Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland's divided past is slowly becoming a shared future

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

Lest we forget. On this the 11th day of the 11th month the world recalls war, but in relation to Northern Ireland 'Lest we forget' can be applied appropriately to our own deeply divided past.

Those who, like me, met in the Long Gallery at Stormont on Saturday night, were reminded of the remarkable journey the people of this island have taken towards a peaceful future from the days of two global wars.

The occasion was the 75th anniversary dinner of the Irish Association, a body founded by well-meaning and what can now be seen as far-sighted unionists and nationalists to build better relations between north and south.

I doubt if any of the founders – the first president was Lord Charlemont, a prominent unionist at the outbreak of World War II – could have foreseen so much change for the better in the space of three generations.

The transformation in relationships on this island was epitomised again in the laying of wreaths yesterday in Enniskillen and Belfast by British and Irish, unionist and nationalist leaders alike.

It was also underlined in the speeches I listened to on Saturday from the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, as the Irish Association marked its anniversary.

Well might the members of this august body bask in the foresight of its founders who laid the first bricks in a fragile bridge between the Irish nationalist and devoutly Catholic culture of the south and the British unionist, intensely Protestant way of life of so many in the north.

Some may assume from its title that the Irish Association operated only down a one-way street. In reality, that is not so. Nor was it ever the case.

The presidents over the years have alternated between distinguished moderate-minded figures from the Republic and Northern Ireland and between unionist and nationalist traditions. The mutual aim has been to explain and expose the unionist psyche to nationalists and the nationalist psyche to unionists. Breaking down the walls of ignorance continues to prove no mean task.

The job remains far from complete but as Ms Villiers and Mr Gilmore emphasised in their speeches, a sea-change has already taken place. Despite the insulting language which some Stormont MLAs and ministers still use, firing abuse at one another even when their parties are supposed to be working together in government, the bigger picture tells a different story. The relations between London and Dublin governments is better than it has ever been before. The same is true for the axis between Dublin and Belfast administrations. This new tide of understanding and co-operation cannot be pushed back.

Even the worst excesses of dissident republicans and loyalists are not dividing the waters between the shores of Great Britain and this island.

As I observed the British and Irish ministers on friendly first-name terms inside the floodlit facade of Stormont on Saturday, memories returned of the scenes on this very same spot when the leaders of the Ulster Workers' Council strike addressed a huge flag-waving crowd and celebrated the overthrow of the power-sharing Executive in May 1974.

The Irish Association dinner offered an opportunity to compare the atmosphere of 1938 with today, to chart the vast improvement in relationships, north and south and east and west.

These two strands of the Good Friday Agreement are taking shape but sadly the third and most crucial strand, namely the internal relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland remains deeply imperfect.

While the laying of poppy wreaths yesterday symbolised a new spirit of togetherness, the erection of yet another peace barrier in the grounds of a Catholic church in east Belfast, is a measure of the challenge of the next 75 years for organisations like the Irish Association and for the politicians in Dublin, London, Belfast and Washington.

The big differences have gone. The French have a word for what has happened since the Irish Association took its first tentative steps towards social and cultural bridge-building on this island.

It is simply "incroyable" – incredible and we should never underestimate or ignore the extent to which a divided past is slowly but surely becoming a shared future.

Lest we forget how far we have come, but also lest we forget those who are still stuck at base camp. The past is past. The future is what counts now.

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