Created On : Wednesday, 22 October 2008 00:00
|Remarks by Bertie Ahern, TD at the College Historical Society, Trinity College Dublin, On Receipt of the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse, And on the motion "That this House would re-unite Ireland"
Wednesday 22nd October 2008
Auditor, Mr Thomas Kinsella,
Correspondence Secretary, Mr James Walsh,
Members of the Committee of the Historical Society,
Senator Pearse Doherty,
Mr. Mark Durkan, MP and MLA,
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson, MP and MLA,
Distinguished Member of the House of Lords, Mr Ken Maginnis,
Ladies & Gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking the College Historical Society for the honour it has accorded to me. I am privileged to be awarded the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to the Public Discourse by the oldest and most distinguished college society in the world.
For 238 years, the Hist, as it is colloquially known, has been at the forefront of college and civic society on this island. It has been a premier forum for debate, it has been a melting pot for ideas and a breeding ground for some of this country's most famous leaders.
For its tradition and sense of history, this Society has few, if any equals. It is an immense privilege to address you. As a former leader of a Republican party, I am especially proud to follow in the footsteps of Wolfe Tone who was awarded the Gold Medal here in 1780. Tone was elected Auditor in 1785 and in subsequent years, other Irish patriots such as Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon were active members of this Society.
People should draw no conclusions from my interest in the fact that Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first President, was also a distinguished member of the Historical Society!
In more modern times, this society has built upon its reputation for hosting great debate by attracting a diverse range of accomplished international speakers. Last year, I understand the former British Prime Minister John Major spoke to the Hist of his experience in initiating engagement with the IRA in the peace process. The Prime Minister in Exile of Burma Dr. Sein Win discussed here the ongoing strife in his homeland. Former South African Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate FW De Klerk spoke about the problems facing democracy in Africa, and Shirin Ebadi, the first Islamic woman to win the Nobel Prize addressed the Society on the topic "Islam and Democracy". My good friend, Dr. Ian Paisley, the then First Minister, also gave his first informal Address south of the border to the Hist.
Times have certainly changed because I am told that this entire Society had been briefly expelled from the College in 1794. It was readmitted on the condition that "No question of modern politics shall be debated"!
Discussion of contemporary events in Northern Ireland are now a regular feature of campus life. In accepting tonight with gratitude your Gold Medal, I thank you for all the kind words expressed this evening about my work for peace. In addressing the motion, "That this house would re-unite Ireland," I want to say a few words about my experiences during the peace process and hopefully draw some lessons from them.
I am delighted to be joined at the podium by people I have spent countless hours in negotiations with and they have my enduring respect.
Politicians are often criticised but I say tonight without hesitation that this island has been well served by a generation of political leaders across the spectrum who put the cause of peace first.
I was pleased to learn from your Correspondence Secretary that Tony Blair will also be formally accepting the Gold Medal of the Trinity College Historical Society at a later date.
Tony Blair is not just a good friend of mine, he is great friend of the Irish people. We travelled many miles together, both figuratively and literally, on the road to peace. He was elected Prime Minister a short number of weeks prior to me becoming Taoiseach for the first time in 1997. It was a time when there was no ceasefires in place. It was a time of real concern that the cycle of murder and mayhem which had strangled the progress of this island for too long might once again resume.
At our first meeting as heads of our respective governments, we knew we faced enormous challenges but we knew too that the prize of peace would be a great one. We both made a pledge to each other - to give peace on this island our overriding political priority and to work to remove the causes of conflict and to heal the divisions of the past.
What we set out to do - and when I say we, I don't just mean Tony and I, I mean everyone who joined in the long and difficult journey - was to find the common thread which binds us together. And in the end, we found it, and we - the Irish and British peoples - have begun to weave a new history with it: a history which is built on simple principles of co-operation and understanding, fraternity, and a willingness to celebrate the diversity of this island and these islands.
The Good Friday Agreement which I was so proud to negotiate says it 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."
Peace in Ireland is this generation's proudest achievement. It was hard-won and it took much persevering through the bad days of the troubles - and there were some horrific days of carnage. Edmund Burke, the founder of Trinity College Historical Society famously said for evil to triumph it is enough for good men to do nothing. Thankfully, on our island, in our time, good people from all communities did not do nothing. The people refused to be deflected from the noble goal of peace though faced with enormous challenges and a whole legacy of bitter history.
So much has been achieved. 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.
We have come a long way and hopefully soon, we can have:
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.
The policing and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland have been transformed. and,
Crucially, and after many years of arduous negotiations, the IRA has formally ended its campaign of violence and the independent decommissioning body verified that it had decommissioned the 'totality of its arms'.
Last May, it was a highlight of my career to tell the US Congress "Ireland is at Peace." And with that peace comes the opportunity for this island to deliver on its full potential. Here, at Trinity, that bright future will be forged by the men and women who come here to learn and who leave to make their mark on Ireland and the wider world.
When those of you who will graduate at the end of this academic year were born, this island was still a place of strife and ancient hatreds. Today, we have a new ethos.
Our relationships with the unionist community have been transformed and this is one of the most positive developments of our time. After years of suspicion and cultural closure, on both sides, we are at last more fully recognising and valuing the central role that the unionist tradition has played in the life of this island. It is crucial we now build on this in facing up to a hugely important challenge for this island - the challenge of combating the scourge of sectarianism.
Healing decades of division and mistrust will take time but it is a fundamental necessity to building a better and shared future. To all the students here, who are this island's future, I say that there is no limit to what the people, North and South, can achieve. We have entered a new era in all-island strategic co-operation and this makes sense from every perspective. We are, after all, sharing a small island in an increasingly globalised world. If we continue to approach North-South cooperation practically on the basis of mutual benefit, I have no doubt we can make our all-island economy a resounding success. Working together, we can make important progress in areas like tourism, energy, agriculture and the environment.
In regard to the motion, I think most of you will know my perspective given that for over thirteen years I led a party founded by Eamon de Valera with the principal aim of securing a united Ireland. In my view, Antrim and Armagh are as much a part of Ireland as Dublin or Cork or any other Southern County. But, today, it is crucial that we also recognise a plurality of traditions.
The people throughout the island are Irish by birth, provided that is what they want to be, regardless of background, politics, or creed. We must recognise we cannot coerce people into our way of thinking. It was James Connolly who used to say that Ireland meant nothing to him without its people. And it is for that reason that a union of people must take precedence over any territorial union. To quote an old slogan dear to my heart, we must always put people before politics!
It is my belief that the future of this island is too vital for all of us to be constrained by the strait-jackets of history. Those Unionists who say Never and Not an Inch on the basis of the stance their forefathers took in the past would do well to study the life of James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
Craig, of course, was prominently associated with Edward Carson, who perfected his debating skills here at the Hist and served as this Society's Librarian. Carson generously said of Ulster's resistance to Home Rule "it was James Craig who did most of the work and I got most of the credit!"
It was James Craig who stage-managed the most famous of Ulster Unionist demonstrations, the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant. Yet Craig's own view of partition was somewhat different and more pragmatic than that of many of his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Council to whom the very thought of a united Ireland was anathema.
His biographer Patrick Buckland notes that Craig was willing to contemplate the prospect of the eventual reunification of the country. Craig himself never intended to lead Ulster into a Dublin parliament, nor to sit in one, but he did not rule out the possibility that one day Ulster might be persuaded - but not forced - to participate in an all-Ireland parliament, in which case he would do nothing to prevent it.
His "exact position" was, as he told Michael Collins in January 1922, and I quote:
"For the present an all-Ireland Parliament was out of the question, possibly in years to come - 10, 20 or 50 years - Ulster might be tempted to join with the South". He would do nothing to prevent an all-Ireland Parliament, and ... if he were convinced it were in the interests of the people of Ulster, he would frankly tell them of his views.... He would erect no barriers round a Dublin Parliament, but in no case would he pass through them himself."
After the partition of Ireland, Carson, the Dublin-born Trinity hurler, warned Northern Ireland's political leaders not to alienate northern Catholics. In 1921 he stated:
"from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority."
The Good Friday Agreement has delivered us to the point today where, in David Trimble's memorable phrase, Northern Ireland is no longer "a cold house for Catholics." All of us now have a responsibility to ensure that the isolation and alienation felt by nationalists will never, ever be projected onto Unionists. I hope too that the Loyalist communities which have suffered much exclusion can now be carried forward by the tide of opportunity that is at hand. In the end, the peace process must leave no one behind.
I have dwelled this evening on Carson and Craig and while many in this State would not agree with all their views, we should acknowledge that they always acted in the interests of the people they represented, as they saw them. We should also acknowledge they are as much a part of our shared history as Wolfe Tone, Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera.
During my time as Taoiseach, I attended a service in Belfast Cathedral where the Dean, speaking of Edward Carson, said:
"I think he would acknowledge fully the massive changes in both parts of Ireland. He would welcome the prosperity evidenced throughout Ireland today. And I am convinced the great Dubliner would have worked for economic co-operation between the two states in Ireland."
I believe that is true and I share that sentiment.
In politics, I have always made it clear that I passionately believe in a United Ireland. I think it is in the interests of everybody on the island. But I also am clear that there is absolutely no sense in engaging in the folly of trying to coerce a majority in the North into a united Ireland against their will. No one on this island should be threatened or needs to feel under threat.
As Taoiseach, I said that the constitutional question has been settled. There are fair and reasonable arrangements through the Good Friday Agreement to accommodate everybody's interests, concerns and aspirations in a peaceful manner.
There are those who believe the best opportunities for Northern Ireland lie in continued union with Britain. There are others who campaign for a united Ireland. While I aspire to a united Ireland, I am utterly convinced that the Good Friday Agreement is the best chance we have had on this island for peace and stability and prosperity for a century. It is an opportunity we must continue to grasp and never let go off.