An address by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Queen's University Belfast's 11th Chancellor
Delivered on the occasion of her installation ceremony in Queen's University Belfast's Whitla Hall on 24 September 2021.
Thank you very, very much, Vice-Chancellor, and thank you, Dr. Kingon.
To the Lord Mayor of Belfast, who is also in wonderful regalia, and to all of the distinguished faculty of this university, students, and alumni gathered with us today, and, of course, the Honorary Graduates and their guests, and supporters everywhere of this esteemed University.
I am delighted finally to return to Queen’s for this formal installation as the 11th and first woman Chancellor in Queens’ storied history. I’d hoped to join you last July for the 175th anniversary celebrations, but, of course, the pandemic kept us apart. And while I was pleased to participate virtually, it is so much better being here with you for this grand occasion.
Way back before Covid-19, when I was asked to become Chancellor of Queen’s, the answer was easy: an emphatic yes. I’ve always enjoyed being on university campuses, talking to students and faculty, learning about their experiences and perspectives. But Queen’s is special: A university with global reach and local impact. A first-class research institution, a center for innovation and entrepreneurship in technology, business, and health. An incubator for artists and scientists, leaders and activists. And I’m looking forward to learning much more about this university and then helping to tell the University’s exciting story about the future you will create together.
But there was another reason why I agreed to become a member of this community. Northern Ireland has become a symbol of democracy’s power to transcend divisions and deliver peace. And we need that beacon of hope now more than ever.
But with hope comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be a citizen. To be willing to discuss and learn from people unlike yourselves. To debate and compromise in search of common ground. To participate in our shared institutions. To respect the rights, dignity, and needs of all people. To uphold the rule of law.
Institutions like Queen’s help build a bulwark against authoritarianism, sectarianism, and divisiveness. This is where people come to learn, to expand their understanding of our world, to engage with opposing viewpoints and values. To develop a compelling vision of democratic cooperation. And, undergirding all of that is education, the essential foundation of citizenship in a democracy.
Now, I don’t want to imply there is anything easy about doing this. But I don’t think we have a choice if we want to live in peace, prosperity, and freedom.
I will never forget my first visit to Belfast in 1995. A fragile cease-fire was in place. And Bill and I were here to do what we could to support the search for peace and to light the Christmas tree at City Hall.
It was also the first time I visited Queen’s for a reception right here in Whitla Hall. Representatives of the various factions were here, too. As I remember, Catholic leadership stood near the band, while Protestants stood by the food.
And it is fitting that today we are all together, honoring a group of women who reached across long-held divides to help make that peace real: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Before Bronagh Hinds, and Monica McWilliams, and Jane Morrice, and Pearl Sagar formed their own political party in 1996 in order to participate in the formal peace negotiations, women did not have a seat at the table. A quarter century of bloodshed and strife and embedded sexism had discouraged most women from politics. But not these four. They were relentless in their commitment to peace – and they had a great slogan, too. “Wave goodbye to the dinosaurs.”
Throughout my career – as First Lady, as U.S. Senator, Secretary of State – some of my most cherished memories are moments spent with the remarkable women of Northern Ireland, all waving goodbye to the dinosaurs. Women like the late Pat Hume, a gracious, determined force behind the peace deal.
And Joyce McCartan, who brought together a group of Protestant and Catholic women in a safe house where they realised they all wanted the same things: Good jobs and good schools for their children. Streets you could walk down safely. Security and prosperity you could count on. A future you could believe in.
I’ve seen women like these around the world. Women who are agents of change and makers of peace. Standing up and saying: We must be part of deciding the future we will share. In fact, Monica McWilliams has written a book entitled, Stand Up, Speak Out. Good advice for us all as we face the challenges of this time: Divisiveness, disinformation, disintegration.
Even here, in Northern Ireland, the peace and progress so many worked tirelessly to achieve is incomplete. The work of integration in housing and schools is far from finished. Neighborhoods remain divided. Poverty and unemployment persist. The difficulties of the past continue to threaten the present. Divisions over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, and proposed amnesty legislation, might very well undermine a peaceful future – a future that people voted for, fought for, and even died for.
Now I don’t pretend to have the political answers to resolve this impasse. That is up to the people of Northern Ireland. But I do know this: the future of Northern Ireland will be determined by the power of communities coming together like the one here at Queen’s.
Just think: Many of the students here today were born after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. They study together in McClay Library. They play sports and join clubs together. They have long, deep conversations late into the night. Now these may be simple interactions. But when considered in the context of Northern Ireland’s history, the idea of young Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists, Republicans and Loyalists becoming one another’s friends, classmates, and mentors, it’s clear that these relationships are, in fact, transformative.
Queen’s mission is transformation: transformation of knowledge and learning; of individuals and societies. Of leaving its mark on history and the world. Consider the motto of both the university and Belfast taken from Psalm 116: “What shall we give in return for so much?” Queen’s answer has been clear from the beginning: As much as we can.
Your response to COVID alone makes clear that these aren’t just words – they’re a commitment. Instead of turning to despair when the future, even, seemed uncertain, this campus asked itself what it could give back in return. Nursing and medical students graduated early so they could join the healthcare workforce. Other students volunteered in helping to provide translations for immigrant families who didn't know what to make of this pandemic; students provided tutors for disadvantaged young people over Zoom, who were out of school and in fear of falling even further behind; other students became errand runners for the elderly and disabled neighbors; and researchers worked so hard for better ways to test and treat the virus.
That spirit – of coming together to the put the common good over partisan political interest – is the same spirit that enabled the Good Friday Agreement to be negotiated all those years ago. And it’s the same spirit we must re-commit ourselves to today. You know, the famous American journalist Edward R. Murrow once said that, “the most crucial part of diplomacy happens in the last three feet,” – one person talking to another, building a relationship. And I have found in legislation and in diplomacy and in much of my active public life, how true that is. Trusted relationships are what make things happen.
I want to leave you with just one final story.
Three years after my first visit, I helped organise the Vital Voices Conference of women in Belfast, women who were coming together to find solutions to the conflict, to contribute to a lasting peace. As I spoke from the podium, I looked up and I saw the leaders of Sinn Féin sitting in the front row of the balcony. And then behind them I saw the leaders of the DUP. At the time, the parties and the individuals were not speaking to each other. But the fact that they were both in the same room – at a women’s conference for peace – exemplified their openness to listening, to compromising, to agreeing on a better future for the place that they all cherish.
The Good Friday Agreement is a product of tough, patient negotiation among those parties, as well as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between Ireland and England. Most of all, though, it is a testament to the courage and faith of the people of Northern Ireland. Yet we cannot take it for granted. It’s what Queen’s alumnus and a great Irish poet you all know of – someone I was proud to call a friend – Seamus Heaney spoke of when he said that sometimes people leave aside their cynicism, their bitterness, their hatreds, and hope and history rhyme. That is the choice the people of Northern Ireland made in 1998. And I sincerely hope it is the choice you and countless others around the will continue to make.
Because there are tough challenges facing us today, and likely more to come. Peace is a process, not an event. And Seamus Heaney also told us to: “Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.” That is true for individuals, for universities, and for societies. The work here at Queen’s is far from finished.
But we can see that further shore.
Let us reach toward it together. And prove to the world, once again, that we still live in a time where hope and history rhyme.
Thank you very much.