‘Gateway to bright future open’: Agreement 25 day three

‘Gateway to bright future open’: Agreement 25 day three
by Madison POULTER
19 April 2023

After two days of reflection and renewal, the final day of Agreement 25 — Reimagine — looked to the future of the Agreement and Northern Ireland. Co-hosted by Queen’s University and the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils, key politicians, business leaders, and academics came together to celebrate the economic success the Agreement has brought — and will continue to bring — Northern Ireland. 

President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s, Professor Ian Greer, opened the day by highlighting the importance of universities, governments, communities, and businesses working together “to create a virtuous spiral of success”. His call for building relationships across different sectors set the foundation for the following conversations in which representatives from all areas came together to discuss how they could work together to create this “virtuous spiral of success”. 

Joe Kennedy III, US Special Envoy. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

Congressman Joe Kennedy III, US special envoy to Northern Ireland, detailed the United States’ investment not just of peace in Northern Ireland but also of prosperity. While specific plans were not outlined, Kennedy’s speech set the groundwork for the next two panels in which different business sectors discussed the impact of the agreement and their plans for growth. As Kennedy said, “You are building a Northern Ireland where the troubles of the past give way to the triumphs of tomorrow. ” 

The first panel discussion, “Northern Ireland: A Place to Invest”, moderated by Angela McGowan, featured Chris Conway (CEO, Translink), Ellvena Graham (chair of Tourism NI), Gillian McAuley (president, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Celine McStravick (CEO, NICVA), and Joe O’Neill (CEO, Belfast Harbour).

Northern Ireland – A Place to Invest Angela McGowan Regional Director of CBI chairs a panel on Northern Ireland – A Place to Invest with Chris Conway, CEO of Translink, Gillian McAuley President of the Chamber of Commerce NI, Steve Orr, CEO of Catalyst, Elvenna Graham, Chair of Tourism NI at the Agreement25 Conference at Queen’s University, Celine McStravick, CEO of NICVA and Joe O’Neill CEO of Belfast Harbour. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

McGowan expressed that “while lots divide us in Northern Ireland, economic growth is something we can all agree on”. Both Graham and O’Neil highlighted the ways in which the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement made tourism and Belfast Harbour possible and successful. O’Neil underscored the success, sharing that meetings and requests that were once met with “closed doors” are now brought forth by people wanting to invest and be involved in Northern Ireland’s growth. 

McStravick, though, said that this economic gain and newfound investment wealth has not been evenly distributed. She underscored that in fact many people — especially those most impacted by the conflict — are living in poverty. McStravick put forth a new value proposition for the future of Northern Ireland: “people, peace, prosperity”. There can be no true peace or prosperity without the people, she argued. All speakers emphasised that what makes Northern Ireland special — and somewhere to visit and invest in — is the people. Graham shared that “our people are what make the difference here”. 

McStravick continued: “I’m a great believer that economies thrive and grow when you address inequalities and take people with you. So, I would want to make sure that we grow our specialism in the private sector and we don’t forget that communities also need to be invested in.”

The next panel picked up where the first panel left off, calling for and celebrating burgeoning innovation within Northern Ireland. The Honourable Deborah Wince-Smith (president and CEO, Council of Competitiveness, USA) moderated a conversation between Dr Steven Ashby (director, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), Sarah Friar (CEO, Nextdoor), Joan Gabel (president, University of Minnesota), Steve Orr (CEO, Catalyst), Josh Parker (CEO, Ancora).

To highlight Northern Ireland’s — and Queen’s University’s — increasingly central role in technological innovation, Wince-Smith announced that representatives from 40 different countries will be convening at Queen’s in 2024, for the Global Innovation Summit of the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils.

To demonstrate the innovation occurring in Northern Ireland, the panel discussed the growth of cyber security in Northern Ireland. As Friar shared, Northern Ireland has become the “centre of excellence” for cyber security. This excellence was referred to by Congressman Kennedy, who made no secret that Northern Ireland’s prominence in cyber security holds the US’s interest. 

This panel, however, did probe some tensions — especially when it came to jobs and AI — prompting the question: how can we simultaneously encourage growth, innovation, and technological advancement in Northern Ireland while not displacing people from work? 

While the first half of the day focused on the economic future of Northern Ireland, the second half pivoted towards the current political state. Secretary Clinton introduced the afternoon’s panel of keynote speakers: Charles Michel (president of the European Council), Ursula von der Leyen (president of the European Commission), President Bill Clinton (42nd president of the United States and chair of the Clinton Foundation), Dr Leo Varadkar TD (taoiseach of Ireland), and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP (prime minister of the UK). All spent their time on stage recommitting their governing institutions to not only the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement but to the future of a prosperous Northern Ireland. 

Both representatives from the EU emphasised the importance of a functioning democracy and the EU’s continued allegiance to the agreement. 

President Michel celebrated the agreement’s success due to the “will of the people”. As he said: “Without the will of the people, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement would be in the collection of failed peace.” 

But his comments about democracy were not just looking to the past and to the success of the agreement — they were also focused on the present. His continual appraisal of “the will of the people” skirted around the current dissolved government. As he reminded the audience: “It is the will of the people that is the steely backbone, the vision, for what Northern Ireland can be.”

Following President Michel, President von der Leyen addressed Brexit, reassuring the audience that the “EU and UK are in this together”. The recent Windsor Agreement, in her words, was “a new beginning for old friends”. 

US President Bill Clinton. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

President Clinton not only addressed why the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has held for the last 25 years, but what is needed for it to continue to hold. His comments called on Stormont to act, as he reminded the audience: “No matter how good any deal is, how much endurance there is, what really matters is how long it has a hold on people’s imagination and trust, and whether the people who are in positions of power and influence will always do what’s best for the people.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

Following Clinton, Taoiseach Varadkar and Prime Minister Sunak reaffirmed both Ireland and the UK’s commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland. They also honoured the special relationship between the north, south, and the UK. As Varadkar said, success comes from “a partnership approach”. In synchronicity that underscored this, Varadkar and Sunak cited Trimble’s Nobel Prize speech:

“The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind — a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.” 

Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

Reminding the audience that the future of peace is in all of our hands. As President von der Leyen said: “The gateway to a bright future is open. All you need to do is walk through it.”

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