Tonight is not a night for soundbites and fortunately the hand of history is firmly on someone else’s shoulder.
A few brief reflections before introducing my friend Bertie [Ahern]. First, the Good Friday Agreement only happened because leaders took risks.
In politics, there are always a thousand reasons to stay put.
Parties, governments, even countries have their cherished traditions and positions – narratives and history.
And it is easier to stay with them because the status quo is a place of comfort, rather than to venture outside into the uncertain or unknown, in the pursuit of change.
Tonight we do celebrate the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
But you know every step of its making was debated, disputed and often denounced.
And tonight we mark it with honour. But I can tell you, 25 years ago this agreement only happened because leaders were prepared to put their leadership in peril for the good of their people. Because they ventured outside; their path led not by certainty because there wasn’t any certainty, but by their faith that the future could be different from the past.
An agreement for the Good Friday framework: it took months, there was those seemingly endless days and nights for the negotiation – but then it was a further nine years, let’s not forget, of hard slog before that day in April 2007 when Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, two sworn enemies, two people who for most of their adult lives would not have sat in the same room together, sat in government together.
And they did it because they recognised the difference between respecting your history and staying chained to it.
Second, we all worked together because when you put the collective shoulder to the wheel, the wagon moves faster. The parties, the two governments, the United States, with President Clinton and Senator Mitchell playing such a huge part in bringing about a successful agreement. And today, even now, Hillary [Clinton] as chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, how wonderful it is that you still commit yourself to this place and its people even today.
And we got unswerving solidarity and support from the European Union.
In British politics, when I was leader of the opposition, we supported John Major in the early but critical work on the peace process. And then when I was in government, the Conservative Party supported me, and just recently Keir Starmer lent his support to Rishi Sunak.
Working together works, but my final reflection is about the people of this island of Ireland. They are a remarkable people.
Just think of this island for a moment.
Centuries of bitterness and division and hatred, famine and war.
Then a partition, bitterly contested, then decades more of conflict. People asked how is Ireland ever going to escape from the crushing weight of its own history? But the people found a way.
Look at the Irish Republic today – vibrant, energised, globally admired, and with its Taoiseach, of Indian heritage like our own prime minister, and isn’t it wonderful when that cold ice of prejudice gets melted by the warm embrace of reason.
And then look at the North, here Ulster, look at the amazing cities of Belfast and Derry, the tech and the tourism, the companies and the culture – the North also found a way – and with all the challenges that still exist, which are immense – social, political, economic – I can tell you that Northern Ireland is a world away today from the Northern Ireland defined by bombs and bullets that I grew up with. So, the people of Northern Ireland are a remarkable people and as prime minister, I probably visited more than any prime minister before me.
I got to know the people. They’re people of strong convictions, even on occasion stubborn ones, but always redeemed by the qualities of good hearts and creative minds. Theirs is the true triumph in that Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – their character, their spirit.
And so to Bertie, my partner. He ventured outside the confines of his history. He led. We worked together. And the spirit of modern Ireland could not have had a better representative in that peace process than Bertie Ahern.
So, there we were, two fresh faced young prime ministers. On the eve of a new millennium. Bertie, his father a staunch republican, his grandfather a fighter for the Irish republicans, jailed. I don’t suppose there were many good words about the Brits in your family when you were growing up Bertie.
And my family on my mother’s side, from Donegal, of proud protestant stock. And my mother’s mother, my grandmother, who on her deathbed with Alzheimer’s, her one moment of final lucidity to me was “son, whatever else you do, don’t marry a catholic”, so I’m sorry Grandma. People change, times change. That’s how the history of human progress is written.
This speech was given at Hillsborough Castle & Gardens in Northern Ireland at a gala dinner hosted by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 19 April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.