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Thank you, President Metsola, dear Roberta,
President Michel, dear Charles,
Representatives of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland,
25 years ago, the leaders of Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK made the impossible come true. For years, every attempt to broker peace had failed. At Easter in 1998, when a new proposal was put on the table, the talks were once again on the verge of collapse. It felt like Northern Ireland could return to violence. It took the courage and vision of some extraordinary leaders to cross the finish line. But this success was not only made at the negotiating table, in places such as Hillsborough Castle. At the time, outside the castle, a small crowd of school children had gathered, with their parents and teachers. They came from Catholic and Protestant families. And they carried balloons and signs with two simple words: ‘Peace, please'. It was a stark reminder of what was at stake in those negotiations: Not only different identities, ideals and allegiances but the future of children in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement has delivered on the simple demand of those children. With 25 years of peace. 25 years of possibilities. So today we celebrate brave leaders, like John Hume and David Trimble, who came from opposing sides and ended up sharing a Nobel Peace Prize. And we also celebrate all the peace-loving people of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the unsung heroes of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement not only ended 30 years of the Troubles. It also opened a new era of cooperation. As the first line of the Agreement says, it is ‘the opportunity for a new beginning' for the two communities and the two islands. And it was, indeed, a new beginning. In these 25 years, Northern Ireland has taken giant steps forward, also thanks to European support. Checkpoints have been replaced with sport venues and schools. Just recently, a wall was torn down in West Belfast, to make room for an EU-funded community centre. Of course, many other walls still stand. Not all wounds have been healed. While a peace deal can be signed with a stroke of a pen, reconciliation is always the work of generations. But as one of Northern Ireland's greatest sons, Van Morrison, said: ‘For the healing, go on with the dreaming.' And this is what makes the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement so important. Beyond the letter, and the spirit, there is the promise of a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Sadly, the Brexit referendum raised new challenges for both the letter, the spirit and the promise of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. Since 2016, everyone in our Union has worked hard to avoid that Brexit became an obstacle on the path of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. This journey was never smooth. But our goal is now finally in sight. As a set of joint solutions under the Withdrawal Agreement, the Windsor Framework continues to support the letter, the spirit and the promise of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. It preserves our precious Single Market. It preserves Northern Ireland's integral place in the United Kingdom's internal market. And crucially, it preserves the foundations of peace, by avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. I want to thank the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, for his can-do approach. Together we are staying true to the Good Friday promise: That never again will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland.
All of this is an immense opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland. They will have the same food on their supermarket shelves and the same access to medicines as in the rest of the UK. And they will continue to have unique access to our Single Market, that is, the most powerful driver of growth all across our continent. Everyone in Northern Ireland will benefit from this. Whether they identify as Irish, British, Northern Irish, European – or a combination of these. So I can only hope that rationality will once again prevail. Just like it did some 25 years ago.
Thanks to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, there is a whole generation of young people in Northern Ireland who were born and raised in peace. Who will not accept to go back to the problems of the past, who just want to live a full life. They understand better than anyone else that peace and prosperity were not achieved once and for all on that Good Friday, a quarter of a century ago. Peace and prosperity must be re-won, day after day, generation after generation. So today, we do not just gather for a commemoration but for a new commitment, to keep working for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, in spite of all setbacks, for the next 25 years and way beyond. The UK may have left our Union but peace remains the European promise.
Long live Europe.
- Publication date
- 29 March 2023
- Representation in Ireland