Good morning, everyone.
I’m very glad to open this 11th Shared Island Dialogue event, on the important subject of Identity.
Unfortunately, I can’t be there in person at St. Columb’s Hall in Derry today, but what a fitting place it is for the discussion - with links to the civic, political and cultural evolution of the Maiden City, and of this island, over more than a century.
This Dialogue is about hearing from the coming generation on how we can better accommodate our identities, on this diverse and diversifying island that we share.
It is a question that goes the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and indeed to who we are as a society, today and into the future.
As I said in launching the Irish Government’s Shared Island initiative in 2020, we need to hear the views of young people who will play the greatest role in shaoing that future.
You bring new experience and perspective, less preconception and more imagination.
For too long in the history of this island, we misunderstood each other across our different identities and political traditions.
We perpetuated myths about other sections of the community, North and South. About the legitimacy of others’ identity, culture, beliefs, needs and aspirations.
There were some who sought to obscure our very shared humanity.
And this saw dark and violent moments in our recent past, which have left a legacy of pain and trauma to this day, that still has to be properly addressed.
But twenty-four years ago, in resoundingly endorsing the Good Friday Agreement, the people of this island, North and South, definitively dispelled the old myths.
And determined that we should work together - across our communities and borders - for a shared, reconciled future.
Through the Agreement, the people affirmed principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of our relationships;
The right of the people of Northern Ireland to identify and be accepted as Irish, or British or both;
And comprehensive civic and political rights, including to equal opportunity regardless of class, creed, ability, gender or ethnicity.
These are not just warm words.
They are the foundation for an inclusive, respectful, honest and thriving society.
And so they need to have meaning for how we do politics, how we govern and legislate, how we interact in and across both jurisdictions.
It is by living up to these principles of the Agreement since 1998 that we have achieved an enduring peace and a priceless opportunity for a truer reconciliation on this island.
But, clearly today there is no room for complacency.
There is a way to go if we really are to not just acknowledge, but fully accommodate and celebrate our different identities on this island:
- The power-sharing and North South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are, once-again, not fully functioning, which is a critical absence that must be resolved;
- People in Northern Ireland - unionists, nationalist and others - do have genuine concerns about the outworkings of Brexit, and its impacts in practical terms;
These need to be worked on sincerely by all with responsibilities, on the basis of real partnership under the Good Friday Agreement and the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland. That will remain the Irish Government’s approach.
- And, while there has been a transformation of attitudes, still today, we see appalling instances of abuse of others’ cultural or national identity;
We must all stand together to not only condemn such behaviour, but to render it unacceptable in our communities, at any time or place.
I have no doubt that we can.
Society doesn’t stand still.
And it has transformed for the better in recent years in other ways too.
Ethnic minority and new communities today comprise 15% of the island’s population.
With their contributions in all aspects of life, our communities are greatly enhanced.
They are Irish, British, both or of other nationalities.
The Good Friday Agreement belongs to all who share this island.
And - as we have seen across this Shared Island Dialogue series - the perspectives of minority communities inform and enrich how we look at our relationships across the board on this island.
Helping us to see for instance, that colours - black, white, green, orange - don’t adequately describe any community, or anyone. We are all more diverse and complex than that.
We do, I believe, need to reflect in the South on how we could engage more positively and proactively with unionist and loyalist cultural traditions.
And indeed, with the diversity of British identity more broadly, after a century of independence.
And in Northern Ireland, respect and tolerance for linguistic and cultural diversity requires continued political leadership and attention, and the support of the two Governments as co-guarantors of the Agreement.
It is important also to acknowledge the growing numbers of people in Northern Ireland who don’t identify with either unionist or nationalist traditions.
And to recognise too that people, generally, are ahead of the politics of the peace process.
They know that identity isn’t a political contest - its a personal construct. An accident of birth, experience and individual make-up.
And, as Patrick Kielty said memorably at a Shared Island event last December:
“The vast majority of people in the north no longer look at things through a binary prism. They’re getting on with their lives - and each other.”
The same is true across this island. So, we can look to the future with hope.
The real political contest is one of ideas.
Of how we can best reach solutions on common challenges and concerns: like equality of opportunity; mental health; and, climate action.
I recall from our previous Shared Island Dialogue with young people that they want to see these concerns far more to the fore in how we work on this island through the Good Friday Agreement.
I am sure that will be part of today’s discussion.
In recent years, we have achieved important, overdue progress, North and South, on a more equal society, that takes better account of our diverse personal identities.
And we have the benefit of the rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, including incorporation in law of the European Convention on Human Rights.
These rights and protections must not be eroded, but developed over time. To provide for equality and freedom from discrimination, in real terms, for everyone.
Gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and ability are among the important dimensions of our personal identities - that make us each who we are.
But personal identity should have no impact for how we can each make our way in society and reach our potential.
That requires continuing political leadership and concrete actions by governments, to ensure that there is no tolerance of discrimination, racism or other forms of prejudice.
Here too, we could have far more beneficial exchange and cooperation on this island - in government, as there is in already civil society.
Respect and accommodation of our inherent diversity as individuals is fundamental to a healthy, prosperous, happy society.
And what we need to do to achieve a truly inclusive, equal, plural society is an ever-evolving conversation.
It is a discussion that young people naturally lead, as reflected in today’s Dialogue.
We have seen profound, positive changes in recent decades on how we address national, cultural and personal identity, and we need to sustain that in the time ahead.
Acknowledgement of the legitimate diversity of identities on this island was critical to reaching the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
And with peace and the principles of the Agreement, we have created the space to not just acknowledge, but to fully harness and genuinely celebrate our different identities.
In arts and culture, North and South;
In our schools, colleges and universities;
In media and social media;
In sports clubs and community halls;
In our laws and politics;
In hearts and minds.
The views and actions of young people will be fundamental to how that space is used in the years ahead.
I am sure that today’s Dialogue on Identity will see inspiring contributions and commitment by young people to this most important dimension of how we build a shared, reconciled future on this island, founded on the Good Friday Agreement.