President Mary McAleese last night delivered the fourth annual Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Ulster.
Speaking to an invited audience of VIPs at the Belfast campus, the Irish President addressed the theme of “The island of Ireland: the next ten years.”
In a wide-ranging speech touching on the history of the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, policing and community relations as well as more recent economic crises north and south of the Border, President McAleese sounded a note of optimism for the future of the island.
“The institutions put in place by the Good Friday Agreement are maturing and developing and truly coming into their own, she said.
“With the completion of devolution and a decade of post-Good Friday Agreement politics and community effort, we are set to see real momentum gather as this hard-earned peace delivers on its promise and its potential.
“The tired old polemic of the past has given way to a new language of mutual encounter which is more collegial, more enabling of trust, more facilitating of joint problem-solving," she told her audience of academics and distinguished public figures.
Turning to contemporary financial difficulties north and south, the President said: “I am very conscious that both parts of the island are currently grappling with difficult economic situations arising from the global down-turn and, in our case, compounded by a dysfunctional property market and reckless past practices in the banking and financial sectors.
“In the past, economic adversity in Ireland was accompanied by a double failure – that of political division and conflict. In addressing the current economic challenges, we are mercifully free from the old millstone of violence that may have induced a sense of fatalism. Buoyed up by the knowledge and experience of how successfully we have addressed our political divisions, we can now bring the same qualities and talents, the same persistence and creativity, to bear on the resolution of our economic difficulties.
“The fact that both administrations on the island share similar fiscal challenges makes the incentive for North/South co-operation all the greater."
But she was careful to emphasise that there are still dangers to faced and problem to be overcome:
“There are still potential tripwires on the journey ahead. The toxic spores of sectarian attitudes are still embedded and they continue to outcrop in violence and in streets that are unsafe.
"Too many people still live lives in the false comfort of sectarian ghettoes. The peace dividend is not yet equally distributed and the weight of hurt and loss is still so hard to bear for some that they cannot yet sign up to this new dispensation.
"There are sorrows to be healed compassionately and patiently and there are some that will never be healed for the dead cannot be returned to us and not all physical or emotional scars can be erased.
"But those of us who have the gift of life and health have a responsibility to those who do not, to use the breath in our bodies in the decade ahead to make the world around us safer, better, happier, healthier, friendlier. "
Concluding, President McAleese offered her listeners a message of hope and confidence for the future:
“We have the chance to be the generation that overcame centuries of hatred and replaced it with respectful partnership, the generation that faced into economic chaos and courageously faced it down, the generation that made the second decade of the twenty-first century the one which the history books will record as the best ever in the history of this island. Let’s do it. Let us surprise ourselves and stun our children with prosperity rescued and peace consolidated.”
The Irish President – who holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster – was welcomed to the University by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, Professor Alastair Adair, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Communication and External Affairs, and Provost of the University’s Belfast campus, and professor Pol O Dochartaigh, Dean of the Faculty of Arts.
The guests were entertained by the choir and orchestra of St Dominc's School, Belfast, and a light supper was served following the departure of President McAleese and her entourage.
A podcast of the President's speech can be downloaded from: