Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has warned divisions in the North over Brexit and Britain's proposed amnesty for all Troubles-related killings are a threat to peace.
Speaking after she was installed as chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast – the first female chancellor in its more than a century-old history – the former US first lady said “difficulties of the past continue to threaten the present”.
“Division over Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol and proposed amnesty legislation might very well undermine a peaceful future, a future that people voted for, fought for and even died for,” she said. “I don’t pretend to have the political answers to resolve this impasse.
“That is up to the people of Northern Ireland. But I do know this: the future of Northern Ireland will be determined by the power of communities coming together, like the one here at Queen’s.”
Praising community efforts during the pandemic, Ms Clinton said a “spirit of coming together for the common good over political interest” was the same spirit that enabled the Belfast Agreement to be negotiated.
People need to “recommit” themselves to the same spirit today, she said during a ceremony on Friday in the university’s Whitla Hall.
The Belfast Agreement was a product of “tough, patient negotiation” and a “testament to the courage and faith” of the people of Northern Ireland.
“Yet we can not take it for granted,” she cautioned.
Ms Clinton’s remarks follow a threat by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson to collapse the power-sharing Stormont Executive over post-Brexit arrangements in the region.
‘Beacon of hope’
Checks are being carried out on the Irish Sea to ensure goods coming into the North meet EU standards, so as to protect the EU single market and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
In July, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Brandon Lewis told Westminster that legislation could be enacted by the autumn which would end the possibility of future prosecutions for Troubles-era killings and other crimes committed before 1998.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the proposals would “draw a line under the Troubles” and acknowledged they were partly prompted by British political and public opposition to the prosecution of former British soldiers.
Stormont’s political parties and the Government in Dublin are united in their opposition to the amnesty plans.
Ms Clinton said the North “has become a symbol of democracy’s power to transcend divisions and deliver peace.
“We need that beacon of hope now more than ever,” she added. “But with hope comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be a citizen, to be willing to discuss and learn from people unlike yourselves, to debate, and compromise in search of common ground.
“To participate in our shared institutions, to respect the rights, dignity and needs of all people, to uphold the rule of law.”
Institutions like Queen’s University helped place a “bulwark against authoritarianism, sectarianism and divisiveness,” she said.
“I will never forget my first visit to Belfast in 1995. A fragile ceasefire was in place and Bill [Clinton] and I were here to do what we could to support the search for peace and light the Christmas tree at City Hall.”
Women’s coalition praised
Praising the founders of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, involved in talks leading to the Belfast Agreement, Ms Clinton said the cross-community party was forged after “a quarter of a century of bloodshed and strife and embedded sexism [that] had discouraged most women from politics.”
The party was “relentless in its commitment to peace”, and had a “great slogan” which was “wave goodbye to the dinosaurs.”
“Throughout my career … some of my most cherished memories are moments spent with remarkable women from Northern Ireland all waving goodbye to the dinosaurs.”
“Women, like the late Pat Hume, a gracious determined force behind the peace deal,” she added.
Like those, Ms Clinton said she has seen women around the world who are “agents of change and makers of peace.”
But she warned peace and progress in the North for which “so many worked tirelessly to achieve is incomplete.”
“The work of integration and housing and schools is far from finished,” she said.
“Neighbourhoods remain divided. Poverty and unemployment persist.”
Recalling the words of poet Seamus Heaney, Ms Clinton said “sometimes people leave aside their cynicism, bitterness and hatreds and hope and history rhyme.”
“That is the choice people in Northern Ireland made in 1998,” she said. “I sincerely hope it is a choice you and countless others will continue to make … because there are tough challenges facing us today and likely more to come.
“Peace is a process, not an event,” she added.
Ms Clinton will be the university’s 11th chancellor. She was appointed to the position in January 2020 for five years and officially assumed the role on Friday.
During the Queen’s ceremony, a number of figures from business, politics, sport, the arts, policing and education were awarded honorary degrees, including Derry Girls writer and creator Lisa McGee.
Former Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable George Hamilton and international hockey player Shirley McCay also received honorary degrees.