President delivers the 2018 Annual Harri Holkeri Lecture

Tue 29th May, 2018 | 11:30
location: Queens University Belfast

Queens University Belfast

Tuesday, 29th May, 2018

Address at the Sixth Annual Harri Holkeri Lecture

Queen's University Belfast, 29 May 2018

President and Vice Chancellor,

Deputy Lieutenant,        


Honorary Consul,

Distinguished guests,

May I begin by thanking you, Minister, for your very warm introduction. I am honoured to join you all today to deliver this, the 6th Harri Holkeri lecture. May I commend Queen’s University and the Finnish Embassy in London for their collaboration on this important lecture series.  There could be no more appropriate way of remembering Harri Holkeri, a good friend of these islands and a man of peace, than to consecrate a moment each year in his memory to a reflection on the resolution of conflict.

And there could be no more appropriate organiser for such an event than the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice, an institute which bears the name of another great peacemaker and friend of Ireland who worked so closely with Harri and with General John de Chastelain to help to bring the gift of peace to our islands. To this distinguished triumvirate Harri brought his characteristic wit, intellect, and considerable political wisdom, accumulated over many years of service to his native Finland. His memory will always remain near to the hearts of all those who sought, and continue to seek, an enduring peace not only on our own islands, but in other places too.  

It is a pleasure to return to Queen’s University again. I have very fond memories of working with distinguished colleagues from this university during my academic career, and, in more recent times, of addressing an International Meeting of the Institute of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice held here four years ago. Since its foundation one hundred and seventy years ago, Queen’s University has been an important place of learning not only for Belfast and Ireland, but internationally, and it continues to uphold this tradition of scholarship to this day.

Our future, on these islands and on this planet, depends in a very significant measure, on the quality of courageous reflection we bring to present circumstances and anticipated futures. This in turn depends, inter alia, on the teaching, learning and scholarly endeavour being carried out in universities. For it is in places of learning such as this that old and sometimes stale orthodoxies can be challenged. It is in universities that long-held assumptions can be put to the test, even overturned, and it is in institutions such as this that the pluralist intellectual work that can generate policy for the future will be forged, whether it is in the social sciences, the natural sciences, or the humanities.

This university, perhaps more than many others, is aware of how together with the extraordinary opportunities given to teachers and students comes a concomitant duty to transform knowledge and thought into positive action. After all, Queen’s University shares the motto of the City of Belfast, ‘Pro tanto quid retribuamus’ – ‘For so much, what shall we give back?’.

This lecture series is very much in that spirit. I am very aware that in making this address I follow in the footsteps of some very distinguished speakers: Tarja Halonen, a former President of Finland; the former First Minister, Arlene Foster; Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed; Senator Mitchell; and of course, my friend Martti Ahtisaari, whose commitment to peace has been truly global.

All these previous speakers have taken as their departure point the continuing task of pursuing peace. A reminder, if any were needed, that peace is a process, not an event, one that requires persistent and dedicated attention and effort. In this process, words are, as Vaclav Havel memorably said, important – words that can wound, words that can heal. In such a circumstance while we must draw on reason and intellectual services for acuity, it is necessary for us also to summon the very best of our moral, even healing, instincts, as we attempt to choose our words carefully and precisely. However, these chambers from which words come include their own challenge – what and how to remember, the content of collective memory, its use and abuse, and perhaps the need for what Ulrich Beck has called a necessary ambivalence about the past.

This occasion today, in this the twentieth year since the Good Friday Agreement, provides me with an opportunity to offer some of my own personal reflections on our own shared history on these islands, in all its complexity and diversity, and, as we continue in contemporary times with our efforts to take the text of the Agreement, seeking to make of it a living practice of peace and reconciliation.

I would also like to reflect on a number of concepts which are so vital to that effort, ‘remembering, forgiving, forgetting, and imagining’. These are concepts that I addressed at this university four years ago, and to which I returned when I spoke on the task of ‘ethical remembering’ at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in 2015, and again at the Corrymeela Community in 2016, and so perhaps it is appropriate that it isto Queen’s University that I have come again to offer further reflection, even revision, and close the circle as it were.

In speaking of remembering and forgetting, I am aware that I am speaking in a university with a long tradition in the teaching of Irish history. It is sometimes forgotten that it was a most distinguished Professor of History at this university, James Eadie Todd, who laid the groundworks for a renaissance in the writing of Irish history, one that interrogated many of the assumptions of what was often thought of as a nationalist canon.

Some of James Eadie Todds’ students would go on to play a very important role in what his most famous protégé, T.W. Moody, would later call the ‘demythologisation of Irish history’. One does not have to entirely sympathetic to the particular revisionist perspective proposed by that school of historiographical thought to recognise that it was an important scholarly endeavour, important not only as a contribution to the study of history but important because, in its earliest origins it demonstrates that Irish history in its totality was taken seriously here in Queen’s in the 1930s, only a decade after partition. Of course, revisionism is valuable and a wider revisionism was and is necessary, one that, for example, includes empire as well as nation, and their interactions.

Later, there would be a great tradition of economic and social history associated with this university, represented by such diverse figures as Ken Connell, Robert Collinson Black, and of course my friend Lord Bew, whose works I have had occasion to consult and to cite throughout my career as an academic and as a politician. Indeed, Paul and I shared lecture circuits in 1979 when we spoke of Michael Davitt, land, politics and people in the West of Ireland in the late nineteenth century, both of us seeking to elicit social and class dimensions.

I should say, in this academic setting, that James Eadie Todd may have found it difficult to be been elevated to the position of Professor in the modern age of university metrics – he was primarily a teacher, one who was so beloved of generations of undergraduates that Sir David Keir, a former Vice-Chancellor, would refer to him as ‘that great teacher, the kindly guide to so many’. At a time when institutes of higher learning across the world are coming under ever more pressure from funding authorities, whether public or private, we should not lose sight of the vital purpose of the university. It is the teaching, its quality, the effort of the teacher, that is remembered by graduates long after they have embarked on their own paths.

Continuing with matters historiographical, we on this island are sometimes told that our history is something from which we must be emancipated, and by implication that the study of our history as somehow disabling or disorientating. I understand the sentiment – we all, from time to time, will have encountered the kind of monolithic and teleological account of history recounted by Mr. Deasy in James Joyce’s Ulysses to which we may have been tempted to utter the famous response of Stephan Daedalus, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. There is some wisdom surely in David Rieff’s warning that collective memory can, over time, become ‘hatred’s forge’, rekindling old conflicts rather than healing them.

Yet, I do not think we can gain anything from effecting any blanket amnesia towards the past, however comforting or, even if only for a time, safe or attractive it may seem. It is only by acknowledging, and sometimes revising, but always remembering, in an inclusive way, the events of our shared past that we can begin to build a collective future. Paul Ricoeur advanced a position for what he called ‘narrative hospitality’, one which would open ourselves to the perspectives, stories, memories and pains of the stranger, the other, even the enemy of yesterday, however dissonant it may seem. Professor Richard Kearney has sought to develop and apply this perspective.

History obviously loses when it is sought to be deployed as propaganda, as it were, in a competitive battle of recalled grievances. If studied, however, with ethical intent as to openness, not only to the foundation myths of the others life version, but also with understanding towards the possible sources of its inaccuracies, it can endow us not only with a deeper understanding of the present dispensation of things and the political, economic and social structures in which we are enmeshed, but can deepen our empathy for the perspective of others, which is so vital if we are to live together.  

It is a yield of such an ethical perspective that it opens windows to the possibilities of the future, the opportunity to share efforts in the making of something new, something that is not reduced to the past of the present. Already I realise how dependent we are for such an approach for philosophical work that privaleges engagement with our contemporary moral choices.

The imperative for an ethical core to the project is all the more important when applied to public history, and to the form sought and given to the intense acts of public remembering which we on these islands have been undertaking over the past six years, as we have begun the process of commemorating the formative events of a century ago, events which include the Ulster Covenant, the establishment of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers, the 1913 Strike and Lock-Out, the 1916 Easter Rising, the First World War, Women’s Suffrage, the election of the first Dáil Éireann, the War of Independence, partition and the Civil War.

These events were formative not only in the obvious sense of their consequences, and the bringing about the division of Ireland into distinct jurisdictions, but also for their inspiring some of the great movements of thought and action which have done so much to make our island a more emancipated place: the women’s movement and the labour movement.

Since I was inaugurated as President of Ireland, I have sought to place the action of remembering within an ethical context.  In doing so, I drew on the works not only of Paul Ricoeur, but of Richard Kearney and Hannah Arendt.

One of the obvious requirements of remembering ethically is the inclusion and recognition of those voices from the past that were and have been excluded, disenfranchised or marginalised, whether by virtue of their class, their race or their gender. That is why it was of such importance, for example, to restore the contribution of women of the revolutionary generation to their rightful place in history. This included women who sought full independence, some who sought it within Home Rule, some who were pacifists, but all sharing the same road that beckoned – full equality for women. It is a journey that is of course not yet finished.

The often-repressive atmosphere of the new Free State of the 1920s disappointed feminists from all parts of our island, and it was an all-island movement. That is why this year, as we mark the centenary of the achievement of the first step towards full women’s suffrage on these islands, we recognise the that suffrage movement on this island owed its very existence to the tireless efforts of such as Isabella Todd, a Belfast-based Presbyterian and Anna Haslam, a Quaker and businesswomen from Cork, both of whom never wavered in their support for the Union between Britain and Ireland.

Then too Constance and Eva Gore-Booth were united in the struggle for formal equality but could differ on what methods were to be invoked, with Eva being a major force in winning trade union rights for women in Manchester and throughout the United Kingdom.

We have now, on this island, begun to address more comprehensively and more reflectively than before the experiences of these important figures from a century ago, figures that had been side-lined in the collective memory of the South and in the national historical narrative of the birth of the independent Irish State. In our more open approach to an empirically informed historiography, we have also embarked on a journey of acknowledging the experiences of those two hundred thousand men from all parts of Ireland, North and South and from Irish communities across the world who were drawn into the horrors of the First World War.  We have together recalled and remembered these men, and their complex and sometimes contradictory political aspirations, and those who had no such aspirations but were compelled by economic necessity, and in the case of the Dublin tenements in the fallout from the Lockout of 1913, to serve in British Armed Force.

Though they shared the terrible experience of war in Europe, at Gallipoli, and in the Middle East, those Irishmen who returned from the First World War were treated differently in what would become the Irish Free State than were similar returnees in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or indeed in what would become Northern Ireland. There was an uncertainty regarding the place of the War, and those who fought in it, in our national history, and this was reflected in an attitude that enabled a near official amnesia towards the First World War.

That has now changed, in part thanks to the work of historians, including contributions by historians of this university such as the late Professor Keith Jeffrey. In addition, many people on this island are now, through an examination of their family history, beginning to have a greater, and in the South, sometimes too long-delayed, insight into the experience of their grandparents and great-grandparents. As a consequence of that excavation of the personal past, there is now, I believe, a far greater understanding of the motivation of those who fought and died, as well as a heightened recognition of the lives, the promise and potential destroyed in the War.

In restoring those soldiers to our public and collective memory, we have also gained a greater understanding and respect for the centrality of the experience of the 36th (Ulster) Division to public memory in the unionist tradition. In doing so, we do not elide or avoid the legitimate and still important debates regarding the nature of a war in which a generation was lost - a war that I believe was in essence a collision of empires rather than a battle for small nations - but the important thing is that we are now addressing them, and each other, with the necessary respect and courtesies of discourse.

As President of Ireland, I do not see it as my purpose to present a particular vision of history or to assert any superiority of one singular narrative over any other, whether that be nationalist or unionist.  On the contrary, when I visit Northern Ireland, as I also did last weekend, I come hoping to practice and achieve all the openness available to the human spirit to understand and respect, to the best of my abilities, the perspective of others.

While it may never be completely possible for any of us fully to free ourselves from our own experience and inheritance of thought, my aim is simply to make a modest contribution to the transparency of purpose, the honesty of endeavour and the generosity towards other perspectives which, I believe, is required of all of us if we are not to sacrifice the possibilities of a shared future. We need mind work now, work as language, sophisticated humanist reflection on how we can leap over barriers, real and unreal.

The space for a reconciliation of historical perspective, and of respect for one another’s historical experience, both on this island and between the Ireland and Britain, has been powerfully assisted, in so many respects, by the Good Friday Agreement itself. In recognising the birth-right of all those in Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British, or both, the Agreement has enabled a new respect for Irishness and Britishness, with all the complexity that entails, reflective of both our shared history and shared future.  

Considering all that has gone before, the transformation of what had been the sometimes-tense East-West relationship between the Irish and British Governments to one characterised by its closeness is remarkable. It has been accompanied by a deepening in what were already very warm relationships between the peoples of Ireland and Britain.

It is a measure of the political progress that we have made together in recent years that, slowly but surely, we can now perform acts of public remembrance together. There is a growing recognition that we must help one another understand a past which we share even if our perception of that past frequently, and legitimately, differs.

A most potent symbol of the transformation in our relationship was the State Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011, and the return State Visit which I made at her invitation in 2014. There is no greater symbol of sovereign equality than the exchange of State Visits and there could have been no more important example of respecting all the traditions on these islands than the joint laying of wreaths for those who died for the cause of Irish freedom and for the Irish who died in British uniform.

I think also of Queen Elizabeth’s words in the Irish language which both signalled and evoked immense respect. It was a gesture which demonstrated the grace and generosity of spirit so characteristic of Queen Elizabeth, but I suggest we should not have been so surprised. For the first Queen Elizabeth spoke Irish, taking lessons from a young Irish aristocratic, Christopher Nugent.

Indeed, the first Bible to be translated into the Irish language was prepared at the instigation of that English monarch, and the Irish New Testament, An Tiomna Nuadh, was completed by Uilliam Ó Domhnaill, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Tuam, in the closing days of her reign in 1602.

From 1570 to the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Tridentine Mass, conducted through Latin, was universal throughout the Catholic world. It is often forgotten then that it was only after the establishment of Presbyterianism in Ireland in 1642 that we can speak of religious services being conducted in Irish, for the benefit of both Gaelic-speaking Scots and native Irish speakers. At one time it was conservatively estimated that one half of Ulster Presbyterians were Gaelic speakers.  The work of Roger Blaney and Padraig Ó Snodaigh has reminded us of the vital role that Presbyterianism played in sustaining the Irish language throughout our history. We have been interacting in each other’s linguistic spaces quite long before the time of Shakespeare.

I do not wish to venture further in what I know is a very sensitive issue but I do want to acknowledge today that the preservation of the Irish language was at one point felt to be the endeavour of only a dedicated few - though that has changed - and that so many of those few came from the Church of Ireland or Dissenting traditions.

Dear friends,

The last living veteran of the First World War, Florence Green, passed away in 2012. The last living veteran of our War of Independence died five years before that. As a consequence, those great struggles have now passed into the realm of that most amorphous and difficult of concepts, ‘collective memory’. The ‘remembering’ is not an active practice.

I am very aware that the events of that dark period that is often and too simply called ‘The Troubles’, a time in which terrible and heinous acts were inflicted and suffered by so many, remains very much a matter of personal memory. So it is with some trepidation that I today offer my own thoughts on the necessary subject of how we much approach forgiveness. In doing so, I return to the work of Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who wrote and thought deeply on the conceptual foundations, and thus on not just the possibilities, but also the difficulties, involved in the transaction of forgiveness.

Hannah Arendt wrote, in the Human Condition, that forgiveness is the ‘necessary corrective for the inevitable damages that result from action’. Forgiveness as an action arises, in the words of her student Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, to ‘address the boundless happenings of the past’. The purpose of forgiving, as Hannah Arendt saw it, was to rob an event of the past of its capacity to deprive one of the realistic possibilities of the present or the imaginative possibilities of the future. For Hannah Arendt, forgiveness was not an abstract act, summoned up by an individual to address a particular wrong, but a new relationship forged between forgiven and forgiver.

Forgiveness plays a central and necessary part in reconciliation. I acknowledge that it is very easy to say that. Some are asked to pay a very high price when they are called to forgive, a great hurt that cannot be expelled from their memory, but their achievement is all the greater.

I recall reading the pragmatic, as it were, thoughts of Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has reflected deeply on the nature of forgiveness, and in particular on its potential to free the individual from the confines of past hurt. He said

‘Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor.

When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest. This is true both spiritually and scientifically. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.

If this is true for the individual, then perhaps it can also be true for societies, and this of course was at the centre of Bishop Tutu’s thinking in his thoughts as to how to construct a decent future for the people of South Africa following the years of brutality and atrocities.

Forgiveness cannot occur without a commitment to remember, as difficult as it may be, the actions of the past. I therefore welcome the launch earlier this month of the British Government’s consultation on Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past. The full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, of which the consultation forms part, will be an important step towards on-going reconciliation in Northern Ireland.  

Four years ago at this university, I spoke not only of remembering, forgiving and forgetting, but of ‘imagining’, for it is in imagining a shared future released from, though not forgetting, past memories and from seemingly insurmountable present challenges that the energy can be found to build a bridge to the future. The vision of the future envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement - a vision of the future as a space to be shared – does not present us with an impossible task.

In this anniversary year we rightly look back and celebrate the immense success which the Agreement represented. It is the achievement of successive Governments in London and Dublin, of our supportive friends in the European Union and the United States, but above all it is a testament to the moral courage and resilience of the people of Northern Ireland, including their political leaders, who can proudly claim to have created one of the most successful peace processes in recent history, a claim validated by public opinion around the world even if it is sometimes doubted closer to home.

Let us also recognize that the Good Friday Agreement is a present reality and that implementing it remains a work in progress. Indeed, as Northern Ireland continues to operate without an Executive, in some respects the Agreement is work which has been stalled.

It is therefore essential that we remind ourselves and reaffirm that the Good Friday Agreement, with all its imperfections and creativity, represents the best hope for all of our people, North and South.

In this century, our island and our planet will be summoned to confront great challenges, the outlines of which are discernible to us today: the necessity to achieve just and sustainable development: the moral imperative to welcome the ever-greater numbers fleeing war, famine, persecution and natural disasters; the need to oppose the contemporary manifestations of racism and xenophobia; and above all, the mitigation of  the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

None of us can be indifferent to the future. These challenges to which I have made reference demand action in the public realm, from all of us – a public realm which the Good Friday Agreement has, uniquely, created for this whole island.

That is why it is now important and urgent to find a way, in Dublin and London. but above all here in Northern Ireland, to move away from the hard shoulder where the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement presently finds itself and to start moving together again along our shared journey, and to do so with generosity.

Arlene Foster has, I believe, recognised this in her statement that ‘given the size of Northern Ireland and the scale of challenges we face, we will only succeed if we move forward together’.

Despite the not inconsiderable challenges and distractions, I remain optimistic that we can all re-commit ourselves without any fear but with the greatest of hopes, to the principles that lie at core of the Good Friday Agreement. The communities in Northern Ireland have shown the world in the past that, working together, they can measure up to any order however tall.

There is one challenge that I omitted, and it is one that I cannot avoiding addressing in our present circumstances, concerning the decision of the United Kingdom to exit the European Union. Although this is a process that did not originate on our island – the majority of people in Northern Ireland did not favour the decision – it has thrown up profound and testing questions in the context of the interests, identity and aspirations on this island.

I would be dishonest if I did not express great regret at the decision of the British people in 2016. However, I wish to emphasise today that irrespective of the manner in which the challenge of Brexit is resolved it will be more essential than ever in the years ahead to work to maintain the new and deep friendships which have developed between Britain and Ireland, and between North and South, in the context of both our existing shared membership of the European Union and of the Peace Process.

I want to particularly emphasise one point regarding Brexit, because it is a point which is sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented. In the Brexit negotiations the core aim of the Irish Government relating to relationships on these islands, an aim which I share, is to preserve the provisions and principles of the Good Friday Agreement. This is not a straightforward task because the Brexit process necessarily, in some respects, unpicks what was painstakingly woven together. My point is simply to emphasise the importance of manifesting and acknowledging good faith on this sensitive question.

Dear friends,

Last month, I had the honour of addressing the United Nations General Assembly, of which Harri Holkeri was a former President. The occasion was a High-Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace, part of an effort to bring together the United Nations and its Member States to work coherently across the three pillars upon which the action of the United Nations is organised: peace and security, human rights and development.

The reports produced in the weeks and months before the Meeting were sobering.  A recent Joint Report prepared by the World Bank and the United Nations, indicated that, in 2016, more countries experienced violent conflict than at any time in the past 30 years, while reported battle-related deaths in 2016 were ten times higher than in 2005.

It is a profound condemnation of what humanity has made of our legacies of culture, reason, ethics and belief systems that we now live in world that is home to so much war. At a time when we have in our hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, we continue to share a planet with hundreds of millions of people who are, every day, deprived of their most fundamental economic and social rights. Science and technology, and our capacity for innovation and creativity, continue to be used to fan the flames of conflict, rather than directed to the purposes of peace.

It is not surprising then that many of those attending the Meeting were deeply pessimistic. There was a feeling that the multilateral system itself was under attack, that a diplomacy of the common good – the kind of patient and generous diplomacy practiced by Harri Holkeri – was being replaced by a diplomacy of transaction, one based on not on deliberation but on a very narrow conception of self-interest. At that Meeting, I spoke not only of our global challenges but of the success represented by the Good Friday Agreement, and the contribution made by the two governments involved in the negotiations, the importance of sustained financing for peacebuilding activities, and the role of the European Union and the United States. Above all, I paid tribute to the steady and courageous activism of civic organisations campaigning for a more just and peaceful society, many of which, as we know, were led by women.

Our Peace Process, and the Good Friday Agreement, remain extraordinary examples to the world that peace can be built and that it can, with the necessary ethical intent and purpose, be sustained. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to continue that effort here on this island, to sustain British-Irish relations and to continue to promote the lessons of the Peace Process: that international agreements with all their imperfections must be respected; that the most important step towards defending our own interests is to be sensitive to the interests of others; that there can be no respect of identity or aspirations which is not mutual; that complexity in international affairs is inevitable and is to be celebrated, not disdained; and that compromise, when forged through deliberation in the public sphere, is a virtue not a vice.

Being open to imagining, achieving the ethical purpose of remembering, taking the risk of forgiving, leads to a virtuous discourse that for future generations enjoying peace together will deserve to be in time celebrated and remembered.