Northern Ireland First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA was the keynote speaker at the Co-Operation Ireland dinner in Queen’s University on Thursday 17th October.
During his speech Mr Robinson said,
“I want to pay tribute to the work of Co-Operation Ireland over many years. You have played a very positive role, not just during the Troubles, but you continue to do so today in this new era in Northern Ireland. I know first-hand the commitment that Christopher, Peter and their whole team bring to this important work.
It was no accident that when we were looking for someone to host the historic hand-shake element of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee visit last year that it was Christopher Moran that we turned to. I want to thank Christopher for the role that he plays with Co-Operation Ireland and for his wider interest in Northern Ireland.
I am absolutely sure that in the years to come the Co-operation Ireland team will continue to play a vital role in improving relations within Northern Ireland and across the entire island.
Co-Operation Ireland’s recent part in the roll-out of the National Citizenship Programme in Northern Ireland has been particularly valuable. I am reliably informed that the scheme here is regarded as the best of any across the United Kingdom.
It is a sign of just how much things have changed that the GAA plays such a positive role as a delivery partner in this worthwhile project. I believe that this programme is making a real contribution to the lives of young people in the Province and I believe that the buy-in of the GAA ensures that it has a reach right across the community.
In the last few years Co-Operation Ireland has celebrated the role of rugby and football in peace-building and it is fitting that tonight we very publicly acknowledge the important role of the GAA. It is a testament to the progress that we have all made that tonight we can acknowledge the GAA’s role in peace-building by inviting a First Minister from the unionist tradition to the lectern.
Not so many years’ ago it would have been unimaginable that I would have been invited to speak at an event of this kind – or that I would have accepted.
Thankfully the world has moved on. We are all on a journey. Although I think we each recognise that there is still some distance to travel. For my part I want to see my party reaching out further in the years to come and I am certain that the GAA leadership will want to do the same.
I have had the privilege of engaging with a number of Ulster GAA Presidents in recent years and I think that we would be united in agreeing that although we may not have reached our final destinations – and we will undoubtedly have challenges ahead to confront – the direction of travel is absolutely clear.
For its part, the GAA has taken significant decisions that have not only reflected the changing times we live in but more importantly have helped shape them.
Historically, from the trenches many within each section of our community have viewed with suspicion the groups, organisations and institutions connected to those from a different background. Even today it is fair to say that in some districts relations remain fraught – misgivings and distrust exist. But I’m glad that this is receding. By speaking here tonight I want to encourage those in the GAA who have been making the case for change and are reaching out to those beyond their natural constituency. I do so, not from the comfort of an armchair but knowing just how difficult this can be. In a country so steeped in religion too many skip over Christ’s exhortation, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
History tells us just how hard it is to take one’s community in a new direction. The work of sports organisations, the GAA, Ulster Rugby and the IFA has made a real contribution – not just in the here and now but in laying the foundations for the years that lie ahead. And I know that Danny Murphy and Ryan Feeney have broken considerable new ground in their search for opportunities to reach out across the cultural divide. The outreach work that both Danny and Ryan have spearheaded has made a valuable and important contribution to building better relationships and understanding.
It was a welcome and important development when, 12 years ago, the GAA dropped its historic ban on members of the security forces playing Gaelic games. That change took place at a time when such initiatives from any quarter were rare – and it was a harbinger of things to come. It was followed just one year later in 2002 by a team from the PSNI pitching itself against St Bridget’s GAA. I seem to recall that St Bridget’s won, but the real victory was in the game taking place.
Since then the bridge-building has continued. My Ministerial colleague Edwin Poots was guest speaker at the Ulster GAA Community Conference in 2008 when he held the Culture, Arts and Leisure portfolio.
Last week I opened a newspaper to see a photograph of my colleague Nelson McCausland playing Gaelic Football. That really does show that all things are possible! Don’t think for one minute that I take any of it for granted. I believe that the hand of reconciliation needs to be extended by all of us and at every possible opportunity.
It has been said that you have no business being in politics unless you are prepared to take decisions that would benefit your grandchildren even if it harms your own short-term prospects. That’s a noble ambition but it can be a difficult standard to live up to. But if we are to realise our true potential as a society that is exactly what we must do.
Addressing the divisions we have lived with for past generations for the benefit of the next generation, is the greatest legacy that any of us could leave. Of the many challenges that we face in Northern Ireland today none is more important than improving community relations and building a shared and united future for all our citizens.
If we get that right then there can be no more secure foundation for growth and economic prosperity. But if we get it wrong it has the potential to destabilise our society and prevent us from realising the potential that exists.
Last week’s Investment Conference showcased Northern Ireland to the business world and has the potential to help create thousands of jobs for our young people and keep them from leaving our shores to make a life abroad.
I believe the conference was such a success because it demonstrated partnerships in action. Partnership between business and government, partnership between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive and most importantly, partnership between the political parties within the Executive.
We had a common aspiration and a common goal. The message was seamless whether it was being delivered by the deputy First Minister, myself – or for that matter, by any of the other Executive Ministers involved in the Conference. It was a sign of what we can achieve when we work together.
But as we know only too well, it is not always so. In the last twelve months we have seen the dangers that can arise if we do not tackle the legacy of the past and strive to build a better future. Decisions and actions around the flags and parading issues have deepened divisions and created unwanted community tensions. It is hard not to conclude that the inability to deal with these issues has damaged the entire community.
On the positive side the Executive launched its community relations strategy: Together: Building a United Community and we have invited Dr Richard Haass and Dr Meghan O’Sullivan to chair all-party talks on some of the most difficult legacy issues that we face.
As politicians and community leaders we all have a choice. We can wage political wars, refight old battles and perpetuate a downward cycle, or we can seek to create an environment in which difficult political decisions can be taken.
It is easier to avoid getting into holes than it is to get out of them. Perhaps politicians should countersign that wise injunction in the Hippocratic Oath, – ‘first do no harm.’
Nonetheless, it is a testament to the progress that has been made in recent years that none of the difficulties that we have faced on the streets has jeopardised the political institutions that have been created. That is a big change and shows how much we have moved forward as a society, but as I have said before if we simply replace a forty year conflict with a cold peace we will have wasted a precious opportunity.
President Obama during his visit to Belfast in June said that it wasn’t the job of politicians alone to solve our problems. I agree. That is why the cross- community work that so many groups are involved in is so important. It is this kind of work that can help provide the context for a better future.
It’s an unfortunate feature of local politics that it is so often divisive. John F Kennedy once said, “civility is not a sign of weakness”. However, there are many in Northern Ireland who take no chances.
And it was nothing short of tragic that in the year we welcomed the G8 and World Police and Fire Games to Northern Ireland that too often our increasingly positive international reputation was marred by conflict on the streets.
I am entirely convinced that a shared and united society in Northern Ireland is the only way forward for all of us. Our challenge must be to make what is often merely a sound-bite into a meaningful reality.
The task for politicians and indeed wider society is to reach out beyond what has been seen as “our own community”. It’s always easier and more comfortable to retreat to safe and familiar ground, but that’s not the ground upon which progress will be made.
It wasn’t popular with everyone in my constituency that I went to the McKenna Cup Final or attended a funeral requiem mass, nor was it popular with everyone in the deputy First Minister’s community when he met with Her Majesty the Queen. But those were all the right things to do.
The point is, that while these steps, if we are to examine them, may seem no big deal, they are gestures that can have a significant impact and over time can help to change perceptions and responses. And each of us needs to realise that reconciliation and the approach to dealing with the past is not just a one-off event – it’s an on-going process.
I would not be here tonight, or be involved in politics at all, if I were not personally committed to making progress in Northern Ireland. Anyone who believes that there is a better alternative to the political process we are engaged in simply doesn’t understand reality.
People sometimes ask me about what I want to achieve in politics. What I want to achieve in the years ahead will not be read in biographies or the history books, but in the lives and livelihoods of those who live here. I want it to be seen in the new hope for the future that our young people can anticipate and in the greater prosperity that those who live here deserve. I want it to be felt in the peace and freedom that every person can expect. I want to see a community united, with shared goals and dreams. I want to make progress not just for that section of the community from which I come but for everyone who inhabits this place that we all call home. But I know that to achieve that vision we must all work together.
We must continue to create the context where progress is possible. That’s why I am so keen to recognise those in their communities who are doing much to help bring this about. What we all need from now on is the space and the environment in which to make progress.
We have had set-backs from time to time and no doubt we will face many more challenges yet I am confident that we are moving in the right direction. The problems that afflict our society were not created overnight so there’s no quick fix. Solving them will require single-minded determination on the part of all of us. Just recall, the US Civil War ended in 1865 but the legacy lived on for the next century.
Yes, it is always easy to point to things in each other’s past to which we can take exception or offence, but the real challenge is to get beyond that and find solutions. To have patience and forbearance. Because, if we’re being honest there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Finding solutions is easier said than done. Progress can be slow – frustratingly slow. And when two steps forward are followed by one step back it is easy to become disillusioned and forget how far we have come.
I am absolutely convinced that “respect” is the key to progress. And that “understanding” is the key to “respect.” Understanding requires us all to listen as well as talk. There is a difference between listening and merely hearing. Sometimes I feel that unionists say one thing, but nationalists hear something else. I’m certain the reverse is also the case. We must learn to communicate better. That why I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to present my message directly tonight, without any filter.
What I want to see is a society where there is respect for the constitutional reality but also for constitutional aspirations. Respect for another person’s culture and also for their right to live in peace. Respect for the lawful authority of the state and for the individuals within it.
An a la carte approach to the rule of law is not a basis for building the kind of peaceful democratic society that we all want to have. I make no distinction whatsoever between shootings by the UVF and shootings by dissident republicans and I have no reservation, mental or otherwise, in condemning all such activity. Nor do I make any distinction between terrorism now and terrorism in the past. It was and is all wrong. Cherry-picking on these matters is not credible.
It is also wrong to honour and extol those who participated in such activities.
What is required is that each one of us should be as mindful of our responsibilities as we are of our rights. As Scripture tells us all things are lawful, but all things are not expedient.
I hope that the Haass process this autumn can deliver, but ultimately it will be people’s attitudes that will matter more than institutions or regulations.
Many of the problems that we face could be solved with goodwill and a generosity of spirit that has not always been present. What is required is that each one of us should be as mindful of our responsibilities as we are of our rights.
However, we must not become dispirited. Things can change. Indeed things have changed and are changing. It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for members of the GAA to be serving police officers in Northern Ireland with the support of the vast majority of the population.
That change made the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr all the more poignant for the symbolism that it created.
His death was a tragedy for all of us – his family and friends, for the GAA, for the police and for the wider community, but out of it came a unity of approach which showed that so much more unites us than divides us.
We have all more work to do and more challenges to overcome. In all that I do I will continue to endeavour to make sure that we can become one shared and united community. For despite all of our difficulties and setbacks along the way I believe that this is the desire of the overwhelming majority of our people.
That is why I am publicly acknowledging the contribution that the GAA has been making towards this goal and I am confident that the work the organisation has done, and continues to do, will play a very significant role in the years to come in building a better and brighter future.”