The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement will always be remembered as one of the most extraordinary political achievements of our lifetimes.
Because step by step, faltering at first, people on all sides began to do things that were once unthinkable, in the search for peace.
But you don’t need me to tell you that because many of you in this room created it.
It is humbling to be with you today.
And with the people of Northern Ireland, who have endured so much.
After three long decades where violence and terror were part of everyday life…
…a generation has grown up in a place that is vastly more peaceful, more prosperous, and more at ease with itself.
Of course, we meet here today in circumstances that are far from perfect.
But my argument today is this: the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement remains the best and only foundation for peace and prosperity.
And if we can take inspiration and instruction from the way peace was achieved 25 years ago…
…we can fulfil the true promise enshrined in that Agreement.
The promise of: Stable devolved government. A prosperous economy. And a more united society.
That’s the future for Northern Ireland we must build.
Now to do that, we must first ask why.
Why did peace talks succeed in 1998 when so many failed before?
I believe that’s because people on all sides showed courage, imagination, and perseverance.
First, those who worked for peace had the personal courage to keep going in spite of daily threats to them and their families.
And the political courage to take risks in pursuit of a higher goal.
John Hume, over his entire career, never relented in his insistence on non-violence.
David Trimble took enormous risks to do what he thought was right for the union.
And they were rightly honoured as the preeminent architects of peace, with a joint Nobel peace prize.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness persuaded Republicans to join a constitutional, power-sharing Assembly.
And, encouraged by the intensive efforts of Mo Mowlam, the leaders of loyalism also lent their weight behind the deal.
Female leaders from the Women for Peace and the Women’s Coalition worked so hard for peace.
And Bertie Ahern showed the wisdom and statecraft to see the historic opportunity.
At a critical moment, he recognised unionist concerns over the proposed North-South arrangements and stepped back.
Trimble himself, in his last public appearance, at this university, just weeks before he passed away…
… embraced his old counterpart and thanked Bertie for giving him the space to act.
These acts of courage were more powerful than a thousand bombs and bullets.
Because there is nothing glamorous about violence.
There is nothing glorious about terror.
Squalid acts are always justified with some false dream about what they will achieve.
But they have never worked – and they never will.
Instead, let us glorify moderation; romanticise respect; and make heroes of those with the courage to reject absolutes, not kill for them.
Second, making peace required leaps of imagination.
To conceive of a system for sharing power between traditions.
To design an agreement with three strands of equal importance…
To enshrine the principle of consent – so that Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom for as long as its people wish…
…while protecting the aspirations of those who seek a different future through peaceful means.
And for the first time…
…the people of North and South were both given the opportunity to support this deal…
…and they did so, in overwhelming majorities.
And let us never forget the crucial work after 1998 to build a broader consensus – helped by the leadership of Dr Ian Paisley.
Third, the peace took extraordinary perseverance.
In the aftermath of the Shankill bomb and Greysteel massacre in 1993, many thought the peace process was over…
…but just two months later John Major and Albert Reynolds delivered the Downing Street Declaration.
George Mitchell persuaded all parties to sign up to the principles of democracy and non-violence, without which the talks could not have begun.
In the difficult final hours, President Clinton’s timely interventions helped get the deal done.
And whenever people walked away, Tony Blair sought to bring them back…
…always committed, always attuned to the concerns of all parts of the community.
Together with Bertie Ahern, he showed us what’s possible when the UK and Irish governments work together…
…a partnership I know will continue alongside my friend, Leo Varadkar.
And in the spirit of perseverance, it’s also fitting to recognise the contribution of the security forces.
Like my predecessors, I acknowledge that at times they made mistakes.
But we must also recognise their bravery, suffering, and sacrifice – and that of the police.
Without their courageous service, there would have been no peace process at all.
They created the conditions that ultimately allowed their own presence on the streets to be reduced or entirely withdrawn.
So: courage, imagination, and perseverance.
Those qualities brought an imperfect but enduring peace to a place taught to believe no such peace was possible.
So to all those who led us to that peace…
…including those here in this hall and those no longer with us…
…let us take this moment to say to you:
For those of us, like me, who inherit this extraordinary, even intimidating legacy…
…our challenge today is to fulfil the promise of the work that you began.
To honour your legacy, we need to create a more stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
And that means getting the institutions up and running.
I believe there are two tasks.
First, to remove the biggest block to the institutions returning.
That’s why, when I came into office, I made it a priority to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol.
And we were deeply conscious of the lessons of history as we did so.
That’s why our aims were to:
Balance and respect the aspirations of all parts of the community.
Protect the relationships between East and West as much as North and South.
And persist through careful, detailed negotiation.
And I pay tribute to Ursula von der Leyen who I am so pleased to see here today.
The Windsor Framework is a breakthrough moment.
It solves practical problems and, crucially, strengthens Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and our UK internal market.
It gives the Assembly significant new powers – ready for when it sits again.
And I am confident we can build broad support for it across all communities.
So I share people’s frustration that the institutions are not back up and running.
But that points to our second task.
We must keep working to persuade all parts of the community that returning to the institutions is the best path.
And we will do that.
We will talk, we will listen, we will try to persuade – and we will not give up.
And I want to speak directly for a moment to the representatives of unionism…
…who include many diverse voices and whose concerns with the Protocol we have focused on addressing.
I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again.
That’s the right thing to do on its own terms.
And I’m convinced that it’s also the right thing to do for our union.
I am a proud unionist.
We believe passionately that Northern Ireland is stronger within the UK…
…and the UK is stronger with Northern Ireland within it.
But we must also build support beyond those of us who already identify as unionists.
To do that, we have to show that devolved government within the United Kingdom works for Northern Ireland.
The fact that the institutions have been down for nine of the last 25 years should be a source of profound concern.
Over the long term that will not bolster the cause of unionism – I believe that deeply.
So we need to get the institutions up and running – and keep them up and running.
And let me also say to those who would seek to reform the institutions right now: I understand your frustrations.
But history reminds us that nothing in Northern Ireland has ever been achieved by trying to get round one community or another.
So any conversation about reform can only begin once the institutions are up and running again…
…and if it attracts widespread consent.
The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement left us an extraordinary and precious legacy.
When we look back in 25 years from now…
…surely we should aspire for our legacy to be nothing less than this:
That the institutions have been up and running for every single year.
Because our focus must be on the future.
Getting the institutions back up and running is our most pressing challenge to honour your legacy.
But that’s only the beginning.
Together we must fulfil the true promise of the 1998 Agreement.
That future enshrined in the very words of the text – of “sustained economic growth”, and where we tackle the problems of “a divided society”.
I will give everything to help deliver that vision.
Because I talked earlier about learning the lessons from history.
One thing I took from George Mitchell is the idea that the agreement itself is only 20% of the task – the rest is delivery.
Once the Agreement was done, people asked of Tony Blair: Would he walk away?
And neither will I.
Because there is work to be done.
So let me tell you what I’m going to do.
First, economic growth.
Progress has been remarkable – in April 1998, Northern Ireland had the highest unemployment rate in the UK.
Today – it’s the second lowest.
But we need to do more.
In 25 years, when we look back, I want to see that Northern Ireland has changed.
From an economy too reliant on the public sector…
To a thriving, dynamic economy built around the power and innovation of private enterprise.
I talk a lot about the idea of levelling up.
About making sure young people feel they can fulfil their dreams and aspirations in the place they call home.
That idea has particular resonance here in Northern Ireland.
And we won’t achieve it without a cascade of new investment – to create jobs and opportunity.
That journey has already begun.
Last week, President Biden came – and told the world to invest here.
He didn’t say that out of sentimentality.
He said it because he can see the opportunity for American businesses.
And because of the enormous potential of this place.
The potential of the people – resilient, ingenious, determined.
The potential of your businesses…
…with world-class strengths in cyber, life sciences, financial services, and the creative industries.
And one of Europe’s most thriving start-up scenes.
I know that journey to prosperity won’t be easy – and we aren’t there yet.
But this is my commitment to you:
I will use the full force of the UK Government…
…to help you make this one of the best places in the world…
…to start and grow a business, create jobs…
…train and learn new skills…
…and attract investment.
And just as we want to look back on a more prosperous, dynamic economy…
…so in 25 years, I also want us to look back on a more integrated and contented society.
Of course, we cannot simply wish away those social realities that have been present for decades.
The tragic loss of Lyra McKee and the attack on DCI John Caldwell remind us how far we still have to go.
But people are already voting with their feet in the choices they make for their children’s education and their social and sporting lives.
A growing body of the electorate does not define themselves solely as Unionist or Nationalist, British or Irish.
A growing portion of people sample life in a different part of these islands but still return.
And a growing number of local communities are signalling that their patience with thuggery is over.
But there’s yet more to do.
In 25 years’, should not the poisonous grip of the paramilitaries…
…those gangsters and drug dealers who wrap themselves in the fake cloak of legitimacy…
…be broken once and for all?
In 25 years’, should not a fragment of a peace wall be nothing more than a stop on the tourist trail?
In 25 years’, should integrated education not be the norm rather than the exception?
Of course, we won’t build that better future overnight. And it won’t be easy.
Every time I visit Northern Ireland, I feel more optimistic and hopeful.
Because to paraphrase the late David Trimble…
…there may be hills ahead of us, but there are mountains behind.
I want to close by reflecting on an extraordinary story.
Just weeks before the agreement, two lifelong friends, Damien Trainor and Philip Allen, were murdered at Poyntzpass.
One was a Protestant, the other Catholic.
The people who murdered them may have hoped to sow chaos and division and derail the peace talks.
Because the story of this remarkable friendship inspired one of the most decisive breakthroughs of the whole peace process…
…the agreement to share power between equal first and deputy first ministers, in a co-premiership, with one from each community.
As Mark Durkan, the SDLP’s lead negotiator, said at the time:
“The stories of Philip and Damien’s special friendship…
…could be a parable for the sort of society that we might create if we could reach agreement”.
And he was right.
That is the promise of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
And together we can – and we must – fulfil it.