Question’ was for a long time shorthand in these halls for a nuisance, a problem, a danger. A recurring crisis that was debated here, but not where its effects were most felt.

Today, I can stand here and say that the ‘Irish Question’ as understood then has been transformed.

The Good Friday Agreement has delivered peace and promise to Ireland by accommodating the rights, the interests and the legitimate aspirations of all. It represents the triumph of common interests over inherited divisions.

It is not an end of history. But it is a new beginning.

It is an unchallengeable consensus on how any future change in the status of Northern Ireland will be effected: only with consent freely given, and with full respect for the rights of all traditions and identities on the island.

As an Irish republican, it is my passionate hope that we will see the island of Ireland united in peace. But I will continue to oppose with equal determination any effort to impose unity through violence or the threat of violence.

Irish Republicanism is inherently democratic and seeks to unite - in their common interests - Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

That is the principle on which I stand.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

None of what has been accomplished in Northern Ireland in the past decade could have happened without the most beneficial transformation in British-Irish relations in over eight hundred years.

The depth and complexity of relationships between our islands, generation after generation, defy summary or platitudes.

But now let us consign arguments over the past to the annals of the past, as we make history instead of being doomed to repeat it.

Ours must and will be the last generation to feel the pain and anger of old quarrels.

We cannot look back through eras far removed from the standards and promise of today, through the very pages of our common past, and tear out the bloodstained chapters.

But that does not mean we should write them into the story of our future. Violence is part of our shared past that lasted too long. Now we close the chapter, we move on, and it will remain there as it was written.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

I stand before you as the elected leader of a young, modern and successful country. The gathering pace of change in Ireland since independence, and in this generation especially, has been extraordinary.

We have seized our opportunities and honoured our heritage. Ireland is a small country, but today we are one of the most globalised and enterprising in the world.

We have taken a place on the world stage in the United Nations and the European Union. We have built a country of ideas, energy and of confidence.

And it is this self-confidence that allows us, still conscious of our history but not captured by it, to build a new and lasting partnership of common interest that fully respects identity and sovereignty, with you our nearest neighbour.

Today, our partnership in the world is expressed most especially in the European Union. Our joint membership has served as a vital catalyst for the building of a deeper relationship between our two islands. Europe forms a key part of our shared future. The European Union has acted as a potent example of a new political model that enables old enemies to become partners in progress.

On the world stage too we have a shared commitment to democracy, to human rights and to international development.

And we stand together to make poverty history.

I think of the power of our example - of the history we have written together in Northern Ireland. No two conflicts are exactly the same and no two solutions will ever be alike. But the world has watched as we grappled with our past and made our peace with one another. Now our two governments can share our past experience and newfound hope with others who are caught up in conflict and feel despair.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

Our relationship is a partnership of people first and foremost.

No two nations and no two peoples have closer ties of history and geography and of family and friendship.

Emigration was for too long a recurring theme of the Irish saga, from the horrors of the Great Famine, to dark economic times in the 20th Century.

Many Irish people came to this country as emigrants. And today there are hundreds of thousands of Irish-born people living in Britain today. Theirs were stories of dislocation, and stories of aspiration, and then of new lives built, new families created, new strands woven into the fabric of both our national identities.

Today, there are over a hundred members of this Parliament with an Irish background. And there are millions more like them in Britain, who have gone on to new levels of success with each new generation.

And, of course, the tide was not all one way. There are over 100,000 British citizens in Ireland now, a most welcome part of an ever more diverse population.

British settlement, organised and otherwise, has given the island of Ireland a British tradition too - not just in history and language, borders and politics, but in a thriving community of unionist people proud of who they are, where they come from, and what they hope for.

They are a living bridge between us.

The Irish Government fully respects their rights and identity.

We value their voice, their vision and their future contribution to the life of the island of Ireland in whatever way it should develop.

Our economic partnership has always been, and remains, a cornerstone of our prosperity and our friendship.

The origins of trade between our islands is lost in the mists of time itself. And today our trading relationship continues to go from strength to strength.

Irish and British people are driving the economies of both our islands with efficiency and enterprise, regardless of politics or borders.

The scale of our economic partnership is impressive and is immensely important for all our people.

British exports to Ireland alone, are more than double that of British exports to China, India, Brazil and Mexico combined. And Britain takes almost half of our food exports and half the exports of our indigenous companies.

And the achievements we have seen in Northern Ireland will open up still greater opportunities for economic cooperation between both islands and both parts of Ireland.

The people of these islands have woven a rich tapestry of culture over the centuries. This has given rise to a partnership of culture that is renowned across the world.

One of the most creative moments in human history was the meeting between the English language and the Irish people.

It has given us some of the great works of world literature - of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, John McGahern and many, many others. Not the least of those was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who served in this House, was born in Dorset Street in my constituency and is now buried nearby in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

They all found their genius in the English language, but they drew on a perspective that was uniquely Irish.

Today, a vibrant cultural life is shared by both our countries across every imaginable field - in music, dance, education, theatre, film and sport.

In culture, as in sport, we share and together enjoy so much.

And in all these areas, too, our endeavours are not divorced from our history, but are built on it.

Earlier this year, the Irish and English rugby teams met in the magnificent headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association at Croke Park in Dublin. It was a match played and watched on what is now a field of dreams, but was once the very earth of past bloodshed.

But it was a match played in the spirit of sport. No one forgot the shadows of history, but everyone was living in the sunlight of that day.

Of all these bonds - of family and friendship, of commerce and culture - the greatest of all is our partnership of peace.

We have shown that even the seemingly intractable can be overcome - that peace is not impossible and conflict is not inevitable.

We have learned, as Seamus Heaney wrote: "Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained".

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement: many of you here have been participants and makers of this history. All of you have kept hope.

Peace in Ireland has been the work of a generation. Today, I salute all those who helped to lay the foundations for what has now taken shape. In doing so, I acknowledge the work over so many years of the British-Irish Parliamentary Body and also our great and valued friends in the United States who have been with us at all times on the long journey.

When Prime Minister Blair and I started out together ten years ago, we were able to build on the courageous early steps that were taken by our predecessors.

But the contribution of Prime Minister Blair has been exceptional.

This was not a task he had to take on and not one that promised quick or easy rewards. He took it on simply because there was a chance that a great good could be achieved.

Tony Blair has been a true friend to me and a true friend to Ireland. He has an honoured place in Irish hearts and in Irish history.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

Nine years ago, the people of the island of Ireland democratically endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, a clear command to all political leaders to advance the work of peace.

In March this year the people of Northern Ireland confirmed that command through the ballot box and set their seal on the path of political progress.

There are certain days which define an era. More rarely there are days that define the next, that embody the turn of the tide.

Too many Irish days have done so through tragedy and violence.

Tuesday, May 8th, in Belfast was a day when we witnessed events that will truly define our time and the next.

Shared devolved government, commanding support from both communities and all the parties in Northern Ireland, is now in place. Now at last the full genius and full potential of the Good Friday Agreement will unfold in the interests of all the peoples of these islands.

Yes, there will be challenges ahead. But these challenges can now be faced in a climate of peace and from a foundation of partnership.

There are real issues on which the people of Northern Ireland disagree. Some are the sort that face every government, and it is now the business of their politicians to find solutions based on practicality and compromise.

Others are more fundamental issues of political and cultural identity.

But we are now in an era of agreement - of new politics and new realities.

The world has seen Ireland’s economic achievements. There is no reason why a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland should not achieve similar success. We are ready to be a partner and friend on the path to economic growth. Both parts of the island of Ireland will gain and grow.

The Irish Government has demonstrated its commitment by announcing investment in important and practical projects that will support development and growth in Northern Ireland. Chancellor Gordon Brown’s financial package expresses Britain’s clear commitment. Now let us move forward with strong practical support and increasing political confidence.

The tide of history can both ebb and flow and with it our hopes and dreams. But last week’s events are powerful evidence that we are moving with the tide of lasting change.

There is now real strength in the consensus on the way forward.

We know the unique and delicate balance that binds this process together and we are committed to doing everything in our power to protect what has been achieved.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

In our impatience to build a better future we must remember those who have died and remember those who mourn.

The conflict has left over 3,700 dead and thousands more seriously injured during our lifetimes. This appalling loss has left deep scars which cannot easily be healed.

I know that these are not empty words to Members of this Parliament, who have also experienced tragedy and personal loss at first hand. I remember those killed and maimed at Brighton and I remember Airey Neave MP, who was murdered so close to where we are today.

There is a gnawing hunger for the truth about the loss of loved ones. The conflict has left many unanswered questions in its wake. Some of these are the subjects of ongoing or promised inquiries. In these days of hope and promise we know the deep hurt and pain that linger in the hearts of so many and for whom the journey of healing and reconciliation will never be easy.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

The relationship between Britain and Ireland has changed fundamentally for the better. It is and will remain vital for both our countries. The success we have seen - in re-imagining British-Irish relations and in establishing peace in Northern Ireland - is not the end, but only the beginning of what we can achieve together.

Our mutual relations merit priority at the highest level. We must sustain our hard-won achievements on Northern Ireland. Remembering where we have come from, we must never, ever, take for granted the stability and the hope that are now taking root in Northern Ireland.

We have built a remarkable foundation for a whole new level of cooperation between our two countries.

For decades our relations have been filtered through the prism of conflict. Now, building on the peace and progress of the last decade, we can begin to pay greater attention to the wider partnership of common interests between our two islands.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker,

We can all contribute to peace, in ways that are great or small, in acts of cooperation and respect, of dialogue and of resolve.

This is a test for all of us.

I call to mind the words of another great Irishman Edmund Burke, who served in this Parliament: "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little".

So now we look back at history not to justify but to learn, and we look forward to the future in terms not of struggle and victories to be won, but of enduring peace and progress to be achieved together.

In that spirit, I close by recalling the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first American President to speak to the Dáil. He was an Irish-American who had deep connections of feeling and experience with Britain as well.

On that day in Dublin, President Kennedy called Ireland "an isle of destiny" and said that: "when our hour has come we will have something to give the world".

Today, I can say to this Parliament at Westminster as John Kennedy said in Dublin: "Ireland’s hour has come".

It came, not as victory or defeat, but as a shared future for all.

Solidarity has made us stronger.

Reconciliation has brought us closer.

Ireland’s hour has come: a time of peace, of prosperity, of old values and new beginnings.

This is the great lesson and the great gift of Irish history.

This is what Ireland can give to the world.

Thank You."


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