Robinson says ‘respect key to progress’
Northern Ireland first minister speaks at dinner honouring work of GAA
First Minister Peter Robinson (right) is welcomed by Peter Sheridan the Chief Executive of Cooperation Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
On Thursday Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson broke further community and political ground when he attended a Co-operation Ireland dinner honouring the peace-building work of the GAA.
As keynote speaker at the event in Queen’s University, Belfast, Mr Robinson commended the GAA’s involvement in the National Citizenship Programme in Northern Ireland.
Below is a transcript of remarks made during his speech:
“I want to pay tribute to the work of Co-Operation Ireland over many years. You have played a very positive role, not just during the Troubles, but you continue to do so today in this new era in Northern Ireland. I know first-hand the commitment that Christopher, Peter and their whole team bring to this important work.
It was no accident that when we were looking for someone to host the historic hand-shake element of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee visit last year that it was Christopher Moran that we turned to. I want to thank Christopher for the role that he plays with Co-Operation Ireland and for his wider interest in Northern Ireland.
I am absolutely sure that in the years to come the Co-operation Ireland team will continue to play a vital role in improving relations within Northern Ireland and across the entire island.
Co-Operation Ireland’s recent part in the roll-out of the National Citizenship Programme in Northern Ireland has been particularly valuable. I am reliably informed that the scheme here is regarded as the best of any across the United Kingdom.
It is a sign of just how much things have changed that the GAA plays such a positive role as a delivery partner in this worthwhile project. I believe that this programme is making a real contribution to the lives of young people in the Province and I believe that the buy-in of the GAA ensures that it has a reach right across the community.
In the last few years Co-Operation Ireland has celebrated the role of rugby and football in peace-building and it is fitting that tonight we very publicly acknowledge the important role of the GAA. It is a testament to the progress that we have all made that tonight we can acknowledge the GAA’s role in peace-building by inviting a First Minister from the unionist tradition to the lectern.
Not so many years’ ago it would have been unimaginable that I would have been invited to speak at an event of this kind - or that I would have accepted.
Thankfully the world has moved on. We are all on a journey. Although I think we each recognise that there is still some distance to travel. For my part I want to see my party reaching out further in the years to come and I am certain that the GAA leadership will want to do the same.
I have had the privilege of engaging with a number of Ulster GAA Presidents in recent years and I think that we would be united in agreeing that although we may not have reached our final destinations - and we will undoubtedly have challenges ahead to confront - the direction of travel is absolutely clear.
For its part, the GAA has taken significant decisions that have not only reflected the changing times we live in but more importantly have helped shape them.
Historically, from the trenches many within each section of our community have viewed with suspicion the groups, organisations and institutions connected to those from a different background. Even today it is fair to say that in some districts relations remain fraught – misgivings and distrust exist. But I’m glad that this is receding. By speaking here tonight I want to encourage those in the GAA who have been making the case for change and are reaching out to those beyond their natural constituency. I do so, not from the comfort of an armchair but knowing just how difficult this can be. In a country so steeped in religion too many skip over Christ’s exhortation, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
History tells us just how hard it is to take one’s community in a new direction. The work of sports organisations, the GAA, Ulster Rugby and the IFA has made a real contribution – not just in the here and now but in laying the foundations for the years that lie ahead. And I know that Danny Murphy and Ryan Feeney have broken considerable new ground in their search for opportunities to reach out across the cultural divide. The outreach work that both Danny and Ryan have spearheaded has made a valuable and important contribution to building better relationships and understanding.
It was a welcome and important development when, 12 years ago, the GAA dropped its historic ban on members of the security forces playing Gaelic games. That change took place at a time when such initiatives from any quarter were rare - and it was a harbinger of things to come. It was followed just one year later in 2002 by a team from the PSNI pitching itself against St Bridget’s GAA. I seem to recall that St Bridget’s won, but the real victory was in the game taking place.
Since then the bridge-building has continued. My Ministerial colleague Edwin Poots was guest speaker at the Ulster GAA Community Conference in 2008 when he held the Culture, Arts and Leisure portfolio.
Last week I opened a newspaper to see a photograph of my colleague Nelson McCausland playing Gaelic Football. That really does show that all things are possible! Don’t think for one minute that I take any of it for granted. I believe that the hand of reconciliation needs to be extended by all of us and at every possible opportunity.