2018 Dom Peter Garvey Memorial Lecture

was held on 27th April 2018 in the College.

The photo shows Brian with members of the Garvey family and members of the Board, the staff and the community.

The College was delighted to welcome pastman and former Taoiseach Brian Cowen to give the inaugural Fr Peter Garvey ocso Memorial Lecture on the topic of the 20th Anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement. It was a wonderful evening with an audience comprising of students, staff, past staff, monks, the Garvey family, parents and pastmen. Brian Cowen gave an excellent and very engaging talk with wonderful insights into the unseen work that helped make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. He paid particular tribute to the often forgotten role of John Hume over several decades.

Below is Brian Cowen’s speech in full:

Dom Peter Garvey Memorial Lecture by Brian Cowen

A chairde go leir idir chleir agus tuath,

I am very pleased to be here this evening in Cistercian College Roscrea to give the Inaugural Lecture in memory of Fr. Peter Garvey who was called to God last year.

He made a great contribution to the life of the college here as a result of his many years as president of CCR, and in his life as a monk in Mount St. Joseph Abbey here in Roscrea and during his term as Lord Abbot in Bolton Abbey in Moone.

There is no doubt that like many other members of staff from the Monastery over the years, he had a particular love and affection for the hundreds of students who passed through the college during all the time he worked here.

This memorial lecture series which we inaugurate tonight is a fitting tribute to those years of dedication he devoted to the maintenance of the college as a centre of academic excellence. He was always conscious of inculcating an awareness of the presence of God in the daily life of the college. He always strove to bring to life the motto of the Abbey and the college. “Insideat coelis animo sed corpora terris “which translates “While conscious of earthly needs, we seek the things of Heaven “. Promoting the catholic ethos is a central art of this educational establishment. It is unique as the only Cistercian secondary school in the world, and it is only right that the monastic influence and example of the priests and brothers of Mount St. Joseph permeates all the college activities.

In honouring Fr. Peter in this way, I am particularly pleased members of his family can be with us here on this auspicious occasion.

I have been asked by the organisers of this memorial lecture to give my reflections on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. In that regard I was thinking that Dom. Peter himself, were he here with us, would be best pleased if I addressed my thoughts with the students that are with us this evening being primarily in mind. After all, you may ask in your own minds what does this Agreement mean for me as a present-day student, given that it was signed before you were even born?

I am acutely aware that you were born in a post conflict Ireland. And therefore, might regard the Agreements that were struck then and subsequently are of historical interest only. This view, which may be held by many others including those who have lived through The Troubles brings with it a deep complacency not alone how peace was achieved then, but how it must be maintained now and into the future. Such a historical view, however, grossly misunderstands the dynamic of progress. And indeed, the purpose of the Good Friday Agreement itself.

We are presently engaged in a decade of commemorations celebrating the 100th anniversary of momentous events that happened in Ireland between the years of 1912 and 1922. Commentary on politics can sometimes show a tendency to turn history to caricature and reduce complexity to a slogan. The events of 100 years ago we are recalling, during this decade of 1912-22, had the effect of fixing national and religious identities for the many decades that followed in a way that was exclusive and confrontational.

Politics is at its best when it is informed by and draws inspiration from history. The philosopher and essayist Santayama once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland in 1969 there were many throughout the 30 years of conflict who strove to find a democratic and peaceful way forwards in the midst of the carnage and the violence. The thirty years of mayhem reinforced the sense of alienation between the two communities there. The injustice of violence embittered both sides. The peaceful protests for civil rights and an ending to discrimination had descended into a tit for tat murderous campaign that literally destroyed the economic and social fabric of many communities, particularly deprived communities, in many parts of Northern Ireland. The necessary security costs that arose in the Republic diverted huge state resources over the 30 year period from other necessary government spending in the economics and social sphere also.

Above all other leaders up there, John Hume retained the intellectual fire power that sought to cut through all the discord and disillusionment that cul-de-sac violence engenders. Old insights can give good guidance. As far back as 1985 in addressing the opening session of the New Ireland Forum in Dublin Castle, John Hume pointed to the throne in the room which had been presented by William of Orange. That throne was once a symbol of power and dominion, now unoccupied. It should remain vacant he said as a symbol to both traditions that neither will gain over the other and both would be preserved and cherished in a new Ireland. Flag waving will not do it he said, he pledged that his own party would not place their interests above the common goal. He concluded, “The common goal of which I speak is – and has to be – reconciliation.”

Those words say it all for me. We need a new Ireland and just as the orange dominated the green in Northern Ireland for 50 years before the Troubles erupted it must not be replaced by the green dominating the orange in an All-Ireland context either. Both unionism and nationalism must rid themselves of exclusivist dogma and become accommodating traditions which can co-exist peacefully by working together.

It should not be underestimated that the relationships between civil servants on both sides and politicians representing the British and Irish governments have been nurtured and developed as a result of much contact arising out of our common membership of the European Union since 1973. Since opening our economy since the late 1950’s including an important Anglo-Irish trade agreement since 1967, the value of trade between our two countries greatly increased. It should be remembered that we are the UK’s 5th largest export destination exceeding the value of UK goods to China and India taken together. Or put another way greater than Africa taken as a whole. The flow of people daily back and forth across the borders is further evidenced by the fact that the Dublin/London air corridor is the second busiest in the world.

As we look at the Brexit situation presently, its important to recognise that we want a good deal that works for both Britain and Ireland. The trading relationship between Britain and Ireland taking both ways is worth 65 billion euro. There are 400,000 jobs sustained across the two islands because of that level of trade between us, and there are 38,000 Irish companies that do business in Britain every year. It is a huge issue that we all hope will be resolved satisfactorily given what is at stake. In the past we have been able to resolve our differences with the British government and there is no better example of that than the work that’s been done by both governments working together to bring about the peace process in Northern Ireland


In the political sphere the first step was for the two governments to resolve its own differences. The Joint Declaration for Peace as it was called, more commonly know as the Downing Street Declaration, was a charter for peace agreed between John Major and Albert Reynolds in December 1993 which held out the possibility for all parties to the conflict to become part of the solution. It built on the private discussion which had been taking place since 1989, between John Hume and Gerry Adams as to how the conflict could be ended. Those discussions were facilitated by Fr. Alec Reid in Clonard Monastery in Belfast. This was the catalyst for a ceasefire nine months later by the provisional IRA. It took 5 more years of talks for the blue print of a settlement would be agreed with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The declaration emphasised that the governance arrangement in Ireland were a matter for the Irish people alone without external impediment while agreeing that the exercise of that right to self-determination would respect the views of the majority within Northern Ireland. Finding a solution using these two principles of self determination and consent was critical in finding a solution to the problem. The Good Friday Agreement provided the institutional structures which give expression to the three relationships that must work hand in hand if stability and peace are to be maintained on a sustainable basis. That is power sharing arrangements for a Northern Ireland executive and a Northern Ireland Assembly so that the two communities can work together in advancing their interests. There are North/South institutions like the Ministerial Council and the Independent Cross Border Bodies that provide the channels for North/South co-operation. And then there is the British/Irish Council where the two governments and devolved administrations within the UK have a forum for co-operation for matters of common concern.

In the Good Friday Agreement, the parties have committed themselves to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of these political relationships. The parties best honour those who have suffered by dedicating themselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all. And they make a total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving political differences and opposed force for any political purpose.

There was a referendum held on the same day in May 1998 both in Northern Ireland and the Republic. The YES vote in the Republic was just short of 95% and in the North the YES vote one by more than 70/30 with the majority in the unionist community being estimated at about 53%. The only one of the 18 constituencies that voted no in Northern Ireland was Ian Paisleys North Antrim. This was the first concurrent act of self determination by the Irish people since the 1918 General Election to Westminster. This has meant that the work that continues for the full implementation of the agreement is compelling and meaningfully democratic.

There have been many stops and starts since, decommissioning of weapons started in 2001 and was finalised in the second half of 2005. Agreeing the terms on which justice and policing matters could be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly wasn’t completed until my time as Taoiseach in 2009, 11 years after the agreement.

The big hindrance to progress on all the outstanding issues then and now related to a basic lack of trust between the parties. Opposite sides remain suspicious of motivation and true intent. Political processes to resolve problems can be atritional and demanding requiring patience beyond measure. But the reality is that for all of you who live in the post-conflict Ireland, this is a far better way of proceeding than by allowing anarchy on the streets and paramilitaries to take the law into their own hands.

And where do you all fit into this scenario I have been outlining? We are in the process of trying to build a new Ireland. Every citizen must do what they can to promote reconciliation in their own community. These are obligations we have to each other, to other members of family and I would suggest to the society that we live in. When you leave here and walk into the world as adults I hope that you are engaged active citizens doing whatever you can to make Ireland a better place for everybody. In any post-conflict situation everyone needs to move out of their comfort zones and extend a hand of friendship to those whom for whatever reason we have not engaged before. Small practical first steps that develop relationships where none existed before is an exercise in active citizenship. We must become participants in and not observers of the peace process that will be ongoing in Ireland. Building peace is a process, not an event. The Good Friday Agreement was a turning point not a destination. What we have agreed in the Good Friday Agreement is to go on a common journey without referencing the ultimate destination and that any change in the status of Northern Ireland will come only as a result of persuasion. Coercion has no place in the new Ireland that Hume and others envisaged. Establishing, maintaining and sustaining peace and harmony in our communities is the responsibility of every citizen and certainly not the preserve of individual politicians or parties. The nature of our democracy is strengthened by the participation of the demos.

So, what practical steps can be taken here to show your commitment in playing your small part in creating this new Ireland we all seek for our children and grandchildren. Creating a more formalised relationship with a college in Northern Ireland from another religious tradition would be a good idea. This college has always been famous for its good debaters and emphasis on public speaking. Inviting schools from the North on both sides to attend a debate here with yourselves would be another practical step in opening up to those who we do not know presently. There are I am sure many other educational initiatives that could be taken that would show CCR in the leadership role in reaching out to your peers in Northern Ireland in the context of promoting peace and reconciliation.

In my experience for example, the relationship you build up with your counterparts in the North goes a long way towards establishing trust and confidence in what you are all engaged in. That is equally true in every other walk of life. And I think that civil society through business, sporting and cultural organisations can do a lot more to reassure the other side that what we seek is genuine friendship and mutual respect.

To break the legacy of sectarianism, you must challenge our own attitudes as well as those of others. We must break new ground, we have to start afresh and make a new beginning. No-one can underestimate the lasting damage that violence has embedded in the psyche of the people on all sides there. The bitter divisions which have scarred past generations is something that you must all work to ensure that it is not repeated.

Fr. Peter Garvey dedicated his life and vocation to promoting an inner peace and a harmony with God. The Christian ethic is about service and sacrifice, forgiveness and mercy. All of us strive to live up to the Christian message, all of us from time to time fail to meet those standards. And in acknowledging those failures we return to the presence of God in our life through the sacrament of reconciliation. As John Hume said, “Reconciliation is the ultimate goal of any political peace process in Ireland.” It must be a peace that is defined not by the absence of violence but by the presence of justice and fairness to all. We can take inspiration from the life of the Cistercians who committed themselves totally to a life of prayer and contemplation, and, let it be said, hard work in helping us find a way in which we will contribute to a fair, more just and reconciled Ireland inspired by our Christian heritage.

Brian Cowen


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