21. “Building Trust in Ireland“
Monday, April 29th, 1996
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Hon. Judge Catherine McGuinness (Chairperson, Forum for Peace and Reconciliation)
Brice Dickson (Professor of Law, University of Ulster)
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
Addresses of speakers
Closing words: Julitta Clancy
Editor’s note: This talk was the first of our talks after the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire in February
“BUILDING TRUST IN IRELAND”
Judge Catherine McGuinness: “Building Trust in Ireland – The Work of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation”
“May I begin by thanking Julitta Clancy and the other members of the Meath Peace Group for your kind invitation to address you this evening. I was delighted to have another opportunity to come again to Meath where so many of you have committed so much time and effort to the advancement of peace and reconciliation on this island. Indeed, it is worth noting that Meath has provided us with three Members of the Forum: the Taoiseach, John Bruton, and the Coordinators for Fianna Fail and the Labour Party, Deputies Noel Dempsey and Brian FitzGerald.
“I was particularly pleased to have the chance to meet some of the young people from the area who have been involved in several peace rallies last month and some of whom have participated in the Northern Studies programme recently. I am very pleased also that Professor Brice Dickson has been able to join us here too. Professor Dickson is a most distinguished academic and we in the Forum were very glad that he was able to prepare a very interesting paper for us which formed part of the recent Forum publication Building Trust which we shall discuss later. As a lawyer myself, I have studied Professor Dickson’s paper with special interest.
Canary Wharf bombing: “The days and weeks immediately after the bombing at Canary Wharf in February produced a strong and heartfelt response from thousands of Irish people, young and old – stronger, perhaps, than many might have foreseen. While the strength of that emotion in the immediate aftermath of Canary Wharf may not be at the same level today, I have no doubt that it continues to be expressed through a quiet, clear determination that violence should have no place in our society again. The people of Northern Ireland have experienced, some for the first time, a year and a half without bombs and bullets, although regrettably a number of other violent incidents have taken place. Many in the South have realised too what peace means, not only for the people of Northern Ireland, but also for the opportunities which now exist for greater contact between both parts of the island, offering a real chance for us and for our children to get to know each other better and to develop a real trust based on tolerance and respect.
Building of trust: “The building of trust has been a central objective and achievement of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation since its inception in October 1994. For those of you who are less familiar with the work of the Forum, let me outline what it set out to do and where, in my view much of its value lies.
FORUM FOR PEACE AND RECONCILIATION
“Unfortunately, because of the breach of the basis on which it was set up, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation has had to postpone its meetings since 9 February, although the venue continues to be used for private meetings and ongoing research. This deferral of meetings has meant that I have had to frame much of these remarks in the past tense, but I very much hope that we will soon see re-established a basis on which we can bring our work to completion. However, one of the real results of the Forum’s work is daily in evidence: the existence of important relationships which have been constructed across significant divides and the growth of confidence between members who have come to know each other better over the past year and a half.
Structure and work: “It might be useful at this point to recall the structure and work of the Forum from its inception in the wake of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994.
Building confidence: “The Forum has been about building confidence. That is needed more than ever now in this period leading to talks on 10 June. Confidence building is required at every level. The primary requirement is for the ceasefire to be restored. Anyone who has lived in or even visited Ireland in recent weeks must be struck by the depth of feeling amongst the wider public, North and South – they tasted the liberation of peace for 17 months and they are not going to let it go. There is a real sense of determination to rescue our peace, but also to achieve a lasting political settlement. Both North and South, there is a need to bring this force of public opinion to bear and to continue to include civil society, in all its diversity, in the peace process.
“That is the context in which the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which I have the honour to chair, was established in October 1994, having been foreshadowed in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. It was clear to the Irish Government, whose initiative it was, that once ceasefires were brought about and declared, there was going to be a need for a place where, on a systematic, regular basis, politicians, groups and individuals interested in furthering peace could meet and talk. It comprises twelve delegations and a total of 39 Members. I would like to tell you a little about what it has done so far and how it fits into the wider peace process. There is provision for observers and we are happy to have such from the European Parliament and the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body attending a number of our meetings. We have also had an observer who has articulated the perspective of loyalist prisoners and former prisoners.
“The Forum is serviced by a small, independent full-time Secretariat drawn from the Irish Civil Service but reporting to me. The Forum has met on Fridays in Dublin Castle, in public plenary sessions – we have had 41 plenary sessions – and in private Committee meetings also.
Forum’s terms of reference: “The Forum’s Terms of Reference call for it to consult on and examine ways in which lasting peace, stability and reconciliation can be established by agreement among all the people of Ireland and on the steps required to remove barriers of mistrust. Its purpose is to identify and clarify issues which could most contribute to creating a new era of trust and cooperation on the island. Participation in the Forum is entirely without prejudice to the position on constitutional issues held by any party, a provision specifically included as an encouragement to the unionist parties to accept the invitations extended to them to participate.
“Invitations were sent to the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the two loyalist parties, but none has so far felt in a position to accept. This is, of course, a major gap in the Forum’s membership and it is the poorer for that absence. The work and approach of the Forum have three main elements, which I would summarise as dialogue, outreach and output.
Dialogue: “Dialogue is at the heart of what the Forum is about. I must confess to being more than a little exasperated when I hear complaints to the effect that the Forum is merely a talking shop. Perhaps if we had more talking shops in Ireland this past 25 years we might have had less killing fields. Moreover, we have paid too much homage for too many years to silence as a means of addressing differences and problems.
“The truth is that at this critical time in the history of Ireland we desperately need to find ways of talking to each other and places where we can do so. The Forum, as, for long, the only place where politicians from North and South could gather collectively on a regular basis, has therefore played an important role as a venue for dialogue.
“The internal dialogue has involved the Forum in probing, ahead of any formal negotiations in other arenas, some of the key issues that have to be dealt with as part of the transition from conflict to political agreement, from the mere cessation of violence to true peace and reconciliation. These internal debates also gave the delegations an opportunity to develop their thinking in the new circumstances presented by the ceasefires, then in operation, often under the challenge, sometimes very strong challenge, of other delegations’ viewpoints. And it must be remembered that at the inaugural meeting of the Forum many of the members were meeting each other, in such a framework of dialogue, for the first time. Initially, there was a considerable nervousness on all sides, but over the months, while differences in political outlook remained and led, at times, to quite sharp exchanges, an atmosphere and a process of dialogue built up.
“In addition to the formal debates and meetings, we sought to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities for what our American cousins call networking. It became quite clear observing what took place over lunches, and cups of coffee, that some of the real business of the Forum was taking place away from the microphones!
Outreach: “The second area of activity of the Forum involves our outreach activity. In the climate of public optimism which had been created by the two ceasefires and with the Forum viewed at the time of its inception as one of their first fruits, it was clear that the body would quickly have to establish its credentials as an inclusive exercise, which related directly and tangibly to people and to issues on the ground, issues such as the economic peace dividend and its distribution, the concerns of victims of violence and the future handling of issues relating to prisoners and former prisoners.
“A series of high profile hearings was set in motion at an early stage to give effect to this approach. In addition, advertisements were widely placed, North and South, calling for public submissions. To date, almost 450 groups and individuals have responded to that call and sent us written submissions. It was decided that, in addition to the hearings, a cross-section of those who had sent in written submissions would be called on to make an oral presentation to the Forum. About 80 groups were involved in these public hearings and presentations.
“At this point, may I record with particular appreciation the presentation of the Meath Peace Group last year. The Group continues to make a very important contribution to the process of reconciliation and has been very creative in finding ways of involving the wider community in this process – a point which we might return to later.
“A particular aim of the outreach process has, of course, been to facilitate some engagement with unionism, given the absence of the larger Unionist parties from the Forum’s membership. While not fully compensating for the latter, some success has certainly been achieved by the process in this regard.
“The public hearings have involved groups such as the Youth Council of Northern Ireland, the CBI (NI), the Ulster Farmers Union and Ulster cooperative body, a number of the Northern Ireland tourism organisations, the Corrymeela Community, the Community Relations Council of Northern Ireland, and a number of groups from the community and voluntary sectors, the membership of all of which are drawn heavily from the unionist community in the broadest sense, as well as a former loyalist prisoner and a young Protestant man who lost his wife in the Shankill fish-shop bombing.
“In addition, the public submissions process drew a good response from many sectors of that community and oral presentations as follow-up to these submissions have been made by groups and individuals such as the Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), a member of the Ulster Unionist Council, who gave, in a personal capacity, a presentation on the unionist view of the way forward; Mr Roy Garland, a Lisburn-based member of the UUP also appearing in a personal capacity, and Mr Glen Barr. Moreover, as I mentioned, the Forum also has had the participation of an observer who, in frequent contributions, has articulated the perspective of Loyalist prisioners and former prisoners and has been in a position to keep his sponsor constituency accurately informed on the Forum’s work. These developments, taken in their totality, and together with the contributions, as members, of the Alliance Party and the late Senator Gordon Wilson, with their understanding of attitudes and thinking within the broader Unionist community, have meant that there has been a worthwhile measure of encounter with non-nationalist perspectives, including those of unionism and loyalism.
“This may also be the place to say that, by reference to the differing views constantly expressed, the Forum’s delegations are very far from constituting a monolithic pan-nationalist front. But it is also important to stress that, in its outreach process, the Forum also gave the opportunity to those in the nationalist community who had lacked a platform on which to give public expression, directly to the politicians, of their concerns, anxieties, grievances and priorities, to do so. Thus, we heard moving testimonies from victims of state and loyalist violence, presentations from representatives of Republican prisoners, spokespersons for local economic development groups, and so on.
Output: “I used the word output to describe our third broad area of activity. This has the primary objective of producing a series of new published material from professionals acknowledged as experts in their field which could act as authoritative points of reference on the subjects covered, firstly to help nourish dialogue within the Forum itself, and, secondly, when political negotiations commence in other arenas. Our hope was that by adding to the store of expert information and research in these important areas, they would represent an important future contribution from the Forum to the overall peace process.
“I advertised to you earlier our most recent publication in that series, Building Trust in Ireland. We have also published a study by KPMG consultants on The Social and Economic Consequences of Peace and Economic Reconstruction. This is a major examination by a group of economic experts, North and South, of the implications of peace in economic and social terms. Further expert studies are all but completed on a longer-term perspective of an island economy in Ireland, and human rights protection, at the level of both the individual and the group. These, we hope, will be published over the coming months.
Paths to a Political Settlement: “I would like to inform you also about the Paper that the Forum released on 2 February last, entitled Paths to a Political Settlement in Ireland: Realities, Principles and Requirements. This Paper is probably the most important political document produced by the Forum and I have brought along some copies for you. Its production was the culmination of an intensive series of debates and exchanges inside the Forum. One of the first issues the Forum looked at following its inception in October 1994 was the concept of a common understanding of the problems we face, and of the principles which might underlie their resolution, as intermediary steps along the path to an overall settlement. Each Forum party presented policy statements on the idea and debated and examined them in detail in the Forum. To explore the extent to which, arising from these statements and debates, common ground existed between the various party positions, a Drafting Committee of the Forum, comprising two senior representatives from each of the 12 Forum delegations, and chaired by myself, was established. The Committee began its work last May and the result of that work is the Paper I mentioned. The Paper sets out a list of (a) key Realities which require to be addressed if a lasting political settlement is to be achieved in Ireland, and (b) the Principles and Requirements which should characterise such a settlement.
“A word firstly about the status of the Paper. While the parties were committed to securing, ideally, a document agreed in every detail, the primary objective was the exploring of positions and options and the gaining of a deeper understanding by the parties of each other’s approaches on the central realities and principles. I always recognised fully that when it came to core issues there was every likelihood that, within the context of the Forum’s consultative remit, establishing a single, common position would be problematic and that every party had the right ultimately to insist that these were more properly matters for decision in formal all-party talks.
“In the event, this eventuality came to pass. While overall there was full agreement in the Committee on the text as it stands in respect of all the Realities and most of the Principles and Requirements, two parties, Sinn Fein and the Green Party, for quite different reasons, were of the view that in respect of one issue – how agreement and consent of the people to the outcome of all-party talks are to be measured – final decisions on its resolution were more properly a matter for formal talks and that they were unable to accept the text as it stands on that issue. On all other issues agreement was reached on a common approach.
“It may be felt that in view of the announcements by the IRA on the end of the ceasefire and subsequently, there is a question-mark over the value or significance of the Sinn Fein endorsement of the great bulk of the document.
“Only time will tell the true story here, but I really believe that the work of the Drafting Committee was a very valuable out-working of the Forum’s mandate to clarify and explore issues at the heart of the problem. Much common ground was established between the parties on crucial issues and a deeper understanding was achieved of the issues in respect of which differences remain. It was a challenging and deeply instructive, educational exercise, whose legacy, I believe, will endure. Those many men and women who have represented Sinn Fein at the Forum are not going to disappear from the scene or lose all influence, and thus the positions to which they agreed remain a very significant benchmark.
“Very briefly, could I highlight some of the main findings of the Paper:
- There was a unanimous, explicit and solemn commitment by all parties to the principle of peaceful, democratic politics as the only means through which any goal can be pursued, including the establishment of a lasting, political settlement. You might consider this as being self-evident but its explicit endorsement all round is very important in the context of a society whose history has been characterised by resort – by all sides at various times – to violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political goals. It is a principle, of course, which runs through every other issue and if it were universally accepted it would represent a transformation of our overall situation in Ireland.
- All issues, no matter how central, including even such issues as consent, would then become political issues for resolution inside the political process. Part of the reason why we have so much mutual suspicion and mistrust is that for too long all sides have feared that the other side will seek to impose its viewpoint by force of arms or the threat of arms. That is the value of the key principle of the Paper, which, as I say, was subscribed to by all the Forum parties; my earlier remarks deal with the questions raised by and following Canary Wharf.
- Much of the work of the Drafting Committee centred on seeking to explore what each of the fundamental and related issues of self-determination and consent means in the Irish context. Time prevents me from exploring more fully today our findings in this thorny and complex area. The essential conclusion is that securing definitive agreement on how these principles are to be exercised will be a core task of all-party talks. It was in the are of measuring popular acceptance or endorsement of the agreed outcome of such talks that we ran into difficulty, but our paper contains what I believe is valuable material in terms of what constitutes the different elements of the debate. I would stress again, however, that these issues too are governed by the requirement, accepted by all, to pursue and resolve all objectives by exclusively peaceful, democratic means.
OBSTACLES IN THE SOUTH TO RECONCILIATION:
“Among the topics that the Forum has been looking at is the whole question of Obstacles in the South to Reconciliation. I am personlly strongly of the belief that it is not good enough for a body based in Dublin to devote itself exclusively to critiques of life in the North. It is important that at this watershed time we in the South should also examine how our attitudes, approaches and system of governance measure up to the requirements of diversity and generosity. It is clear that much of the development of our State since its foundation has taken place without reference to Northern Ireland, although I am hopeful that the recent divorce referendum will prove to have been a very crucial milestone on the journey towards the goal of creating greater room for diversity and space for minorities. In any case, it seemed to us that it was timely for the Forum to take a look at this whole area through the prism, as it were, of our new situation.
“The Forum publication Building Trust in Ireland draws together five papers prepared for us by experts on different aspects of the broad topic “Obstacles in the South to Reconciliation”. Among the papers are studies of the histories of minorities in the South since the foundation of the State, and of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in public policy there in the same period, and two very interesting papers by Northern academics, including Professor Brice Dickson who will discuss this theme in more detail later. I would like to commend the quality of the work and I am very hopeful that it will represent a valuable contribution to a better understanding of these issues.
“In the Downing Street Declaration, the Taoiseach made a commitment to:
“Examine with his colleagues any elements in the democratic life and organisation of the Irish State that can be represented to the Irish Government in the course of political dialogue as a real and substantial threat to the unionist way of life and ethos, or that can be represented as not being fully consistent with a modern, democratic, pluralist society.”
“At the outset of the Forum’s programme of work, we had two main objectives: First, to map out a series of debates, based on submissions from a wide range of people, North and South, and secondly, to identify certain core themes which would receive detailed attention from the Forum’s Sub-Committees. Obstacles in the South to Reconciliation was identified as one such theme. All 12 Forum delegations were represented on this Committee and had worked through a first draft of their Report examining aspects of life in the South. Regrettably, this work has been interrupted since the bombing at Canary Wharf on 9 February and the Committee has not met since that date. I hope that it will prove possible to finalise and publish this work.
“The Studies in our book were commissioned by this Committee. The actual Report of the Committee looks at key areas of Irish society – Education, Health, the Irish language, Constitution and other matters.
“During the Forum’s initial debates, several Forum members underlined the importance of changes in the south as a possible contribution to reconciliation. There was a measure of consensus that the general trend in the south towards a more inclusive, pluralist society was beneficial in itself and offered opportunities for reconciliation. Members of the Committee agreed that the Committee’s work should identify prevailing perceptions/misconceptions and identify areas where further change was required, with the overall aim of cultivating pluralism in the south.
“In my view, this work over the past year has had an inherent value in itself, offering a unique opportunity for the representatives of parties ranging from Alliance to Sinn Fein to undertake a cooperative, detailed analysis of our society and the various perceptions of it in Northern Ireland. It is important, both to identify aspects which might be improved, but also to illustrate that many things have changed for the better, and that in many respects a society has developed in the South which is more advanced and tolerant than is sometimes acknowledged. Sometimes, it is more difficult to overcome the perceived obstacles than the real ones. I hope that the Committee’s work to date and the publication of Building Trust will assist this process.
“In conclusion, I wish to thank you again for this opportunity to discuss the work of the Forum. Many of you here this evening are the ones who are finding ways of advancing peace and reconciliation in your day-to-day lives and have given inspiration and motivation to many of us in public life at times of difficulty. Your work, together with my experience as Chairperson of the Forum, strengthens my belief that we can find a lasting solution to the problems on this island and create a better future for us and our children.”
2. Professor Brice Dickson: “ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NORTH”
“I am very grateful for the invitation to speak at this meeting tonight. To my shame I have never been in Navan before. The Meath Peace Group is an excellent excuse for coming here; its work has been inspirational on many levels.
“I also wish to pay tribute to Judge McGuinness and to the Forum she heads. The work which has been carried out there has been very worthwhile – dialogue and outreach are surely the keys to long-term peace in the North. Martin Mansergh’s analogy with the Congress of Vienna is particularly apposite, since I believe the chairs used at that Congress are now housed at Mount Stewart in County Down, since Lord Castlereagh, of the Londonderry family, was the British Foreign Secretary at the time. I look forward to the day when the chairs used at the Forum are similarly prized.
Opsahl Commission: “The Forum’s work reminds me of the excellent community consultation exercise conducted by the Opsahl Commission in 1992, whose report, edited brilliantly by Andy Pollak, repays careful scrutiny. I believe only one person, of the 3, 000 or so who made submissions, complained that he had been misrepresented in that report.
“Having handed out the plaudits I now wish to say that I am not optimistic that the Forum itself will lead to a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland.
“This stems from the basic fact that Northern unionists simply do not want anything that smacks of moving one step down the road to Irish unity.
“Even if the South was the most just and most pluralistic society in the world, Northern unionists would still want to maintain a distance. They would say that they could preserve good relations without the need to institutionalise any closer links.
“The uncomfortable truth may be that the Obstacles Committee of the Forum has been asking the wrong question – rather than seeking to discover what the Southern obstacles to reconciliation may be, perhaps it should have been seeking ways in which to give Northern nationalists a clearer voice in the running of the North? The problem is to find some mechanisms in this regard which go further than those created by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 (to satisfy the nationalists) but which do not incur the wrath of the unionists (who think that the AIA itself is completely unacceptable – they will not even take part in the Anglo-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body).
Irish dimension: “That Irish dimension in the North cannot be provided through changes to the judicial system there (the idea of a Southern judge sitting in the North is repellent to unionists), but it may be provided through harmonisation of the laws on relatively uncontroversial matters (mentioned in the Framework Document of February 1995). An organisation to which I belong, the Irish Association of Law Teachers, hopes to do further work on this topic in the near future. There is also scope for a lot more cooperation in the educational, sporting and cultural sectors.
What are the things most dear to the hearts of Northern unionists from a constitutional point of view?
First, the notion that the majority must rule (called the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty by constitutional lawyers). In this context nationalists could do well to look at models of voting in some companies – the law in that area permits minorities to be reasonably well protected by a variety of voting techniques.
Second, the idea that people should exercise freedoms, not rights: unionists are suspicious of the notion that the State should be held to account to discontented groups or aggrieved individuals; they believe people should be free to do whatever they want to do provided there is not actually a law against it.
Third, first-past-the-post elections: though unionists have come to live with PR in local and European elections, they still see majority voting as very important for Westminster elections.
Fourth, the monarchy: even though the monarchy is under attack at the moment in Great Britain, Northern unionists still see it as much preferable to a Presidency, even as beneficent a one as you have at the moment here in the South.
But whether or not unionists get to keep these four things, there are some matterswhich ought to be addressed in the North regardless. Certain things are desirable per se there, whether there is political progress or not:
1. An increase in local district council powers – at the moment councils deal mainly with the infamous “Three B’s” – bins, bogs and burials. One could add a fourth – bulbs, for they deal also with street-lighting! Some councils do now share power in the North and the time may therefore be right to return to councils many of their former powers, e.g. over education, housing, health and social services.
2. There is room for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland – even unionists admit that much provided the rights are not unlimited and not inconsistent with State’s duty to counter the use of violence for political ends. It should guarantee protection to social and economic rights as well as to civil and political rights; it does not need to be “entrenched” (I regard the so-called problem of entrenchment as a red herring) and the European Convention is a useful model to follow in the first instance but not in the longer term.
3. Finally, improvements to the policing system are urgently required. The Police Authority for Northern Ireland recently published the results of its community consultation exercise – although in my view the analysis it contains is weak, the information gleaned can surely form the basis for future reforms. Confidence-building measures are required on the policing and security fronts (especially as regards the right to march), while all the time adhering to international standards.
Right questions: “In conclusion, we need to focus on the right questions when discussing Northern Ireland. We must be realistic and imaginative. If it is necessary to institutionalise differences between communities in order to preserve the peace, so be it. Peoples within borders and across borders can be reconciled in their personal and private lives. The voluntary sector can be as vibrant as it likes. But if public reconciliation is to occur it must be the politicians who undertake the task – we therefore need to educate the politicians in the merits of reconciliation and co-operation, something which the Forum is indeed doing. Politicians are the people, like it or not, who wield power. The rest of us must try to influence them, otherwise we will be accused of whistling in the wind.”
Chair: John Clancy thanked the speakers and opened the question and answer session which ranged over a wide variety of issues, including the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire, the work of the Forum, the role of education, the findings of the Obstacles Committee. [Editor’s note: questions not recorded]
On behalf of the Meath Peace Group, Julitta Clancy thanked the speakers for coming to Navan to share their experiences and views on the subject “Building Trust in Ireland”. She also thanked the young people and their teachers who came to meet Judge McGuinness before the talk. These young people were from schools in Navan, Trim, Ashbourne and Kilcock and other areas who organised and took part in peace rallies etc. in February and March; some of the students had also taken part in a “Northern Studies” programme in St Joseph’s Secondary School, Navan earlier in the year.
This was the 21st talk since September 1993. The aim of the talks is to promote understanding and involve ordinary people in the peace process. “We believe that ordinary people, both North and South, have a major role and responsibility to play in bringing about the conditions for a lasting peace on this island”.
The Meath Peace Group had originally come together in April 1993, she said, with feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness and sheer frustration in the face of the continuing violence at that time. “We did not know what we could do, but we felt we had to do something. A whole generation had grown up in the period of violence and instability, and we felt there must be something we could do to help make sure that the legacies of bitterness and hatred were not passed on to future generations. We quite quickly learned that we knew very little about N. Ireland. Like most people in the South at that time we had lost contact with people in N. Ireland – most of us had never travelled North for over 25 years!
“So we set about trying to find ways to improve our knowledge and understanding and encourage others to do the same, to make friends and develop relationships of trust. We found this was not as difficult as we thought. Everywhere there were people willing to talk to us, to tell us their stories. We soon found out that the extreme images we knew from the media were not a true reflection of the people of Northern Ireland; everywhere we came across so many people of courage and determination, many of whom who had suffered greatly, who down through the long years, had kept alive the hopes of a new and peaceful future and had paved the way for the ceasefires to come about…
“In the last 3 years we have brought a wide variety of speakers to Co. Meath. Some have also visited local secondary schools. We have seen a great willingness on the part of local people to listen and engage in dialogue. We would like to see this continued and carried on in other areas throughout the country. There is a groundswell for peace that cannot be ignored – this was evident in the last few months. Young people particularly are demanding a new way forward. That desire and demand for peace must be built on and the work must go on in all levels and all areas of society. It is a long-term commitment. The politicians and governments must continue to do their part, which is by no means easy. But we also have a role, not only through developing contacts and friendships, through our clubs, associations and community groups, but also through active involvement in promoting understanding, and working to break down the barriers of mistrust and misconception.
“Violence and division have marked this island for generations. Each generation has left unaddressed the legacies of hatred and bitterness, with the terrible consequences that we have seen in the recent period of conflict. The threat of violent conflict is again before us. We owe it to all those who suffered, and to our own young people, to do what we can to address those divisions and differences and help to find a new way forward.
“In no way are we trying to minimise the divisions and differences that are there, nor are we trying to brush over the injustices and genuine grievances that must be addressed. But somehow or other we have to find ways to live together in harmony and justice on this island, to try and “reconcile the irreconcilable”, and the first basis of this must be awareness and acceptance of the equal rights and validity of identity and genuinely held beliefs of the other community. There must be genuine commitment to understanding: We must be prepared to listen, to open our hearts and minds, to be prepared to hear things we may not like, to seek new ways of going forward.
“There is nothing in this that should threaten us. We are not being asked to reject the past, to forget the sufferings and sacrifices of the past; rather, we are being asked to throw aside the domination of the past, to pass on something positive to our young people, to enable them to forge a new future for the peoples of this island, a future where all can feel comfortable, and all can have an opportunity to develop. We are being asked to show true citizenship and maturity – surely we are ready for that, surely the suffering of so many makes it an absolute imperative?
Resumption of IRA violence: “Our last talk was on January 29th. Since then we had the breakdown in the IRA ceasefire. Rallies throughout the county. Youth rallies. The IRA threat cannot be ignored – we have seen the terrible consequences of paramilitary violence – but we cannot be intimidated by it either. Isobel Hyland’s moving exhibition show us the human costs of the violence since 1966. It also shows the futility of violence. The peace process must be built on fair and just principles – violence can play no part in this. So we appeal to all concerned to do what they can to restore the ceasefire and allow the work of peace and justice to progress.
Building Trust. “How can we work to build this trust which is so essential? The Forum has worked very hard since its inception – taking submissions, commissioning papers, identifying areas of grievance and obstacles to reconciliation. Their work is an obvious starting-point for groups who want to get involved. We ourselves have witnessed the great amount of work that has been done in the Forum, both by the politicians, but also by the Forum Secretariat and particularly Judge McGuinness herself, and we hope that its suspension will not be for too long more. We would hope that somehow or other the Forum proposed for N.I. would be similar and would not be destroyed by narrow political motives. Thank you.”
Meath Peace Group report – May 1996. Compiled and edited by Julitta Clancy. Taped by Anne Nolan. (c)Meath Peace Group