Address by Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Thursday, 26 November 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 157 No. 8

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The Right Honourable Mr. Tony Blair, MP: Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  Members of the Dáil and Seanad, after the long and torn history of our two peoples, standing here as the first British Prime Minister to address the joint Houses of the Oireachtas, I feel profoundly both the history in this event and the enormity of the honour you are bestowing upon me. From the bottom of my heart, go raibh míle maith agaibh, with profound apologies to the Irish language.

[567] At my party conference this year, I spoke about my other expedition into another language. Having addressed the French National Assembly in French, I got a little above myself and decided to give a press conference in French with Mr. Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister. I attempted to say in French that I envied the various positions Mr. Jospin had taken in his political life but ended up saying that I desired Lionel Jospin in many different positions. As you can imagine, it is not easy to recover from that in any language.

I also express my pleasure at addressing the Houses. Obviously, we have seen the proceedings of the Dáil on television many times, as you have seen the proceedings in the House of Commons. I am aware of how cordial the exchanges are in this House. I put it down to the shortage of time anybody spends in Opposition under your system. However, when one has spent 18 years in Opposition, it is difficult to remain polite.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his most kind introduction. It was deeply appreciated. Ireland, as you may know, is in my blood. My mother was born in the flat above her grandmother's hardware shop in the main street of Ballyshannon in Donegal. She lived there as a child, started school there and only moved when her father died, her mother remarried and they crossed the water to Glasgow.

We spent virtually every childhood summer holiday, up to when the troubles really took hold, in Ireland, usually at Rossnowlagh, the Sands House Hotel. We would travel in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. It was there, in the seas off the Irish coast, that I learnt to swim and it was there that my father took me to my first pub, a remote little house in the country, for a Guinness, a taste I have never forgotten and which it is always a pleasure to repeat.

Even now in my constituency of Sedgefield in the north-east of England, which at one time had 30 pits or more which are now all gone, virtually every community remembers that its roots lie in Irish migration to the mines of Britain. So, like it or not, we the British and the Irish are irredeemably linked.

We experienced and absorbed the same waves of invasion — Celts, Vikings, Normans — which all left their distinctive mark on our countries. Over 1,000 years ago, the monastic traditions formed the basis for both our cultures. Sadly, the power games of medieval monarchs and feudal chiefs sowed the seeds of later trouble.

Yet it has always been simplistic to portray our differences as simply Irish versus English, or British. There were, after all, many in Britain who also suffered greatly at the hands of powerful absentee landlords, who were persecuted for their religion or who for centuries were disenfranchised. Each generation in Britain has benefited, as ours does, from the contribution of Irish men and women. Today the links between our Parliaments are continued by the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body and last month 60 of our MPs set up a new all-party Irish in Britain Parliamentary Group.

Irish parliamentarians have made a major contribution to our shared parliamentary history. I will single out just two — Daniel O'Connell, who fought against injustice to extend a franchise restricted by religious prejudice, and Charles Stewart Parnell, whose statue stands today in the House of Commons and whose political skills and commitment to social justice made such an impact in that House. So much shared history, so much shared pain and, now, the shared hope of a new beginning.

The peace process is at a difficult juncture. Progress is being made, but slowly. There is an impasse over the establishment of the Executive; there is an impasse over decommissioning. However, I have been optimistic the whole way through and I am optimistic now. Let us not underestimate how far we have come and let us agree that we have come too far to go back now.

[568] Politics is replacing violence as the way people do business. The Good Friday Agreement, overwhelmingly endorsed by the people on both sides of the Border, holds out the prospect of a peaceful long-term future for Northern Ireland and the whole island of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Bill provides for the new Assembly and Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. It incorporates the principle of consent into British constitutional law and repeals the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. It establishes a human rights commission, with the power to support individual cases. There will be an equality commission to police a new duty on all public bodies in Northern Ireland to promote equality of opportunity. We have set up the Patten Commission to review policing. We are scaling down the military presence. Prisoners are being released.

None of this is easy. I get many letters from the victims of violence asking why we are freeing terrorist prisoners. It is a tough question but my answer is clear — the Agreement would never have come about if we had not tackled the issue of prisoners. That Agreement heralds the prospect of an end to violence and a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. Our duty is to carry it out. That is a duty I feel more strongly than ever, having seen for myself the horror of Omagh.

That was not the first such atrocity but, with all of my being, I will it to be the last. I will never forget the meeting I had in the leisure centre, accompanying President Clinton, with the survivors and the relatives of those who died. Their suffering and their courage was an inspiration. They will never forget their loved ones, nor must we. We owe it to them above all to build a lasting peace when we have the best opportunity in a generation to do so.

The Taoiseach's personal contribution has been immense. I pay tribute to his tireless dedication. I value his friendship. I also salute the courage of our predecessors, Deputy Albert Reynolds, Deputy John Bruton and John Major. I also salute Deputy Dick Spring, whose role in this process goes back a long way.

Like us, you are living up to your side of the bargain too. You have voted to end the territorial claim over Northern Ireland, essential to the Agreement. It is time now for all the parties to live up to all their commitments. It is time for North/South bodies to be established to start a new era of co-operation between you and Northern Ireland. I hope agreement on these is now close. It is time to set up the institutions of the new government. It is time for the gun and threat of the gun to be taken out of politics once and for all and for decommissioning to start. I am not asking anyone to surrender. I am asking everyone to declare the victory of peace.

In Belfast or Dublin people say the same thing — make the Agreement work. It is never far from my mind. When anybody asks why I spend so much time and energy on this process I tell them that my sense of urgency and mission comes from the children in Northern Ireland. I reflect on those who have been victims of violence, whose lives are scarred and twisted through the random wickedness of a terrorist act, of those who grew up in fear, those whose parents and loved ones have died.

I reflect on those who although untouched directly by violence are nonetheless victims, victims of mistrust and misunderstanding who, through lack of a political settlement, miss the chance of new friendships and new horizons because of the isolation from others that the sectarian way of life brings.

I reflect on the sheer waste of children taught to hate when I passionately believe children should be taught to think.

Do not believe anyone either who says the British people do not care about the peace process. People in my country care deeply about it, are willing it to work. And it is our two countries, our two peoples, not just the politicians, who have a role to play.

[569] No one could or should ignore the injustices of the past or the lessons of history, but too often between us one person's history has been another person's myth. We need not be prisoners of our history. My generation in Britain today sees Ireland differently and probably the same generation here in Ireland feels differently about Britain. We can understand the emotions generated by Northern Ireland's troubles but, to be honest, there are times when we simply cannot believe, as we approach the 21st century, that there is not a better way forward to the future than murder, terrorism, sectarian hatred and mistrust.

We see a changed Republic of Ireland today: a modern, open economy; after the long years of emigration, people are beginning to come back for the quality of life you now offer; a country part of Europe's mainstream, having made the most of European Structural Funds but no longer reliant on them; some of the best business brains in the business world; leaders in popular culture, U2, the Corrs, Boyzone, B*witched; a country that had the courage to elect its first woman President and liked it so much, you did it again. The politics of Northern Ireland would be better for a few more women in prominent positions in politics — I do not know whether that is the most controversial statement I will make today — as Mo Mowlam has shown, to whom I also pay tribute.

We look at the Republic of Ireland differently. And you see, I hope, a Britain emerging from its post-Empire malaise, also modernising, becoming as confident of its future as it once was of its past.

The programme of the new Labour Government — driving up standards in education; welfare reform, monetary and fiscal stability as the foundation of a modern economy; massive investment in our public services tied to the challenge of reform and modernisation; a huge programme of constitutional change; a new positive attitude to Europe — is a programme of national renewal as ambitious as any undertaken in any western democracy in recent times.

It is precisely the dramatic changes in both our countries that should allow us to see the possibilities of change in our relationship with one another. It will require vision, but no more than the vision that has transformed Ireland. It will require imagination, but no more than that shown by the British people in the last two years. The old ways are changing between London and Dublin. This can spur the change and healing in Northern Ireland too. The old notions of Unionist supremacy and of narrow nationalism are gradually having their fingers prised from their grip on the future.

Different traditions have to understand each other. Just as we must understand your yearning for a united Ireland, so too must you understand what the best of Unionism is about. They are good and decent people, just like you. They want to remain part of the UK — and I have made it clear that I value that wish. They feel threatened by the terrorism with which they have had to live for so long and were threatened, until the Good Friday Agreement, that they would be forced into a united Ireland against the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Yet they realise now that a framework in which consent is guaranteed is also one in which basic rights of equality and justice are guaranteed, and that those who wish for a united Ireland are free to make that claim, provided it is democratically expressed, just as much as those who believe in the Union can make their claim.

It is, of course, in the end, as so much in politics is, about belonging — the wish of Unionists to belong to the UK, the wish of Nationalists to belong to Ireland. Both traditions are reasonable. There are no absolutes. The beginning of understanding is to acknowledge that.

My point is very simple today. Those urges to belong, divergent as they are, can live together more easily if we, Britain and the Irish Republic, can live closer together too.

[570] Down through the centuries, Ireland and Britain have inflicted too much pain on each other, but now the UK and Ireland, as two modern countries, can try to put our histories behind us, try to forgive and forget those age old enmities.

We have both grown up now. A new generation is in power in each country. We now have a real opportunity to put our relations on a completely new footing, not least through working together in Europe. I know that is what our peoples want and I believe we can deliver it.

Our ties are already rich and diverse: the UK is the largest market for Irish goods, and you are our fifth most important market in the world; in trade unions, professional bodies and the voluntary sector, our people work together to help their communities; in culture, sport and academic life there is an enormous cross-over — our theatres are full of Irish plays, our television is full of Irish actors and presenters, your national football team has a few English accents too; above all, at the personal level, millions of Irish people live and work in Britain, and hundreds of thousands of us visit you every year.

As ties strengthen, so the past can be put behind us. Nowhere was this better illustrated than at the remarkable ceremony at Messines earlier month. Representatives of Nationalists and Unionists travelled together to Flanders to remember shared suffering. Our Army bands played together. Our Heads of State stood together. With our other European neighbours, such a ceremony would be commonplace. For us it was a first. It shows how far we have come. It shows how far we can still go.

The relationships across these islands are also changing in a significant way. The Taoiseach has spoken of the exciting new relationships that will unfold as the people of Scotland and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland, express their wishes through their own parliaments and assemblies. The new British Irish Council must reflect and explore these opportunities. We have much to gain by co-operating better across these islands in areas like transport, education and the fight against illegal drugs. But I want our co-operation to be wider and more fundamental still — above all in Europe.

It is 25 years since we both joined what was then the EEC. We have had different approaches to agriculture, to monetary union, to defence, but, increasingly, it is clear we share a common agenda and common objectives: completion of the Single Market and structural economic reform; better conditions for growth and jobs in Europe; successful enlargement; a united and coherent foreign policy voice for Europe; a more effective fight against crime, drugs, illegal immigration and environmental damage; flexible, open and accountable European institutions.

We must work to make the single currency a success. Unlike Ireland, we are not joining in the first wave, but we have made clear that we are prepared to join later if the economic benefits are clear and unambiguous. For my Government, there is no political or constitutional barrier to joining. There is no resistance to full hearted European co-operation wherever this brings added value to us all.

Enlargement will increasingly test our political and economic imaginations as we struggle with policy reform and future financing. The international financial system must be reformed. We must learn to apply real political will and harness our skills and resources far more effectively to solve our regional problems — notably in the Balkans and further afield in the Middle East.

Above all Europe must restate its vision for today's world so that people understand why it is so important. This means defining the priorities where common European action makes obvious sense and can make a real difference, like economic co-ordination, foreign and security policy, the environment, crime and drugs. It also means distinguishing them from areas where countries or regions can best continue to make policy themselves, to suit local circumstances, while still learning from each other — for example, tax, education, health, welfare.

[571] That is why I want to forge new bonds with Dublin. Together we can have a stronger voice in Europe and work to shape its future in a way which suits all our people. It is said — I have no idea whether it is true — that there was a time when Irish diplomats in Europe spoke French in meetings to ensure they were clearly distinguished from us. I can understand that but I hope those days are long behind us. The truth is we, the Republic of Ireland and Britain, can accomplish much more today in Europe when our voices speak in harmony.

Our Ministers and officials are increasingly consulting and co-ordinating systematically. We can do more. I believe we can transform our links if both sides are indeed ready to make the effort. For our part, we are.

This must also involve a dramatic new effort in bilateral relations, above all to bring our young generations together. We need new youth and school exchanges, contact through the new University for Industry, better cultural programmes in both directions. We need to work much more closely to fight organised crime and drugs. We can do much more to enrich each other's experience in areas like healthcare and welfare. None of this threatens our separate identities. Co-operation does not mean losing distinctiveness.

What the Taoiseach and I seek is a new dimension to our relationships — a real partnership between Governments and peoples, which will engage our societies at every level.

We have, therefore, agreed to launch a new intensive process. The Taoiseach and I will meet again next spring in London, with key ministerial colleagues, to give this the necessary impetus and agenda, and will, thereafter, meet at least once a year to review progress, specifically on these issues. This will be part of the work of the new Intergovernmental Conference. The objective is threefold: first, revitalised and modernised bilateral relations, where we can finally put the burden of history behind us; second, a habit of close consultation on European issues, marked by a step-change in contacts at every level, particularly in key areas such as agriculture, justice and home affairs, employment and foreign and security policy; third, working together on international issues more widely — for example, UN peacekeeping, to which both our countries have been important contributors, arms proliferation and the Middle East.

What I welcome above all is that, after keeping us apart for so long, Northern Ireland is now helping to bring us closer together. However, I do not believe Northern Ireland can or should any longer define the totality of the relationship between us. Our common interests, what we can achieve together, go much wider than that. Our two countries can look to the future with confidence in our separate ways but we will be stronger and more prosperous working together.

For me to stand here is an extraordinary honour and privilege. I hope that today marks a new beginning of shared hope for both our nations. That is my ambition and I know it is shared by the Taoiseach. Most importantly, I believe it is an ambition shared by our two nations and our two peoples. The 21st century awaits us, a great prospect, but one which requires great achievements and ambitions to go with it. Let us confront its challenge with confidence and together give our children the future they deserve.

A standing ovation was accorded the Prime Minister on the conclusion of his address.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  It is my great pleasure to call on the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Brian Mullooly, to convey our thanks to the Prime Minister.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly  Zoom on Brian Mullooly  Mr. Prime Minister, this truly is a memorable day in the development of relations between our two countries. Today, we meet at a level of goodwill and generosity of spirit that few of us could have foreseen. We are sharing and celebrating defining moments that will be much analysed and pondered upon.

[572] The very institution of Parliament is a formal and proven testament to the need we have to dialogue in order to govern ourselves in truth and justice. The parliamentary process itself facilitates us, indeed invites us, to come to respect and honour our differences, not only within the Chambers of Parliament but in the broader reality of our lives.

Over recent decades, visiting Heads of State have addressed joint sessions of the Houses of the Oireachtas in this Chamber. Each occasion was memorable but, Mr. Prime Minister, there is a sense in which your presence among us is more celebration than symbol and protocol. We look forward with hope, indeed confidence, to the future.

Mr. Prime Minister, in leaving us today, be assured that you carry with you our goodwill and best wishes.

The Prime Minister, amid applause, then withdrew from the Chamber, accompanied by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Deputy John Bruton, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, Deputy Proinsias De Rossa and Deputy Trevor Sargent.

The joint sitting concluded at 11.10 a.m.

Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 2 p.m.


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