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Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, 19 February 2004

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

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, on 'Partnership as the only way forward', (19 February 2004)


I am delighted to be with you today and to accept the invitation of the Chairman of Council, Dr Gerry Burns, and the Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Gerry McKenna, to address you in this fine setting. The University of Ulster is 20 years old this year, yet in that short time has grown to be the largest University on the island.

You have much to be proud of in what you have achieved. In particular, I applaud your commitment to widening access to higher education. I have, for instance, heard good reports of your Step-up Programme. I know that you also have a strong record in research and in North/South collaboration, and I will come back to that a little later.

We meet at a critical and interesting time in the life of this island, North and South. I wanted to take the opportunity in my remarks to outline to you, the Irish Government’s position, as we enter the review of the Good Friday Agreement. In particular, I want to talk about our hopes for the new era that the Agreement has opened up in relations between the two parts of this island.

In both cases, I am suggesting that the key is partnership – partnership as the only forward. Partnership in Northern Ireland. Partnership on the island of Ireland. And partnership between the two Governments.

On 10 April 1998, when I signed the Good Friday Agreement, I firmly believed that it had the potential to transform relationships on this island. I believed that the Agreement would transcend the sterile dissensions of the past and create a network of win-win partnerships that threatened the interests of no community but empowered and enriched us all.

Nearly six years later, I remain absolutely convinced of the validity of that analysis.

I want to pay tribute to all those who have shared this analysis and who have worked to advance the promise of the Agreement. The Agreement has transformed Northern Ireland for the better. And there is no going back on this process of change.

If there were a better way, we would have found it. But there is not. We are satisfied that the Agreement that emerged after such protracted negotiations includes the elements essential to a divided society and to building relations on and between these islands. As such, the two Governments are determined to protect it.

The essence and core of the Agreement is partnership. It is about accepting that partnership is the only way forward. Conversely, it is about recognising that a denial of partnership is wrong. It is wrong in principle. And it will not succeed in practice.

Creating and sustaining partnership in a society emerging from conflict is an enormous challenge. However, if we are to consolidate peace and have stable politics that delivers good governance for the people of Northern Ireland, there must be full and inclusive partnership.

Issues about the principle and practice of partnership are the heart of the discussions currently ongoing in the review of the Agreement. Without pre-empting its outcome, I firmly believe that a viable partnership in Northern Ireland can only be constructed on the basis of total equality between the prospective partners.

If partnership is being sought by one side in a context where the use or threat of force have not been finally removed from the equation, it is very hard to persuade a reluctant or fearful partner of the presence of equality. Likewise, if the offer of partnership only extends to its partial or selective operation, it does not represent an equality of inclusion between all sides.

There can be no half-way house between violence and democracy.

Similarly, there can be no comfortable resting place between exclusion and partnership.

For the republican movement that means bringing definitive closure to paramilitarism. It means absolute commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

For unionism it means signing up to the imperative of a total partnership, based on the inclusion of all parties, whose electoral mandate gives them a right of participation.

Resolving the impasse on these two related issues would liberate the political process and herald a new era of constructive partnership, that would benefit all communities in Northern Ireland.

I believe that we can meet this challenge. The road already travelled has indeed been long and winding. We cannot and must not stop now. Our objective is clear. It is to finish the job and resume the operation of active and inclusive democratic institutions. Direct rule is not the preferred option of the substantial majority of people in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Northern Ireland is at its best when the devolved institutions of government are functioning as intended in the Agreement.

My Government’s goals are open and transparent. We do not have any hidden agenda. We want to fully implement the Agreement. We want an end to paramilitarism. We want to see devolved government restored. And we want full and open dialogue with all strands of unionism, as well as nationalism.

I welcome the opening of our dialogue with the DUP. Our recent meeting in London was positive. It was a good start. We are committed to continuing these contacts with them at all levels. It has taken many years to get to this point. But I believe that open and honest engagement will allow us to confirm to them that the Irish Government are honourable and fair-minded partners in this indispensable process.

At the same time we want to continue our work with Loyalist leaders, to create vibrant and confident loyalist communities, that are stakeholders in the new era of partnership on this island. We recognise their difficulties and challenges in leaving behind the negative agenda of the past and we commend the ongoing efforts of those who are trying to lead people out of the cul-de-sac of paramilitarism.

While the restoration of devolved government on an inclusive basis is a key priority for both Governments, it is important to recognise that the Agreement is wider than devolution. Both Governments have responsibilities to meet in ensuring, to the full extent of our abilities, that the non-devolution aspects of the Agreement continue to be implemented.

The Irish Government comes to the review process as a co-guarantor, with the British Government, of the Good Friday Agreement. Our partnership with the British government has developed and deepened over the last decade in particular. This partnership is central to the entire process.

While the fundamentals of the Agreement are not up for negotiation, we are aware that, in the almost six years since the Agreement was signed in 1998, experience has shown that there are areas where the operation of the Agreement could be significantly improved. Practical and sensible proposals to improve the operation of the Agreement and that attract consensus support among the parties, are indeed welcome and will be considered positively by the Irish Government.

I am frequently asked what are the fundamentals of the Agreement that must be protected. In my view they are self-evident. They are the foundations on which the Agreement was built. They are the elements that bind the delicate process together.

Without being exhaustive, they obviously embrace the Constitutional principles, including in particular the principle of consent; the principle of partnership government on a cross-community and inclusive basis; the interlocking institutions of the Agreement, including its North/South and East/West dimensions; the safeguarding of human rights and equality of opportunity; the promotion of respect, understanding and tolerance of the cultural diversity of the island, including the Irish language; the removal of the use and threat of paramilitary violence, no matter what its origin; the normalisation of security arrangements on the ground and the consolidation of the new policing and criminal justice arrangements.

I list these fundamentals not with a view to throwing up roadblocks in the search for a resolution of the current impasse. I do so, because I sincerely believe that they are at the heart of the Agreement and must, therefore, be protected if we are to consolidate the progress made and assure the future.

I have been arguing that partnership is the only way forward in Northern Ireland. Clearly that is also the case in terms of relations between North and South on the island of Ireland.

It is no secret that this is an issue of deep, personal importance to me. In many ways, it is what brought me into politics.

One of the tragedies of 80 years of Partition has been the way in which we have been cut off from each other on this small island. Yes, we all understand the political and historical reasons why Partition came about – and I can assure the Chairman and Vice Chancellor that I do not intend to re-run those reasons here today.

But the consequences are, that politics and history have played themselves out in a whole range of ways.

We have been cut off from each other in economic terms. During the eight decades up to the Good Friday Agreement, trade between the two parts of the island was way below its potential.

Infrastructure had also been cut in two. The vital instruments of economic life and indeed all life, such as roads, energy and so on, were all planned and delivered separately, with all the waste and duplication of resources that that involved.

And, of course, most critically of all, we were cut off from each other as people.

The reality is that prior to the Good Friday Agreement, and certainly the ceasefires of 1994, the majority of people in the South had never been North and vice versa. Yes, there were exceptions, particularly in the sporting fields – I am thinking of the GAA and rugby, for example. But, let us face it, prior to recent years, we did not know each other as people.

That is why the Good Friday Agreement has been so important. Under the accommodation that has been worked out in political and constitutional terms, the circumstances have been created under which relationships can begin again between North and South.

The formal and institutional expression of that is the North/South Ministerial Council and the North/South Bodies. In the period between December 1999 and the suspension of the Northern institutions in October 2002, the North/South Ministerial Council met 65 times. During that time, Ministers in the different Sectors met with each other in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and got on with the business of realising the practical mutual benefits that flow from North/South co-operation.

Meanwhile, the North/South Bodies had also been established in December 1999. As you know, there are seven in all, six Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Limited. From a standing start over four years ago, they have now grown into fine organisations, delivering valuable public services to North and South.

As it happens, I have just this morning met with one of the Bodies, Tourism Ireland. I heard from their CEO Paul O’Toole and his team, of the excellent work that Tourism Ireland are doing in marketing the island of Ireland overseas as a single tourism destination. They are particularly pleased with the results for 2003. Latest estimates indicate that the number of tourists visiting the island of Ireland last year grew by 4.5%, and that for Northern Ireland the growth was even more dramatic at 13%. This is a fine success story against the background of major difficulties in the global tourism industry.

In simple terms, it is further proof, that when North and South combine on practical matters, both win.

Similar progress is being reported by the other North/South Bodies.

Because of suspension of the Executive and the absence of the Northern Ministers, the North/South Ministerial Council has not met since October 2002. However, the North/South Bodies have continued their work in the interim on a care-and-maintenance basis, with Ministerial decisions regarding their oversight being taken for the moment by the Irish and British Governments.

This is, of course, not a satisfactory situation and the sooner we can have the return of the Ministerial Council the better. Which is another reason why a successful outcome of the review of the Agreement is so crucial. But in the meantime, the North/South Bodies will press on with their work of delivering practical benefits to both parts of the island.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, where capital and production flow to the places where the costs are lowest and the margins highest, it makes the most basic sense that as two parts of a small island on the periphery of Europe, we pool our resources rather than duplicate them.

Sir George Quigley first pioneered the idea of an island economy in 1992. The logic of his argument was compelling then. It is even more so in today’s global climate. The big difference now is that we have the political context in which we can get on with the work that needs to be done.

We need to be developing common approaches on our infrastructure, on roads, rail, air links, ports policy, energy, telecommunications and so on. Good work is already underway, it is, for instance, agreed policy between North and South to work towards an island energy market. But we need to do more.

In this fine setting, I want to make particular mention of the importance of links in Education, and at University and third level in particular. In that regard, I want to pay special tribute to the contribution being made by Gerry McKenna, your Vice Chancellor. Gerry, I know that you have always had a personal commitment to the value of North/South links, and it is fitting that you are the first Chairman of Universities Ireland, the new group bringing together the Heads of the nine Universities on the island, to promote collaboration and to market Ireland internationally as a centre of excellence in higher education. We are very pleased that the combined potential of the nine Colleges on the island is being harnessed in this way.

It is clear that research and development are key to enhancing competitiveness, and here the links between Universities and business on an all-island basis are going to be crucial.

The University of Ulster can be proud of the role that it is playing in developing many partnerships with other Universities in the South and with business in both parts of the island. I note, for instance, that you feature prominently in an exciting new initiative launched last week by InterTradeIreland called

This initiative draws together in electronic form a large range of research projects and work currently being undertaken by Universities, North and South. It is a valuable tool for both academics and businesses in both parts of the island.

What all of this means, Chairman, Vice Chancellor and friends, is that the landscape of North/South co-operation has been transformed in the last few years. At last, we have been able to begin the task of tackling the legacy of 80 years of being cut off from each other.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all of the problems and all of the sensitivities have been washed away. But we do have a great deal more common ground.

My pledge is to continue to respect the sensitivities involved, but to work to overcome them.

In the meantime, let us all get on with the business of mutual benefit – working together to deliver the practical fruits of peace to both parts of this island.

Again my thanks to the University of Ulster for this opportunity to be with you, and I look forward to working with you and all partners in the exciting journey that lies ahead.

Thank you.

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