B>By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — There was historic symbolism when British Prime Minister Tony Blair walked down the steps into the horseshoe-shaped Dail chamber last week as TDs and senators rose to give him a standing ovation. It represented a defining moment in relations between Britain and Ireland following the Good Friday peace deal.
The warm welcome in Leinster House Thursday followed a state banquet the night before when Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described Blair as a “true friend of Ireland.”
Blair began with a little Irish — “Go raibh mile maith agaibh” — while outside on Kildare Street 10 Republican Sinn Fein demonstrators handed out leaflets saying he was not welcome while British rule remained in any part of Ireland.
Blair said he felt “profoundly the enormity of the honor” in becoming the first British prime minister to address both houses of the Oireachtas — the 116-seat Dail and the 60-seat Seanad — since Ireland achieved independence from British rule in 1922.
He is also the first leader who is not head of state to have been accorded the distinction.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
He was greeted by Ceann Comhairle, or Chairman, Seamus Pattison who said he doubted if any member of either house would have envisioned the day when a British prime minister would be addressing the Oireachtas. It was a coming of age in relationships between the two countries.
He said it was a momentous occasion for him and the highlight of his time as a public representative.
“Today is a significant step forward in the history of these islands,” he said.
Looking down from the distinguished visitors’ gallery was Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, and Nobel Prize winner John Hume. In the chamber was Caoimhghin O’Caolain, the only Sinn Fein TD in the Republic.
Also watching were leading members of the diplomatic corps, Mrs. Cherie Blair and the taoiseach’s partner, Celia Larkin.
For the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland there was little news about tangible progress in his speech despite its upbeat theme that the momentum was being maintained.
He said it was now time for all the parties to live up to all their commitments.
It was time, he said, to set up the North-South bodies, for decommissioning to start, and to establish the institutions of government in the North.
Blair had arrived in Dublin from Belfast after a round of talks that failed to produce a breakthrough, and he admitted the peace process was “at a difficult juncture”.
But, he continued: “I have been optimistic the whole way through — and I am optimistic now. Politics is replacing violence as the way people do business.
“I am not asking anyone to surrender. I am asking everyone to declare the victory of peace.”
Blair stressed the “irredeemable” links between Britain and Ireland and harked back to his Irish roots.
His mother was born above her grandmother’s hardware shop on the main street in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal.
“She lived there as a child, started school there and only moved when her father died, her mother remarried and they crossed the water to Glasgow,” Blair said.
He learned to swim on Donegal beaches during summer holidays in Rossnowlagh when he was young and his father brought him to a pub there for the first time.
There was, he said, “so much shared history, so much shared pain. And now the shared hope of a new beginning.”
He urged people not to be prisoners of history but to put their troubled past behind them and build a better future.
“We need not be prisoners of our history,” he said. “No one should ignore the injustices of the past, or the lessons of history. But too often between us, one person’s history has been another person’s myth.”
He said the old ways are changing between the two countries, with Britain emerging from its “post-Empire malaise” and a modern, confident Ireland.
“We have both grown up now,” he said. “A new generation is in power in each country. We now have a real opportunity to put our relations on a completely new footing, not least through working together in Europe.
“This can spur the change and healing in Northern Ireland too. The old notions of unionist supremacy and narrow nationalism are gradually having their fingers prised from their grip on the future.