“We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands”
– Belfast / Good Friday Agreement 1998
Last month, I had the immense honour of speaking at the international youth conference One Young World: 1500 young leaders from 196 countries meeting in Bogota, Colombia to explore how we collectively resolve some of the greatest global challenges.
Despite the many complexities we continue to face in Northern Ireland to complete our peace process and move towards reconciliation, I was proud to represent the place I call home and share a message of hope.
The theme of my speech was about the importance of relationships and how this generation must continue the difficult work of building a bridge between peace and prosperity for all.
The importance of relationships is a lesson well learned through my time at the Centre for Democracy & Peace Building. My Chairman, Lord Alderdice, has often reminded me that the peace process was and continues to be about addressing the deeply disturbed relationships between communities in Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and across these islands.
The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement 1998 was about finding ways to build relationships and the ‘three strands’ of the Agreement reflect this.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of this historic agreement, it is worth noting that many political scientists believed in the early 1990’s that the conflict was so intractable in Northern Ireland, the principles so divided, that no resolution was possible.
The success of the Agreement was to focus on the importance of building relationships and in focusing on practicalities.
In November 2015, our Centre launched EU Debate NI to provide a space for informed debate on the issues that impact Northern Ireland. We took a neutral position, to bring both sides of the debate together. We engaged thousands through public events, produced briefing papers informed by academic expertise at Queen’s University Belfast and created innovative online resources for community groups.
Post-referendum we have sought to facilitate debate on how to establish the best outcome for Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.
This process has clearly demonstrated that there is a fundamental gap between principles and practicalities.
The current political debate has seen politicians across the political divide and across these islands ‘stand on principles’. This is of course understandable as they are entitled to espouse their legitimate beliefs and the concerns of their constituents.
This has created a new reality: uncertainty.
The reason for this uncertainty: the gap between the principles and the practicalities.
Over the past two years, we have engaged with groups and organisations across the business, community, agricultural, environmental, energy higher education, community, students and many others. Within many organisations and sectors, great work has been done to understand the impact of Brexit and on possible practical solutions to the challenges posed.
When one looks to the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement (and the subsequent Agreements), principles are reflected and respected. However, there is also huge pragmatism to provide mechanisms for dealing with complex issues.
For example, under Strand 2 of the Agreement (the North / South relationship), areas of co-operation identified include agriculture, energy, education, transport, health, environment, waterways, tourism and inland fisheries.
Many of these sectors have been transformed as a result of the Agreement. The agri-food sector operates efficiently and effectively on an all-island basis. The energy sector is making the best use of the resources of this island and reflects our peripheral nature. Business has thrived both North-South and East-West. Cities such as Derry-Londonderry reflect the reality of border life: businesses operating on a daily basis cross-border and the partnerships between Ulster University and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Groups such as the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Intertrade Ireland reflect the interwoven nature of our economies.
One of the principles of the Agreement was that the 3 Strands and elements of the Agreement were ‘interlocking and interdependent.’
Two decades after the Agreement, the relationships in Northern Ireland, North/ South and between these islands are deeply entwined, not just politically, but socially, culturally and economically. The Agreement provided the space for imaginative new thinking and development of relationships.
The current Brexit issues have put strain on all 3 sets of relationships.
The way forward is to embrace the spirit of the Agreement. To respect principle and provide mechanisms for practical solutions that are in the best interests of all the peoples of these islands.
Whether it is the talks to restore the NI Executive or the debates around ‘the border’ in the Brexit negotiations, debate has become binary: one side must lose and one side must win. This will result in a zero sum game, in both cases.
I believe there are three ways we can move forward.
Firstly, we must revisit these three sets of relationships and use them as the template for resolving our current difficulties. I am quite certain that if we approached each and every challenge presented by Brexit and used the three interlocking and interdependent sets of relationships, we can ensure that each issue works for all in Northern Ireland, for North-South relations and for the UK-Ireland relationship.
Trying to solve this solely in London or leaving it to Dublin or between the parties in Northern Ireland, fails to understand the reason for the Agreement and its enduring importance.
Secondly, one of the failures of the Agreement has been the failure by some to see it as an ‘end game’, rather than a starting point. The Agreement provides the foundation stones to build upon. Again, using the three sets of relationships, we must have the courage to boldly imagine how to fully develop and realise the potential of these entwined relationships.
Many individuals, business and organisations have. And it’s reflected in the bonds of kinship and friendship between our peoples.
However, have we fully imagined what it actually means for people in Northern Ireland to be ‘British, Irish or both’? Have we realised the full potential of North-South bodies and the benefits of co-operation? Have we explored how Northern Ireland can be the bridge between Britain and Ireland?
Perhaps the issue of Brexit allows us to confidently and courageously re-imagine the potential of these three sets of relationships, not based on binary fixed ideologies but rather seeking to explore the incredible unrealised potential between our peoples. Interestingly, both the House of Lords and Seanad in their respective reports on Brexit recommended a new British-Irish Agreement – not to replace or undermine the Agreement, but rather to enhance our relations.
A British-Irish summit should be convened to include political representatives as well as business, civic and community leaders could come together to co-create an Agreement that truly reflects the aspirations of all the peoples of these islands.
Finally, it is also time to consider a fourth strand. A ‘global strand’ that encourages Northern Ireland, North-South and these islands to focus on the enormous opportunity we have in an internationalised world: the EU, the US, the Commonwealth and beyond.
So let us together dedicate ourselves to building relationships. Let us reimagine the possibility of our relationships. And let us courageously build a bridge between all our peoples; between principles & practicalities and between peace & prosperity.
Conor Houston is Programme Director at The Centre for Democracy & Peace Building (CDPB) developing programmes including EU Debate NI, Leadership Academy, Together & Music Unite.