The Haass process is about encouraging further progress
It is 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It was a momentous achievement, but translating it from paper into political, societal and economic reality continues to take time and great effort – not least by community groups, non-governmental organisations and individuals across Ireland.
One thing we have learnt is that we will not achieve the sustainably prosperous and peaceful future for all the peoples of this island if we see peace as a static noun, a single tangible thing that we either possess or not. Rather, it is a word filled with action and ongoing energy, requiring continuous renewal.
Today, my department and 15 Years On will bring together a broad range of such groups in Dublin Castle to discuss the challenge of renewal. The group, 15 Years On, consists of individuals working in peace-building, peace research, cross-Border and cross-community organisations who have come together to discuss how we might use 2013 to reflect on the successes and failures of the 15 years since the Agreement and how we might learn from those experiences.
In this year of the Gathering, today's forum will gather together the actors who are translating the Agreement into a more reconciled society. Today, Northern Ireland is in most respects unrecognisable from the society that began to emerge from the Troubles in 1998. This year, we've seen its international reputation boosted by the energy of Derry/Londonderry City of Culture and the gravitas of the Enniskillen G8 summit.
But we also recognise that the North has come through a difficult summer which has seen further damage to both community relations and to Northern Ireland's image.
The delegates will be tasked with identifying the challenges for the next 15 years and exploring what civil society can do to overcome them.
Last week I visited Derry and met a wide range of community groups, as I have on previous visits to Belfast. Amid the positive developments, there is also a concern that the legacy of the past is having a corrosive effect on political life and on community relations and that more is needed to address sectarianism.
The former US envoy for Northern Ireland, Dr Richard Haass, has been asked to consult on some of the most difficult issues around the past, parading and the display of flags. This is a tremendous opportunity for the North and the input of civil society will be crucial to its success.
Dr Haass visits Dublin tomorrow for talks with the Taoiseach and myself and we will do everything possible to support him. Whatever the issue under discussion, the Haass process is ultimately about encouraging further progress towards a reconciled and shared society in Northern Ireland.
What we are asking the political parties, civil society and business representatives to do is to reassert the spirit and values of the Good Friday Agreement. That spirit and those values must be applied to finding solutions to the outstanding issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past. Any outcome from the process will be judged by how well it serves those objectives.
The Agreement provides us with a framework for many practical areas of co-operation that can deliver real benefits for communities throughout the island. The focus for better North/South co-operation has to be on jobs, investment, support for businesses and increasing tourism and export revenues.
Working together, we can give a clear message to those abroad who buy our goods or invest in our economy – and who know little and care less of our divisions – that the island of Ireland is a good place to do business.
With the challenge of public sector reforms in both jurisdictions comes an opportunity to build an effective, innovative and competitive island economy. There have already been significant cross-Border road and rail investments and the development of a cancer radiotherapy facility in Altnagelvin, at the service of all in the north-west.
Deeper co-operation across the public sector could lead to even greater gains. The Border should not be a barrier to better delivery of vital services and infrastructure that make a real difference to people's daily lives.
A particular concern is youth unemployment where much closer co-operation on third-level education can help position us to create and attract the jobs that are so badly needed.
Earlier this year in Belfast, 16-year old Hannah Nelson told President Barack Obama and the world of her confidence and hope of a permanent peace in Northern Ireland. It is our challenge to harness the hope that she articulated and bring it back into the heart of the peace process. She has a belief in the next 15 years. If we can all work together to make that happen, we will prove her right.
Eamon Gilmore TD is Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade