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Representation in Ireland
News article19 April 2023Representation in Ireland5 min read

A story of reconciliation and hope: President von der Leyen

Speech by President von der Leyen at the conference ‘Agreement 25' organised by Queen's University Belfast on 19 April 2023.

Prime Minister,


Chancellor Clinton,

President Michel,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear friends,

Allow me first of all to thank Queen's University of Belfast and you, Secretary Clinton, for this incredible event. It is an opportunity to thank and praise the architects of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, but also to look at our friendship between the United Kingdom and the European Union and, most importantly, to look at the future of peace in Northern Ireland. Allow me to begin with a personal memory. In my twenties, I studied in London. I fell in love with this vibrant and vital city, colourful and cosmopolitan. It was in the late 1970s. And a few years earlier, the women's peace movement in Northern Ireland had won the Nobel Peace Prize. But the hope inspired by that recognition had largely ebbed away. So during my time in London, when I heard about Northern Ireland in the news, it was a story of conflict, bombs and violence in the streets.

Today, my children are in their twenties. They have learnt a completely different story. A story of reconciliation and hope. A story of economic and social progress. For young Europeans, Northern Ireland is today a cool place. It is a place of music, film sets and stunning landscapes. This brighter reality is only possible because on Good Friday, 25 years ago, the leaders and the people of Northern Ireland decided to plant a seed in soil previously stained with blood and tears. It is the seed of peace and possibility for new generations, which has been growing defiantly ever since. Today we pay tribute to all those who planted that seed. We thank the visionary leaders – of all communities in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Ireland – who believed that while history shapes people, people can also shape history. And this is what has happened ever since. The people of Northern Ireland have shaped a new history. Of course, decades of Troubles are impossible to forget. The past cannot be rewritten. But writing a new present and future is always a possibility. And that is exactly what the people of Northern Ireland have decided to focus on. Being the master of your destiny.

It is in this mind-set that my first meeting with Prime Minister Sunak took place. It was at the United Nations Climate Conference in Egypt at the end of last year. And since that first meeting, we agreed to focus on the road ahead, more than on past disagreements. Because the challenges ahead of us are daunting. For the first time in decades, large-scale war is back in Europe. The foundations of peaceful coexistence in our continent have come under attack. And this concerns all Europeans, not only Russia's closest neighbours. The European Union and the United Kingdom are in this together: We both want to uphold Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. We both want Russia's aggression to fail. And we both want to restore a just peace in Europe. We still see the world with the same eyes. We still share the same values and sense of purpose. We still believe that peace is precious and can never be taken for granted.

And I am particularly grateful to our British friends, not only for their unwavering support for Ukraine and European security but also for the determination, on that occasion and ever since, to overcome our differences and find workable solutions to the challenges that arose after Brexit. The Windsor Framework is a new beginning for old friends. It turns the page on years of division and dispute. It is an opportunity to set our sights on the future of our partnership and to focus on what brings us together.

As President Biden said last week, the dividends of peace are all around us. Northern Ireland's GDP has more than doubled since 1998 and could increase by a further 50% over the next decade. New private investments are driving activities like fintech and cybersecurity. And more investors are now eyeing Northern Ireland. This is a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland. There is so much we can do together, with wisdom and vision. The same wisdom and vision that the leaders of Northern Ireland have already shown over the past 25 years. There are so many that deserve special recognition, like John Hume and David Trimble, who were key to reaching an agreement.

Allow me to refer to one example, to someone who, 25 years ago, did not agree with the text of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. I am talking about the Reverend Ian Paisley. Yet less than 10 years after that Good Friday, Ian Paisley became Northern Ireland's First Minister, working under the St Andrew's power-sharing structures, and working with a Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who used to be one of his staunchest foes. This is one of the miracles of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. And the journey of Ian Paisley mirrors the journey of thousands of people on this island. History now calls on today's leaders to embark on a similar path, and to shape together the future of Northern Ireland.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The future of Northern Ireland belongs to its people. Only you can make the seed of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement continue to grow and to flourish. Only you can take the next step on the path of prosperity and possibility. Let me borrow the words of a woman from Northern Ireland called Anne Patterson. She gave birth to a baby girl, just minutes after the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement was signed. And with her husband, she decided to call the baby ‘Hope'. Today she says: ‘Peace is a process, not an event. Everybody is responsible, and change begins with yourself.' She is so right.

I can reassure you that we, the European Union, will continue to do our part and to accompany you on the path of peace and prosperity. Today, my grandchildren are toddlers. What Northern Ireland – and the whole island of Ireland – will look like when they are in their twenties depends on all of us. But the ultimate choice lies with you, the people of Northern Ireland, to shape your history and that of the next generation. The gateway to a bright future is open. All you need to do is walk through it.

Thank you very much.


Publication date
19 April 2023
Representation in Ireland