Remarks by Minister of StateTom Kitt T.D., Messines International School for Peace Studies, 6 June 2003
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Minister Landuyt, [Ambassadors], Fellows of the Messines International School for Peace Studies, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you sincerely for the warm welcome and fascinating discussions which we enjoyed here today.
The Conference's theme of ‘Building the Peace' is one which certainly provided speakers with ample food for thought, and I deeply appreciate the work which has gone into the development of the Peace School and the Fellowship of Messines.
Encountering the landscape of Flanders for the first time today, and particularly from the vantage point provided by Messines Ridge, in both geographical and metaphorical terms, I am reminded of the words of a contemporary historian and literary critic, Declan Kiberd. He suggested that the problems which we have encountered in our shared history on the island of Ireland cannot be resolved by any single gesture, no matter how bold or imaginative it might be. Rather, “their harsh contours can be softened by a steady chipping-away at the lies fostered by simplified versions of history”.
The simplified versions of history which might have been regarded as acceptable in the past have been exposed in recent times for their inadequacy on a number of fronts. This chipping away did not take place all at once, but played an incremental part in the building of the peace among the people of the island of Ireland, and in the emergence of our communities from conflict, after a cycle of ongoing violence and loss.
The development of that process has many milestones in its circuitous, and on the down days, apparently circular route, but I believe the sea-change represented by the inauguration ceremony at the Messines Peace Park profoundly affected everyone on the island.
For us in the South, the images from this place which we saw that day in November 1998, and the emotions which we heard expressed, encapsulated the maturity and self-confidence which meant that we were able to belatedly articulate our sorrow and our regret. We could remember the fallen and give official recognition to those who died and the indescribable slaughter which took place in the Great War.
Messines has reached forward as a catalyst throughout Irish society since its inauguration. It has brought with it a new awareness of what President McAleese herself described on that
day, a recognition that “The suppression of memory, the withholding of respect has hurt all sides, twisting our perspectives and skewing relationships from generation to generation”.
Little by little, tin boxes and envelopes in attics throughout Ireland have again been opened. Medals and letters have been found and re-read. Day by day, the legacy of the many thousands from the island of Ireland who fought and died in the Great War is being commemorated in families and communities. There are many stories which are only now being heard and re-told.
This process has not been a straightforward one, but the changed times in which we live have made its challenge more easy to take on. We have been facilitated by the culture of consensus and mutual respect which is developing on the island, and which found its most complete and fluent expression in the Good Friday Agreement.
The shared culture which we are building is allowing us to come first to a new and more comprehensive accommodation with the past, and, slowly, to move to a more profound appreciation of all that makes up our shared present.
Our shared present is rich and various enough to accommodate a republican mayor of Belfast whose professed aim was to reach out to unionism, and who came to a place like this one to give expression to the reverence which he felt for the sacrifices of those who fought here and in places like it throughout Europe.
It is also rich enough to appreciate another young Dubliner, Corporal Ian Malone, who, having served in the FCA, made a decision to become a professional soldier in the British Army. His sacrifice was accorded the greatest of respect on both sides of the Border, after he lost his life in the recent conflict in Iraq.
The richly emblematic image of Messines has been at the forefront of our developing encounter with the past and the future. It has become a touchstone location to which we turn for its symbolic and practical value.
The stones of the round tower in the peace park have built more than the eye can see. They are, even now, re-building and re-shaping mindsets throughout the island.
Senator George Mitchell, in his report published in 1996, recognised that above all, the decommissioning of mindsets was what was really needed. And our experience has taught us that mindsets are fostered in communities – what more fitting testament to the vision of the founders of the Messines projects than the community workers and community builders who are now graduating from its peace school.
The work being undertaken here mirrors in many ways the undertakings of the Governments, and, for my own part, I can say that the hours which I have spent co-chairing meetings on the ongoing challenges posed by issues such as Community Relations, Victims issues and Human Rights have been among the most absorbing, yet rewarding, I have known.
The Joint Declaration, recently published by the British and Irish Governments, offers a shared way forward to the completion of the implementation of the Agreement. It takes the
pledges of the Agreement and carries them out into deprived communities and areas where the Agreement has not yet fulfilled its promise of peace and prosperity. It recognises the need for a strong commitment to the development of communities which have a history of social need, and offers the prospect of support where it is most required, including in the community and voluntary sectors.
The developing Fellowship of Messines, which offers ex-prisoners from both loyalist and republican backgrounds an opportunity to study conflict resolution and mediation skills is a powerfully resonant project. It captures the best of what we have learnt and are learning from our shared experience of the Great War, and puts it into practice for the communities experiencing division and conflict today. Similarly, the financial support which has been forthcoming from so many sources for the work of Messines bears witness to the persuasive power of peace-building, in the hands of such people as Glen Barr and Denis Rowan, who have been strongly supported in their endeavours by the people of Mesen/Messines, and the Flemish Government too, represented here today by Minister Landuyt.
The determination and commitment which has marked the developments in this area, from the initial Journey of Reconciliation Trust to the Peace Hostel and the Peace School, is more than ever required now, at this time of political uncertainty, which is fraught with many dangers, not least in the communities in which the fellows of Messines are working.
The iconic images of Messines should challenge us to continue to move towards real reconciliation – and here I am conscious that Seamus Heaney once described reconciliation as a policy word, which has become official and public. But that is only part of its meaning. A true reconciliation would allow us not to plunder the past for recriminations, but to look to it as a source of instruction and of building materials for the present. And that mine of materials should be quarried all the more carefully now that we have already come a long way along the road to mutual respect and understanding through our peace building.
The importance of symbols in peace building is not lost on those of us who are standing here today – symbols help to define our sense of self and place, our standing within the community, and our appearance to those outside.
Messines has the rare distinction of being one of the shared symbols of the island of Ireland. It is important for what it says to us all about the shared physical work which went into building and landscaping the tower and the peace park. But its importance also extends into the shared imagining and thinking and discussing that is now such a vital part of the growing vision of this place.
Today I heard honest robust discussions about building the peace which would have been beyond our imaginations only a few short years ago. The graduates and fellows of the peace school, as well as those of us who were privileged to be here today, will bring to their communities a dialogue of mutual respect, a dialogue based on awareness and knowledge, not on simplified half-truths which are somehow always easier to hear. By listening only to one version of history, we lose the vast kaleidoscope of sometimes contradictory and conflicting stories which make up our shared past.
In his poem, Strange Meeting, the War poet Wilfred Owen issued a sharp rebuke. His words remind us of the reality of what was lost, both by the generation on Messines ridge, and by successive generations on the island of Ireland since then. He wrote:
‘Strange friend,' I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.'
‘None,' said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope was yours,
Was my life also.'
Such a sacrifice can never again be tolerated. Such intolerance as was part of our shared past can never again be tolerated. Building the peace together has taught us that we can never go back to the ‘undone years' or the hopelessness.
Let us continue to build the peace together.