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Speech by Tony Blair on the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland, (8 May 2007)

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Text: Tony Blair... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, on the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland, Stormont, Belfast, (8 May 2007)


"First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Taoiseach, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's a very great honour to be with you today and can I first of all thank 'Skys the Limit' for a wonderful performance, you really inspired us, thank you so much.

Just had a conversation upstairs in the First Minister's Office which the First Minister began by saying, I'll explain this he said, "there's you a young man at 54 just going out of office and here's me a man of 80 coming in"... must tell you something.

Today the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have taken responsibility for the future of Northern Ireland. It's what people voted for and is what's happened. But that simple statement does not do justice to the true significance of what is happening today. Because today marks not just the completion of the transition from conflict to peace, but also gives the most visible expression to the fundamental principle on which the peace process has been based.

The acceptance that the future of Northern Ireland can only be governed successfully by both communities working together, equal before the law, equal in the mutual respect shown by all and equally committed both to sharing power and to securing peace. That is the only basis upon which true democracy can function and by which normal politics can at last after decades of violence and suffering come to this beautiful but troubled land. You know normal life and normal politics can seem a small ambition to anyone who has not lived through the abnormality of a society living daily on the edge. And for years Northern Ireland was such a society, a society disfigured not just by the news of the latest atrocity but also by the ancient hatreds and deep suspicions that had shaped its image and political character. Look back and we see centuries pock-marked by conflict, hardship even hatred among the people of these islands.

Look forward today and we see the chance at last to escape those holy chains of history, to make history anew, not as a struggle between warring traditions but as a search for the future shared, held in common and bound by goodwill and peace. That is in truth what this process has achieved.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of my predecessor John Major during whose time we saw the first steps towards peace. I pay tribute also to the work of previous Irish Prime Ministers and to Peter Hain the Northern Ireland Secretary and to all the previous Northern Ireland Secretaries and to Dermot and his Irish counterparts. I would like to pay special tribute today to the contribution of the present Taoiseach. During the past decade relations between Britain and Ireland have been transformed. Today we are partners and we are friends. Recently at Croke Park, Ireland and England played each other in an atmosphere unthinkable even a few years back - wrong result mind you - but magnificent sentiment. That in no small part has in my judgement been due to Bertie Ahern. No other Prime Minister I suspect has shared as many cups of tea with me as we have toiled through the long hours in negotiation but Bertie has always been there willing to surmount yet another obstacle. By his actions he's shown the willingness to engage to understand and to reconcile. Bertie thank you.

However, as he and I both know, it is the leadership here in Northern Ireland that has been the indispensable pre-requisite of success. John Hume showed such leadership when he first talked to Gerry Adams. David Trimble did in a remarkable way when he supported the Good Friday Agreement and led his party through the frustrating process of trying to implement it with Seamus Mallon. So too did the representatives of the centre, Alliance and the smaller parties who added their voices at crucial moments and so too have the many friends of Northern Ireland around the world, not least in the United States. And so too have of course the First and the Deputy First Minister who stand beside me today. It is no secret that Ian and I have not always agreed and that probably has been as of much relief to him as it's been to me through the years. But I lost count of how many times I was told he would never accept sharing power but he told me in the right circumstances that he would. He said that he wanted to see Northern Ireland at peace and would not flinch from doing what was necessary to get that peace on the only terms he thought would endure. I believed him and he has been true to his word. On behalf of all the people of our country I thank him today.

Likewise of course I recognise the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. History has cast republicans and British Prime Ministers in very different camps for very obvious reasons. But again you know long ago I lost count of the times I was told they would not or could not commit to peace, but from the first meeting I had with them I believed that they were genuine. They had not forfeited one jot of their belief in their political cause but had the foresight to see that only through politics could it be constructively pursued. However rocky the road they held to it. Today would not have happened without their leadership and I thank them for it.

And my final words are for the people of Northern Ireland. You have lived through the pain and the suffering of the past. Many of you each day will pause to remember someone very close and very special who you lost. And for many the pain of that memory will be as real today as it was the hour in the day they were told of that loss. You will never forget, for some it is impossible to forgive. For the rest of us we too need to remember what it was like in order to marvel at how it has changed. Northern Ireland was synomous with conflict, it was felt to be intractable. 'The Troubles', not so much a dispute as a fact of life. Irreconcilable differences, people felt that it could not be done, indeed sometimes even that it shouldn't be done, that the compromises involved were too ugly.

Yet in the end it was done and this holds a lesson for conflict everywhere to define the right political framework since only through politics can come peace that lasts. To get the external forces especially the Governments working in alignment with those internal forces striving for peace. But above all to persevere, never to give up, never to accept that the true will of the people is conflict when they are given the chance to live in peace. The leaders played their part but ultimately it was the people that showed the leadership. They set the terms, they held us all to them and they gave the final imprimatur. And in doing so they did a power of good for optimists everywhere. So on this historic day my final thanks is to them, the people of Northern Ireland."


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