Dermot Ahern: time to decide and move on

Last night Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern gave a fascinating speech at Harvard University. Some bright spark in Iveagh House laced the beginning with two cracking quotations from France’s tough old existentialist bird, Jean Paul Sartres: “Hell is other people”, and “Our importance comes from the decisions we make.” Both would seem to have tremendous relevance to the current breakdown in any formalised politics in Northern Ireland. Each of the parties is caught in an existentialist vacuum, and perhaps none moreso than Sin Fein.Extract from an Address by Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, ‘Ireland: Adapting for Success in a Changing World’, Harvard University

Members of the Center for European Studies, the Kennedy School of Government, and the Weatherhead School for International Affairs, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the chance to say some words in such distinguished company. It is a special pleasure to be introduced by an eminent Irish scholar, Louise Richardson, whose contribution to the study of terrorism is of immediate relevance to our world today.

The Consul-General advises me that this year the Centre for European Studies is marking the centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre. If Sartre’s most famous words – “Hell is other people”- were true, then the life of a Foreign Minister, which is all about making human connections, would be grim indeed. But as a practising politician I would prefer to take inspiration from something else Sartre said: “Our importance comes from the decisions we make.”

This is a year of potentially crucial decisions – about the Irish peace process, about the future of the European Union, about the reform of the United Nations. As John F. Kennedy said on accepting his party’s Presidential nomination, “the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision.”

In a moment I will say something about each of these challenges. But first, a word about why I am here.

As you can probably guess, the timing of my visit to the United States is not entirely accidental. St Patrick’s Day has been marked on both sides of the Atlantic for many years. From one angle, it seems like a fixed point in a fast-moving world. But in recent years, as our sense of what it is to be Irish has developed, St Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in new ways in Ireland and in new places all around the globe.

This blend of change and continuity also marks how Ireland relates to the world. I won’t rehearse in this setting how dramatically the world has changed in the past ten or fifteen years. But Ireland too has changed remarkably in that time. I don’t know how many of you have been there recently. But the extent and speed of the transformation have been staggering.

Not long ago, we were one of the European Union’s poorer member states. Now we are one of the richest.

We were a country of dole queues. Now we are close to full employment.

We were a country of emigrants. Now, as our population rises to levels not seen in over a century, we are witnessing major net immigration.

In the last thirty years, the number of third-level students has risen five-fold.

Agriculture was once the largest employer and the greatest source of national wealth. Still important, it now lags well behind both services and manufacturing. And we are now mostly an urban – or even suburban – people.

The Catholic Church, though still profoundly important and central for very many of our people, has gone through a deeply traumatic period.

Though there are still major problems to be resolved, the paramilitary violence which scarred the northern part of our island for 25 years has largely ended. And our relations with Britain have never been warmer or more balanced.

These changes are for the most part welcome and exciting. But they also bring with them fresh challenges. In the field of foreign policy, that challenge is two-fold. First of all, we need to re-examine our basic principles and assumptions. And, secondly, we need to recognise that others now see us differently – some may expect more from us, others may be afraid that as we change we will lose sight of some of our core values.

I believe that Ireland’s external interests have not in fact changed significantly in their essentials. The broad directions of the past several decades remain largely the right ones.

If the fundamentals of our foreign policy are sound, the question is how to translate guiding principles into meaningful and constructive action.

Northern Ireland

Looking first closest to home, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the collective work of courageous and visionary men and women – unionist and nationalist, British and Irish – who refused to accept that the Northern Ireland problem was impervious to political resolution. Instead, they set about designing a template for a new beginning. They committed themselves to a fresh start working on the basis of partnership, equality and mutual respect. The Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed in referendums in both parts of the island.

However, on the day the Good Friday Agreement negotiations ended in 1998, their chair, Senator George Mitchell, warned that it would be a greater challenge to implement the Agreement than it was to negotiate it. He was certainly right. Considerable challenges still remain – the most pressing of which is the need to bring all forms of paramilitary and criminal activity to a definitive end.

However, in focusing on the challenges of the remaining journey, we should also acknowledge the great distance we have already covered. By any measure, life in Northern Ireland has been positively transformed as a result of the peace process over the last decade. Since the Good Friday Agreement, considerable progress has been made in normalising many difficult issues. In particular, the positive agendas of change in regard to policing and criminal justice have been substantially advanced.

A conflict that was previously regarded as zero-sum for either side can now be seen as win-win for both. However, we must not rest content until the vision of the Good Friday Agreement is fully achieved. That will not happen until all sides fully live up to their commitments. 10 years after the ceasefires of 1994 and nearly 7 years after the conclusion of the Agreement itself, the political process can no longer tolerate a dual- track strategy of political engagement linked to paramilitary muscle. This destabilising ambivalence is not what the people of Ireland voted for in 1998.

At the core of the Good Friday Agreement are equality and partnership. Equality requires all democrats to engage with each other armed only with the strength of their mandates and the persuasion of their arguments. Those who are associated with force, the threat of force or related criminality are in defiance of this basic principle of equality. Similarly, partnership requires all concerned to feel comfortable and secure about the activities and intentions of their prospective partners. Paramilitarism and criminality corrode the trust and confidence necessary to sustain partnership.

Making peace is not an event. It is a process. However, if it is to achieve the objectives of partnership, equality and mutual respect set out in the Agreement, that process must have an end-point. It is now time to complete the work that was so courageously started on Good Friday, 1998.

The obligation rests on all sides. This includes the unionists, who will need to demonstrate that they genuinely and fully embrace partnership politics and will constructively engage in all of the institutions of the Agreement once they are re-established. Let me also be clear about the determination of the Irish Government, in partnership with the British Government, to do all it can to move to full and definitive implementation of the Agreement. We recognise the democratic mandate of Sinn Féin, and we know that it is an indispensable partner in inclusive institutions. A sustainable settlement which does not have the support and the engagement of parties representing majorities in both communities is not possible. So we do not want to exclude Sinn Féin. Far from it.

But Sinn Féin itself has to face facts. And the reality is that it is in a crisis of its own making. To try to blame others – to claim that this comes out of partisan political rivalry – is simply nonsense. The main onus at the moment is on the Provisional movement. If it wants to start to rebuild trust it must take the first bold steps. We will, of course, do what we can to help. But it has to take a hard look at itself, and ask itself where it is going and how it has to change. Those in the Provisional movement who wish to be part of the inclusive institutions must make the difficult decisions necessary to bring all forms of paramilitary and criminal activity to a definitive end.

There is a recognition in Sinn Féin that the IRA must sooner or later wither away. I say that it has to happen sooner, in the interests not just of political progress but of the communities it purports to serve and which have been given a new voice by the heroic McCartney sisters. The Irish Government, as always, will not be found wanting as we try to take the process forward. But it is now time to decide, and it is now, emphatically, time to move on.

Thanks to Duncan Shipley Dalton, who now enjoying his new status as a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard.