Where is Northern Ireland Now? with Peter Weir & Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Oct 22, 2018

Peter Weir of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin give their views on the situation in Northern Ireland, from the still unresolved collapse of the government in 2017 to the uncertainties over Brexit. Both agree that while there has been tremendous progress since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there is still much to be done--and according to Ó Muilleoir, many citizens are still not receiving equal treatment.

This is part of the International Seminar on Wellbeing in Northern Ireland, convened by Carnegie Council and the Carnegie UK Trust.

MARTYN EVANS: We're absolutely delighted we have a video from the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP). Arlene Foster, the leader of DUP, sends her sincere apologies. She would have liked to come, she wishes us well, but she had to go to the Brexit discussion.

We have Máirtín Ó Muilleoir here from Sinn Féin, and we're very grateful for that. Michelle O'Neill had accepted our invitation and then broke her leg. Michelle is the leader of Sinn Féin.

I don't say that in any way to diminish what we're going to hear—fantastic.

Joel will now hold the ring while we have these two great presentations.

Thank you.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for that overview.

I have very little actual introduction to this video. I just wanted to set it up by underlining what Martyn had said. We had hoped to have the political leadership from both sides represented here. We do have this video, which we'll roll now, and then we'll hear from Máirtín.

[Transcript of Videotape Presentation follows]

PETER WEIR: Delegates, I'm delighted to be addressing today the Carnegie International Seminar on Wellbeing in Northern Ireland, and specifically on the topic of "Where is Northern Ireland Now?"

For most of you who don't know me, let me introduce myself. I'm Peter Weir. I'm a member of the Assembly representing the Democratic Unionist Party. I'm speaking today on behalf of both the DUP and our party leader Arlene Foster. I've served in the Assembly since 1998 and was recently minister of education.

I welcome this opportunity because politics often has a sense of immediacy about it. It has an element of firefighting, of solving—or hopefully actually averting—the latest crisis. So it's good once in a while to take a step back and try and offer a perspective of strategic reflection where we can look not only at where Northern Ireland has come from but where it is going. At the outset, I think it is important to recognize that over the last 20 years it would be wrong not to reflect the many changes and improvements that have happened throughout Northern Ireland. But it would also be foolhardy not to recognize that with progress there have been limitations to that progress, and indeed there is a long way to go.

It is the case that where we have got to was perhaps initially helped in the short term by a certain amount of ambiguity in our conflict resolution, but I think that that ambiguity has long since served its purpose, and indeed ambiguity is no longer a friend to us.

Starting, I think, with the positive, obviously the biggest change that has happened in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years has been embedding peace within our system. Now, let me make it absolutely clear from the start, it is my belief, my party's belief, that there was never an excuse for the violence from either side. No one should have lost their lives at any stage in the Troubles. Terrorism and violence was always wrong. So at times there is perhaps a reluctance to give credit for removing an evil which should never have been there in the first place.

It is also the case that in terms of peace that there is a valid criticism that what we have is an imperfect peace in Northern Ireland. Since 1998 more than 150 people have been murdered as a result of terrorism. That is a terrible figure. Indeed, any death is something to be deplored. But I think we need to contrast that with the over 3,500 people that lost their lives during the Northern Ireland Troubles. It is therefore at least a relative peace.

The other caveat I would add is that we see 20 years on from the Belfast Agreement the continuing existence of paramilitary activity, organizations which are still active within their own communities. That is something we believe is totally unacceptable and we will support any positive moves which can take people out of that path, but also those who are still wedded to violence and criminality need to be dealt with by way of the forces of law.

Despite, I suppose, those limitations, there is no doubt over the last 20 years for most ordinary people life has changed for the better. There is a much greater opportunity for all our people, particularly a generation that has come since the ceasefire: a freedom of movement, a freedom to enjoy their lives, for our young people, which is to be greatly cherished. I would say as well there is no appetite within any section of our community to return to those days of violence. And indeed, some who would try to use that threat as a means for particular political ends are to be deplored. We can at least, I believe, look forward in Northern Ireland to a much more peaceful future than we've had in the past.

The second positive, I think, that has happened over the last 20 years has been improvements in our economy. We today have a greater number of people in employment in Northern Ireland than we've had at any stage in our history. We have seen successful inward investment, to the extent that for many years, with the exception of London in the Southeast, we've had the greatest level of inward investment of anywhere in the United Kingdom. While help from countries overseas has been very helpful, that has been born out of the skills of our workforce, our highly educated workforce, and indeed the advantages that we can offer to inward investment.

We have seen a growth in our knowledge economy, to the extent that is now worth 3 billion in terms of exports. And again, for the last four years, outside of London, we have been the fastest-growing region of the United Kingdom.

We have, as home of Game of Thrones, a burgeoning set of creative industries which are being built upon. So there is much within our economy to be positive.

Of course, within any society it will mean that some communities feel left behind, who have not enjoyed the full economic benefits of a growth in our economy. And it is still the case that as a society we have too great a dependence on the public sector in terms of employment. We need still a step change in what we are delivering in terms of private-sector investment and private-sector initiatives.

There has also for the last 20 years been a greater acceptance of the rule of law and of policing. It is now the case that the courts are recognized by virtually everybody. And similarly with policing, there is a widespread acceptance of policing. The key test that was often challenged towards republican communities, that if a crime happened on the streets would they contact the police, is now something which has been got beyond and indeed there is that level of acceptance.

However, it is important to acknowledge that that success has been very slow and at times piecemeal. The failure to nail down the issue of policing and the acceptance of the courts of law in the Belfast Agreement of 1998 meant that really it wasn't until 2006 or 2007 that there was acceptance by all parties in Northern Ireland that the police were something that should be embraced by all. And similarly, the slowness over terrorist organizations, particularly the IRA (Irish Republican Army), getting rid of their weapons through decommissioning created great political instability in the years after the Belfast Agreement.

There is, I believe, still ambiguity over the past. And indeed, the principle of consent in terms of Northern Ireland, while it has been acknowledged, is sometimes, particularly by republicans and nationalists, ignored whenever they want to.

As we move forward, particularly in policing, it must go beyond simple acceptance, but also a realization that policing offers the best way forward for many careers, and indeed an encouragement to everyone in the community to be involved in policing.

Fourthly, I suppose there is a positive that for much of the time over the last 20 years we've had a local regional government. While government anywhere in the world can be criticized, sometimes abused by people, it has provided an accountable, and above all accessible, forum for local people throughout much of the last two decades. It has meant that solutions can be tailored from a Northern Ireland perspective to meet our local needs. That contrasts with a situation where we had Direct Rule ministers simply flying in and flying out at frequent intervals. Now there is still a question mark over the stability of those institutions, but, nevertheless, when they have worked, I believe they have worked well for people.

Despite the progress, I think there are still many challenges that are out there. Firstly, we've seen over the last decade the implications of the worldwide recession. This has meant a sharp contrast from the early days of the period in which the Belfast Agreement was established, where public finances were healthy, where indeed the arguments were essentially over where additional resources could be placed, and there is no doubt that some of the pressures on public finances have added to political pressure within Northern Ireland, and at one stage disputes over welfare reform threatened to derail the Assembly in total.

With those additional pressures—deciding, for instance, where cuts need to be made—there is a need for a more mature politics in which actually politicians stand up and make critical strategic decisions. While there has been some progress in that direction, I think there is much still to be done.

Secondly, the uncertainty over Brexit has undoubtedly created tensions across the community. Indeed, not knowing precisely where we are going to be at has stoked up fears and concerns. I believe that some of those issues have been hyped by some people politically for their own ends. For our part we are determined to try and reach a sensible Brexit, one that protects and enhances the economy of Northern Ireland and ensures that there aren't artificial barriers put up either between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom or indeed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We need, in short, a deal that works for everyone, and we believe through our efforts that people are prepared to be sensible on this, and that is something which ultimately can be achieved and the problems of Brexit overcome and the opportunities grasped.

The biggest challenge that has been placed before us is the stability of our political institutions. Again, the ambiguity that lay at the heart of the initial settlement has on a number of occasions created political instability.

In the first decade of the Assembly, there was very much a start-stop situation which collapsed on numerous occasions. There remains at the heart of our institutions a problem that either community can effectively veto those institutions. There is the opportunity for collapse at a whim. Sadly, that is what we saw last year with Sinn Féin. The collapse of the Assembly in 2017 has, I think, damaged community reconciliation and set back a lot of the good work that has happened.

I believe that we need something which removes the levels of uncertainty around the stability of the institutions where the latest crisis does not lead to the institutions themselves collapsing. So we need to inject within any settlement stability into the institutions which moves beyond simply trust and can therefore be robust enough to survive different disagreements. Power-sharing I think is here to stay, but that doesn't mean that every aspect of the institutions as established under the Belfast Agreement are sacrosanct. We must always strive to do better.

Finally, I think the fourth area that is a major challenge is that of legacy, dealing with the Troubles and particularly the deaths and injuries of the past. Again, the initial settlement in 1998, while it was enough to bring us forward in terms of conflict resolution, created at its heart a level of ambiguity around the differentiation between terrorism and democracy. I believe that that ambiguity has haunted the process ever since.

There is no common narrative over what has happened in the past, and currently, for example, in terms of definition, no difference or distinction drawn between the bomb maker and the bomb victim. Many of those in our society still suffer the raw wounds of the Troubles, both physically and psychologically, and an inability to get an agreement around the past, I think, has haunted our political process, and we have seen even this week widespread concerns over the government's proposals on dealing with legacy.

Now, sometimes it is often the case in Northern Ireland that we look to see what the difficulties are. But I take a much more optimistic view. I would say despite the challenges, despite the failures, and indeed despite some of the setbacks that we routinely suffered, I and my party remain profoundly optimistic. In Northern Ireland I think we have a very resilient people, people who went through decades of terrorism and the Troubles and have come out the other side—not unscathed, but ultimately as a people intact.

I believe for our people in Northern Ireland the prospects are good, and I think those prospects can be improved if we see the reestablishment of a stable, developed government trying to answer the concerns of all our people. We cannot allow the rhetoric of a few people to drag us back into the bunker mentality which simply divides Northern Ireland into two communities and creates war by other means. I think we need to see acceptance of all our cultural identities and beliefs, and if we have a genuine respect across the sectarian divide for all our self-identification and communities, I think we can achieve a more stable Northern Ireland. If we achieve a more stable Northern Ireland, we have a more settled community in a way that we can actually improve things for Northern Ireland.

I believe the best is yet to come for Northern Ireland and despite our difficulties I think that is something that can be achieved.

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: Thank you. Good afternoon.

Someone said come here and talk about a society which is divided, where vitriol and invective is the order of the day, where legislators are really almost at war—but I decided not to speak of the United States. I'm going to concentrate on home instead.

[Remarks in Irish.] Big thanks to Carnegie, to Martyn, to Lucy, to Allie, to John, for inviting us and for the great work they are doing in the Wellbeing Project, which really is a peace-building and peace-embedding project. I'm really grateful to you for affording us the opportunity to be here today.

Thanks as well to perhaps that most eloquent of all the people in the United States who speaks about the peace process, Senator George Mitchell. But it's worth saying that, even in his absence now, that we would have no peace process without America—without Irish America, of course, but without America. So, amidst the many turbulent arguments and that atmosphere of discord that is here, Americans should be very, very proud of having created what is one of the great exemplary peace processes in the world.

When I had the privilege of serving as the lord mayor of Belfast in 2013–2014, people said that was a clerical error, but I managed to hold on for one whole year. I spoke often of the dual priorities of building the peace and fostering reconciliation. Baroness May Blood is here and Sir William Leathem is here from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as well. I think that it has been my experience that where you try to meet the Unionist people halfway that they were always there, that the people on the ground wanted very much to see peace and reconciliation.

Those of us who are committed to putting wellbeing at the very heart of government will acknowledge that the absence of warfare is an essential starting point, and the Carnegie materials emphasize how important it is to remove war. I think that has been delivered at home. Likewise, reconciliation, celebrating difference, facilitating diversity, those are all things which are essential if you want to treasure wellbeing.

So I was right to emphasize peace-making and reconciliation. But actually on reflection now, five years on, I think I missed another essential cornerstone of building peace and embedding wellbeing, and that's the need for justice and equality for all. Without justice you can't have proper reconciliation, without justice you imperil the peace, and without justice you can't truly foster wellbeing. Of course—and I admire and respect Peter Weir, my former colleague—my belief is that the impasse we are experiencing is because of a lack of justice and equality at the heart of our government structures.

I agree that it is a disgrace we have been without government for over 600 days and counting. I am heartened by the fact that great work is continuing to go on, especially at the local level, and no one needs permission from a government which is paralyzed to continue to build community, to encourage prosperity, and to build for the future.

It is true that we can't make progress on major projects. One of my favorites is to double the size of the university in the city of Derry, an initiative which would transform the city and its citizens. You cannot make progress on those mega initiatives without government. Therefore, the absence of political institutions is an indictment. It's an indictment of me, it's an indictment of all who are in a position of leadership.

But let me state some other areas which Peter didn't mention, which may be the reasons why we don't have a government at the moment.

For me it's a source of pride that the reason why we are without political institutions is because many of our citizens demanded just and equal treatment. They withdrew their support, their confidence in the government. These people want to be at the table. They want to be at the Carnegie Roundtable. They want to ride at the front of the bus. They believe in the gospel of Harlem poet Langston Hughes—and we're close to Harlem. I'm going to quote three poets and one politician.

Langston Hughes wrote:

I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then.

Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed—

I, too, sing America.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which of course America helped to midwife, is rooted in the belief that everyone, everyone in the North of Ireland, should be treated equally. The Good Friday Agreement brought to a close almost 30 years of absolutely harrowing warfare. The gift of peace was the greatest gift my generation ever received.

When I first entered Belfast City Hall in 1987, I wore a flak jacket. I was thrown out of my first meeting by the police after 10 minutes. People said, "How did they stick you for 10 minutes?" I witnessed many attacks on my Council colleagues. Our offices in City Hall were bombed, and I walked behind too many coffins.

But the people facing me, the Unionist representatives, they walked behind just as many coffins as I walked behind. Their suffering was exactly the same as my suffering.

Yet, the Good Friday Agreement rescued us from that. It represented this historic compromise that I accepted: There would only be a united Ireland when a majority in Northern Ireland voted for it. But the British government under Unionists accepted everyone would be treated exactly the same and that Irish identity would receive what we called "parity of esteem," which is basically just a beautiful word for equal respect.

It's no coincidence that when the political institutions collapsed in January 2017, that the late Martin McGuinness, then the deputy first minister, said it was a lack of respect from the DUP which had eroded public confidence in the institutions and had made it impossible for them to continue. So in my view, our pursuit of wellbeing will not succeed until all in political leadership accept that, despite the hurt we have endured and inflicted, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren that we have to focus on the common good and on the commonweal.

"The war is over," four absolutely beautiful words. The war is over. The mindset of war has to be consigned to the dustbin, no matter how painful—and it is painful—for some people to do that.

As Michael Longley, freeman of Belfast, another great poet, wrote in Ceasefire:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.

So, as Peter said, there's no great narrative on the past. My dear friend Sammy Douglas in the DUP remembers being in America and getting a call. His cousin, a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier, had been shot dead by one of the Republican groups, and the hurt that caused him.

I have stood over the body of Alan Lundy, a father of five, shot in the head on May Day, 1993, while working on the house of a Council colleague of mine.

Anyone who has been through that not only treasures what we have but is absolutely committed to making sure that it pertains.

So what has happened? What has changed?

I think the late Dr. Ian Paisley put it wonderfully in this little quote which really captures the spirit of making peace. When I was finishing off as mayor, I invited him into City Hall for a reception with the president of Ireland. A journalist said to him: "What's it like? Because when you were in politics in your pomp, Sinn Féin would never have had the mayorship of Belfast." In fact, Belfast was a very strong Unionist city, and now it has flipped. It has changed really. It's a very diverse city in terms of political representation. He said, "What's it like for you, to have to be welcomed by a Sinn Féin mayor?"

He said: "We meet. We don't draw swords. We have certain things that are precious to one another. We believe that every man"—every man, every woman—"has the right to hold on to what he believes is good. But people are beginning to see that there's a unity between one part of Ireland and the other. That doesn't mean that the Ulster Unionists are all going to bow down to them, and it doesn't mean that Dublin is going to bow down. It means that we understand one another and while we hold strong to what we believe, we also believe that they have just as much right."

What beautiful words: "We meet. We don't draw swords." The reality is, all my friends from home who are here know that when the DUP and Sinn Féin meet today, we meet, we draw swords—metaphorical swords, but we draw swords.

So that's where we were five years ago, and it would be hard to argue then that we had made progress in that aspect of building peace.

In my view, Brexit is all about drawing swords. It's all about looking inwards, looking backwards, and the threat of opposing Brexit against the democratically expressed will of the people of the North of Ireland to me is a disgrace.

Yet I am confident, as Peter is, that the power-sharing institutions in the North of Ireland will be restored at some point. But I'm not a fool. I don't think they're going to be restored in short order. But that word, "power-sharing," goes to the very heart of the values of inclusion and compromise which are key to Carnegie and which epitomize wellbeing, inclusion, a place for everyone at the table. "Power-sharing"—what a powerful word.

But the roadblocks to the restoration of the institutions all speak to a denial of the principles of equality, respect, and inclusion. I'm going to explain what some of those are, and also my belief that if we remove the blockages which led to the fall of the institutions, why that would be in everyone's interest.

In my view, no one will lose out if, as promised back in 2007 by the British government, we had an Irish Language Act which would give Irish speakers in the North the same type of protections available in those radical countries, Scotland and Wales, and across the rest of Ireland.

In my view, we all gain if marriage equality is guaranteed as a right, as demanded by the LGBTQ community and by the majority of our people and by the majority of members of the legislature, as it is again everywhere else on our islands.

I think it is unsustainable when a majority of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) support more liberal laws on abortion, that the North of Ireland has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe—perhaps with the exception of the Faroe Islands, but I'm not even sure about that. Of course, in relation to the past, we can't make peace with the past if we continue to deny families access to inquest, as is happening now.

But whether in the future a united and agreed Ireland, or today in the North of Ireland, I want to see a society which cherishes all its people equally, a society with zero tolerance of religious sectarianism and racism, a society which affords opportunity on the basis of merit, a society in which the Irish identity and also Scots identity are celebrated and promoted as shared treasures.

Belfast is one of the youngest cities in Europe, and I do hope our friends in America get an opportunity to visit. I'm told that in terms of its demographics the youngest city in Europe is Dublin and Belfast is number three or four.

But there is huge change happening in Belfast, in government and out. The U.S. companies which have established European headquarters there include Citigroup of New York, which has 2,500 employees in Belfast; Liberty Mutual of Boston, which has 450 employees in Belfast; Allstate of Chicago. We have the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is like a peace process, both in Belfast at the same time.

Interestingly, all those major blue-chip global companies recently united behind a charter demanding marriage equality. Very unusual for corporations to come out strong on a civil rights issue, but they did that recently in Belfast. And of course, many of those companies take part in the annual Pride Parade, which is now the largest parade in Belfast. We have a lot of parades in Belfast, so having the largest is some boast.

I want to finish with a little reflection. This is like the guy you meet who says "what I used to be." But, anyway, when I was lord mayor of Belfast, I had a Buddhist chaplain. In fact, I had a Hindu chaplain, a Bahá'í chaplain, a Muslim chaplain, and the rabbi of Belfast. The Christians had four main churches because, as you know, in Ireland the Christians argue a lot. So everyone else got one.

My Buddhist chaplain was a man called Paul Haller. You wonder, Why would a really good Buddhist priest go to Belfast? He left Belfast in 1972, a very good year to leave, and he traveled the world that way via Thailand, Japan, and then to San Francisco, where he eventually came to occupy the highest position in Zen Buddhism in North America. He was the abbot of the San Francisco Zen monastery there.

I called him up and I said, "Paul, will you be my Buddhist chaplain?" I said, "There will be some responsibilities with this."

He said, "Of course I will, because I have huge experience of dealing with hopeless cases." [Laughter]

But I have to say that he gave me very good advice and gave our society very good advice. He actually came back and established in Belfast the Black Mountain Zen Centre, working with wounded people, people who have the trauma of the past of our Troubles and conflict, people who are wounded by addictions and other things. He works with wounded people.

His advice was that if you want to build a better society, a society with wellbeing at its heart, that you have to act with kindness and compassion and the knowledge of each other, and the knowledge we all live in each other's shelter in this connected world. So, I pledge to continue that work of reconciliation, of peace building, and ensuring that justice flows like a river.

I end with a lyric—it may be a prayer—from our greatest poet, Belfast's greatest poet, Van Morrison, and I offer it to my Unionist neighbors in the belief that, even in these difficult, challenging, polarized times, that we'll find a way to live together in peace and mutual respect with wellbeing for all as our objective. As Van Morrison wrote or sang:

From the dark end of the street To the bright side of the road We'll be lovers once again On the bright side of the road

Thank you very much.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much for that.

We have about 30 minutes for conversation. I'm sorry that Peter is not with us, but perhaps some of you who know him and his work and the position of his party and so on can help us out.

What I thought I would do is just open up the floor. You can take questions or we can have a conversation.

I noticed a lot of discussion about ambiguity but also resilience for this process, so I thought maybe I would kick it off.

I know most people are familiar with the situation. As you said, 600 days without government. If I could just put you on the spot for a moment to get us started, if you could focus on one thing in particular to restart the process or to get it going, what might that be to help us focus this conversation?

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: I identified in my view some of the blockages there. But I do want to emphasize that while politicians are paralyzed, civic society shouldn't be paralyzed, social enterprises shouldn't be paralyzed, integrated school movements shouldn't be paralyzed, sporting groups shouldn't be paralyzed, councils shouldn't be paralyzed. Whatever about our inability—and you've heard me state my reasons; Peter actually said what he thought the problem was—I do want to stress that if everybody was depending on politicians, we'd be in a very sorry state because I don't think there will be rapid movement or breakthrough. So I say that, number one.

Number two, it's amazing how we have lost the arc of the peace process, so I am very rarely in a room anymore where people are just with their political opposites having a conversation, maybe about housing or about trying to obtain grants. The great beauty of the European Union is when they came in with their peace money, it was the first time that actually I'd been around a table with Unionist colleagues making common cause. There is a need also to resurrect that very basic work of having opposites in terms of politics together.

But the other thing is I say it—and there are huge obstacles because the things I've outlined the DUP is insisting they will not concede on, these issues of what I see as justice as equality. So we are logjammed, but there may be someone here who is a genius to get us out of that.

Tourism Ireland, of course, because, interestingly, as the government went down, the tourism figures have gone through the roof, as Alison knows. And the investment—Andrea is up there from Invest Northern Ireland—since we went away, Andrea seems to be just doing better.

QUESTION: You have a particular view from Belfast. But one of the things the UK Carnegie Trust talked about was the importance of the towns. Could you speak a little bit about the perspective from the outlying towns and the rural area?

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: The Carnegie partners here all represent rural areas, I believe. I'm thrilled to hear that Carnegie has stayed loyal to Dunfermline because in Ireland, North or South, we don't suffer the decimation of inner cities which has been the experience in America, but our towns have been, I think, abandoned.

Also, with the move from retail to online, it's very easy for a village to go on a downward spiral. I recently went through the town of Portadown, where really commerce has been sucked from the city into—which Americans would be familiar with—the malls, and so the vitality and life of the towns is going.

So I think that's a danger. The bits where the towns are very strong are community organizations, sporting organizations, boxing organizations, crowded unions, civic society. But I do think that our towns have some challenges.

I don't know if it's true or not, but I have a feeling there are no peace walls in any of our towns outside Belfast, with the exception of Derry. Does Portadown have a peace wall?

AUDIENCE [off-mic]: [inaudible]

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: God almighty! But largely.

AUDIENCE [off-mic]: [inaudible]

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: So largely our rural towns don't have—I don't know if that's true. Somebody probably from there could tell me. Does it have the severity of the division that Belfast has?

AUDIENCE [off-mic]: [inaudible] It's a true peace wall.

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: We have 66 in Belfast, I believe.

AUDIENCE [off-mic]: [inaudible]

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I'm Rolf Alter from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) previously.

I just wonder. When you listen to these really perfect interventions, I still wonder what it is that makes a blockage. I mean a blockage—the ones that you cited, Máirtín—I thought, as you very well know, you look around the world, these are not things that are not going away anywhere else either easily. There is a lot of discussion about those things. So this is not a specific Irish, Northern Irish, UK, or European issue, it's everywhere.

So I do think blockages of that nature exist and it takes a while to overcome them. I am not seeing them being solved easily anywhere. That's just to say you are different but not that much different than the rest of the world.

But what I was also wondering—this is what I ask you—Senator Mitchell made a fantastic plea here, really impressive. I wonder, in your view does it take an external push to make you come, as you said, and sit with your opposites at the table? Does it take an injection of someone with a lot of goodwill, and perhaps also a bit of knowledge about Northern Ireland, to overcome that? Or is it really something that can only be homemade? I'm saying that because this experience that you seem to have from 1998, with a lot of talk and a lot of external engagement, helped a lot, and it got to a very decisive step of achievement. Is this the way to consider perhaps another of these interventions from the outside of help, not of imposing? Thank you.

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: I think, first of all, yes it is, I think, frustrating to people that we resolved the issues of the armed campaigns, the decommissioning of weapons, the release of prisoners—big issues—and then these issues which appear to be smaller cannot be resolved. That is interesting and intriguing.

But it is the reality that if we put the government back today as it was in December of 2016, it will not last one month. But I marvel at that, that we managed to do the huge things.

Personally, I think external intervention is always useful. You won't get a George Mitchell every day of the week. But I personally think, and this is just a personal view, that external intervention—and I consider this an external intervention—is useful. Whether or not that would be—there's some talk of an external chair for new talks.

But here's another spanner in the works. The British government is reliant absolutely on the DUP to remain in power. So you're trying to push that boulder up a hill, and there is a difficulty that if the British government upsets the DUP—and the DUP seems a little bit upset the last few days in the discussion around Brexit—but the British government is not in the position, I think, to give that push, to make that intervention, to say there'll be actions or there'll be talks.

The British secretary of state said, I think at our conference, that there would be talks in October, and there was no contact. I think she was in Belfast yesterday. There's no talk about talks. So, as if life wasn't complicated enough, there is that added part of the equation which is, I think, slowing us down at the moment.

Rolf, what do you think for an external intervention?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Alter]: Seriously, I think one of the most immediate—not external interventions, but supporters should be actually coming from the Europeans themselves. It's our region, I have to say. It's one of the 186 regions that exist in the European Union. I do think there should be a way to deal with that. This is not to belittle. Nothing to do with that. It's just that I think Europeans should be in a position these days to find solutions that are feasible and are agreed and agreeable. I don't think that we need to be looking so far.

But if someone else, like it happened in 1998, who is such a good friend of Northern Ireland as the United States—at least some parts of the United States seem to be—if that's the place, well, then, it's that place.

It's just that when I make my point about Europe as not just an association of very competitive people in business. I thought they have a little bit more. If I'm here with your fantastic hospitality, Joel, "Ethics Matter," for god's sake, why wouldn't we say this in Europe and then just go?

QUESTION: Máirtín, just a couple of things.

For those of you who don't know, I'm Norman Houston. I'm the diplomat representing Northern Ireland in the United States.

Just on the gentleman's point, first of all, about the chair of the talks, this has come up quite a lot, as you can imagine, in Washington over recent months. I think the issue really is identifying someone that all sides would recognize as something of a sort of new George Mitchell.

But I'll just make one comment on that. I know at the time there was the issue over the welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and the parties were at loggerheads about whether it would go through or not. Professor Eileen Evason came in from Ulster University, and I think there was an agreement at that stage that whatever the professor would come up with the parties would accept.

I just wonder—and I'll throw this out really—if you were to get someone to come in and there was an agreement beforehand that this learned person would be the arbiter of what needed to be done, would that be a way around things, in the sense that everybody had signed up to it? There's no answer to that question, but it's just throwing it out there.

My question—and I think I may be trespassing a little bit into the next session—is that everyone, yourself and Peter Weir, talked about the rising tide of the economy, Alison's fantastic tourism figures, and Andrea's great figures of inward investment. But one of the things that comes across my desk a lot in Washington is the idea that there are still a considerable number of people at home that haven't felt the rising tide of our economic renaissance. Have you any comment on what you would like to see done for those people who are still struggling to see that the peace process actually has made a difference in their lives?

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: I'll cover your first comment, Norman. As you were saying, Eileen Evason of course did a great job as an independent person, so if you get somebody who's independent but will come down on my side, we would accept all the recommendations.

No one should be left behind. There have been improvements. The statistics, the data, tells us that there have been enormous improvements, but we lag behind. So I think the indicator, as referenced against Scotland, Wales, and England, is that we still have more school leavers who have no qualifications. While we've reduced it by 20 points over the last 20 years—we still have more people without a Third Level qualification than Scotland, for example—we have increased the number who have a qualification.

I see lots of investment, I see ambitious communities with high aspirations, but I also see communities that are left on the edge and which still haven't managed to grasp this changing time we're in. Some communities are locked in the past.

I was at a police event on Monday night, helping the transformation of policing. Policing is also on a journey, but are bedeviled by these little remnants of paramilitary groups which in some areas can be quite strong, like in East Belfast and other areas, and still have a pernicious influence.

So, have we a bit to go? Absolutely, but I do think there has been enormous change even in the working-class areas that I represent.

QUESTION: Thanks. Quintin Oliver, a member of the Carnegie Roundtable.

Máirtín, I'm struck that in your fantastic speech, which was lyrical, poetic, historical, and visionary, you spoke as an observer rather than as an actor in the process. And you reminded us of your fantastic year as mayor, where you even adopted the term "Lord," which you said to us this afternoon was big for your community, and the things you did in that year, including that session with the late Ian Paisley Sr., as brave actions from a position.

Now you have a position. You are an elected politician. You listened to Peter and you then observed, interestingly, that you don't have the opportunity to talk. You pass the baton to civil society to rise up and do stuff.

What can you do as an active politician without an Assembly meeting in order to advance those issues? Will you sit with Peter Weir and discuss educational underachievement? Will you sit with Sammy Douglas? Will you sit with the councils here that are still meeting every day and cutting deals, rather than sit above it?

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: Let me respond in two parts. First of all, every day I am involved with interchanges and cross-community exchanges and bridge building and so on, and that'll continue, and you'll see some of that later this year as we do some of the events in Belfast.

But it is true—and I said this earlier—there is a new cohort of MLAs who came into the parliament in March 2017 who have never spoken in the Assembly. The Assembly doesn't sit. The government fell. So they've never actually had any opportunity to meet their counterparts on committees or on the Assembly floor or in exchange visits or whatever.

In my view, the opportunities for getting to know people are less. Not on my part—I'm talking about the younger people who, when I meet them in a room, I can't remember their names. So it will be hard for people to realize who all the new MLAs are. So I do think there is less exchange.

I am content. I am continuing to work across the divides in South Belfast. But what I will accept is that was an observational overview of where we are, and it was deliberate because we are paralyzed. I can go and meet Christopher Stalford or Mike Nesbitt or Emma Pengelly or whoever—and those things should happen and will happen—but it will not take away the fact that we are paralyzed. I have identified what I think is necessary to break that logjam.

I accept that, that it is from a position of saying we're stuck. Maybe it's a cri de coeur rather than a refusal to accept responsibility. I don't know if that helps.

QUESTION: Paul Cavanagh from the Derry and Strabane partnership and also I work in the health service.

Living in Derry, there's growing anxiety about a hard border, and I think, Máirtín, you probably covered a fair amount about Brexit. We're here to talk about wellbeing, and Brexit is very, very worrying. It's particularly worrying, I think, in border areas. Derry is a big city that sits on the border. I live half a mile from the border. My children live in Letterkenny and Donegal, so they're just a few minutes up the road.

But you do wonder, the nationalist community in particular—I come from Derry, so it's obvious which community I'm from by the name of the city that I use [Editor's note: Catholics (Nationalists/Republicans) usually use Derry while Protestants (Unionists/Loyalists) refer to it as Londonderry]—but you do wonder, I suppose, how the nationalist community's views are being taken into account at a time when there's no Assembly, and it's time as well, as Máirtín said, that the DUP is propping up the Conservative government.

So I wonder, Máirtín, is there any insight in the discussions that you've been involved in in relation to genuinely moving away from the sense of a hard border and genuinely giving a sense to the kind of lemming-like leap that we may take in relation to not giving Northern Ireland some special status within the deal to leave the European Union actually will be brought about?

MÁIRTÍN Ó MUILLEOIR: You sort of have a choice. You can take Quintin's paralysis or you can take the chaos of Brexit. I have no insight into where this is going to go. I'm definitely talking about Brexit as an observer, but then again—and I'm not even sure that Mrs. May knows where it's going.

I had the great opportunity of addressing 27 ministers of Europe. I sneaked into a meeting in Brussels because the United Kingdom was starting to boycott these meetings because they had voted to leave, so there was a space for a UK Minister. Since there was no message from London, they said, "Does anyone else want to take it?"

I said, "Well, I'm in town." I had a lovely Union flag (i.e.the British Union Jack), marched in with a Union flag. So when they asked for comments, I said, "Yes, I'd like to speak." They presumed I was some Irish end of the government.

I spoke, of course, passionately against Brexit. I said, "You give me the opportunity"—and I'll finish on this—"in 590"—the Yanks don't believe there ever was a 590—"but in 590 AD, St. Columbanus sailed from the port of Belfast, from Bangor, to what's now Dunfermline in now Scotland, to what was then Gaul and is now France; set up their monastery at St. Gallen, which is now Switzerland; and ended his life in Bobium, in Italy with a little vineyard and making beer, as every saint should; died in 614, I believe, St. Columbanus."

I said to the ministers: "We have been Europeans at least since 590, so whatever economic catastrophe or damage that Brexit will do, it's the cultural damage that I think is so dreadful and detrimental to our wellbeing, and to think that the European Union has been such a great ally that we're casting that aside. We will work to make sure that it doesn't squander the gains we've made or the economic progress such as it is."

That's my thoughts. Thanks again.

Can I say again that we are very lucky we have Norman Houston in Washington representing us; and Lorraine, of course, who is not here at the moment, who is in Liverpool due to the illness of her brother. But an absolute champion of diplomacy working with both sides throughout with Martyn. We have had the privilege, and both Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson speak very highly of Norman, hold him in high regard. We are very lucky that he is our spearhead, he's the tip of the spear of our diplomatic service, a great champion, and very patient.

And Richard Cushnie is here from the Northern Ireland Bureau as well, who has had a baptism of fire. He's still waiting for his government. He has been sitting here at the office while there has been no government.

But also Andrea Haughian from Invest in Northern Ireland, who is a whirlwind and a dynamo in this city, keeps on getting people to invest, which of course we understand. We're a little bit baffled that they invest so close to Brexit, but it's magnificent. Andrea, well done.

And then Alison Metcalfe who in the work of Tourism Ireland is absolutely priceless, and nothing has transformed, in my view, Belfast more than this huge explosion in tourism and all the jobs and businesses that have spun out from that.

So, maybe those three get a round of applause.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.

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