EU has brought us decades of peace - what Europe needs now is reform, not a Brexit
Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30
The following is an edited extract called 'Reflections on Peace in a Changed Ireland' from a speech made by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to Queen's University Belfast
I am glad to have the opportunity to share my reflections on peace in a changed Ireland. The word 'game-changer' has, in recent times, become popular in the political lexicon. I think that description - game-changer - aptly describes the transformation that we have seen on this island since the birth of the peace process in the early 1990s and, more particularly, since the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Peace has changed Ireland, north and south, for the better and we are increasingly moving towards a new era of progressive politics that will consign to the dustbin of history the sectarian and territorial disputes of the past.
The island of Ireland has known many darks days and, unfortunately, our relations with Britain have often been controversial and stained by blood.
In our modern history, Northern Ireland hovered on the brink of all-out civil war. Terrorism, atrocities, shootings, punishment beatings, bombings, murder and mayhem were a depressingly frequent everyday reality.
Peace did take root and this generation of undergraduates are among the first to have grown up in a society totally at peace. It is 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Its commitment to democratic politics and inclusiveness, and its rejection of violence for political means, have been fundamental to the vibrant, progressive and more prosperous society that is emerging in Northern Ireland.
Politicians are often criticised - and maybe in a democracy that is a feature of accountability. But I sincerely believe that this island - and especially Northern Ireland - has been well served by a generation of political leaders from across the spectrum who put the cause of peace first, often at great risk to themselves.
The peace we enjoy today is the fruit of many people's labours and it is a multi-layered story of courage, persistence, hope, and a desire to ensure that the next generation would not have to live through the carnage of a conflict that saw
■ 15,300 bombs;
■ 36,000 shootings;
■ 3,720 people killed, with an average of 10 people a month murdered over a period of 30 years.
The two islands of Ireland and Britain have come to know each other better not just through the prism of our shared history, but through exchanges of ideas and people. Our economic and cultural links have increased. We are interdependent in trade, investment and tourism.
Importantly, we have grown closer through our work together at European Union level where, for over 43 years now, Irish and British ministers and civil servants have worked intensively together, and with our partners, across the range of issues on the EU agenda.
Peace is never inevitable and, going back even a century, many people thought that the major political problems on the island of Ireland could never be resolved.
Winston Churchill's famous comments about the "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" reflected a fatalistic view that the integrity of the Irish quarrel would always be maintained. Happily, this fatalism has been replaced by a conviction that Northern Ireland's problems are capable of being resolved through democratic dialogue and political engagement.
The great lesson of the peace process has been that dialogue is the only way forward if profound differences, such as those which exist in Northern Ireland, are to be managed and resolved.
I don't wish to diminish the crucial involvement of many political leaders in Northern Ireland, in the United States and elsewhere to the cause of peace.
However, the entire process could not have thrived without a British Prime Minister of commitment and conviction, willing to persevere and take risks to bring about a lasting settlement. Gladstone, as far back as the late 19th century, had championed the cause of Home Rule in Westminster - and lost office because of it. His great mission was, in his own words, "to pacify Ireland". It is to Tony Blair's great credit that he did so much to deliver on Gladstone's stated objective.
So much has been achieved. Twenty 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. The people throughout the island are Irish or British by birth, provided that is what they want to be - regardless of background, politics or creed. A great change that we have seen in our lifetime is a willingness to recognise in both the nationalist and unionist communities that we cannot coerce other people into our way of thinking. It is my belief that the future of this island is too vital for all of us to be constrained by the straitjackets of history. 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".
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 am also 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.
I totally respect those who believe the best opportunities for Northern Ireland lie in continued union with Britain. No one on this island should be threatened or needs to feel under threat.
The EU has brought two generations of peace and profound international cooperation to Europe. It is simply bad economics that will cost jobs and investment throughout Northern Ireland if a Brexit occurs.
The EU does need to be modernised, and it does need to change, but that is something that political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London should be working together on. What Europe really needs is fundamental EU-wide reform, not a UK departure.