Speech by Dermot Ahern to the Reconciliation Networking Forum, Dublin Castle, (28 July 2006)
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Speech by Dermot Ahern, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Reconciliation Networking Forum, Dublin Castle, (28 July 2006)
"Good morning. You are all very welcome to Dublin Castle.
I am delighted that so many of the groups we have been working with most closely in recent years have been able to join us. I know this is a busy and difficult time of year for many of you.
Today's gathering is a first. It is the first time that we have gathered so many of our partners in reconciliation - over seventy groups - together in one place to reflect on our work.
We decided to do so for three reasons.
First, we want to acknowledge the contribution that voluntary community groups are making, not alone to reconciliation, but to the peace process itself.
Your work often goes unreported and under-appreciated.
Each of you has a very good story to tell. Each of those stories is an important part of the bigger story that we call the Northern Ireland peace process.
Some day we will come to assess that story in its entirety - not today or tomorrow - but hopefully soon.
I believe the truly significant moments in that story will not only be those recorded in political meetings at Hillsborough or Stormont, Dublin Castle or Downing Street.
Some of the most significant moments will be recorded as those where individuals and small communities said - enough is enough - and simply refused to tolerate another generation of young people brought up apart and fed a diet of sectarian hatred.
The second reason for holding this Forum now is to demonstrate that extraordinarily good things are happening in communities across Northern Ireland and the border counties - despite the headline attention to sectarian attacks and political drift.
Progress in Northern Ireland is driven as much by communities and individuals as by politicians and political parties.
That has never been more so than now.
I won't disguise my own impatience at the slow pace of progress in political discussions at present - despite a security environment and an economy that have never been better.
I could understand how political parties might discuss an issue and disagree. That's democratic politics.
But I could not understand weeks of refusal to agree the Chairing arrangements of a committee followed by weeks of refusal to negotiate and resolve issues that are crucial to Northern Ireland's future.
The weeks ahead represent a test of leadership for the parties. I hope they will rise to the challenge. I hope they hear the positive voices for change in this room today.
Communities across Northern Ireland are faced with many challenges. They are crying out for real leadership to urgently and substantially advance the issues which matter to them - better jobs, a health service they can rely on, and an education system which will equip their children to meet the challenges of a global economy.
Political drift would be bad for business, bad for inward investment and bad for the regeneration of deprived communities.
It would be bad for all those working in their communities to build a new future for the people of Northern Ireland.
Whatever happens between now and November 24, the Governments are determined to end the drift and ensure the Agreement is implemented to the fullest extent possible and for the benefit of all communities.
The third reason for holding this meeting now is to give some timely consideration to the challenges to reconciliation in the coming years.
Throughout the peace process, this important work has been sustained by generous international assistance, particularly from the US and the EU but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others.
Current levels of international assistance will not be sustained. This is understandable as the gains of the peace process are increasingly consolidated and as our economy continues to prosper.
It is clear to me, however, that the work of reconciliation and of rebuilding communities will take not years but decades.
What are the toughest challenges ahead? How do we address them? How do we resource them? How do we ensure those resources are well spent? Not all activities can be sustained - how do we make sure that the best are?
We will have a number of different perspectives on these issues this afternoon.
Joe Young will speak in particular about the role of the US and Shaun Henry will speak about the EU role.
Denis Rooney will talk about how the International Fund is adapting to these new circumstances, how it is placing renewed emphasis on the tougher reconciliation challenges and looking to its long term legacy.
Noel Smyth will talk about the role which business is increasingly playing in building strong communities. Where international assistance will reduce, the role of business will certainly grow.
Finally, Denis Bradley will give a personal perspective on just what some of the toughest challenges are.
We will also look at some of your experiences in tackling sectarianism; working with young people; and rebuilding border communities.
Sectarianism is arguably one of the gravest and most pernicious threats to society on these islands. It is a spreading cancer. In recent months, the number of reported incidents in Northern Ireland has increased by a third over the same period last year.
This is intolerable. It should provoke outrage. It should be loudly and repeatedly condemned by all political leaders. Yet the condemnation is uneven, often weak and sometimes even absent. Why?
Why do some political leaders try to explain or contextualise sectarianism as though this somehow excuses it? We all recall the tragic death this year of Michael McIlveen. Yet why does sectarianism make headlines only when it kills?
One problem is that sectarianism is an unacknowledged crisis.
Many of you here today are leading the way - not only in challenging sectarianism but also in challenging the mindset which tolerates or seeks to explain it.
Some political leaders too often lag behind you - sometimes far behind.
Larne, Derry, North Belfast and Ballymena are each wrestling with the challenge of sectarianism.
Alastair Simpson and Bertie Shaw will talk about the experiences of minority communities in Derry and Larne respectively.
Alastair Simpson will also talk of how a new approach to parades issues in Derry has helped to dramatically reduce tensions.
Frank Cassidy will talk of the response of the school principals in Ballymena to Michael McIlveen's death and of the work they are doing to address sectarianism in a town where there is little cross community activity.
Rev Bill Shaw and the 174 Trust is dealing with very similar issues in North Belfast - an area where there are very few, if any, neutral venues and little cross-community activity.
If we cannot win the hearts and minds of young people and provide them with an environment where they can develop free from the prejudice and hatred that has scarred the past then our vision of a shared future will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
The Community Relations Council tells us that 7% of all five year olds and 15% of all six-year-olds have "a tendency to make sectarian or prejudiced comments about the other main religious tradition."
Faced with that kind of wake-up call, doing nothing is not an option. How do we break through these barriers, visible and invisible?
At the heart of this problem is a lack of positive engagement between young people from different backgrounds - often from adjoining communities.
New Border Generation is a project - based in my own constituency - which has found innovative ways to stimulate that contact. We will hear from some of the young people who have participated in and benefited from its work.
We will also hear from Jeremy Gardner and Stephen Hughes - youth workers in the most deprived parts of Ballymena and Ballymurphy.
I hope we will also draw on the rich experience assembled in the room - voluntary organisations such as Cooperation Ireland, Glencree, the International Peace School; international organisations such as International Fund for Ireland and agencies such as Fás.
I know the devastating effect the border has had on the social and economic life of my own community in Dundalk and on other border communities.
I also know how this has improved dramatically in recent years.
Big things are happening. They are widely reported and well known. Peter Hain and I discussed some of them in Hillsborough this week.
A new all-island approach to our economy.
A transport network that doesn't stop at the border; that ensures we get the maximum value from the massive investments we are making in infrastructure on this island - Euro 100 billion over ten years.
Martina Moloney and Danny McSorley have seen this transformation at local level in Louth County Council and Omagh District Council respectively. Each is keenly aware of the benefits of closer cooperation - and of the obstacles that can still frustrate initiative.
Liam Nellis will speak of the benefits of closer institutional cooperation from the perspective of Intertrade Ireland.
Underlying this big story are many individual stories - of difficulties tackled and work still to be done.
Jim Devenny with Derry Raphoe Action and David Hanna with Altnaveigh House have been working to build confidence in border protestant communities and to build strong relationships with their catholic neighbours.
Emer Brennan and Gerry Dunne will talk about the experience of the efforts of their communities in North Monaghan and Inishowen to rebuilding cross community and cross border networks.
Slowly but surely, the border means less. You can drive from Dundalk to Newry and not even be sure when you have crossed the border.
Even my mobile phone no longer knows which jurisdiction it is in.
But many of the greatest successes are the small local successes. This is an opportunity to give voice to these.
The Irish Government has long recognised the enormous transforming potential of your work and the role you play in the wider political progress.
The money awarded from the Reconciliation Fund - over Euro18 million since 1999 - is a tangible expression of our support for this work.
Over the years, the Fund has supported thousands of cross-community outreach projects right across Northern Ireland and the border counties.
We are determined that this support will continue into the future and that the Fund will remain flexible and responsive to the most pressing needs on the ground.
This is your Forum. It responds to a need that many of you have expressed - a need to share experience and draw strength from each other.
It is also an opportunity for us to hear from you about the challenges you face in your day to day activities - and to better target our support for these activities in the future.
Most people in Northern Ireland are also optimistic about the future. According to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, a majority think that community relations have got better in the past five years, and believe that they will keep getting better over the next five.
Let's justify that optimism.
I have no doubt that the relationships and connections developed through this Forum can make a lasting difference to our collective efforts to rise to the challenge of all our communities.
Thank you for being here. I wish you all a fruitful day's discussions."
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