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Remarks by President Michael D Higgins to British Irish Parliamentary Assembly members, Aras An Uachtarain

Added 14-May-2012

Good evening co-chairs, members, ladies and gentlemen

I'm delighted to welcome you to Áras an Uachtaráin this evening to celebrate the 44th plenary conference of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Tá áthas an domhain orm fáilte a chur rompu anseo go Áras an Uachtaráin anocht chun ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar 44ú comhdháil iomlán de Thionól Pharlaiminteach na Breataine agus na hÉireann.

I would particularly like to welcome the co-chairs of the Assembly, Mr. Laurence Robertson M.P. and Deputy Joe McHugh. I understand that you have had a busy day of meetings and debates, with a further session tomorrow, and I trust that these discussions - in the chamber of Seanad Eireann - have been illuminating and constructive.

I know that the Assembly has a long and distinguished history, dating back to its foundation in 1990, as the British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Since then, few organisations have been more hardworking and dedicated in developing greater understanding between the people of these islands. The Assembly has been a key enabler in building partnerships, indeed friendships, and cooperation between the public representatives of the various legislative assemblies across Britain and Ireland.

I wish to pay tribute to that record of achievement. Much of the progress we have made in building closer links, in the context of the peace process as well as in cooperation more generally, would not have been possible without the dedication and perseverance of many of you here this evening, and of your predecessors, over very many years. I recall with great affection the period during the 30th Dail (2007-2011) when I served as a member of the Assembly, made and deepened many friendships and had the valuable opportunity to engage in stimulating debate - formal and informal - about British-Irish relations.

The relationship with Britain has, of course, always been a central focus of Irish political discourse, and vice versa. 100 years ago, Britain's Irish Question dominated debate in Westminster, while at home separation, home rule, independence, land and emigration dominated the discourse. Indeed, from this distance, it can sometimes be hard to credit quite how central this issue was. The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill, the centenary of which we marked last month, was a pivotal moment, not just in Irish history but one which resonated across the United Kingdom and, indeed, across the British Empire.

The Westminster debates on the Bill, involving such seminal historical figures as Herbert Asquith, Edward Carson, John Redmond and Andrew Bonar Law, set the stage for a series of events over the subsequent decade which led to the partition of Ireland, the formation of this State and a fundamental redefinition of British-Irish relations.

As we remember those events over the course of the coming years, we do so in a spirit of mutual respect, an acceptance of the inevitable diversity of narratives but above all, in appreciation of the shared nature of our history. These anniversaries give us the opportunity to reflect on the interconnectedness of our shared history and national identities, and I am determined that we will seize the positive opportunities which they afford us.

All of us have our own painful legacies from the past. Any attempt at imposing an amnesia on those memories will not be appropriate nor would it work - in fact, it would be counter-productive to the healing process. If, however, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the varying narratives and acknowledge the positive yield that will come from accepting both plurality and flexibility as principles, if we listen respectfully to all of them, we may in time be able to offer each other such an amnesty on the past - a pardon of memory, that allows us to work together on the common ground of the possibilities of the present and to build a better future for succeeding generations.

The relationship between Britain and Ireland since that has come out of turbulent periods has progressively evolved in a positive direction. The progress may not always have been linear and, as in any vital relationship, we may have differed - often profoundly - on certain key issues. Nevertheless, since independence, Ireland and Britain have always maintained close links, in the knowledge that our future, like our history, would be a shared one.

In recent decades, the progress made in strengthening the links between our countries, and deepening understanding between our peoples has been nothing short of memorable. Even when one contemplates the events that have taken place since the establishment of this Assembly 22 years ago, the list of momentous developments on the British-Irish landscape is quite awesome - the Downing Street Declaration, the IRA and Loyalist Ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement, the establishment of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the new policing dispensation in Northern Ireland, the St. Andrews Agreement and the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont. As each of these positive developments was eagerly anticipated and their realisation welcomed, this Assembly thoroughly debated all of the attendant issues and helped to create an enabling climate in which the key negotiating players were encouraged to do more, go further, take further risks, go on to take the next decisive steps for peace, political stability and better relations across these islands. This Assembly contributed, indeed shaped the wider political discourse which facilitated the transformations that were necessary to see and make the dream of peace a reality.

The relationship between Britain and Ireland is now truly a special one, increasingly marked by trust, equality and mutual respect. There can be no greater testament to this than the success of the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to Ireland, the first anniversary of which falls later this week. This was an historic milestone, but also part of an ongoing journey in a deepening of friendship, in which the Assembly has played - and, I am sure, will continue to play - a vital role.

It is very appropriate, I think, that we meet in this building which, in its rich history has symbolised the changing nature of the British-Irish relationship over many years. It has been the home of Viceroys and often visited by reigning monarchs - including Queen Victoria in 1849 when she planted the beautiful, majestic giant sequoia which can be seen in the gardens.

Since partition, it also has been the home of Governors General and Presidents. As the house typifies the changing relationship between Ireland and Britain, it is entirely appropriate and very gratifying to welcome all strands of political opinion and background under its roof this evening.

Much else has changed too in recent decades, not least in the establishment of devolved Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While the membership of the Assembly was confined, at its establishment, to members of the Oireachtas and Westminster only, it has demonstrated its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, reflected in its enlargement to incorporate representatives of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Isle of Man and the States of Guernsey and Jersey. It has served as an important instrument for communication between the parliaments based in Dublin and London but also, more widely, in opening new and valuable channels of communication between all of the Administrations on these islands.

For my part, I fully appreciate the centrality of the relationship between Ireland and our nearest neighbour. It was important to me that my first overseas visit as President was to London, a city with which I am very familiar. While there, I was privileged to meet with many individuals from all walks of life, Irish and British who, like you, have worked quietly but effectively over the years in bringing our peoples together.

Ó mo thaobhse, tuigim go maith an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an ngaol idir Éire agus ár gcomharsa béal dorais. Bhí sé tábhachtach dom gurbh é an turas go Londain an chéad turas thar lear a bhí agam mar Uachtarán. Táim an-tugtha don chathair chéanna. Nuair a bhí mé ann bhí sé de phribhléid agam buaileadh le daoine ó chúlraí éagsúla, idir Éireannaigh agus Sasanaigh, a d'oibrigh go ciúin ach go héifeachtach, cosúil libh féin, thar na mblianta chun muintir ár dtíortha a tharraingt le chéile.

It was a particular pleasure to present a Certificate of Irish Heritage to Lord Coe, whose great-grandfather hailed from Kilkenny, and to visit the Olympic Park site, which was a testimony to British-Irish cooperation, and to how companies from across the islands can work together for mutual benefit.

The London Olympics are a tremendous achievement, and a credit to the many individuals involved in the planning and preparation over the past years. But they also represent one of those special moments in which all of us, across these islands, can feel proud.

I am particularly glad that the Olympic Torch will travel to Ireland in advance of arrival at its final destination, and allow those who will not be able to attend the games in person to also share in the celebratory experience.

On that visit, I also spoke at the London School of Economics about the need to deepen democracy, and to consider how best we might revitalise the relationship between the institutions of State and our citizens. The importance of the work of the Assembly must also be seen in this civic context. The Assembly provides a unique opportunity to build relationships to enhance our understanding of each other, and the challenges we face together. The Assembly and its Committees have a proud record in addressing common issues that directly impact on the lives of all our citizens - as you are doing in this current session with your focus on health.

The debates, discussions and reports are important in themselves, but their true value lies outside the plenary session. What you learn and share over the course of the sessions must be used to inform and enhance the debates in your own legislative assemblies but also, more importantly, in your own communities.

The links you forge with each other as representatives of the people are enhanced through improving the links and deepening understanding between the people of these islands themselves. You have a great responsibility, but equally a great privilege, in guiding this process of building the nexus of contacts, communication and dialogue between the citizens of these islands.

Finally, while it is only right that we celebrate how far we have come, and how close and strong the relationships across these islands remain, we must not allow any complacency to dislodge our work or deflect from our efforts. We live in very difficult times, with economic uncertainties and challenges which demand extraordinary responses. The task of political leadership in such a climate is daunting, of course, but now more than ever the benefits the type of cooperation which the Assembly embodies becomes clear.

As you continue your work over the coming day, looking at how to make business easier between Ireland and Britain, I am sure that you will do so in a spirit of true cooperation, in the knowledge that that which benefits any part of these islands ultimately benefits us all. You will also do so in the knowledge that just as the Assembly demonstrated its capacity to make a vital contribution to the process of peace and reconciliation, it equally has the potential to play a key facilitating role in meeting the great collective challenge of our times - developing an economy that delivers growth and employment, is sustainable and accommodates all our people on the basis of justice and equal citizenship.

I would like to thank you for your work and for your fellowship with each other. I am delighted that you are here, hope you enjoy the rest of the evening and I wish you every success for the rest of the plenary and for the work of the Assembly into the future.



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