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The Peace Process in Northern Ireland and Lessons for Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Albert Reynolds
Former Prime Minister of Ireland

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

It is my pleasure, indeed, to take the opportunity of covering the very topical international subject this morning of human rights and religious freedom. Of course, I have a special place in my heart for the Irish peace process, which itself also deals with religious freedom.

The world is changing, but not always for the better. The end of the Cold War certainly did produce changes of unprecedented magnitude in world affairs since World War II. In the late 1980s came the illusions of the new world order, of the end of history, and of other prophetic visions of a freer, more peaceful, and better future. Since then, we have been confronted by the sometimes unbearable images of ethnic war in Europe, the Rwanda genocide, a whole string of striking images of violence, conflict and inhuman sufferings, and the denial of human rights and religious freedom. All have brought about a sobering view of what is happening in the post cold war period. We are beginning to realize that peace and fundamental rights, including religious freedom, can never be taken for granted.

The nature of conflict itself is changing. Traditional conflicts between armies of different nations have been replaced by the bloodiest internal and mixed conflicts, where civilians are not accidental casualties, but the primary target of attacks, and where crimes against humanity and genocide are not only a means, but a purpose of the conflict. The minimum rules that all nations have agreed would always apply—the laws of war—are violated as a policy, not by accident. We are beginning to realize that the rules of humanity can no longer be taken for granted.

For far too long, governments around the world tended to seek compliance with fundamental rights as essentially an issue to be dealt with by its sovereign governments. Violations were frequently viewed as a matter for regret, rather than for determined and concerted international action. Even at the United Nations, the doctrine of non-interference was for too long presented as a sacred dogma more important, so it seemed, than the trampled rights of innocent human beings.

Now that picture has dramatically changed. The experience of genocide in Cambodia, and of apartheid in South Africa, were important events in this transformation. They showed the extent of evil. They also showed the determination of ordinary people around the world to fight these evils and to reestablish their basic human rights. The protection of human rights today is at the forefront of the international agenda. We no longer see human rights violations in a predominantly legalistic way, but as unacceptable violations of the rights of individuals. The Irish government does not accept that governments have the option to remain silent on flagrant human rights abuses, and denial of religious freedom for reasons of expediency.

As we all celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must recognize that we have fallen short in implementing the goals and aspirations of that declaration. While recognizing that none of us has grounds for complacency in this regard, it is a reality that the human rights situation in certain countries remains a particular concern to the international community. The last speaker, Mr. Canady, has mentioned quite a few of them. The European Union, in its memorandum to the United Nations General Assembly last year, has listed the areas of particular concern to us, including the human rights situation in the Sudan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, to name but a few.

We must all work together, governments and non-governmental organizations, and civil society generally, in dialogue and partnership to ensure that the human rights principles and rights in the charter and the Universal Declaration are respected to the full. It is a cause of great pride to the government and people of Ireland that the Secretary General of the United Nations has chosen Mrs. Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, as a new High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has brought energy, talent, dedication and vision to her new challenge to promote fundamental human rights all around the world. The international community is now responding to the need to break the cycle of violence, to challenge impunity, to reinforce the rule of law and to uphold human rights and the freedom to practice religion of one’s own choice.

Religious freedom is the right of man, as a person, to decide freely for or against religion, to express freely his mind on religious matters—for and against—and to confess it openly by worship, propaganda, educational efforts, and so on. Religious freedom is, therefore, a right which not only belongs to individuals, but also to religious groups as such in their own way. It is primarily asserted against the state, and represents one of the fundamental rights of man, that is, one of the rights of the person prior to positive law, which stems from his nature as a free and rational human being.

Since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has become an element of nearly all the constitutions of modern states, and it has also been enunciated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. One of its first explicit appearances appears to have been in the Articles of Agreement of the Irish Confederacy Act of 1641. Though religious freedom is primarily a matter of civil or constitutional rights, it is a problem to be discussed in the philosophy of law. It must also be explicitly discussed in the theology of religious freedom or tolerance, which should use the ordinary methods of theology to demonstrate that the religious act is intrinsically and necessarily an act to be freely accomplished by the adult person. The social and political implications of this basic truth need to be discussed at length.

Historically speaking, religious freedom is the outcome of the fierce conflicts of the Christian confessions with one another, as well as of the conflicts between the Christian churches and the Enlightenment, which worked for emancipation and secularization. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience, which are now to a great extent taken for granted by Christians, owe their existence not to the churches, the theologians or Christian leaders, but to the modern states, the jurists and the rational law of nations.

Religious freedom has often been condemned because it seemed to conjure up the dangers of indifferentism, naturalism, and liberalism. It was only at the end of a long revolution that theologians grasped the full scope of the rights of the individual, and of religious groups outside the main churches and hence, the civil, political and finally the theologically desirability of religious freedom. Religious freedom is, therefore, understood formally as immunity from coercion in civil society.

One element of religious freedom is that, in spreading religious faith, everyone ought to at all times refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion, or a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s own right and the violation of the rights of others. This assertion represents a very grave warning, which affirms that all efforts at disseminating religion must conform to the criteria of freedom and honesty.

Of course, religious bodies must have the right to organize their interior structure, to choose their own officials, to acquire property, to worship publicly, to engage in educational, cultural, and charitable activities, and to protect the right of parents to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education their children are to receive. Certain privileges enjoyed by a religion, thanks to the historic and cultural situation of certain nations, are left untouched in so far as the right to religious freedom is acknowledged and granted to all citizens and all religious bodies, such as the minorities in many of those countries.

Coercion and all impediments to religious practice from the side of civil authority are to be condemned when a warning is uttered about abuses that could occur under the cloak of religious freedom. Where genuine public peace is, however, endangered, the civil power must intervene for the sake of the common good, and the betterment of the community.

As we approach the new millennium, we should all demand religious freedom, not only for ourselves, but for all men and women as a fundamental human right. We should strive to produce a society based universally on true freedom, justice, and solidarity; one in which the sincere effort for religious truth alone can be conducted in fitting form, and in which the religious act, like the rejection of religion, can be true to itself; the free, responsible private affair of each single person.

Religious bodies as such should affirm their rights and duties upon the human and political claim, as well as religious activity. We should build the platform for a future in which it is possible for one to seek absolute religious truth, freedom, justice, and live in peace and harmony, free from all repression.

It was in search of such peace, harmony, and religious freedom that in February 1992, after my election as the new prime minister of Ireland, I set out then on a journey for justice and a path to peace. I set for myself two political objectives for my term in government: One was to bring peace to Ireland, and the other was to develop the Irish economy in order to make a much greater impact on the unsolved problems of unemployment, the greatest social evil of all. To do otherwise, to me, would be a failure of leadership. It was my vision then, that both these two objectives were not unrelated. If we could achieve peace, it would most certainly make a significant contribution toward greater prosperity for Ireland and, indeed, toward establishing a more fair and equitable society in which people could work out a new accommodation between the differing traditions and religious beliefs.

The centuries old conflict between people of different religious beliefs and traditions in Ireland had gone on for far too long. In fact, in every decade of this century there has been confrontation and conflict resulting in serious loss of life. People on both sides of the religious divide were getting farther and farther away from really understanding each other. The last thirty years has seen almost 3,500 people dead, and about 45,000 people injured, in non-stop conflict depicted around the world by endless funerals on television, walls of wilted flowers, and an eternity of tears.

So it was, that I believed the time had come for a bold new initiative to try and end this cycle of violence, to break down barriers of distrust, to seek to build a new and inclusive society, in which everybody could enjoy religious freedom, and to start a process of reconciliation that would hopefully rid us of all the religious hatred and sectarian bigotry that had dug deep into the hearts and minds of the people living in the North of Ireland. As all previous government policies had failed in this regard, I was setting out on a dangerous and high-risk political mission. I would be attempting to engage, indirectly at first, the men of violence on both sides; to engage them in dialogue and debate and make them eventually carve out the overall solution. Nevertheless, I believe that it required taking risks for peace.

British Prime Minister John Major and I, on behalf of our two governments, published the Downing Street Declaration on 15 December 1993, after almost 15 months of quiet negotiations behind the scenes and away from the public eye. I believed that this declaration was really a charter for peace in Ireland, setting out the principles in which all of us—from all political parties, religious views and political persuasions—could go forward. It was a set of principles designed to bring justice and equality to the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, for the first time since Britain partitioned our island in the 1920s, and to end once and for all the dominant position of the Unionist and Protestant political establishments in dispensing power and privilege; dispensing it on a sectarian basis and, indeed, showing little respect for the minority of the Catholic population over the years.

The way forward, in my view, was to create an alternative strategy to violence, building on the principle of consent. Any changes that would take place would be done with the consent of both majority and minority. So it has been, right through all the negotiations, resulting in the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, last. The Downing Street Declaration was the foundation on which the IRA cease fire of August 1994, and the Loyalist paramilitary cease fire six weeks later, were brought about. This was followed by another document, which put flesh on the principles set out in the Downing Street Declaration. It was the main agenda for the multiparty talks, and indeed, foreshadowed many aspects of the agreement, which was finally concluded.

The alternative strategy, in my view, was the key. We had to demonstrate to the men of Ireland, on both sides, that political progress toward the achievement of full human rights could be best brought about by the democratic and political system, rather than the pursuit of violence, that had been all our experiences for over thirty years and, indeed, for centuries past. A new sort of system had to first remove the ban on spokespersons for those organizations on the national airwaves, both radio and television. Indeed, the assistance of President Clinton in reversing the policy decision of the United States, and granting visas to the leadership of the IRA, and subsequently to the loyalist paramilitary, was a factor. All of those issues—and indeed the commitment to parole political prisoners—came together in a strategy to demonstrate that coming into the political and democratic process was a better way forward than the way of violence, death and destruction they had chosen throughout the years, and for many centuries before.

That agreement was set out and finally achieved. Compromise took place on all sides. It is, in my view, a fair deal for everybody. It recognizes the wrong-doings of the past, and is a clear acceptance of the challenge of change, and the commitment to manage that change, for all those who took part in the round table conference. It represents an historical move forward for the nationalist followers—mainly Catholics—and an unprecedented move forward by the Ulster Unionists, or Protestants, in agreeing to the creation of new institutions that would involve all parts of Ireland, north and south, and that will promote a better understanding between all sides.

These institutions will also produce economic, cultural and social development that will bring the two parts of our island closer together over time. The agreement will also enshrine, for the first time in law, a bill of rights that will embody all fundamental human rights, including religious freedom. This bill of rights will also enshrine the European Charter on Human Rights. It will ensure that religious discrimination in the areas of housing, education, and employment will end forever, and that the practice of one’s own choice of religion will never be the subject of harassment in the future.

Already, the results are beginning to show. . . The new parliamentary assembly in Belfast will provide for the first time consensus decision making, not just favoring majorities, and not just winner take all. This will end the dominance of one tradition over the other, where a very sizable minority of 43 percent of Catholics was not allowed to participate in the distribution of power and privilege. This was an exclusive domain of one segment of society, mainly in the Protestant tradition. The Test Act, well known to many, was established over 200 years ago to protect and preserve the dominance of the Protestant religion.

The agreement reached on the constitution resulted in both the British and the Irish governments withdrawing their sovereignty claims over that part of our island, enshrining new articles in our Constitution (and in the constitutional law of Great Britain), ensuring that the people would be sovereign for the future, and that both governments would respect their wishes in any future referendum as to how they would want to be governed, and by whom. This historic agreement between the two traditions on our island is a truly remarkable one, and points the way forward for the solution of other ethnic conflicts. In a recent referendum, it has been endorsed by 95 percent of the people in the Republic of Ireland, and by over 70 percent in the north of Ireland. This augurs well for a peaceful future; a future in which a new accommodation will be worked out between the two traditions that have known nothing but conflict and confrontation, especially over the last thirty years (and indeed for centuries), but can now look forward with confidence, and with hope, and with realizable expectations that violence is left behind for good. Mutual respect between individuals is slowly being established.

I was personally proud to be part of this history making process. Peace to me was always the greatest cause in any society. It is a matter of tremendous personal satisfaction for me to have been able to contribute to the saving of so much human life—not just since the cease—fires of 1994, but far into the distant future—and to establish fundamental human rights and equality of treatment for all in the north of Ireland.

It is interesting to know that this year we celebrated, in Ireland, a commemoration of an armed rebellion that took place just exactly 200 years ago, when the working class of Catholics and Protestants rose up together, in north and south, with leaders from that rebellion from Belfast in the north and from Waterford and many other areas in the south. In this year of commemoration of that uprising, which signaled the start of physical armed conflict in Ireland to try to achieve political progress, we are delighted to celebrate and send a different message out to the world as a result of this agreement. Irish people, Catholics and Protestants, from the north and from the south, have joined together in the one single message that we have found a new way forward in peace: mutual respect, human rights, and religious freedom.

I always reminded myself in those years of what Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote; “a politician should do the things that politicians think they cannot do.” I tried to be one such politician. Leadership, to me, is taking people from where they have been to where they have not been. Thank you very much.