Conference of the European Ministers of Culture - 20 - 22 October 2003 - Opatija, Croatie 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Speech by the Rt Hon Estelle Morris MP, Minister for the Arts of the United Kingdom

Opatija, 20 October 2003

Working session 1: Culture and conflicts
From conflict to reconciliation : examples of good practice

Northern Ireland: from Conflict to Reconciliation, an example of good practice

I am delighted to attend this important conference and to have the opportunity of visiting Croatia, and especially one of its most attractive coastal towns, Opatija.

As some of you may know, we in the United Kingdom had the pleasure of hosting Prime Minister Racan during in his recent visit to London in September, and it is a great pleasure to renew again my acquaintance with our Croatian friends.

Today, I would like to speak to you about Northern Ireland.  For many years Northern Ireland was seen as an intractable problem.  A problem which persisted despite many attempts at a political settlement. I believe that there are lessons in our experience that can contribute to the process of reconciliation between former conflict states in this region.

Until relatively recently it would have seemed impossible to speak about Northern Ireland, as I am doing today, under the heading from Conflict to Reconciliation.

Yet that is where we are today. Northern Ireland is not the place it was. It has changed immeasurably, and for the better.

I am very proud of my Government's achievements, in partnership with the Irish Government, in pushing forward - often in very difficult circumstances - the Northern Ireland Peace Process. It is one of our greatest achievements.

I am not saying that everything in Northern Ireland is perfect. It is not. And we still face political and security problems.  But the situation is very much improved. 

Peace has taken root in Northern Ireland and my Government is determined that it should flourish.

When talking about Northern Ireland it is often difficult to know where to begin.  I could go back 600 years - when some people say the origins of conflict in Ireland began. 

Suffice to say that history - or rather how different communities see and interpret "their " history - is critical to understanding how divisions begin and grow. 

The lack of a shared history has contributed to the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a relatively small place.  It has a population of just over 1.6 million. 

The place has great beauty.  The people are friendly and generous. 

They are famed for their industry, hospitality, education and great wit. 

But Northern Ireland has been a divided community.  Divided between those who see themselves as British and want to preserve their Britishness, and those who want to see their identity expressed in terms of their Irishness. 

It is not the case that the conflict in Northern Ireland is due to religion, although it is very easy to see how this could be construed.

It is true to say that most of those in Northern Ireland who want to emphasise their Britishness are from the Protestant tradition, and that most of those who want to emphasise their Irishness are from the Roman Catholic tradition.  But people are not fighting over their God. 

Religion is not the main issue. 

The issue is more one of culture and national identity.  A desire to have ones feelings of culture, tradition and identity recognised and accepted by others.

For too long in Northern Ireland cultural differences were seen as divisive. 

Culture and identity were causes of division and used divisively. 

Instead of being a source of great richness, cultural differences often manifested themselves in sectarianism and violence.  Most recently in the period since 1968, which is euphemistically, called the Troubles.

In the past 35 years over 3,700 were killed in the name of one side or the other.  This includes members of the security forces, various terrorist groups and civilians.  Over 50% of those who died were civilians.

Ordinary people, going about their business in a modern western society, and killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Northern Ireland has paid an appalling human price for the divisions which were so earnestly fought over during the past 35 years.

However, Northern Ireland is a very different place today. 

In 1972 alone almost 500 people lost their lives due to the conflict.

Last year, it was in single figures. This is still too many and adds sadly to the legacy of pain and grief which already exists.

In economic terms things are also improving.  Northern Ireland has seen
a stunning reversal in economic performance.

Since 1998:
Around 125,000 new jobs have been created.
The unemployment rates has fallen from 7.3% to around 4%
Manufacturing output has risen by over 9%
in the 10 years to 1999, the real GDP per head in Northern Ireland increased by over 20%, - higher than the rest of the UK
Exports have doubled over the past 10 years
Tourism has increased from only 435,000 in the 1970s to 1.74 million in 2001.

Culture and the peace process
Culture, in its widest sense, is also playing a significant role in helping to bridge Northern Ireland's historic divisions and to make the lifes of its people more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Anyone who has been to Belfast recently has only to contrast that city's recent dark past with the exciting and forward looking city which now hosts major sports, music and arts events. Across Northern Ireland, theatres, museums, galleries, and arts and music festivals are a source of pleasure and intellectual enrichment. In Belfast's world class Odyssey Centre,  the  Belfast Giants, Northern Ireland's leading ice hockey team, thrill and inspire young and old from all traditions; and across Northern Ireland the small but growing ethnic minority communities are invigorating and enriching the life of the wider community. 

Only recently, I had the pleasure to read Belfast City Council's recent strategic plan for the arts. That strategy document states that:
'Culture and arts are fundamental to creating an inclusive society both by widening accessibility and encouraging understanding and tolerance between culturally diverse people; culture and arts activities facilitate individual development, and build self-reliance, improving self-esteem and personal fulfillment; and Cultural activity can also strenghten community networks and provide a strong social focus.

These are views which my minsiterial colleagues and I would strongly endorse.

The peace process means that some who left during the bad times are now returning to be a part of the new Northern Ireland.

Relative peace and stability in Northern Ireland has brought enormous benefits, both human and economic.

Perhaps I should say something about how the peace process in Northern Ireland was achieved.

The single most important event was the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.  This was the culmination of long and difficult negotiation between political parties and the Governments of both the UK and Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement recognises and enshrines the existence of the two main cultural traditions in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK and will remain so for as long as the people of Northern Ireland want this to be so.   However, within this arrangement the aspirations of the nationalist community have been recognised in the form of cross- border (all Ireland) institutions. 

The democratic principle is transparent for all to see.

A culture of Human Rights is at the very heart of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. 

In Northern Ireland, "Rights" is and must be a living issue. We need to ensure that the protection and promotion of human rights reflects the constantly changing world that we live in.

This is why, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government created a Human Rights Commission and asked it to examine the scope for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and more specifically a framework of rights that reflect the particular needs of Northern Ireland.

We have also reformed the police service and are doing the same with the criminal justice system. Everyone in Northern Ireland must have complete confidence in the agencies concerned with the rule of law.

The key priorities for law enforcement in Northern Ireland are paramilitarism, organised crime and sectarianism.

These issues are crucial for the future success of cross-community partnership in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has moved significantly away from conflict towards reconciliation.

The peace process is however a process - and that means that it is on going. 

The basic political accommodation is in place but there is still work to address the sectarianism which pervades many aspects of society in Northern Ireland. 

Sectarianism exists based on old fears and perceptions and it must be rooted out.

It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that the fear and mistrust of the "other side" which have build up over many generations can be resolved quickly. 

Perhaps something, which took generations to create, will take a new generation to resolve.

We are determined that the community healing which has started must continue.

We are helping the people of Northern Ireland to build a more tolerant and trusting society based on the talents and skills of everyone there rather than the perceptions and fears of the past.

We want Northern Ireland to move completely from conflict to reconciliation.  And I believe that this is now an achievable prospect.

The alternative is a return to violence, a return to conflict over reconciliation.

The people of Northern Ireland have come this far. We are determined to do want we must do to complete the transformation which has already begun.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve nothing less than our full Commitment to achieving that.