Remarks by President Mary McAleese at the Inauguration of the Messines Peace Tower
Messines, Belgium, 11th November 1998
Governor, Burgomaster, Aldermen and Citizens of Mesen, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you sincerely for the warmth of your welcome both at the Island of Ireland Peace Park and at this beautiful Countess Adela House. I deeply appreciate the work of the people of Mesen and the members of A Journey of Reconciliation Trust who together made this momentous day possible. We are all especially grateful to those whose hands built the Peace Tower and landscaped the Peace Park.
Today’s ceremony at the Peace Park was not just another journey down a well-travelled path. For much of the past eighty years, the very idea of such a ceremony would probably have been unthinkable.
Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory too fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland.
In the history of conflict which has blighted my homeland for generations respect for the memory of one set of heroes was often at the expense of respect for the memory of the other. As former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Sean Lemass, himself a protagonist in the Irish people’s fight for independence said thirty years ago-
“In later years it was common - and I was also guilty in this respect - to question the motives of those who joined the new British armies at the outbreak of the war, but it must in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said, that they were motivated by the highest purpose.”
Today we are keenly aware that if we are to build the culture of consensus promised by the Good Friday Agreement then we need to create mutually respectful space for differing traditions, differing loyalties, for all our heroes and heroines.
The men of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division died here. They came from every corner of Ireland. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists, their differences transcended by a common commitment not to flag but to freedom. Today we seek to put their memory at the service of another common cause expressed so well by Professor Tom Kettle, an Irish nationalist and proud soldier who died at the Somme.
“Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain”
I do not think that it is too bold to suggest that this day has been a day of historic significance.
The problems we face in building a culture of consensus are difficult but not impossible. We can draw strength from the collegial partnerships built in Europe this past forty years between once bitter enemies and the enormous goodwill towards Ireland from our friends around the world not least here in Belgium.
None of us has the power to change what is past but we do have the power to use today well to shape a better future. The Peace Park does not invite us to forget the past but to remember it differently. We are asked to look with sorrow and respect on the memory of our countrymen who died with such courage far from the common homeland they loved deeply. Their vitality, genius, youth and commitment was lost to Ireland. In this generation we redeem their memory, acknowledging their sacrifice and the pain of those who loved them. We pray that just as this Park has changed the landscape of Belgium, so too it will help to change the landscape of our memory. These too are Ireland’s children as those who fought for her independence are her children, and those who fought against each other in our country’s civil war - and of course the dead of recent decades - their children’s children - who have not known the peace for which they yearned. To each let us give his or her acknowledged place among our island’s cherished dead.
In the Irish language I wish God’s blessing on their souls:
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha uasal.
We hope that the goal of peace promised by the Good Friday Agreement will be our gift to the next generation. I wish to thank you most sincerely for affording me the opportunity of commemorating the memory and honouring the sacrifice of those from the island of Ireland who died in the Great War.