The speech made by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at Queen’s University in Belfast on 18 April 2023.
Tánaiste, Mr Commissioner, Your Excellencies, Most Distinguished Guests, and of course Chancellor Clinton, thank you for having me here today.
The truly historic 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is an enormous achievement, and something that should be deservedly marked, recognised and indeed celebrated – and I am grateful to Vice Chancellor Greer and his team for bringing us all together.
We heard yesterday that the Agreement was the product of the vision, bravery, leadership and imagination of many, many people, far more people than I could name in these remarks. But it is right today that we recognise those whose efforts brought peace to this nation after decades of conflict.
The success of the peace process will forever and justly be one of the proudest and most significant achievements of Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Major, Albert Reynolds. I will be forever struck by the foresight and leadership of Lord Trimble in pushing forward with the Agreement in the face of significant scepticism – and indeed, outright opposition at times – from parts of his own party and across Unionism.
Real leaders know when to say yes, and Lord Trimble and the Progressive Unionist Party’s David Ervine led not only their own Parties but Unionism and Loyalism in saying yes to peace.
John and Pat Hume dedicated their lives to fighting for civil rights and reconciliation. Their passion for peaceful and democratic means of achieving change, and their clear-eyed view of the impact of violence on vulnerable communities created a legacy that lives on to this day.
Martin McGuinness will, along with Gerry Adams, be remembered for the courage and leadership he showed in persuading the Republican movement of peace. His partnership with Dr Ian Paisley and his gracious engagement with Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, were powerful symbols of how far Northern Ireland had come.
I had the privilege of getting to know both John Hume and Rev Ian Paisley when I was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and where they both served. It is not often that a new kid on the block in politics gets to sit in Parliament with a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
And we must remember the critical role that women played in getting us here. The late Mo Mowlam brought a humanity and a courage to her role that unlocked key elements of the Agreement. Her decision to engage with loyalist prisoners in 1998, against advice, was key to securing the support of loyalist communities for peace. Within the Irish Government, Liz O’Donnell played a critical role in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
And women like Monica McWilliams, Pearl Sagar and May Blood brought powerful leadership and perspective to the process. They focused minds on what was really at stake and worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices of women were heard in the peace talks.
I also want to pay tribute to the US’ contribution, particularly to the personal commitment of President and Secretary Clinton. If you spend a few moments in their company, you can palpably feel their love for this place.
And to the heroic work of Senator Mitchell, his speech yesterday was one of the best I have ever heard and I have heard a few in my time. I am quite sure it will go down in history. That contribution of the US endures today as was demonstrated last week from President Biden’s visit, just as the contribution made by our friends in Canada, South Africa and Finland in particular to the issue of decommissioning still endures to this day.
I was thinking yesterday when Senator Mitchell talked about the birth of his child and then the 61 other babies that were born on that day, that it is undoubtedly the case that the efforts of all of these people to get peace mean that there are men and women alive today, possibly here today, who otherwise might not be.
But we must also never forget that beyond lives saved, something special comes with peace. Pre the Agreement, small, ordinary acts that so many of us take for granted that would then have been difficult or a cause for concern, something your mother would have worried about, the freedom to stay in town after work for a pint with a friend, or to head out for a meal with your family.
The freedom to walk down the street without the fear of becoming caught up in some sort of disturbance. The freedom for young people to grow up and live happy, successful lives here in Northern Ireland and not be forced to leave their home in order to know stability or security. It is a testament to the success of the Agreement that so many here now can exercise these freedoms.
Now, 25 years on, the Government remains wholly committed to protecting and upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and I know this is a commitment that is shared by the Tánaiste and the Irish Government. I like and enjoy working with Micheál very much and the friendship and cooperation between the UK and Irish Government is vital to protecting and upholding the Agreement. I am determined in my capacity as Secretary of State to deepen and strengthen that vital relationship.
The Agreement’s success can also be demonstrated by Northern Ireland emerging as a thriving centre of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Its screen and film production industry has hosted some of the world’s most talented actors. Queen’s and Ulster University boast world-leading, Research & Development activity, enabling Northern Ireland to capitalise on the technologies and sectors of tomorrow. And Northern Ireland has a burgeoning and justified reputation for its FinTech and Cyber Security sectors. Together with over £600m of UK Government investment in City and Growth deals, Northern Ireland is increasingly a byword for an economy on the cutting edge of technology, connectivity and innovation.
But we must not sit back thinking the job is done. The abhorrent shooting of DCI John Caldwell, the disturbances over the Easter weekend and the ongoing paramilitary activity in too many communities illustrate that a tiny minority seek to drag Northern Ireland back to its darkest days. But I know for every person who wants to drag Northern Ireland down, there are thousands determined to lift it up. To those who pursue violence I say only this: you will never succeed, it is hopeless. Not because I say so or, because the Government says so, but because the wonderful, strong and proud people of Northern Ireland say so.
They reject your violence which has no place in the society or in the peace so many have strived so hard to create. To safeguard peace, we must be willing to confront the challenges as well as the successes.
The Agreement explicitly recognised the importance of acknowledging and addressing the suffering of the victims of violence. A workable way forward on this highly complex and sensitive issue has eluded successive UK Governments, Irish Governments, and NI Executives for 25 years, despite valiant attempts by many. Satisfactorily addressing the past is an absolutely key element in realising Northern Ireland’s potential in a prosperous, peaceful, and shared future – and I am determined to do so in a way that provides better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles.
As we consider the challenges that still face us, I confess I have also been struck by a narrative that has become louder in recent years. A narrative that the Agreement struck in 1998 did not achieve great things for Unionism. That it was somehow all about ‘wins’ for Nationalism. That narrative is wrong, and all of us who support the Agreement must be vocal in countering it.
Today, the principle of consent is so often taken for granted. But it was an important and hard won guarantee that settled for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Before 1998, the Constitution of Ireland asserted that Northern Ireland formed part of Irish national territory, and that the Irish Government had a right to exercise jurisdiction over that territory.
25 years ago, a minority but a significant one – considered it legitimate to use force to bring about a united Ireland, contrary to the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. The acceptance of this principle of consent, a fundamental part of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, changed all of that.
Northern Ireland’s integral part in the United Kingdom is settled by the Agreement. That status can’t be changed by the evil deeds of terrorists, nor can it be changed by the words or wishes of politicians. The only thing that can change it is the will of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Irish constitution was changed at that time to reflect this. Just as important for the Union, the Agreement created the conditions and built the foundations for Northern Ireland to be a thriving, dynamic and successful society within the United Kingdom. The simple reality is that people tend to change the status quo only when the status quo is not working or people simply stop making the case for it. Devolved power-sharing institutions created a status quo that those of us who value Northern Ireland’s place in the Union can robustly – and successfully – promote and celebrate.
So let no one tell you that power-sharing is in any way at odds with Unionism. Instead it is the surest way by which Northern Ireland’s place in the Union can be secured. The people of Northern Ireland are rightly demanding better, more responsive public services, greater economic prosperity and a brighter future for their children. The single biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is a failure to deliver on these priorities.
I make no apologies for being proud of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and for wanting it to continue. Others who share that view should put the Union first, restore the devolved institutions and get on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. Like David Trimble and David Ervine before in 1998, and Dr Paisley in 2006, real leadership is about knowing when to say yes and having the courage to do so.
I also know that the question of the Agreement’s potential evolution is being discussed and debated both here at this conference and more widely across Northern Ireland as people rightly want to see devolution in their elected institutions up and running, and want to make it work. I believe that successfully achieving local governance in this place has always depended on achieving the consensus I talked about earlier and certainly if there were voices from London or Dublin trying to impose something, it would certainly fail.
So the Government will continue to listen intently to the conversation on how we can best achieve the effective and enduring operation of the institutions. Because we want to see the institutions working well for the whole of Northern Ireland. Their success is Northern Ireland’s success, and Northern Ireland’s success is the Union’s success.
Distinguished Guests, Northern Ireland has made remarkable progress in the 25 years since the Agreement’s signing. If these 25 years have been about peace, then the next 25 must be about delivering a more prosperous, more reconciled future for everyone in Northern Ireland. We must look forward to what is possible, just as we must reflect to remind and educate ourselves about exactly what is at stake.
The Government stands ready to support Northern Ireland to fully deliver on the ambition of the Agreement and I look forward to working with everyone here, everyone everywhere, in making that an achievement we can all be proud of.