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Lessons Learned from Ireland's Road to Peace and Prosperity - 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

This month, Northern Ireland – indeed, the world – took time to reflect on and honor the 25th Anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement … a moment a quarter of a century ago when the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders changed the course of history by establishing a democratic peaceful process as their preferred form of governance, and by rejecting political violence.

The Council on Competitiveness was asked to take part in – and to be a co-sponsor – of a summit at Queen’s University Belfast, April 17-19, 2023 to honor the Agreement – an institutional milestone that paved the way for an era of relative peace, prosperity, and economic development across the entire island of Ireland.

Why the Council on Competitiveness?

Over twenty years ago, the Council was a seminal player in establishing the beginning conversations and activities to catalyze an all-island competitiveness and prosperity movement – to leverage the moment of a more stable, safe, and secure political environment. A movement that is robust and thriving today both in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

And we were grateful to return to Belfast this month and to take part in the reflection of all that has been accomplished – as well as to lead a major panel at the summit on reimagining the future of a more global, connected Northern Ireland. Our panel included: Council CEO Deborah Wince-Smith; Council Vice Chair and President of the University of Minnesota Joan Gabel; Director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Steve Ashby; and, Ancora L&G CEO Josh Parker – along with Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar and Catalyst CEO Steve Orr.

The key lessons from this panel ought to resonate with Americans – as many of the challenges we face today are shared across borders:

  1. Build the best base of talent at all costs, supporting education at all levels – and be open to the brightest minds from around the world.
  2. Focus on investing in basic research – while also thinking strategically about how to leverage that investment to invent, innovate, and deploy at scale.
  3. Support democracy and openness in all forms – especially democratizing the innovation ecosystem, and bolstering the demographic and geographic priorities for place-based innovation.

Bookending oor Council panel conversation was an historical array of leadership conversations, keynotes, and fireside chats including Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Chancellor of Queen’s University; President William J. Clinton, and Chair of the Clinton Foundation; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; the Taoiseach of Ireland, Dr. Leo Varadker; and, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak.

But perhaps the most poignant speaker was Senator George J. Mitchell – who, as President Clinton’s Special Envoy, helped write and broker the peace agreement 25 years ago. He gave the best piece of advice during the entire Summit – meant for the people of Northern Ireland but applicable to us all:

Don’t always be so hard on yourselves. Never ever give up on the belief that you still can do better, and be better, not just for yourselves, but for others around the globe…What happens here can happen everywhere.

In a world facing innumerable, seemingly intractable problems, the Senator’s poignant message resonated most at Queen’s University on April 17th.

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