Earlier this year the visit by the Irish President to Britain epitomised the sea-change in relationships between the islands in recent years. It was a hugely successful visit marked by the sincerity of the President and his innate ability to capture the moment in words.
The Talks here, finally including both Governments, reflect a testing time in relationships in Northern Ireland. Currying yoghurt and B-words may be outward manifestations of issues of respect and trust, but they are a reminder of the potential for lack of reconciliation in this region to undermine the future.
Identity issues have plagued relations on these islands for decades and generations, and the poison is still present concentrated in Northern Ireland.
Just after the President’s visit I wrote that “the two Governments must also understand that the reconciliation and peace building needs in Northern Ireland impact on those relationships now, and will continue to do so in the future. If things go sour again the effect may be felt across these islands with causes most likely found squarely in Northern Ireland. That is why the Governments must re-engage better with more understanding of, and commitment to, the reconciliation project as a priority at the core of peace building on these islands… a critical responsibility rests with the two Governments, as guarantors and guardians of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, as those most to gain and lose from the state of relations on these islands. They must ensure that the structures supporting peace building and reconciliation are fit for purpose and able to deliver what they and we want to see – an enduring peace process, a better future for us all built on good relations for people across all parts of these islands.
They cannot be complacent about the prospect of going back to any level of violence simply because in this region we weren’t sufficiently helped to be ambitious enough.”
This is why the idea of a reconciliation fund is not a bad idea, if that is one of the conclusions coming out of these Talks. Of course, the substantial issues that have bedevilled political discourse here for the last few years need earnestly and genuinely addressed.
More money just to balance a budget and help avoid the need for agreement on difficult issues would not be a long-term gain.
But we are at a point where big steps are needed; big steps that will be transformational and represent a change of paradigm in how this society – politicians and civil society together – does political process and government.
However, reconciliation, transforming relationships in Northern Ireland in a way that will never again threaten relationships between the UK and Ireland as a whole, will be long term and generational work. A reconciliation fund that recognises the generational needs and nature of peace building, and that is independent of the buffeting of politics in a region making generational change happen, may be just what is needed.
Not least, it may be critical for ensuring that this society is not again allowing the conditions to be created for a return to violence.
The next generation of leaders will be a generation with less memory of the dreadful conflict that afflicted this region in the 70s, 80s and 90s. They may be a generation that can therefore embrace change, trust and respect for “the other” better than now.
They may be the generation that will carry the burden and enjoy the bounty of completing this peace process.
But we need to allow them to inherit a society better than we have now. Which is why now, and in coming years, we need to create the conditions that will significantly advance reconciliation – in the interests not just of people in Northern Ireland but in the interests of the two Governments and everyone living on these islands.
By Peter Osborne.