Tony Blair

Address to a Joint Session (Dail and Seanad) of the Irish Parliament

delivered 26 November 1998

 

Members of the Dail and Seanad, after all the long and torn history of our two peoples, standing here as the first British prime minister ever to address the joint Houses of the Oireachtas, I feel profoundly both the history in this event, and I feel profoundly the enormity of the honor that you are bestowing upon me. From the bottom of my heart, go raibh mile maith agaibh.

Ireland, as you may know, is in my blood. My mother was born in the flat above her grandmother's hardware shop on 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, I think it was. And we would travel in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. It was there in the seas off the Irish coast that I learned to swim, there that my father took me to my first pub, a remote little house in the country, for a Guinness, a taste I've never forgotten and which it is always a pleasure to repeat.

Even now, in my constituency of Sedgefield, which at one time had 30 pits or more, all now 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 invasions: Celts, Vikings, Normans -- all left their distinctive mark on our countries. Over a thousand 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 too who suffered greatly at the hands of powerful absentee landlords, who were persecuted for their religion, or who were for centuries disenfranchised. And each generation in Britain has benefited, as ours does, from the contribution of Irishmen and women.

Today the links between our parliaments are continued by the British-Irish 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. Let me single out just two:

Daniel O'Connell, who fought against injustice to extend a franchise restricted by religious prejudice;

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. But 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.

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 of 1920. It establishes a Human Rights Commission with the power to support individual cases. We will have 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. This 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, with Bill Clinton, with survivors, and with 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; and 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. 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. Time to set up the institutions of the new government. Time for the gun and the threat of the gun to be taken out of politics once and for all; 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. 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, on those who grow up in fear, those whose parents and loved ones have died.

And I reflect on those, who though 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, 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 believe passionately children should be taught to think.

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

No one 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 sees Ireland differently today and probably the same generation here feels differently about Britain.

We can understand the emotions generated by Northern Ireland's troubles, but we cannot really believe, as we approach the 21st century, there is not a better way forward to the future than murder, terrorism and sectarian hatred.

We see a changed Republic of Ireland today:

a modern, open economy;

after the long years of emigration, people 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; and the politics of Northern Ireland would be better for a few more women in prominent positions too.

And you see, I hope, a Britain emerging from its post-Empire malaise, modernizing, becoming as confident of its future as it once was of its past.

The program 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 modernization; a huge program of constitutional change; a new positive attitude to Europe -- it is a program of national renewal as ambitious as any undertaken in any western democracy in recent times.

It is precisely the dramatic changes in both countries that allow us to see the possibilities of change in our relationship with each other.

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. And 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. Threatened by the terrorism with which they have had to live for so long. 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 realize 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 a united Ireland are free to make that claim, provided it is democratically expressed, just as those who believe in the Union can make their claim.

It is all 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 realize that.

My point is very simple. 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.

Down through the centuries, Ireland and Britain have inflicted too much pain, each on the other. But now, the UK and Ireland as two modern countries, we 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 crossover. 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 this month. Representatives of nationalists and unionists traveled together to Flanders to remember shared suffering. Our army bands played together. Our heads of state stood together. With our other European neighbors, such a ceremony would be commonplace. For us it was a first. It shows how far we have come. But it also shows we still have far to 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, 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 defense. But increasingly 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 fullhearted 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 regional problems -- notably in the Balkans and the Middle East. Above all, Europe must restate its vision for today's world, so that our 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.

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 there was a time when Irish diplomats in Europe spoke French in meetings to ensure they were clearly distinguished from us. I hope those days are long behind us. We can accomplish much more when our voices speak in harmony.

Our ministers and officials are increasingly consulting and coordinating 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 programs in both directions. We need to work much more closely to fight organized crime and drugs. We can do much more to enrich each other's experience in areas like health care 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. This will be part of the work of the new Intergovernmental Conference. The objective is threefold:

First, revitalized and modernized 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. But I do not believe Northern Ireland can or should any longer define the relationship between us. Our common interests, what we can achieve together, go much, 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.

That is my ambition. I know it is shared by the Taoiseach. I believe it is an ambition shared by both our nations. The 21st century awaits us. Let us confront its challenge with confidence, and together give our children the future they deserve.


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