Seanad Eireann Debate 1996
Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris My motion relates to the need for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in light, among other things, of the ongoing developments in Northern Ireland, to ensure that Irish representatives at the United Nations take a prominent role in the ceremonies surrounding the international day of peace on 17 September next as already suggested by the Northern Ireland based group. Reconciliation through Communication. I would like to outline some of the background to this matter.
Earlier this year I was contacted by a gentleman called Vincent Coyle from Derry who wrote to a number of public representatives. I will not make the mistake I made earlier of suggesting he write to all Members of the House. He wrote to some Members with detailed information concerning the idea of an international reconciliation day in which a massive number of emblems would be printed and distributed after a formal presentation at the United Nations.
At first sight this might appear a little naive, but I am not sure that the Government is in a position to maintain this case, especially in light of the effective and moving example they themselves set when they launched the white ribbon day and many of us chose to wear that emblem. That, according to some of the sophisticated elements in the press was derided as being tokenism, sentimental and rather blurred. However, it caught the attention, hearts and minds of a great number of people and so also with this. There is an international day of peace already declared and there are various movements for peace. I was on the committee of the Peace Train.
We often see the word “peace” invoked. What has been added by Mr. Coyle and his group in Derry is an important element, that is, reconciliation — peace through reconciliation. We saw the classic need for this in Drumcree in the last few days because there had been no reconciliation on the ground between the opposing communities. A newspaper today states that a majority of Roman Catholics surveyed in Belfast believe there will be a Roman Catholic majority in the North of Ireland within 30 years. The majority of Protestants surveyed in Belfast believe there will be a Roman Catholic in 20 years. That is an interesting discrepancy because it suggests that there is very little communication between the two groups when they have not even agreed on this demographic development. It seems to me that underlying that is a fear. The Protestant community clearly fears they will be swamped. If there was dialogue, communication and reconciliation, these fears would be appeased in a much better way.
Mr. Coyle's proposal has received generalised support from various Ministers of this Government, members of the European Commission, various agencies of Government, etc., but he is being continually placed in a Catch-22 situation. Before the ceasefire he mounted the “Derry Can Do It” campaign to hold the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest in Derry city, RTE having staged the contest for two successive years in the South. This may appear to be a dream but look at what has happened. Nobody believed that contest could be successfully staged in Millstreet yet it was an immense success. It says something for the vision of Mr. Coyle who, in his document, quoted President Kennedy who said that the best way to secure the future is to invent it. If we could invent a future in which there was peace achieved through reconciliation — the only way to achieve permanent peace — and if by imagining it, we could accomplish it, even if in the process we were labelled “naive”, we would have done something very worthwhile indeed.
The project was booked for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The Minister also encouraged the project in a number of letters. However, he indicated that there was no heading under his budget to provide finance; finance is, of course, part of the kernel. Former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, pledged full support for the project and accepted an invitation to become a patron. Contacts were established in over 30 countries worldwide and words of encouragement and well wishes were received from many of them.
The aims and objectives outlined in various documents I received from Mr. Coyle are clearly put: to raise international awareness of the reconciliation process so vital in establishing a sustained and sustainable peace in Ireland and indeed the world; to involve ordinary people as well as world leaders in the process; to allow all those of goodwill the opportunity to proudly wear the proposed symbol of a white dove inscribed with the word reconciliation on their breasts in a public statement of unity; to declare a commitment towards achieving reconciliation on all levels from personal to cultural to communal; the day would provide a platform of significant international PR potential and place Ireland and her friends firmly on the world stage and it is proposed that on 17 September, during the two week build up to the day, it is intended that Reconciliation through Communication present to President Clinton 1 million white dove emblems in a gesture of thanks from the people of Ireland to him and to his administration and Government for all the help they have given to the people of Ireland and the central role they have played in assisting in establishing peace in other world conflict resolution zones. A number of these emblems would be distributed to the individual states that make up the United States and the various nations that make up the United Nations.
It turned out that 17 September had been celebrated for a number of years as the international day of peace — not peace and reconciliation — by the UN. A development of this project was engaged in, particularly having had the encouragement of certain sections of the EU Commission. I refer to a letter of 30 January 1996 from Mr. Esben Poulsen on behalf of the President of the Commission, Mr. Jacques Santer, which states:
... I admire your enthusiasm and commitment .... The peace and reconciliation programme can only be successful if new ideas like yours are generated from within the populations of Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland themselves.
The next development Mr. Coyle and his group suggested was that the peace and reconciliation element should be added to the existing 17 September celebrations in the UN in New York. As 17 September is designated as UN day of peace and is celebrated in the UN building in a brief ceremony at which the Secretary General, together with a handful of other representatives, symbolically rings the peace bell, it was suggested that immediately thereafter the Secretary General together with the representatives from the UK, Irish and Norwegian missions be handed the reconciliation emblems as a gesture of thanks and goodwill from the people of Ireland, symbolically reaching out the hand of friendship to the world. Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali would also be presented with a custom made ceramic reconciliation chalice. There were strong indications that various television companies, including RTE which, although it was not in a position to make special allocation of finances for coverage, would be enthusiastic about covering such an event.
The significance of such a public relations exercise was underlined when, in order to defuse a potentially ugly media situation which had developed around the success of Michelle Smith, President Clinton made a public relations gesture by being seen on television enthusiastically supporting her. He clearly understands the significance of peace through reconciliation at the level of international sport. For the level of peace in a situation of possible violent conflict, even civil war, it is worth us making a similar effort.
A letter was sent to Reconciliation through Communication from the Department of Foreign Affairs, following this amended suggestion, from somebody who was helpful, Mr. Sé Goulding of the human rights unit, which stated:
As you are already aware, the day in question has already been designated as the International Day of Peace by the General Assembly and as 17 September is also the first day on which this General Assembly convenes, we have been advised that it would be unacceptable to attempt to supersede this with an alternative designation.
Furthermore, the agenda for this opening day has already been carefully prepared and decided upon in such a way that amendments or additions are not possible.
Therefore it would not appear possible to incorporate your suggestions, e.g. the peace bell into the programme. While I accept that the proposal is one which has merit, regretfully, I have to inform you that such a presentation will not be feasible in the circumstances.
It is interesting to note there is a certain level of misunderstanding. The peace bell is already included in the ceremony. It is not an additional formal item which is being suggested. It already exists and all we are suggesting is a presence at the ceremony.
In the extensive correspondence related to this matter, Mr. Coyle is repeatedly encouraged and pushed from one person to another. He is directed, for example, to Co-operation North and the International Fund for Ireland. At one point Mr. Coyle attempted to approach individual businesses, corporations and trusts and he was told by them that they already contribute to the IFI or Co-operation North, for example. When he approached them he was rejected. I am surprised at this, especially in the case of Co-opreration North because no later than a couple of weeks ago I heard one of the chief executives of Co-operation North say on RTE radio that he did not know what was wrong with this country in that there is £15 million waiting to be allocated and to date he had only received applications for £2 million. There is £12 or £13 million lying fallow and he asked what was to be done with it. In the circumstances where there is this volume of support for a well meaning and potentially extraordinarily useful and valuable enterprise, how is it that, without explanation in a situation where there are surplus funds, such a worthy project is dismissed without any detailed examinations or explanations?
I know nothing to the discredit of this organisation or the individual with whom I have dealt - Mr. Coyle. If there is anything in the background of the organisation which leads to suspicion and so on — I am delighted to see the Minister of State shake her head — we should be told. We are entitled to an explanation, not perhaps directly from the Minister of State but certainly from Co-operation North. Where there is a superfluity of funds and somebody protests on the radio about the dearth of applications and when a serious well founded, valuable, politically significant application is made, it is a pity that it should not be actively supported.
Sadly I today received communication from Mr. Coyle saying that in the circumstances, and having spent considerable amounts of his own time and money, he considers it necessary to withdraw from the project. I spoke to him by telephone this afternoon. He is, as usual, optimistic. He told me it was a beginning, that at least it has been open, that there has been this level of support and that the day of reconciliation falls on 17 September every year. If now we start making preparations for next year and even if the ideas of peace and reconciliation result from this small debate and the degree of publicity we have managed to get are moved forward, then I believe he feels that his work will not have been in vain. Given the kind of valuable energy he has maintained from the early days of civil rights in 1968 in Derry to today, he will be vindicated.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms Burton): Information on Joan Burton Zoom on Joan Burton I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter. As the Senator has explained, 17 September, which will also be the opening day of the 51st session of the UN General Assembly, is the International Day of Peace. The commemoration is entirely at the direction of the Secretary General. These ceremonies inevitably centre around the opening of the General Assembly itself. As the Senator has said, the day is traditionally marked by the ceremonial ringing of the peace bell which is a simple but formal occasion to which the Secretary General invites the permanent representative of each country accredited to the UN.
I am aware of the suggestion made by the company. Reconciliation Through Communication Limited, to my Department regarding the possibility of permanent Irish participation in the Protocol surrounding the ceremony and including the distribution of symbolic doves to those dignitaries present. However, it must be borne in mind that this is a highly formal occasion at which only the ambassador of each accredited country will be invited. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for a single mission or group of missions to appear to seek to direct the Secretary General in fulfilling the functions of his office in commemorating this day.
Accordingly, while the invited Irish representative will participate, I regret it will not be possible to arrange for the participation of any NGO in the ceremonies as at present constituted, or for the distribution or presentation by Irish officials or others of emblems or gifts originating from an NGO, such as the one referred to by the Senator. I understand that the Department of Foreign Affairs has recently made this position clear to Reconciliation Through Communication Limited. I assure the Senator that the formal nature of this ceremony does not mean that the commitment of the Irish people to the search for peace throughout the world will not be represented to the Secretary General of the UN or to the other member countries of the UN on this day.
On the points made by the Senator, I think the addition of the concept of reconciliation to the day of peace is profoundly good. For instance, I am intensely involved in a range of diplomatic initiatives on Burundi where the situation is fraught and dangerous. The key there is reconciliation and finding a pathway through the ethnic tensions and rivalries which exist.
I am not trying to be obstructive but in the context of the UN we are bound by the powers of the Secretary General and the ceremony is at his disposal. However, I am not sure whether there are any ceremonies in Ireland on 17 September so it might be appropriate to mark it symbolically in some way in order to initiate the process and to take it from there. The UN is a body with which one often deals at great length so Mr. Coyle might be advised to allow a year for preparation and perhaps to originate the project in Ireland, get the support of people like the Norwegians who have been much involved in these initiatives, and see if it can be built from the ground up. I cannot comment on the relationship the group has had with Co-operation North because that does not come within the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
As the Senator is aware a great many individuals and organisations are seeking to give expression to the widespread desire for peace and reconciliation. In common with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Higgins, I think these initiatives are profoundly positive. They are sometimes technically difficult to implement but they represent the will of many people to express our desire for peace. In that context I welcome this group's work and I know the huge amount of time and energy which goes into it.
As I said, in the context of the UN and the specific day I cannot be helpful to the Senator at this point but there may be other ways of approaching the matter. It may have taken Picasso only a couple of minutes to scrawl a dove but it became a profound symbol of the concept of peace for many generations so these ideas are important.
Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I thank the Minister for her positive response and for her suggestions which I will pass on to Mr. Coyle. However, I shall continue to try to find out why Co-operation North, with such an expansive residue of funds, found it impossible to deal with this in a detailed way. Perhaps I will take that up with the organisation myself.
The Seanad adjourned at 5.30 p.m. sine die.