Belfast Telegraph

Bertie Ahern: Famous Friday we were handed whole new future

The Taoiseach writes for The Belfast Telegraph

At their height, the Troubles cast a long shadow over every part of Ireland. Around the world, if people were conscious of us at all, it was often in the context of conflict and division.

Thankfully, those days are over. The resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland is a beacon of hope in a troubled world.

The Good Friday Agreement is a vital part of that story. It heralded the dawning of a new era for the North, for relationships on this island and between Ireland and Britain.

It marked a turning point.

After protracted and difficult negotiations, we had finally put in place an agreement that would allow us to move away from conflict towards an enduring peace.

When I became Taoiseach back in 1997, I felt that there was a real opportunity to revitalise the peace process. Tony Blair, who shared my belief, also had a deep and personal commitment to making it work.

Building on the hard work of our predecessors, we were able to work with the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland to tackle the many difficult issues.

Agreement would never have been possible without the vital contribution of Senator George Mitchell and critical interventions from the US President Bill Clinton, whose work was later carried through by President Bush and his administration.

For the first time, in the Good Friday Agreement, we had in place a truly comprehensive framework to bring about a lasting peace in the North.

Before, during and since the Agreement, everyone involved has had to take risks, personal and political, for peace and implementing the Good Friday Agreement presented many challenges.

However, we knew we had the support of the people and this gave us real strength. The ratification of the Agreement by the people of Ireland in referendums North and South and the carrying of the referendum here in overwhelming numbers was a source of pride and confidence.

We knew we were doing what the people wanted.

The inclusive power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, the Assembly and Executive, were restored last May and have been working since then to address the day-to-day concerns of the people. The North-South Ministerial Council and North/South Implementation Bodies are back working effectively as we always envisaged they would.

We now have a police service in Northern Ireland that, for the first time, has the support of all parties and all communities.

Today, the visible hardware of conflict is gone from the North, and the troops that are remaining are confined to barracks.

In 2005, the IRA formally ended its campaign of violence and the Independent Decommissioning body verified that it had decommissioned the 'totality of its arms'.

The relationship between Britain and Ireland has been transformed and last year I was honoured to address the Houses of Parliament at Westminster.Since restoration, we have entered a new era in all-island strategic planning.

We are getting down to business. We are implementing a massive programme of joint investment in infrastructure, including a major new inter-urban road between Dublin and the North West as well as the route between Belfast and Larne. We have agreed on a new integrated cross-border approach to the development of the North West of the island through the North West Gateway Initiative.

We are also co-operating and investing in new initiatives in the areas of higher education and research

A major new cross-border innovation fund was recently announced by the Northern Ireland Minister for Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, in co-operation with Minister Micheal Martin. The single electricity market is already a reality, successfully launched by Ministers Nigel Dodds and Eamon Ryan last November. Important and groundbreaking work is under way on co-operation in health, in education, in regional development, in environmental protection and in spatial planning. Every part of this island stands to gain from these and other developments in North/South co-operation. But, challenges remain, including the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive. This is an absolutely integral part of the agreement at St Andrews that led to power-sharing and all-party support for policing.

It should be implemented in good faith for that reason alone.

But it also matters to society.

It matters that the political leaders of Northern Ireland take responsibility for tackling crime on the streets.

It matters that people feel safe in their homes. It matters that investors can work with a stable, fully functioning government.

The maintenance of law and order is a fundamental task of any democratic administration.

That is why we need to complete the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive. In recent times much has been achieved in building positive relationships on all sides —between the political parties in the North and between the two administrations North and South.

As I step down shortly from the office of Taoiseach, I have no doubt that we will continue to build on these relationships and that they will be central to allowing us to tackle difficult issues in the future.

Belfast Telegraph

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