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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., at the Good Friday Agreement 20th Anniversary event, Capitol Hill, Washington DC, 13 March 2018

Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D.,

The Good Friday Agreement 20th Anniversary event,

Capitol Hill, Washington DC,

13 March 2018


Congressman Neal, 

Honourable Members of Congress,

Public representatives from Ireland,

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am honoured to be with you this evening, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

I want to thank Congressman Neal and King, and the Friends of Ireland Caucus, for inviting me.

The fact that we are gathered here in Washington DC, celebrating an agreement forged twenty years ago, is testament to the remarkable impact that the Agreement has had, and its continued relevance today.

It is also testament to the deep and enduring relationship between the United States and Ireland.

Let me say that, over the last three decades, the US has been a tireless friend and supporter of the Peace Process. The monumental contribution of Senator Mitchell and others will never be forgotten. 

The United States has been with us every step of the way – from the early days of the peace process, to the Agreement in 1998, and throughout our efforts to achieve its full promise of the peace, prosperity and reconciliation. 

Ireland greatly values this unstinting friendship and support by successive Administrations and by Congress on a bipartisan basis. 

I want in particular to acknowledge the leadership shown by Congressmen Richie Neal and Peter King, and the Friends of Ireland Caucus, many of whom are here this evening. 

Thank you.  Your work is an expression of the deep and enduring connection between our countries and our peoples. 

Your continued engagement is of vital importance, as we work to meet today’s challenges for a Northern Ireland that is at peace, but is not yet fully reconciled. 

Listening to Senator Mitchell earlier, I was deeply impressed, though of course not at all surprised, by the clarity and richness of his insights. 

I will not attempt – especially in front of the Senator – to deconstruct the interwoven ideals and interests so remarkably brought together in the Agreement.

Instead, I want to focus my remarks this evening on what the Agreement means for Northern Ireland today, and how it can help us find our way through the current impasse.

Since I was elected Taoiseach, I have developed an even greater appreciation for the scale of the achievement of all of those who worked to bring peace to Ireland.

I fully recognise the solemn responsibility that now rests on my shoulders to protect the peace and to build on the progress of the past 20 years.

We have had the breakdown of relationships and the failure in recent months – despite strenuous efforts, to re-establish the political institutions – the Assembly, the Power Sharing Executive, North-South co-operative bodies.

We face enormous challenges from Brexit, which has undoubtedly changed the political climate in Northern Ireland and indeed across Britain and Ireland. Brexit is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement.  It drives a wedge between north and south and east and west.  I think it also creates risks for the Union, for Scotland and Northern Ireland.  I take no pleasure in that.

But I take courage from the achievements of 1998 and the progress made since then.

I take the long view.

We have peace in Ireland.  

No longer do mothers and fathers dread the phone call at night to be told of the death of a loved one.  No longer the horror of the emergency news bulletin reporting another dreadful atrocity.

The IRA armed campaign, and other paramilitary campaigns, have ended.  Weapons have been decommissioned.

We have seen power-sharing operate successfully, and new relationships built between political leaders who were once sworn enemies.  

We have seen police reform and full cross-community support for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

We watched with pride as David Trimble and John Hume jointly accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

We marvelled as the late First and deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, shared power together in Stormont.  

More amazingly, we also saw them share a smile.

When Martin McGuinness died last year, we saw the people of Derry applaud Arlene Foster, the leader of unionism, as she attended his funeral in the Bogside, just yards from the scene of Bloody Sunday.

An entire generation has grown up enjoying a normal, peaceful and prosperous society in Northern Ireland.

A miraculous transformation has taken place.

The leaders who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement dreamed that all of those things were possible.

They embody the spirit of Good Friday, 1998.

That spirit gives us the confidence, the courage, and the optimism to face the challenges of the future together.

Before I became Taoiseach, I served as a Minister on the North/South Ministerial Council, which was created by the Good Friday Agreement.  There I worked with, and made friends with, Unionist and well as Nationalist Ministers. 

We worked together for the benefit of everyone.  A new highway to link Derry and Donegal to Dublin, cross-border co-operation in cardiology and radiology, a joint bid for the Rugby World Cup.

Since becoming Taoiseach, I have done what all my predecessors have done – holding political meetings in Dublin, Belfast and London with the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland parties.

Trying to resolve the latest disagreement.

Trying to take the next step forward.

It may all sound drearily familiar, but it is not the same.

Ireland has become a completely different place in the last 20 years, because of the Good Friday Agreement.

As Taoiseach, I stood at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, alongside Arlene Foster, to remember the dead of the Great War and the victims of the Enniskillen Bombing - and to underline our joint commitment to peace and reconciliation.

I attended the biggest parade in Belfast, neither Orange nor Green but rather – Belfast Pride – with police officers from North and South marching in uniform together for the first time.

I visited Derry to see the new Peace Bridge and the flourishing cross-border partnership between Derry and Letterkenny – a new cross-border city region.

Yes, things have changed on the island and they are still changing.

So, I would like to conclude with three reflections on the road ahead.

First, I want to say that I am determined to work with the British Government to chart a way ahead to restore the institutions of the Agreement.

The next few weeks will rightly see a focus on Brexit.  I will meet Chancellor Merkel in Berlin, and then travel to the European Council in Brussels where the EU will seek to make further progress in our discussions with the UK Government.

After that, I believe the period after Easter should see a redoubled effort on the part of both Governments and all of the parties in Northern Ireland to seek agreement on the restoration of the institutions.

It is my view that this will require very close co-operation and leadership from the British and Irish Governments.

It may be that again the Governments will have to table our own proposals to help the parties break the deadlock.

That is how we made progress in the past.

If that is the case, the Irish Government will play a full, active and balanced role in that process.

The Agreement has evolved to suit new circumstances since 1998, and it will evolve in the future.

That is its strength and its genius.

Second, and as important, I would like to speak to the representatives of unionism here tonight and to unionists at home in Northern Ireland.

I know that you are concerned - perhaps worried - maybe even angry, at recent political developments.

I recognise that recent statements and actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish Government, about Brexit have been seen as unwelcome or intrusive.

If that is the case, I want to make it clear that it certainly was not our intention.

I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda.

My only agenda is the Good Friday Agreement – the principle of consent, peaceful politics, the democratic institutions, reconciliation and co-operation.

As I stand here in Washington celebrating a recent anniversary, I would like to recall another, more distant event.

200 years ago, in the spring of 1718, the Reverend James McGregor left Aghadowey, in east Londonderry, with many of his congregation for a new life in the colonies. 

They founded Londonderry in New Hampshire. 

In the years that followed Presbyterian Irish helped create the United States and made it the country it is today.

Other notables included Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and several Presidents of the United States.

So, in this year of 2018, we remember that the Ulster-Scots Protestants are as much a part of the history of the Irish in America as the Irish Catholics are.   

In the same way, they are an integral, respected and valued part of the history - and the future - of the island of Ireland.

As John Hume said, ‘each and every person is worthy of respect and honour’.  We should live for ideals, not die for them.

So tonight, let me conclude with a focus on the future.

The Good Friday Agreement is our precious inheritance and our immovable foundation for future relationships.

It has come under attack from some quarters recently – from people with narrow political agendas who do not understand Ireland and our history.

They will not prevail.

The British Government, the United States Government and the European Union are at one with the Government of Ireland.

We will protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts.

There is now a particular onus on those of us who currently hold the responsibility of political leadership.

We are a new generation.

It is time for us to step forward and play our part.

That is why my third reflection is that we must engage young people in the future of our island.

In the months and years ahead, I want to engage with the next generation – the Agreement Generation – to build on those achievements.

Our mission now is to imagine the next 20 years.

To imagine it, and then to build it.

Thank you.