Ministers, Lord Mayors, Councillors, Ladies & Gentlemen on behalf of Cooperation Ireland may I welcome you to Belfast’s magnificent Waterfront Hall for tonight’s gala ceremony for the 2016 IPB ‘Pride of Place’ awards.
It’s hard to believe that tonight is our 14th year of celebrating all that is good about community life across the length and breadth of this island and, as the nominations have highlighted this year, as they do every year, there is much to celebrate.
I’m very glad to be in Belfast this year, a city that is renowned for its friendliness and openness. Last year the city picked up two separate awards, represented by Poleglass in the west of the city and Cregagh in the East.
The warmth of Belfast’s welcome is nowhere more evident than in the phenomenal growth of the city’s popularity as a tourist destination.
The city is in the midst of a hotel boom, with 20 hotels either under construction or in planning. This year over 80 cruise ships, bringing 145,000 visitors; also called at Belfast and the ever popular Titanic Iconic Project was named as the best tourist attraction in Europe.
And, a big part of why people want to visit, is the warmth of the welcome, something which I, notice every time that I come. As Belfast emerges from the shadows of its past, it’s now a vibrant growing city which celebrates its diversity with pride. It is a city that has at last found its voice.
The IPB ‘Pride of Place Awards’ embodies the ethos of Cooperation Ireland. We believe passionately that by working together, ordinary people can make a positive change to their community. The American Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to hold such a post talked about communities in an address to her former district and she echoed much about what I feel too when she said “As you discover what strengths you can draw from your community in the world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward, building bridges rather than walls.”
We know only too well the impact of building walls in the city of Belfast but we also know that community leaders are working hard to provide chinks of light in those walls to help people look outwards. Because in turn, strong and confident communities are the building blocks of society.
They empower people with the confidence to be welcoming, to nurture young people, to care for those who are vulnerable and to take personal responsibility for creating communities that actively manage their physical environment.
That is not to say that those in positions of political influence don’t have an important role to play.
Looking back over the last decade, there has been an unprecedented improvement in relationships within Northern Ireland, across the island and between Ireland and the UK. The Directors and staff at Cooperation Ireland have been labouring literally at the coalface of relationships within and across jurisdictions for the benefit of everyone on these islands, British, Irish, Unionist or nationalist.
To the fore in setting the tone for these changes have been our Heads of State, Her Majesty the Queen and President Higgins and his predecessor President McAleese who have reached out to normalise relations between our two nations, helping consign the fractures of our shared history to the past.
It has also been a monumental achievement by politicians within Northern Ireland to create a shared administration, which has weathered immense political storms.
It is easy to criticise our politicians and we have heard much in recent months about political elites, but the leadership which Arlene Foster, her predecessor Peter Robinson, and Martin McGuinness have provided, have been the catalyst for a peaceful revolution in our politics.
At Cooperation Ireland, we’ve adopted a twin-track approach.
At a national level, with contacts in the UK and Ireland, we’ve helped pave the way for truly historic events such as the State Visits of the Queen to Ireland and President Higgins to the UK. But that is only part of the equation.
A good deal of Cooperation Ireland’s work takes place in grass-root communities, helping to foster better relationships and giving communities the tools they need to improve themselves.
So when I look out on this incredible audience of people, from every county across Ireland, I feel proud.
Proud of what you have achieved. Proud of the positive differences which you are making to your community. Proud of the lives that your work has touched. Proud of the hope which you help instil in our young people and the comfort which you bring to those in the evening time of their lives.
I know that every community represented here tonight has worked hard to improve the day-to-day lives of its people. You are all here on merit, and you have all demonstrated how your neighbours have pulled together to effect change.
Personal responsibility and a sense of community are immensely powerful drivers of societal change. You have achieved amazing things and for tonight at least you’re allowed to relax and enjoy the praise and affirmation of others for what you have done.
I thank Irish Public Bodies for taking the generous step of taking on the mantle of headline sponsor of this event. It is wonderful that a mutual insurance company like IPB have shown significant corporate and social responsibility in getting involved with this very impressive community initiative facilitated by the Local Authorities.
I also thank Belfast City Council members, management and staff – for hosting the event in this magnificent venue, I am sure you will agree they have done a wonderful job.
All of what transpires here tonight and that has happened in the last year is underpinned by the sterling work of Tom Dowling, Chairman of Pride of Place and his committee. Tom is ideally placed in his role as Pride of Place judge and former County Manager to monitor the on-going operation of Pride of Place. He has had a major role in implementing refinements and improvements in the competition since its inception.
I would like to thank everyone involved in the competition especially the judges, who give so freely of their time and the participating councils for their continuing support.
As we are in Belfast, it would be remiss of me not to refer to one of the city’s greatest wordsmiths, CS Lewis, best known as the author of the Narnia books and who is being celebrated this month with the opening of a new public square in his native East Belfast.
CS Lewis is eminently quotable, but one pearl of wisdom, which stands out for me, is this:
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…”
Changing your community can be slow work; there will be ups and downs, days when everything goes well, and dog days when you will wonder if your efforts will ever come to fruition.
CS Lewis reminds us not to despair at the pace of progress. Change is often imperceptible and of one thing I am certain, change will never come, unless someone has the vision and desire to make it happen.
You have had that vision for your community, and your presence tonight is testimony to the difference you are making to this and future generations. That is quite a legacy to be part of.
On behalf of Cooperation Ireland, may I thank-you for your vision, may I encourage you to return home and keep up the good work, and may you continue to enjoy a warm welcome in Belfast tonight.