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Tánaiste Address to the Atlantic Council – 8 Feb 2023


Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD

Address to the Atlantic Council – 8 Feb 2023

Human rights & the international rules based order, and what it means for Northern Ireland


Ambassador Dobriansky, Council members, thank you for having me here today. 

Standing here, I am mindful of the many thousands of people in Syria and Turkey who this morning are waiting on news of a loved one. My thoughts are with those who lost family and friends in Monday’s terrible earthquake.  


An international response is being mobilised to assist with search and rescue. Ireland is part of that response. More cooperation will be needed to help rebuild the communities touched by this tragedy. 

That international cooperation is in the spirit of the founding vision of this Atlantic Council, over 60 years ago.  

The challenges the world faces today would look both vastly different and very familiar to those wise founders.

This is a time of war.


Responding to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the United States and Europe have stepped up our cooperation.


This is a time of disinformation. That’s why it is important that we speak clearly - Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a grave violation of international law and a blatant breach of the UN Charter. 

It is a challenge to the rules-based order which, although imperfect, has lasted since 1945.

Embedded in this order are universal values, expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. All people have the right to live in dignity and to have their human rights and fundamental freedoms respected.

When those values inform our politics, our laws, and our actions, hope and optimism follow. 

In Ireland, we have enjoyed 25 years of hope and optimism – the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, rooted that peace not just in human rights values, but also human rights institutions within an agreed order now with popular legitimacy. 

More generally, for most countries, a rules-based international order is not a vague aspiration but a vital necessity. Effective multilateralism, rooted in universal principles, protects us all, whether big or small.  

That is why, 100 years ago, one of Ireland’s first acts as an independent State was to apply to join the League of Nations. 

One of Ireland’s longest serving Foreign Ministers, Frank Aiken, a man who knew the price of conflict at home, spoke in the 1950s of the importance of “a system of world government in which disputes between nations will be settled by law based on justice rather than by force”.

Interdependence based on collectively-agreed laws is the essence of the European Union – a remarkable experiment in pooled sovereignty that is one of the world’s most remarkable peace processes.  

Ireland joined the European Union fifty years ago. Membership has been transformational, driving economic change and in many ways contributing to peace on the island of Ireland. 

It was because Ireland sees the value of the rules-based order that we stood for election to the UN Security Council for the period 2021-22.

We assumed that responsibility to make a difference, in full knowledge of the Council’s flaws and need for reform.

Notwithstanding those challenges – and they are many – there is much in Ireland’s contribution over those two years in which we can take pride.  

The question now is how do we take that momentum and progress our priorities beyond our Council term.


The rule of law and human rights - foundations of the peace process

The first thing we need to do is live our values.  

We must do our best to deliver on the principles of inclusion, equality, non-discrimination and parity of esteem that unlocked and transformed relationships on our island, paving the way 25 years ago for the Good Friday Agreement.

As one of that Agreement’s architects, John Hume, when awarded Nobel Peace Prize said:

The basis of peace and stability, in any society, has to be the fullest respect for the human rights of all its people. 

The Agreement’s requirement that the European Convention of Human Rights be incorporated into law offered the foundations for a reset in Northern Ireland. 

In turn, this enabled new confidence in the rule of law, and opened the way for the transformation of justice and policing reform in Northern Ireland.  Justice and policing now enjoy support across all perspectives in Northern Ireland.  

In 2010, policing and justice powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, something which was unthinkable even a few years earlier.

The Good Friday Agreement also mandated the establishment of human rights commissions North and South, to vindicate and uphold the rights of citizens, giving them confidence in the settlement.

Implementing a peace agreement is never easy.  Building new relationships, consolidating trust, requires an investment of time and energy. Rules, institutions, help.

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU – under whose umbrella both Ireland and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, shared common rules and institutions – has complicated things.  


That’s why successive Irish Governments have made the protection of the Good Friday Agreement across all three of its strands – within Northern Ireland, Ireland North and South, and East-West - a priority. 

A delicate balance in Northern Ireland has had to be reset.  



The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which UK government agreed with the EU as part of its withdrawal package, was part of that – but remains a challenge which the EU is currently working with UK negotiators to resolve.  

With pragmatism and purpose, I believe a sustainable solution accepted by all communities is within reach.

Legacy and reconciliation

Functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland would help people address day-to-day challenges.

Some of those challenges are universal, such as getting a decent education and a good job, although of course with a Northern Ireland flavour.

Some are specific, in particular the legacy of violence which saw too many killed and injured during the Troubles.

While the Good Friday Agreement states ‘it is essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation’, no proper process was put in place then to make this statement meaningful.

Victims express frustration at what they see as a lack of progress towards truth, justice and accountability.  

Serious attempts to put in place an agreed framework for dealing with the past have been made.  

This included vital contributions from American partners, in particular Meghan O’Sullivan and Richard Haas, and the conclusion of a number of inquiries and inquests.


However, far too many families still have unanswered questions.  


There are still too many myths and mutual accusations for us to build the truly reconciled Northern Ireland its people deserve.

I thought we had a mechanism to deliver for families and societies when in 2014 in Stormont House Agreement the two governments and most parties in Northern Ireland set out a pathway to deal with the past.  

Sadly, the Stormont House provisions on legacy remain unimplemented. 

Instead, in the last year, the UK Government has chosen a unilateral approach, with their Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. 


This Bill is opposed by all Northern Ireland political parties, by victims groups, by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the Council of Europe. It is opposed by Westminster’s own human rights committee.

Just recently, 27 members of the US House of Representatives wrote to the Prime Minister to voice their opposition.  

I fear that, if implemented, this Bill would break trust in the very principles on which peace has been built, setting back reconciliation and keeping wounds open.

It holds out the possibility of immunity for perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and close off avenues to justice - undermining hard won confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.

This will damage individuals. It will hold back society.

Without dealing properly with the traumas of the past, they become the trauma of the next generation.  

Instead we should be building our understandings of the damages done to individuals, to families, to communities, and in those understandings ensure that these harms can never be revisited. 

That is why, as a co-guarantor of the Agreement, and as a friend and partner of the UK, we are urging the British Government to reconsider their approach.

A collective approach based on consent, inclusion and rights has underpinned every step of progress in the peace process – legacy should be no different.


United States support

While the Good Friday Agreement belongs, first and foremost, to the people of Northern Ireland, it was, in many ways, made in America.

The United States played a central role in the search for a “just and peaceful solution” that President Ronald Regan spoke of on St Patrick’s Day 1981, a phrase echoed by President Bill Clinton in Derry’s Guild Hall Square in November 1995.  

President Clinton said:

“have the patience to work for a just and lasting peace. Reach for it. The United States will reach with you.”

It was a promise of American support. A promise he, and you, fulfilled.

Throughout the peace process, the bipartisan support of so many friends of Ireland across all levels of Government, and from communities across the country, has been essential. 

This includes Ambassador Dobriansky, who served President George W. Bush’s Envoy to Northern Ireland.

The values we support in Northern Ireland are the values we support internationally.



In a time when autocracies are emboldened and human rights violations are increasing, Ireland and the US have worked together during our recent term on the UN Security Council, in support of the international rules based order, for human rights and universal values. 

American support for peace continues to make a real difference in the lives of people in Northern Ireland.

The story of peace is a story we forge together.  


It is essential too that we go beyond simply the politics of peace.  


My vision is of a shared island, one where we can work together on the many areas of common interest North and South, recognising that – thankfully – there is a generation now which has never known the violence of 25 years ago.


That’s why two years ago I launched the Shared Island Initiative, to enable the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to be unlocked, working with all communities and traditions on the island of Ireland.  

This is underpinned by a €1 billion fund, a series of dialogues allowing us to listen to what the people of the island want for their future, and commissioned research so we might better understand ourselves.  

I hope through this to enable a step change in partnerships north and south – and also east and west – working inclusively and constructively. 

And through the Shared Island Initiative to sustain the journey of the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure that its values are those of the next generation.  I am optimistic that we will succeed.



This is a time when we need to remind ourselves to be optimistic.

We share a challenge to bring a just peace to Ukraine.  

I don’t underestimate that challenge.  

But I am confident that it is one we will overcome.

The recent history of my island shows that we can make progress and move on from challenges once seen as insuperable.

I look forward to seeing Ukraine at peace, fulfilling its aspiration to become a confident Member State of the European Union.  

I see a duty, too, to invest in hope, with Ireland’s foreign policy supporting the rules-based order in which we all thrive.  I look forward to working with the US, and other partners, in this endeavour.

Thank you.

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