In 1997 and 1998, my place in Cabinet offered me a ringside seat from which I saw the careful consideration and sheer effort that went into the talks which led to the Good Friday agreement.
I was moved when the agreement was signed, and proud of what my colleagues, working in partnership with the British government and Northern Ireland parties achieved, 25 years ago next Monday. At the centre of this complex and monumental effort was the talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell, and his team.
Looking back, it could seem that reaching the Good Friday agreement was inevitable. That was not the case. The path to the agreement was winding, lasting many years. It was a path marked by ceasefires and broken ceasefires, walkouts and set pieces, and all against the backdrop of ceaseless, bloody violence. The agreement talks themselves almost collapsed in the final days and hours, only to be brought over the line by all the participants making difficult choices and finding a balance with which all could live.
All of that underscores the scale of what was achieved in April 1998. It was achieved through brave leadership, on all sides, by people who took chances for peace, assuming risks for their parties and for themselves, to bring their followers with them.
It was also achieved with international support, from the US, the EU, Finland, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
While the Good Friday agreement is precious, it is not perfect. It does not adequately accommodate those who profess to be from neither of the two main traditions
The agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of the island of Ireland, in referendums held in both jurisdictions on the same day in 1998. The people of the island gave the Irish and British Governments, as co-guarantors, and all parties in Northern Ireland a clear and enduring mandate to implement, protect and promote the agreement.
While the Good Friday agreement is precious, it is not perfect. It does not adequately accommodate those who profess to be from neither of the two main traditions. Additionally, it did not adequately address the needs of victims of violence and their families – something we have been working tirelessly to do ever since.
A better future
Nonetheless, the agreement is the foundational document for a better future for this island. In creating inclusive political institutions for Northern Ireland for the first time in its history, the agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland a more direct say in how they are governed.
It gives us new ways to work together across the island, as well as between Ireland and the UK. The agreement provides a pathway to shared prosperity and better ways to co-operate, which themselves underpin the dividends of peace and reflect the ways in which our lives are intertwined.
Importantly, the agreement paved the way for a reformed police service in Northern Ireland and, later, the devolution of policing and justice.
In establishing fundamental principles, agreed and shared across a divided society, particularly the principles of consent and parity of esteem, the agreement places the promotion and protection of human rights at the centre of a new Northern Ireland.
These principles anchor the delicate balances achieved between different traditions and different visions for the future of this island.
If the agreement has imperfections, so too does the peace. We are not as far down the road of reconciliation as we had hoped 25 years ago
At a time when the devolved institutions are not being allowed to deliver for people of Northern Ireland, these are the principles that will allow politics to work again.
We have a duty to protect the agreement, to ensure that it continues to work for the good of all in Northern Ireland, as well as across the island as a whole. We must take care not to be dragged to the margins by those on either side, or any side, who didn’t support the agreement in the first place, and still don’t.
If the agreement has imperfections, so too does the peace. We are not as far down the road of reconciliation as we had hoped 25 years ago. The work of reconciliation remains at once urgent and painstaking. It is the work of every leader on this island to reach out to the “other”, to make clear that this island can and must accommodate all traditions, not just in toleration but in harmony and acceptance.
That is the backdrop to my establishment of the Shared Island initiative, which aims to find new ways of working and living together in this place we all call home. With the Shared Island initiative, the Government is investing in projects which transcend borders, and benefit from an all-island approach. We have invested in research and innovation, tourism, biodiversity and the arts. This is new investment, seeking to make new things happen, for the gain of all. Put most simply, the Shared Island initiative has only winners. It can be transformative for the island.
To be most effective, we need to have functioning, democratic institutions in Northern Ireland that can take decisions for the people of Northern Ireland
But we need partners. To be most effective, we need to have functioning, democratic institutions in Northern Ireland that can take decisions for the people of Northern Ireland. We need political leaders who will assume their responsibilities and who can decide to partner, or not, with us on new initiatives.
I want the Shared Island initiative to be transformative for this island, but it will be at its best if it is resting on the solid foundations of the inclusive institutions created by the Good Friday agreement. Restoring those institutions, and delivering on the promise of the agreement, remains my top priority.
Micheál Martin is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.