Thursday 14 December 2017

Ronan Fanning: Why Gilmore is right to remind us the North hasn't gone away

The Tanaiste's speech reaffirms how peace and political stability are in all our interests

CONVICTION AND CONCERN: Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore
CONVICTION AND CONCERN: Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

Ronan Fanning

THE British-Irish Association (BIA) has now been in existence for 40 years, meeting every September alternately in Cambridge and Oxford. At the beginning, during the horrific decade of the Seventies, it offered neutral ground where antagonists – whether Irish and British or unionist and nationalist – could assemble and at least informally exchange views in a way that was then impossible in Belfast and difficult in Dublin or London. Until recently the advent of peace had persuaded many that the BIA had outlived its usefulness. Why, then, has Eamon Gilmore's speech last weekend to this year's meeting in Cambridge attracted such attention?

Firstly, because it served to remind us that, like it or not, to paraphrase what Gerry Adams once said in a different context, Northern Ireland hasn't gone away. Secondly, and much more importantly, it was a resounding reaffirmation of this State's vital interests in the future of Northern Ireland.

Ministerial speeches at BIA weekend conferences follow a well-worn path. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland speaks at dinner on one night; an Irish minister – traditionally but not invariably the Minister for Foreign Affairs – speaks at dinner on the second night. The speeches, unsurprisingly, are of variable quality; they range from the substantive and eloquent to the banal and platitudinous – the speech of Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on Friday night fell irredeemably into the latter category. It has sometimes been the other way around for I well remember past speeches by Irish ministers so appallingly bad that, rather than applauding, one felt like hiding under the table at their conclusion.

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