Anniversary of Good Friday Agreement must highlight commitment to peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland – Smith

– Community groups, schools and cultural organisations
should be involved in programme –

Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan Brendan Smith has called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to ensure that the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is commemorated appropriately – not only marking the successful completion of an historic agreement, but also acknowledging the progress made across all communities over the past two decades.

Deputy Smith commented, “The Good Friday Agreement marked a watershed moment in our country’s history, when on the 22nd May 1998 people on the island of Ireland were given the opportunity to vote on their country’s future.  With 94.39% of the population in the Republic, and 71.12% in the North voting “yes”, it was a remarkable achievement.

“It would have been difficult to believe then, just how far things would come in the intervening 20 years.  Peace and reconciliation has had an extraordinarily positive impact on both sides of the border.  Even though the EU is not explicitly mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement, it underpins the agreement and I would like to see a significant input from the European Union to mark the anniversary.

“The agreement would not have been possible without the EU, as our joint membership and the many bilateral meetings held between British and Irish Ministers and officials every week, often on a daily basis, played a vital role in thawing and improving relationships between both islands.

“I am disappointed, however, that coming up to this prestigious event, Northern Ireland is without an Executive and Assembly.  I sincerely hope we will have those institutions back up and running and representing the people of Northern Ireland. The one mandate we all have on this island comes from the referendum of May 1998 but unfortunately, the will of the people in Northern Ireland, is not being implemented at present. What has passed for politics in Northern Ireland for the past 12 months is totally unacceptable.

“I welcome Minister Coveney’s commitment to hold commemorations and events on our island, in Washington and elsewhere.  I hope that these commemorations will be fully inclusive – the Minister might consider involving schools, community groups and cultural organisations to represent the diversity of this island, the extraordinary people who live here and the positive influence that peace has brought over the past 20 years”.

Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has had discussions with political parties, statutory agencies or Departments in respect of an appropriate commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. [1626/18]

  1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his plans to date with regard to an appropriate commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. [1625/18] Deputy Brendan Smith: In marking the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in a significant and comprehensive manner, we would be doing more than just commemorating the successful completion of an historic agreement. We would be reminding people in leadership roles in all parts of these two islands of the crucial importance of the three strands of relationships that fundamentally underpin the Good Friday Agreement and how using those three strands between the two communities in Northern Ireland, between North and South and east-west between the two islands provides us with the opportunity to protect all of our interests post Brexit.                                     Deputy Simon Coveney: I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 17 together.

I thank the Deputy for these questions.  A programme of events at home and abroad is being developed to highlight the important anniversary and to mark the achievement of the agreement, which continues to be the cornerstone of our commitment to peace and reconciliation on this island.  My Department is engaging with other Departments on the island of Ireland generally and through our overseas embassy network at home and abroad with a range of individuals, groups and institutions that are considering and planning conferences, seminars, cultural responses, acts of commemoration and other initiatives to mark the 20th anniversary of the achievement of this agreement.

The Government’s programme will include events in Dublin, Washington, London, and Belfast.  These will include a revised production of Rising to Reconciliation, which was developed for the 18th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and uses poetry, images and music to reflect on the troubled journey towards peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.  Events to mark the people’s vote for the agreement on 22 May are also under development.  I hope to announce more details on the programme in the coming weeks.

All of these events will also be an opportunity to reflect on the peace process, as the Deputy suggested, past and present, to remember the loss of life during the years of conflict and to look back at all that has happened on the journey of peace and reconciliation since then.  This journey is of course an ongoing one and the continued imperative to work to realise the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement will form an essential part of the Government’s approach to the 20th anniversary.

We intend to work with all communities and political parties to make sure that the commemorations are respectful and accurate.  We hope they will provide inspiration for the new leadership that is needed in the context of some of the challenges we currently face in terms of ensuring that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can function and be re-established.

Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank the Minister for his positive response.  I welcome the fact that he intends to hold commemorations and events on our island, in Washington and elsewhere.  We should also press for a significant input from the European Union to mark the achievement.  The EU is not explicitly mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement but it also underpins the agreement.

  The chair of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement, the former US Senator George Mitchell, acknowledged the importance of the EU recently.  He said the agreement would not have been possible without the European Union, as our joint membership of the Union and the many bilateral meetings held between British and Irish Ministers and officials every week, often on a daily basis, played a vital role in thawing and improving relationships between both islands.  Those improved relationships led to the peace process and the finalisation of the Good Friday Agreement.

  The Minister quite rightly referred to the significant date of 22 May 1998 when, thankfully, for the first time on the island since 1918, those of us who had the opportunity to do so cast a vote.  We were a privileged generation, in that we were the first since 1918 who voted with the people of Northern Ireland on the same question.  The Minister will recall that in our State, 94.39% of the people voted “Yes” and in Northern Ireland, 71.12% of the people voted “Yes”, despite the major unionist party at that time not agreeing to what had been achieved.  There was very little support in campaigning terms from Sinn Féin for the referendum.  It was a remarkable achievement.

  I sincerely hope that the events which will be held will not involve the usual invitation list.  We want to get people involved from society in general in commemorating these events and marking what we achieved and where we came from.  The Minister or his Department might consider involving schools, in particular second and third level institutions, in order to make that generation aware of the progress which has been made and the need to maximise the potential of the agreement from now on.

Deputy Simon Coveney: I know how personally committed Deputy Smith is to the peace process and its maintenance.  We are still in a design phase in terms of what the commemorations will look like, although others are engaged in planning.  Queen’s University will hold a big event and an event also is planned in New York.  We will obviously contribute and support those events.  We will also host some of our own events.  It is something on which we would like to get input from other political parties.  If the Deputy has ideas and suggestions we will certainly try to take them on board.

Given my responsibilities, I am very conscious that the most important thing we could do to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is to get devolved government up and running and functioning again, as well as the institutions which come from that in terms of the North-South Ministerial Council and so on.  We have not had that for a year.  We had some initial conversations on that yesterday. This is not going to be easy but we have a responsibility, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement with the British Government, to try to get those structures up and running.  Many of the commemorations would be somewhat hollow if people saw the progress so many people worked so hard to achieve over the past 20 years being undermined and reversed, and without the essential institutions, which are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, and the process of reconciliation, which ultimately needs to be the number one priority Northern Ireland.

Deputy Brendan Smith: I fully agree with the Minister.  Properly marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will remind us of what we all risk losing in the longer term owing to the short-term partisan gains of two political parties.

  This year, 2018, marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the 50th anniversary of civil rights, the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the centenary of the 1918 election.  My deepest fear is that we would be commemorating these anniversaries at a time when Northern Ireland is without an Executive and Assembly.  I sincerely hope we will have those institutions back up and running and representing the people of Northern Ireland.

  I wish the Minister, Secretary of State Bradley and all the political parties represented in Stormont every success in the negotiations that began yesterday.  It is reprehensible that the Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly have not been functioning for the past 12 months.  The one mandate we all have on this island comes from the referendum of May 1998.  The will of the people, endorsed by 94% of the people in this State and almost 72% of people in Northern Ireland, is not being implemented at present.

  I was in Fermanagh and Armagh at the weekend and in Belfast on Sunday and Monday.  I noted there is a yearning in those locations to get a government and local executive back in place without further delay.  What has passed for politics in Northern Ireland for the past 12 months is totally unacceptable.

Deputy Simon Coveney: I am doing everything I can to facilitate a process to allow an accommodation between the two largest parties, and also engagement and involvement on the part of the other three parties, to try to get a fully inclusive Executive up and running again and making decisions for people in Northern Ireland.  That is what everybody wants.  It is a difficult political exercise because there were two very divisive elections, in the spring and summer of last year.  I reassure people, however, that progress has been made over the past six or eight months, although that is often not covered.  There is still work to do, however.  There is a new Secretary of State in Northern Ireland who, like her predecessor, is absolutely determined to work with me and all the political parties to achieve what I have outlined.  Those efforts will intensify in the coming days.

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