Today, on 11 November 2023, a symbolic commemoration took place at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, Belgium. It marked the anniversary of its opening on Armistice Day 1998, which celebrated peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in April that year. Bringing together representatives of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Belgium, this was a timely message of the enduring value of peace and reconciliation in these times of conflict in the world.
At the ceremony, relatives of the founders of the Peace Park, Paddy Harte and Glen Barr, read aloud the Peace Pledge – first unveiled at the 1998 opening of the Peace Park. Twelve young people from Northern Ireland, Ireland, England, Wales, Ukraine, Germany, Australia and New Zealand joined them to read a new Peace Pledge, renewing the spirit of reconciliation across generations. A joint British military (Royal Irish Regiment) and Irish Defence Force band provided music at the ceremony, recalling the joint military band that performed in 1998. After the ceremony, the Pillars of Peace project was revealed in nearby Messines Town Square.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lord Caine, represented the government of the United Kingdom. Minister for Education, Ms Norma Foley TD, represented the government of Ireland and Jayne Brady represented the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lord Caine, said: “The construction of the Peace Park holds its own historic importance as an example of cooperation and reconciliation, and today we very rightly mark the 25th anniversary of its opening. There are great lessons to be drawn from the spirit of cooperation between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and between the people of all traditions on the island of Ireland, that the Peace Park and its story represents. It is important that we continue to reflect on that story and seek to embody those values ourselves.
“It is also fitting and appropriate on Armistice Day to pay tribute to the young men from all provinces and counties on the island of Ireland, who served side by side at the site of the Battle of Messines during the Great War and made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”
Minister for Education, Ms Norma Foley, said: “The Island of Island Peace Park was inspired by Paddy Harte, a former Irish politician, who had been asked by an elderly neighbour to find the grave of his brother who had died in World War One. He fulfilled that promise by discovering the grave of Henry Taylor, a 21-year old man from Lifford in Donegal, during a private visit to the battlefields. And he worked tirelessly with Glen Barr, a prominent loyalist leader, to develop the Peace Park in memory of fallen soldiers like Henry Taylor from across the Island of Ireland.
“The presence of representatives of Ireland, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on the 25th Anniversary of the inauguration of the Peace Park, attests to the power of this place to continue to inspire us all to strive for peace and reconciliation."
The Island of Ireland Peace Park was inaugurated in 1998 by Irish President Mary McAleese, in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Their Majesties King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians. It is a memorial to the over 200,000 soldiers from the island of Ireland that fought with the British Army in World War I and the estimated 35,000 that lost their lives, many in the areas surrounding Ieper and Messines. The Peace Park is located close to the site of the June 1917 battle of Messines Ridge, during which the 16th (Irish) Division fought alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division. The Peace Park and the replica of an Irish round tower it contains came about through the determination and inspiration of Paddy Harte, from Donegal, and Glen Barr, from Derry. The Island of Ireland Peace Park has become an established part of the visitor commemorative trail across the Flanders Fields and is visited by many thousands of people each year.