"Given the bad publicity that the European Union normally receives, I would like to highlight that the EU has contributed €1.34 billion under the PEACE programmes.
I want to congratulate the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland for the role it has played as the lead partner in 'The Prison to Peace' project.
The 'CFNI' has a track record of working with ex-prisoner groups and has both the capacity and the credibility to initiate and support a project of this nature.
Today's conference comes at a crucial time for all those involved in the normalisation of society here.
Great progress has been made and we want to celebrate that.
Great dangers still remain however. There are still those who believe that violence continues to offer a way of obtaining objectives which they believe the political process will not deliver.
It is easy to take for granted what has been achieved. To think that the gains we have made cannot be lost. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are many generations who have no memory of the horrors of the Troubles. Given the continued deep divisions in our society, there is clearly a potential recipe for a slide back into conflict if we do not continue to be vigilant and provide support where it is required.
This conference addresses the work done with ex-prisoner support organisations representing all sides of the conflict and has been funded under the EU Peace III programme underlining the importance the EU places on the need to continue to nourish those who recognise the complexities of the issues challenging what continues, in many ways, to be the fragile plant of peace.
The role of ex-prisoners in the evolution of the peace process is widely recognised but, of course, not without controversy.
From Prison to Peace has clearly strengthened relationships between political ex-prisoner groups, manifested by increasing levels of trust and openness in communications.
It has brought about change by addressing the underlying issues and root causes of the conflict, by reducing the sense of threat to people’s identity and security, by breaking down barriers and reducing polarisation and by engaging people in the conflict transformation process.
However, there are still considerable obstacles and prejudices to be overcome in ensuring that the gains achieved are appreciated and consolidated.
Today we have the opportunity to highlight what has already been achieved and to take stock of and recognise the role of the model of grassroots conflict transformation represented by this project.
The conference will look at the ever changing challenges which society throws up and how to build and strengthen links between key stakeholders: politicians; police; local councils; churches; youth organisations…
I think that the real success of projects such as Prison to Peace lies in identifying how the systemic issues highlighted are mainstreamed into society, in particular into government action.
The various groups taking part in the programme know also that impacts on victims of violence are essential elements which have to be acknowledged and addressed. There must be a balance found between what can be potentially irreconcilable demands and needs.
But how do we move forward as a society. A so-called 'Shared Future' has been the subject of much debate and is an essential building block in setting out how our society can brought to a place where, while not ignoring the past, we are not condemned to perpetually revisit it and worse, relive it.
The vision of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland is a good starting point. It looks forward to a society which is peaceful, equitable and values each individual and community and the contribution that they can make to the whole.
It also seeks a society that has the confidence to be outward looking and to deepen relationships with both neighbouring and global communities.
The Prison to Peace programme is but one part of a process.
Final success will be when programmes like this are no longer necessary. Time is a great healer but requires positive action for its healing capacity to do its work."