By Ray O’Hanlon
The Northern Ireland peace process is imperfect and, in places, tensions between both communities are "worryingly high," but overall, Northern Ireland is more peaceful now than at any time for a generation, Ireland’s foreign minister, David Andrews, told the United Nations General Assembly last Saturday.
In delivering Ireland’s annual address to the opening session of the assembly, Andrews touched on a number of world issues, among them East Timor, where Irish troops are now part of a multinational peacekeeping force.
But this year’s address was also being seen as part of a broader campaign aimed at securing Ireland a seat on the UN Security Council in 2001.
With this in mind, Andrews took the opportunity to remind delegates from more than 180 nations that Ireland was currently contributing to eight peacekeeping operations worldwide and that over the years, 78 Irish peacekeepers had paid the highest price in the service of the UN.
But it was the peace process that formed the largest single component of the minister’s speech. He said that relations between the two parts of Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain, were now closer and more relaxed than they have ever been.
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"And the longer it continues, it is peace which becomes the norm," he said. "The people were always entitled to peace. Now they are coming to expect it. I am confident that no attempt to return to the full-scale violence of the past would win any meaningful support, or could be sustained for long. We have turned the corner and there must be no going back."
Andrews described the Patten Commission report on policing in Northern Ireland as "excellent and thorough." The Irish government, he said, now looked forward to playing its part in the report’s implementation.
In contrast, he expressed the Irish government’s disappointment that political institutions envisioned in the Good Friday agreement were not yet established.
"While there is disagreement among some political parties on the precise relationship between the formation of an inclusive Executive within Northern Ireland and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, there is no difference of view on the desirability of both objectives. However, there is persistent mutual distrust and lack of confidence, with doubts about future intentions continuing to linger."
With regard to the current review of the Good Friday accord, Andrews said that there was "no good reason" why it should fail. "I cannot believe that it is in the interests of anyone that it should fail," he said.
In a reference to Northern Ireland’s political leaders, Andrews said there was an onus on all political representatives to be generous and creative, to be prepared to offer leadership to their own constituencies while reaching out to others.
Andrews said that the full potential of the future could only be attained if the Good Friday agreement were implemented "as a totality." With regard to unionism, he said that those from the Irish nationalist tradition valued its unionist counterpart.
Unionism, was a "vital and irreplaceable strand" of the diversity of cultures and identities which made up Ireland as it really was.
"The future of Ireland can be, should be, and I believe will be, radically different. That is why the task of implementing the agreement should be completed now, and not left to another generation."
Andrews made a point of thanking the United States for its role in the search for a peaceful settlement. He singled out George Mitchell and President Clinton for particular mention. Clinton, he said, had stood steadfastly beside Ireland throughout the historic peace process.
During the course of his visit, Andrews has been meeting with dozens of foreign ministers as part of Ireland’s campaign to secure one of the rotating seats on the Security Council. Ireland last sat in the Security Council in 1982.
He also announced the establishing of diplomatic links with Cuba. Ireland’s first ambassador to Havana will be, according to an Irish Times report, Art Agnew, currently Irish ambassador to Argentina.
Agnew is soon to be Ireland’s first ambassador to Mexico and will cover relations with Havana from his base in Mexico City. Ireland’s diplomatic relations with Mexico are presently covered from the embassy in Washington.