It is a profound honour to be awarded a special Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for work on the implications of Brexit. The very existence of this distinct prize is welcome recognition of the fact that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union changes the conditions for peace, reconciliation and cooperation between Ireland and Britain.
When being introduced to a conference the other day, the chairperson described me as a “fearless commentator” on Brexit; I felt compelled to admit before starting my presentation that, far from being ‘fearless’, I am quite afraid.
Regarding the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland and, specifically, on British-Irish relations: I am almost fearful to weigh up what is at stake. I am anxious that those making decisions on these matters do not realise the consequences of what they are doing or – worse – do not care. [Call this ‘remoaning’ if you will; the point stands firm]
What I am afraid of losing is something that I have played no hand nor part in creating. I was born after Christopher Ewart-Biggs was murdered. My personal and professional life have been shaped by what I have learned and benefited from when it comes to peace.
I have learned from reading, listening and observing the care that was needed – from all sides – to arrive at a point where violence for political ends was brought to an end. And I have benefited wholly from the strength and patience of the those who worked for peace.
The diplomacy that Ambassador Ewart-Biggs embodied and the vision and resolve that Baroness Jane Ewart-Biggs exemplified are essential elements of our peace. The ending of violence depended on the tireless efforts of diplomats and civil servants, the courage of politicians and civic leaders, and the selfless indefatigability of quiet peacemakers across these islands and beyond.
The continuation of peace depends on this still.
Indeed, we would be naive to think that such achievements stand on their merits and protected from the storms. They are achievements of diplomacy and law and social norms and civic principles… they are, as such, human achievements, and they are vulnerable to change. It is quite conceivable that they can be lost.
And it is with this in mind that I write, speak and, yes, tweet about Brexit.
A Twitter account allows us to put complicated matters into simple 240 character messages that can be shared tens of thousands of times. Twitter uses gifs, memes, images and hashtags… But at its best it is about words and ideas.
I am grateful for the Ewart-Biggs Memorial prize judges’ willingness to acknowledge the importance of social media in creating the political and social environment in which we live and interact. In a post-Covid-19 world in which our face-to-face, spoken communication is so curtailed, even with those we love, the written word has a new power. And digital media has a new importance.
It will never replace or overtake the importance of the rigorous scholarly and intellectual work of people such as Tony Connelly, Kevin O’Rourke and Fintan O’Toole, who provide the fine detail, sharp analysis and crucial information that we rightly depend upon.
Social media brings a reach and accessibility that can be of use in times of rapid, unnerving change. We don’t know when calm will descend. But we can share what we know; we can point to facts; we can recall what is of value; we can listen to those whom we’d otherwise never hear. We can even identify what we are afraid of. In so doing, we might be emboldened to act, to protect what we have learned and benefited from.
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