Speech by President Charles Michel at the Good Friday Agreement 25th anniversary conference
Brother Roger of Taizé, a Christian leader who devoted his life to reconciling different Christian denominations, once said, and I paraphrase: “Strength and courage is when someone can shake hands and listen to the other, despite past divisions.” It was precisely this strength and courage, twenty-five years ago, that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
A remarkable — and rare — achievement that largely ended three decades of fighting in Northern Ireland. Especially rare when we look at the arc of human history, full of unsolved conflicts that continue to divide peoples, leading to entrenched suffering generation after generation. Yet, right here in Northern Ireland — against all odds — a peace deal was reached and a new hope took root that day. It was not the end of a journey, but a new beginning, ending armed conflict and securing the rights of all people in Northern Ireland. That is why we come together today to mark the anniversary of this historic deal. It is our duty to keep the spirit of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement alive, just as it was born 25 years ago.
We pay tribute, first and foremost, to the people of this land. The countless unsung heroes. Yes, I call them heroes, the visionaries who imagined a society reconciled with the past and able to look to the future. A future forged in peace, free from violence. All the people of this land willing to embark on a journey towards reconciliation. The politicians, the treaties, the agreements — they are all crucial to the process. But it is the will of the people that is the steely backbone — the vision — for what Northern Ireland can be. Thousands of unnamed people over many years worked to unlock this Agreement, in politics, public life, religion, and civil society. The full story of this peace agreement cannot be told without acknowledging their brave contributions.
Without the will of the people, the Good Friday Agreement would be just another paper in the museum of failed peace deals. And I’d like to pay particular tribute to the women of Northern Ireland, like Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire. And of course we can never forget the enormous contributions of the visionary leaders. Leaders like John Hume, David Trimble, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, and so many others. Their efforts, your efforts, ensured that the people’s will did not fall on barren ground.
So today, we must protect the gains of this Agreement and stay true to its principles — of peace, respect, tolerance. Because this is the best way to knit together a society that is stronger and more united on a land that is shared together.
In the European Union, we also know the importance of the strong backing of our citizens. Without the support of the citizens, our Union would not have seen the light of day. Enemies who once fought each other on European soil agreed to create shared institutions on that very same soil. To work together to build trust and mutual understanding on a path towards reconciliation.
When the UK and Ireland joined the EU together, in 1973, they subscribed to this common vision. And over the decades, the contacts between British, Irish and EU officials, at all levels, helped to cement mutual trust and understanding.
The European project, one could say, helped to prepare the ground for the seed of peace to take root in Northern Ireland. It focused on improving the daily lives of people, on building alliances, not on identity and politics; it focused on practical issues — like agriculture, transport, economic cooperation but also rule of law and citizens’ rights. Our goal was to foster our diverse identities, while still uniting around these differences. And to build a strong single market. Not to erase borders, but to make them less divisive, less important, less burdensome.
We also know that transforming a vision into reality doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a lot of hard work. Reconciliation, trust, and cooperation are not the work of hours and days but months, years, and decades. And it takes willingness to compromise, to step across divides and to take risks.
In Europe, we do not pretend to have all the answers. But we strive to provide a space to come together — and to work together — on a common vision for our common destiny. In this same spirit, the EU was quick to respond after the first ceasefires in Northern Ireland in 1994. The European Commission President Jacques Delors simply asked: ‘what can the EU do to help build lasting peace?’ This led to the creation of the EU PEACE Programmes which have helped to foster peace and reconciliation between communities since 1995.
The EU has also contributed to a range of infrastructure projects — like, for instance, developing the successful Waterfront area here in Belfast — and many social projects, including those aimed at victims of ‘The Troubles’, on both sides of the Irish border.
In the EU, we remain fully committed to fostering peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is no secret that the United Kingdom’s sovereign decision to leave the EU posed serious new challenges. For instance, the complexities at the border.
For the EU, our main goal has always been to make sure that Brexit does not undermine the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. And that it does not resurrect the borders — and the divisions — of the past. That is why we have always worked to build trust and to find collective and, at times, imaginative solutions. And to move forward in a way that listens to — and respects — the communities in Northern Ireland.
The recently agreed Windsor Framework does precisely that. It provides a good opportunity to build a more positive and stable relationship between the EU and the UK. To work better together, to build trust together, anchored in our shared interests and our common fundamental values. I think it will provide greater certainty and predictability for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland. It is you — the people of this fine land — that must decide your future, together. This is the only way to build a stable and prosperous future.
Your country has changed beyond recognition over the last quarter of a century. Today you have peace in Northern Ireland and you have something more. Something that can only be achieved through peace. You have greater prosperity.
For this reason, it has become a model for solving other entrenched conflicts across the world, some of them in Europe. The Belfast Agreement also represents the product — and the high point — of another era. An era when the values of liberal democracies were preeminent in the world.
In the past 25 years, the world has changed dramatically: the September 11th attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global economic crisis, the climate emergency, COVID-19. And now Russia’s war against Ukraine, where we see the tragic consequences of war.
In these turbulent times, two great allies like the United Kingdom and the European Union, we need each other more than ever. We stand together to tackle common challenges like climate change. We stand together to uphold human dignity and human rights. In this increasingly dangerous world, Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are a powerful symbol of what our shared values can achieve.
Let’s continue to build on this unstoppable belief in the potential of peace, for more freedom, more prosperity, and more democracy for the people of Northern Ireland and for all people across the world. Thank you.