Twenty years ago, the Belfast Agreement was signed, marking the start of a new era of reconciliation, compromise, and progress in Northern Ireland. 

Thursday, February 22, in New York, IrishCentral in partnership with Co-Operation Ireland, brought together representatives and experts from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK to reflect on the importance of the Agreement, analyze the current challenges in Northern Ireland especially in relation to Brexit uncertainty and project positive plans for future cooperation, peace and prosperity for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The following are the key insigts and moments from the conference and luncheon.

Introductory Remarks

After first hearing from Co-Operation Ireland's Ruth Montomogory about the peace pacts taken by children in Northern Ireland, Co-Operation Ireland Chairman Jim Clerkin spoke about how he eventually hopes to shut down the organization once complete and final peace is realized. 

"That's a strange statement until you realize what it means," said Clerkin, adding "today we could not shut down." 

"I do believe that with your help and support we may not be too far away from shutting it down ... The dream we seek is a lasting peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. If you can dream it you can do it."

"This is not about us, it’s not about you, it’s about my kids, your kids and indeed and in my case a new grandchild. The dream we seek is a lasting peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. If you can dream it you can do it." - Jim Clerkin #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Clerkin introduced both the Consul General of Ireland Ciaran Madden and the British Consul General Antony Phillipson.

While Madden spoke of US intervention resulting in the appointment of Senator George Mitchell to oversee the talks he also spoke with enthusiasm of the need for reconciliation between the two communities: "Infect your work today with that spirit of reconciliation."

Philipson used his speech, in particular, to place emphasis on the British government's support of a government in Stormont instead of a return to direct rule from London stating, "We need that devolved government to step back in and we’ll keep working toward that."

"Everyone in Ireland is grateful for the US intervention in the NI peace’s worth celebrating that in its own right. There is a huge lack of trust still between communities...we’ve a long way to go on it." - Ciaran Madden - Consul General of Ireland #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"It’s great that there are important dignitaries here who’ve made extraordinary contributions and will in the future. There is massive potential, a massive story to be told about economic prosperity." - Antony Phillipson - British Consul General #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"Society is more inclusive and representative than it has ever been." - Liam Lynch #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Panel discussion: Community Leaders on Northern Ireland Peace and Reconciliation Process

Moderator: Eamonn Mallie, Journalist. Panelists: Reverend Bill Shaw, Social Justice leader; Geraldine Holland McAteer, CEO West Belfast Partnership & Belfast City Councillor; Trevor Ringland, Co-operation Ireland Board Member; Nisha Tandon, Director of Arts Ekta

The first panel at the day heard from community leaders who are working at various levels in peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. As IrishCentral Chair Liam Lynch stated in his introductory remarks, "Society is more inclusive and representative [in NI] than it has ever been" and yet the panelists discussed the steps still needed to ensure lasting peace at a grassroots level. 

"A big part of our problem is there is no view from the top, there is no vision, we don't have the kind of leadership that inspires people to move on." - Reverend Bill Shaw #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"We have to consider we had a very long conflict over very many decades, we had a segregated society and where we’re going is a much more positive place." - Geraldine Holland McAteer #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Reverend Bill Shaw, in particular, spoke of the barriers, such as the peace walls, that prevented communities from interacting with each other, also emphasizing the difficulties in finding partners who have the same vision and the same groundwork with which to move forward.

"It’s a plea from ordinary people on the ground. Give us that positive leadership, give us this vision to follow," he said. 

Working to promote education at a grassroots level, McAteer added that when the government in Stormont is up and running and functioning, there is short-term support available but the lack of long-term support means that groups find the rug often pulled from under their feet when strides forward in reconciliation are being made. 

"The politics is polarized in this moment in time but the people aren't.
We can’t keep pressing the old buttons of hatred and expect to have a successful society." - Trevor Ringland #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"Equality, diversity and respect should be the top agenda of politicians...we want to make that difference but unfortunately it is taking a step backward with the current politics we have." - Nisha Tandon #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

The disconnect between the government and politicians and their own communities and grassroots groups was discussed by all panelists, with Trevor Ringland calling on politicians to look more toward the success of Northern Ireland and how that can be envisioned instead of constantly aligning with constitutional preferences. 

Nisha Tandon, Director of Arts Ekta, added to this, stating that "equality, diversity and respect should be the top agenda of politicians."

"It has been very very difficult that there was no racial equality strategy ... It is very important that the minority ethnic communities are given that status." 

Panel Discussion: The Importance of the Irish Diaspora’s Role in Northern Ireland Peace

Introduction by Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours. Moderator: Niall O’Dowd, Founder, IrishCentral. Panelists: Tom DiNapoli, NYS Comptroller; Sean Downes, Attorney at Law; Edmund Lynch, Certified Civil Trial Attorney, NJ Supreme Court; Bruce Morrison, Former US Representative; Sean Pender, National Treasurer, Ancient Order of Hibernians in America.

As Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours, commented in her opening remarks for the second panel of the day, "the importance of the Irish diaspora cannot be overstated for advocacy [of Northern Irelland]." With increasing numbers of visitors taking in the six counties in their Ireland travels, the increasingly positive image of the state is being emphasized overseas by the work of this diaspora and with thanks to US investment. 

"One-third of the tours that we send to Ireland will have visits in Northern Ireland and this has grown from five percent ten years ago." - Elizabeth Crabill #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"The notion that our capital is having a transformative effect is important to me," Tom DiNapoli, NYS Comptroller, explained to the audience, speaking of the millions of dollars now targeting the North through the US Pensions Fund. 

Concerns were raised over how this influence and investment can be maintained in the future as the numbers of Irish immigrating to the US decreases, with moderator and IrishCentral founder Niall O'Dowd questioning whether we will see an end to Irish America and the support that it provides to Northern Ireland in the future. 

"I talk about New York etc. as that mosaic and we have to keep the green in that," answered Sean Downes, Attorney at Law, encouraging Irish Americans and Irish immigrants to keep involved with the centers and groups working in Irish culture in the US. 

The lack of new Irish immigrants to the US has previously been a cause of concern for the Ancient Order of Hibernians but Sean Pender, National Treasurer with the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America believes smaller membership figures to be an issue for any group of their kind in the last few years as people move further and further online. 

"The Irish are no better than anyone else but by God, we’re no worse. We contribute to this great country of ours," he said of the opportunities for Irish people to move to the US now. 

"Emotions are raw and strong. The feelings are very intense and it’s clear this is a significant part of unfinished business." - Tom DiNapoli #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"The baggage must come out in order to let us move forward." - Sean Downes #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Bruce Morrison, a former US Representative, explained how it was immigration that rallied Irish American groups together before the Agreement and that the kind of unity seen then, when organizational differences were pushed aside, needs to be achieved again but people need to care first. 

As a final word, Edmund Lynch, Certified Civil Trial Attorney, NJ Supreme Court, felt is was important to have respect as Americans for those working at continued peace in Northern Ireland, to "respect those in the trenches."

"Secrecy is damaging and the light of truth will have a positive effect, even if in the short term there is controversy.” - Bruce Morrison #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

“It’s going to take the people of the North to get together and understand that you have to have a foundation of truth and trust before you move forward.” - Sean Pender #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

“We have to move forward but the people Ireland are not going to be satisfied if we say ‘don't rock the boat.’ They want the truth. It's not necessary that somebody's going to go to prison but knowing who's behind it.” - Edmund Lynch #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Panel Discussion: Reflections on the Past to Foster Peace Going Forward

Moderator: Deaglán de Bréadún, Journalist and Author. Panelists: James Cooper, Ulster Unionist Party; Pat Doherty, Sinn Féin; Mark Durkan, Social Democratic and Labour Party; George Mitchell, GBE, Former US Senator and United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland; Ian Paisley Junior, Member of Parliament for North Antrim and Freeman of the City of London; Nancy Soderberg, Former US Deputy National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the United Nations.

The final panel discussion of the day heard from representatives from some of Northern Ireland's largest political parties - UUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, and DUP - as well as Senator George Mitchell and Nancy Soderberg, former US Deputy National Security Advisor. The spoke about the path to peace up until 2018 and what lessons can be taken from that as Northern Ireland struggles to restore its devolved parliament in the midst of Brexit talks. 

It was the UK's departure from the EU and its effects on Northern Ireland, in particular, that drew some disagreement from the panelists but all reiterated how important it was to remember and reflect on what has been achieved in terms of peace and reconciliation so far, despite the now year-long stalemate. 

Ian Paisley Jnr commented on his daughter coming to him to ask about the Troubles for a history project, noting how the "bloody and difficult politics" he grew up in had now been transformed to simple "difficult politics," the same kind of politics that even the likes of Germany face. 

"Peace in NI has been embedded now for over 20 years," added James Cooper. He bemoaned, however, what he felt was the lack of middle politics in the North now, something he believes has been done away with because of the design of the Agreement. He feels, in fact, that we've returned lately to the politics of before the agreement despite the lack of violence. 

"We have to look at whether the design of the GFA is workable 20 years on," he asked. 

"The current design has the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féinn, treating the smaller parties with an element of contempt and going forward that has to change." - James Cooper #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"I wouldn't be complacent about the current circumstance as long as we don't continue on a path of unlearning that we’re currently on." - Mark Durkan #twentyyearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Pat Doherty reiterated that much progress has been made but that there is still a need for the same amount of dialogue and communication, not just between the different parties but within the party members themselves. 

"That process isn’t a once-off, isn't something you vote on every two years. It's continuous, you keep the dialogue going.

"I think we have to revisit some of those lessons and see can we replicate any of that again."

“I’ve often said that the word process is almost as important as the word peace.” - Pat Doherty #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"Just having an agreement itself was not going to take care of all the issues," added Mark Durkan to this, stating that the agreement had proven itself to be a platform of reconciliation by allowing the means by which to start addressing these issues. 

"We still need the political chemistry to make things work," he said, "working with people outside of the political process who were the pathfinders. 

"Partnership is not just within politics but between politics and other factors in society as well."

A large part of my heart and emotions will always be in Northern Ireland .. I believe they are an able people who can solve their problems if they apply themselves to it." - George Mitchell #20 yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"The communities are still divided but the violence is a thing of the past and that’s no small achievement" - Nancy Soderberg #twentyyearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

"When I announced the agreement, while it was historic, it did not guarantee peace ... it merely made it possible," agreed George Mitchell. 

"All of us involved recognized there would be difficult decisions ahead and those future leaders would have to have the same courage and vision … It's an ongoing process nobody should ever forget that" he continued, arguing that we should not point fingers of fault but recognize that leadership needs to be fostered that will be able to accept the many challenges still ahead, and "accept as normal the reality of challenges."

Nancy Soderburg reiterated that a pessimism around the current situation needs to be evaporated, calling on people to leave behind the zero-sum mentality in making agreements and instead focus on win-win negotiating. 

"I do not think that we should have a president of the US involved 20 years on," she stated, however, instead, calling on people, grassroots, in the US, or otherwise, to demand change and to demand investment into those businesses that will work in partnership with all groups in Northern Irish society. 

"Stop thinking about their grandparents' Northern Ireland, what kind of Northern Ireland do they want to create for their grandchildren?" she asked.

“This is just difficult politics and we can live with it and we can deal with it and we can get on with it.” - Ian Paisley Junior #20yearsofpeace

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) February 22, 2018

Keynote Address

Keynote Address Simon Coveney, Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Closing Remarks by Jim Clerkin, Chairman, Co-operation Ireland USA and President & CEO Moët Hennessy North America

Recalling the transformation which had taken place on the island of Ireland and in Irish-UK relations since the signing of the Agreement, the Tánaiste spoke of the vital role played by Irish-America and successive US administrations in supporting and facilitating the Peace Process over many years.  He said:

“In every chapter of modern Irish history, but most especially through the sad chapters of the Troubles and the dawning hope of the peace process, the influence of Irish America has been profound.”

“Throughout the difficult years, successive U.S. administrations listened, engaged and took some brave risks in pursuit of peace on a small island half-way across the world.”

Referring to the current challenges and the need to recommit to the principles at the core of the Good Friday Agreement, the Tánaiste said:

“It is easy to feel negative, easy to be cynical or despondent, easy to cast about for someone to blame. We will not go down that path.”

“Nor will we give credence to those who – even in recent days - glibly claim that the Good Friday Agreement has failed or outlived its utility. That is simply not true. And that kind of reckless talk, ignorant of the history and evolution of peace in Northern Ireland, cannot go unchallenged.”

Emphasising that the lives lost during the Troubles, and those who were injured or bereaved will never be forgotten, the Tánaiste talked of the critical importance of achieving real reconciliation:

“This is the moment for a renewal of the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to reconciliation – deep and lasting reconciliation.”

“My pledge today is that my Government will continue to support the vital work that the people on the ground in communities across Northern Ireland are doing in progressing reconciliation – true, lasting, sustained reconciliation.”

Jim Clerkin,  Chairman, Co-operation Ireland USA and President & CEO Moët Hennessy North America, gave the closing remarks, comparing the vast difference between the Northern Ireland he grew up in versus the place his children know and love, and his ultimate goal of shutting down Co-operation Ireland when it is no longer necessary.