Good Friday Agreement ‘best thing that’s happened on this island in the last 100 years’: Coveney

Minister Simon Coveney TD, Ireland Minister for Foreign Affairs, resumed his speech that was interrupted by a bomb scare earlier this year in north Belfast. He was the keynote speaker guest as part of a series of seminars, “Building Common Ground”, organised by the John & Pat Hume Foundation for Peaceful Change and Reconciliation. After Minister Coveney’s address, there was a facilitated discussion with Claire Sugden MLA, a former Justice Minister.

Gary DONEGAN. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Father Gary Donegan reminded the audience that the event venue, the Houben Centre, is named after a Passionist priest who was renowned for reconciliation work. He thanked all for returning: “Peacebuilders must always be men and women of courage and fortitude, never bending or submitting to those who wish to travel not on the road of peace and reconciliation but continue to be caught in a time warp.”

Referencing a motivational speech by actor Al Pacino in the film Any Given Sunday, Donegan added: “Together, we won this peace inch by inch and we must endeavour never to lose an inch of what we won at such a great cost to all of us.” And that as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, “we journey in the greatness of people like the Humes — their legacy has to be for us taking up the mantle to be peacemakers in the here and the now and in the future.”

Sean FARREN. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Sean Farren (chair, Hume Foundation) welcomed the minister and informed all that the foundation was established in November 2020 to commemorate the contribution that John and Pat Hume made to public life, with values of inclusive peacemaking, social justice, respect for difference, and a commitment to partnership as the basis for true reconciliation:

“‘Spilling our sweat together and not our blood’ was one of John Hume’s most repeated phrases. Doing so, he firmly believed, is essential to reconciliation within the present and indeed within any future and different constitutional arrangement. It is an ongoing imperative and will remain so.”

Simon COVENEY. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Minister Coveney went to the podium and said, “Hello again. Thank you for coming back.”

He said that the hijacking at gunpoint of a working electrician and forcing him to drive his van to the venue “was a futile, cowardly exercise in community control”: “It served no one, no good purpose, except to drag the reputation of this decent community backwards to darker days.”

Furthermore, Coveney said that there is no excuse or justification for such violence, threats, or coercion; and to those who encourage such:

“Your communities need uplift and investment and you scare that way. Your communities need a political voice and you stifle it. Your communities deserve a safe environment to raise their families, supported by effective policing; your actions undermine their safety, their well-being, and their future.”

Coveney said that reconciliation is the collective work of generations, with patience and stamina, and that the need for that collective work will not disappear anytime soon: “It’s up to us, our generation of community leaders, politicians, and civil society leaders to keep the process moving forward. It’s our challenge to ensure that we do not let the hard-won achievements unravel and cede to the hardmen who would take us backwards as we approach an important anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

He placed the accord in the framework of the three strands of relationships on these islands and a combined 85% endorsement through the referendums held in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland:

“It’s the people’s agreement; nobody owns it. The agreement gives us common ground on which we can stand and work together. At times of political impasse, it’s the foundation stone that can help us rebuild relationships again and again and again when politics fails. The agreement clearly and unequivocally addresses all of the awkward questions of identity and citizenship, constitutional futures, political accommodation within Northern Ireland, north-south cooperation, east-west partnership, policing and criminal justice, and issues of rights and equality…

“Let me say this very clearly. The Good Friday Agreement, or the Belfast Agreement, belongs to us all. It’s the best thing that’s happened on this island in the last 100 years. It inspires people torn by conflict in other parts of the world and I see this all the time.

“It’s there for unionists and nationalists and those who don’t choose to identify as either. As John [Hume] reminded us, difference is an accident of birth, and it should therefore never be a source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it.

“If you support the Good Friday Agreement but do not respect the culture or aspirations of unionism or people of British identity in Northern Ireland, then you have failed to fully understand the Good Friday Agreement. If you support the agreement but see discussing or advocating for a united Ireland as somehow illegitimate or undermining the agreement, then you have failed to fully understand the Good Friday Agreement.

Coveney continued by saying that the agreement is “absolutely explicit” in committing to parity of esteem and a just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities: “That has to mean not just tolerance, not just grudging acceptance, but respect — genuine respect — a recognition that there is huge value in each other and our different traditions and perspectives.”

“Dare I say it, we enrich each other by our difference in diversity. It just hasn’t shown itself fully yet,” said Coveney.

He argued that any change in constitutional futures can only be sustainable in the long term by winning others over to your side:

“Cheap glorification of past violence wins no friends and makes no allies. It reinforces division and it hurts people and it does nothing to build the kind of communities that we want to live in.

“This island should be no place for violence and it should be no place for justifying or celebrating the violence of the past either. It should be no place for sectarianism, no place for hate speech or thoughtless insults.

“We must each challenge ourselves to do better, to understand a different perspective, and to stop the whataboutery that so often undermines reconciliation and prevents us calling out unacceptable behaviour in a clear way.”

Coveney noted changes in Northern Ireland, citing the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and official reports on the 2021 census, indicating that “there is a growing part of this place that does not want to define itself by national identity or by binary political positions”:

“There is a growing centre ground that doesn’t want a label on their back, whose priority is not on a defining choice of nationality, but other quality of life considerations. There is no longer a unionist political majority in Northern Ireland but nor is there a nationalist one.  The census shows that we are in a new landscape with no majorities.”

After giving his account of the current situation — the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive, the North–South Ministerial Council not meeting, the outworkings of the Northern Ireland protocol — Coveney said that there are many issues beyond Brexit that require a partnership approach, north-south and east-west: “We need to see the British and Irish governments able to focus more on the positive things that we can do together…”

“And if there are some people who have a problem with us building a close and vibrant partnership with the British government, then I would say to you that you don’t fully understand the Good Friday Agreement,” Coveney added.

He credited the growth and success of the peace process on the British and Irish governments working together, and that kind of strong partnership will help address ongoing issues such as the legacy of the conflict and how to deal with the past:

“[The] conflict was a collective failure. We need to accept that and have a collective response to how we try to move forward on the path to reconciliation. We have a collective duty to the families who lost the most. No unilateral legislation… will resolve these issues or be a basis for deeper reconciliation into the future.”

Coveney ended his speech with a perhaps surprising note of optimism, again quoting John Hume: “‘I’ve seen the friendship of Irish and British people transcend, even in times of misunderstanding and tension, all narrower political differences. We are two neighbouring islands whose destiny is to live in friendship and amity with each other.’ I look forward to that work in the future.”

Tim ATTWOOD. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Tim Attwood (secretary, Hume Foundation) thanked the minister and introduced Claire Sugden MLA to a conversation. Sugden began by saying that she was 11 when the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed, “so I didn’t get an input into it”, but supports it 100%: “I consider myself both British and Irish, as per the Good Friday Agreement allows, and that’s very important to me.”

Claire SUGDEN. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Sugden recalled that when she was minister for justice, during a visit to north Belfast to meet with all sides of the community to discuss the “so-called ‘peace walls’”, participants spoke about the physical structures for 10 minutes and then for the next two hours they talked about the manifestations of the barriers. They were much more interested in receiving services that they were entitled to but were not receiving, such as double-glazed windows, food for their families, and satisfactory schools for their children: “Very quickly it made me realise that what unites us is the day-to-day things that are most important in our everyday lives, and I think that’s where we need to start.”

She asserted what unionism means to her: “Unionism is a context in which we can provide good services for everyone in Northern Ireland. My current belief is that the context of the United Kingdom is the best in which to do that. We will open schools, run hospitals, and it will either be in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. I think we need to look at what’s best.”

Simon COVENEY, Tim ATTWOOD, and Claire SUGDEN. Seminar: Building Common Ground. John & Pat Hume Foundation. Houben Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Sugden directed her next comment at Minister Coveney, informing him that she went to the Irish government’s Shared Island Initiative, where she suggested to the Seanad committee that it would be better if it could be presented as a Shared Islands Initiative (with emphasis on the plural): “My aspiration looks towards the United Kingdom, whilst your aspiration looks toward this island. If you want to include unionists, then you have to talk about their aspirations. Indeed, that is conducive to the Good Friday Agreement — the east-west element as well as the north-south.”

Attwood responded with a suggestion that the language of “a shared home place”, as used by Seamus Mallon (former deputy leader, SDLP), may be a more comfortable place for Sugden to be.

From the audience, Emma DeSouza said that it could be argued that what we have in Northern Ireland is a negative peace — we don’t have the structures and institutions in place that constitute a sustained, lasting peace — and that the agreement has never been fully implemented, for example with the absence of a civic forum or a bill of rights, peace walls remaining, and integrated education  at seven per cent: “We’ve now been working on peace and delivering the Good Friday Agreement for almost as long as the Troubles.” She asked how we could recapture the energy and spirit of 1998, and pointed to the role of women and young people.

Claire Sugden replied that it was valid to reflect: “I would go as far to say that the legislation which was required to uphold the value and principles of the Good Friday Agreement [was] not implemented… That’s a criticism of both the Irish and British governments.” She added that “we’ve come a long way”, but as a post-conflict society, “We’re still in our infancy.”

Simon Coveney replied that he gets called into the Oireachtas’s Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement “quite regularly”: “There’s a lot about the Good Friday Agreement that hasn’t happened for me. Integrated education is probably the most glaring… It’s hard to understand why we haven’t done more in that space.” However, he inferred that “banging the table and demanding a bill of rights” is naive: “Politics is based on relationships and people trusting each other — in particular that’s the case in Northern Ireland — and we have a lot to do to rebuild those relationships.”

He saw the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as “a real opportunity to make a leap forward in that space”, with the many in the world watching to see whether “this peace process in Ireland is actually unravelling or whether it’s holding”: “I think we should think about that, because this is a relatively small place but it’s a big inspiration for a lot of other people in post-conflict situations.”

Tim Attwood concluded the event by remarking that a group of people who “never really got justice is victims and survivors”. He informed the audience that at the Derry Playhouse in March 2023 there will be a musical, Beyond Belief: The Life and Mission of John Hume. The Playhouse hosted an exhibition featuring ephemera of Hume’s work, A Pilgrimage to the Light. Attwood read from one, a private letter from Rita Restorick, the mother of Bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last British solider to be murdered in the Troubles:

“‘John, you may think it rather emotional, but on Saturday morning (the day after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement), I went to church and sobbed my heart out in relief that the first step forward had been achieved. I told God that every tear I shed for Steve from now on will be a prayer for peace for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope the politicians will also find the inspiration required and will look to the future positively and not live in the past.’”

Attwood finished, “I suppose if Rita were here today she would say to all of us, ‘Let’s get back to the principle of the Good Friday Agreement and create a shared home place for everybody.’”

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