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The Good Friday Agreement holds strong.

Image Credit: By Tariq A. Al Maeena, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

As an Irish politician, and indeed, as an Irish person, the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 remains one of the most profound moments in modern history. It also represents the absolute best of the British-Irish relationship. Its implementation serves as a living demonstration of what we can achieve by working together in the interests of everyone on both these islands.

Last Wednesday, I spoke in New York, alongside Senator George Mitchell, who chaired those famous talks, where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Agreement. This was the first of many events to offer a chance to look back on what was achieved and ahead to what remains to be done.

It is a time for all of us to re-commit to the principles at the core of the Good Friday Agreement - equality, mutual respect, partnership, reconciliation, tolerance and trust. All very nice-sounding words, but hard to put into real, lasting effect in a post-conflict and still-divided society. So we will need to recapture some of the energy, hope and optimism that has unfortunately ebbed in the intervening years.

The difficulties in finding an agreement to form an Executive in Northern Ireland and the inevitable tensions of the Brexit negotiations make it easy to be cynical or despondent. We will not go down that path. Nor will we give credence to those who - even in recent days - glibly claim that the Agreement has failed or outlived its utility. That is not true. And such reckless talk, disregarding the history and evolution of peace in Northern Ireland, cannot go unchallenged.

It is in these times of difficulty and turmoil that the genius and the ambition of the Agreement are most needed. That is not simply idealism: It is democratic politics.

We hear a lot these days about respect for the will of the people. It is worth highlighting, then, the results of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Then, 71.1 per cent voted in favour of the Agreement in Northern Ireland and 94.4 per cent in the rest of the island endorsed the change to the Irish Constitution, which was required as part of the Agreement. People had before them the full detail of the Agreement, with all of its complexity and compromise, and gave their verdict. The people didn't just speak, they shouted. And they said 'Yes'.

They said 'Yes' to a new beginning, not because we have forgotten the past, but because we remember it all too well. The people of Ireland - particularly those in Northern Ireland - were the ones most profoundly affected by the Troubles. They validated the 1998 Agreement and it belongs to them.

The Irish Government, together with the Government of the United Kingdom, guarantees that Agreement in all its parts and in all circumstances. Its protection and implementation constitute a solemn duty, which is not distracted or diverted by short-term political challenges or political expediency. It can be no other way because at the heart of all of this is a set of relationships between islands and people, none of whom are going anywhere. Unionist or nationalist, British or Irish, northerner or southerner, we are going to have to find sustainable ways to live together in peace. We have seen what it is like when we live in conflict. That must never happen again.

The Good Friday Agreement encompasses the relationships, the principles, the structures and the vision that will guide us through this present impasse. It will guide us, too, when the UK departs the European Union but Ireland remains - when our two countries will remain deeply inter-twined economically, socially and culturally in so many ways.

Twenty years ago, the Irish Government became the proud co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We stand steadfastly behind it, the implementation agreements that followed and the principles embodied in those texts. They were all written and agreed upon in a spirit of concord and hope.

Let us continue together in that spirit, building a future that is peaceful, reconciled and alive with potential. Let us never lose the hope, promise and optimism we found on a cold day in April, 20 years ago.

- The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018

Simon Coveney is also Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 24, 2018
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