Forgiveness plays central and necessary part in reconciliation – Irish president

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People and societies taking the “risk of forgiving” may be key to forging lasting reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the Irish president has said.

Michael D Higgins reflected on the challenges of forgiving as he delivered a lecture in Belfast to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Higgins also used the speech at Queen’s University to stress the urgent need to move the stalled peace deal from the “hard shoulder” and intensify efforts to restore Stormont powersharing.

Hailing the achievement of 1998, the president described the implementation of the agreement as a “work in progress”.

“Indeed, as Northern Ireland continues to operate without an Executive, in some respects the Agreement is work which has been stalled,” he added.

“It is therefore essential that we remind ourselves and reaffirm that the Good Friday Agreement, with all its imperfections and creativity, represents the best hope for all of our people, North and South.

“That is why it is now important and urgent to find a way, in Dublin and London, but above all here in Northern Ireland, to move away from the hard shoulder where the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement presently finds itself and to start moving together again along our shared journey, and to do so with generosity.”

Noting the “terrible and heinous acts” of the Troubles, Mr Higgins said he offered his approach to forgiveness with “some trepidation”.

“Forgiveness plays a central and necessary part in reconciliation,” he said.

“I acknowledge that it is very easy to say that. Some are asked to pay a very high price when they are called to forgive, a great hurt that cannot be expelled from their memory, but their achievement is all the greater.”

The president was delivering the sixth annual Harri Holkeri lecture – an event named in honour of the late Finnish statesman who played a role in peace process talks in Northern Ireland. It was hosted by the university’s Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.

President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins is live at Queen’s. Tune in and join the conversation.

Posted by Queen’s University Belfast on Tuesday, May 29, 2018

“If this is true for the individual, then perhaps it can also be true for societies, and this of course was at the centre of Bishop Tutu’s thinking in his thoughts as to how to construct a decent future for the people of South Africa following the years of brutality and atrocities,” he said.

“Forgiveness cannot occur without a commitment to remember, as difficult as it may be, the actions of the past. I therefore welcome the launch earlier this month of the British Government’s consultation on Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past. The full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, of which the consultation forms part, will be an important step towards on-going reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”

The president also spoke on Brexit, expressing his “great regret” at the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

“Although this is a process that did not originate on our island – the majority of people in Northern Ireland did not favour the decision – it has thrown up profound and testing questions in the context of the interests, identity and aspirations on this island,” he said.

“I would be dishonest if I did not express great regret at the decision of the British people in 2016. However, I wish to emphasise today that irrespective of the manner in which the challenge of Brexit is resolved it will be more essential than ever in the years ahead to work to maintain the new and deep friendships which have developed between Britain and Ireland, and between North and South, in the context of both our existing shared membership of the European Union and of the Peace Process.

“I want to particularly emphasise one point regarding Brexit, because it is a point which is sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented. In the Brexit negotiations the core aim of the Irish Government relating to relationships on these islands, an aim which I share, is to preserve the provisions and principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

“This is not a straightforward task because the Brexit process necessarily, in some respects, unpicks what was painstakingly woven together. My point is simply to emphasise the importance of manifesting and acknowledging good faith on this sensitive question.”

He added: “Our Peace Process, and the Good Friday Agreement, remain extraordinary examples to the world that peace can be built and that it can, with the necessary ethical intent and purpose, be sustained.

“We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to continue that effort here on this island, to sustain British-Irish relations and to continue to promote the lessons of the Peace Process: that international agreements with all their imperfections must be respected; that the most important step towards defending our own interests is to be sensitive to the interests of others; that there can be no respect of identity or aspirations which is not mutual; that complexity in international affairs
is inevitable and is to be celebrated, not disdained; and that compromise, when forged through deliberation in the public sphere, is a virtue not a vice.

“Being open to imagining, achieving the ethical purpose of remembering, taking the risk of forgiving, leads to a virtuous discourse that for future generations enjoying peace together will deserve to be in time celebrated and remembered.”

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